Imagining lahore, p.9

Imagining Lahore, page 9


Imagining Lahore

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  In 1974, the news of the IJT students being attacked at Rabwah spread like wildfire. Despite the arrest of seventy-one members of the Ahmadiyya community from Rabwah, protests against the community continued unabated throughout the country.27 Several other religious parties and bar associations joined the Jama’at-e-Islami and Majlis-i-Ahrar. The protests soon turned violent as mobs started attacking Ahmadis and their property in different cities in Punjab. Several members of the community lost their lives during these riots. The protesters demanded that Ahmadis be removed from their posts in government departments and also be excommunicated from Islam.

  In the National Assembly, the Opposition, which was a confluence of several religious parties, insisted that a bill be introduced in Parliament declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims. A bill to this effect was consequently passed in Parliament on 7 September 1974.

  ‘In 1974, I was stationed in Multan,’ said Brig. Saeed. ‘My parents and some family members lived in our ancestral house in Abbottabad. It was a big house built on a hilly slope with various portions at different levels. As the riots spread through the city, all our relatives and other members of the community came to our house for protection. There were a few police officials posted outside, but when the rioters came, they did nothing. In fact, they aided the mob in entering the premises.

  ‘Someone from my family saw the approaching mob and warned the people inside. When the heavily armed mob started firing, everybody moved to the lower portion of the house to face this trial together. The upper portion (the main house), my father’s car and his nearby clinic were burned down. They made repeated attempts to break into the lower portion with the intention to kill. My brother-in-law was shot in the thigh and was in a critical condition as he had lost a lot of blood by the time they eventually evacuated. Some others suffered pellet wounds.

  ‘It was a miracle that the lives of about seventy-five innocent, unarmed people were saved that day, which included a large number of women and children. My elder brother, who was also in the army, was posted as the commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, Abbottabad, at that time. He called his superiors and the local administration, informing them of what was unfolding, but there was no help. By sunset, the mob dispersed with the resolve to attack again at night. However, before any more harm could befall our family and friends, they were evacuated to safety in an army bus. They narrowly escaped death that day. My father had constructed a mosque next to our house which was used by the community for prayers. The Kalma was inscribed on the wall of the building. Some years later, that was also removed and the mosque was locked up. It still remains locked.’

  From the corner of my eye, I saw Brig. Saeed’s ten-year-old granddaughter listening to the accounts of oppression. She had heard them before, internalized them. What is her concept of home? I wondered. What is her concept of safety? What does Lahore mean to her? What does Pakistan mean to her?

  ‘You know, I have been told Bhutto refused to attend the Parliament session the day they passed the anti-Ahmadi bill. He was with his friends, one of whom was an Ahmadi. That day he told his Ahmadi friend, “Don’t worry, my friend, with this bill I have signed the death warrant for myself and my children.” You know what happened after that,’ said Sabiha Saeed.

  It is impossible to imagine that such a beautiful place could be the site of such pain. The vast garden outside the Diwan-i-Aam provides a vista of the walled city of Lahore. It is one of the highest points of the fort and the city.

  The river once used to flow at the base of this mound, caressing its thick boundary walls. Many saints and ascetics have sat on the edge of these walls to preach. Most of them transcended religious boundaries. For example, next to the boundary wall of the fort is the smadh of Bava Jhengardh Shah. A Hindu by birth, he became a disciple of Guru Har Rai, the seventh Sikh Guru.28 A square structure topped by a dome, his smadh too is an example of syncretism, a combination of Muslim and Hindu architectural traditions. A few steps away is the smadh of Wasti Ram, another Hindu, whose father was a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh.29

  These boundary walls narrate the story of Lahore Fort. Facing the majestic elephant wall, with intricate and colourful motifs depicting elephants and other imaginary scenes from the royal court, is an austere but stout wall constructed by the British after they took over the fort. Next to this wall are several rooms that were constructed at the same time and are now used as offices by government officials. The distinct architectural traditions of Lahore Fort could not be more obvious here.

  Rising from behind the thick walls are the minarets of Badshahi Masjid, the most iconic mosque in Lahore. The golden dome of Guru Arjan’s smadh shines next to it, behind which is the splendid smadh of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Between the fort and the mosque is Hazuri Bagh, with a baradari brought from Emperor Jahangir’s mausoleum and placed in a garden constructed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to celebrate the acquisition of the famed Koh-i-Noor.30 The city of Lahore, capital of the Sikh Empire, was beyond Roshani Gate (the gate of lights) next to this bagh.

  Located inside the fort, the Diwan-i-Aam was to the Mughal kings what Hazuri Bagh was to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Here, the Mughal emperor, surrounded by his courtiers and advisers, would appear before his audience of common petitioners. Cases were heard and decided in this space. It was also here that Lahore and Punjab were handed over to the British by a young ten-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.31

  Despite its dilapidated condition, it is easy to get lost in the fort’s magnificence with its Sheesh Mahal, the chamber of Emperor Jahangir, and Moti Masjid, among so many others. Visited by hundreds of people every day, it is an easy way to partake in the lives of Mughal royalty. Even though the fountains run dry and the sound of music no longer pervades the atmosphere, it is easy to conceptualize that world while standing at the hub of Mughal power in Punjab.

  Below this world of beauty and art lurks a dark reality, the dungeons where the Mughal authorities threw prisoners and then forgot about them. Their screams drowned before they could escape the earth and rise above the rhythm of the dancers’ ghungroos. Visitors are not allowed into this dark world upon which the foundation of the Mughal Empire was built. Entry has been barred to all because it is structurally unstable, according to the local guides. But they lie, repeating a story they have been told to convey. The dungeons hide an ugly reality. Hundreds of political prisoners were brought and tortured here during the regimes of military dictators.32 Blinded by a deep darkness, most of the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and tortured systematically for their political beliefs. Their screams and cries never reached the ears of the hundreds of tourists walking above them, marvelling at the Mughal heritage of the country.

  Several prisoners—journalists, politicians, activists—returned to tell stories of horror and inexplicable torture. Many others were not as lucky. Salman Taseer, the slain governor of Punjab, was one such prisoner kept here during the darkest days of Zia’s military regime.33

  On 12 December 1960, Zohra Alambardar Hussain reached the Miani Sahib graveyard in Lahore to do what no mother should be asked to do. She had come from Hyderabad in India on 4 December after hearing about her son Hasan Nasir’s death in police custody.34 Nasir, a devoted communist and member of the leftist National Awami Party (NAP), had been picked up by state authorities from a shanty town in Karachi, where he was hiding, and brought in chains to Lahore Fort for ‘interrogation’.35 Aligned with the Americans, the military regime of Ayub Khan was hunting down communists across the country. Nasir, the former secretary general of the banned Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and later the office secretary of the NAP, was one of the most prominent communist leaders in the country.

  Memories of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951 were still fresh, turning public perception against the communists, thus allowing the state a free hand in dealing with them. Journalists, editors, activists and others sympathetic to the cause had been silenced, afraid of being label
led anti-state, as the communists were being called in the aftermath of the failed conspiracy. Emboldened by the meek opposition a few years ago, Ayub Khan’s military regime felt confident that it could pick up leftists and communist activists without being held publicly accountable.

  The Rawalpindi Conspiracy was allegedly planned by the Lahore-based leadership of the CPP headed by Sajjad Zaheer, along with certain members of the army disgruntled with the government of Liaquat Ali Khan, to overthrow the government and instead instal a communist regime. Within the army, General Akbar Khan, an Ahmadi, was leading the plot, supported by Brig. M.A. Latif, a brigade commander at Quetta. Akbar Khan was officer-in-command during the first Indo-Pakistan war of 1948 over Kashmir. He felt that his prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, had let him down by failing to send him reinforcements at a time when his forces had made considerable progress in Kashmir.36

  The CPP was keen to overthrow a government that was increasingly aligning itself with the Americans. Ever since its creation in 1948, an offshoot of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the party had failed to garner much public support.37 There are several reasons for this but one of the foremost ones was that much of its leadership did not have roots in this part of the country.38 The general secretary of the party, Sajjad Zaheer, belonged to an aristocratic family from Oudh, United Provinces. Other prominent members of the party, Sibte Hasan and Ashfaq Baig, too belonged to north India and had moved here after the creation of Pakistan, with no prior inroads in the city or Punjab. With its headquarters at McLeod Road in Lahore, the party managed to gain some support in the city, such as among the railway workers at Mughalpura, but largely failed to achieve grass-roots popularity.

  Another reason was its distance from other regional nationalist struggles.39 In what was a multilingual society, most of the leadership of the CPP came from an aristocratic Urdu-speaking background. For Bengali and Sindhi nationalists, fighting for the rights of their languages that were being overpowered by a minority language, Urdu, the leadership of the CPP represented the same literary establishment that they were up against.

  Similarly, in a deeply religious country that had been created on the basis of religion, leaders of the party refused to conceptualize their theories in an Islamic framework and continued to root them in orthodox atheistic Marxist principles.40 Thus they spoke in a language alien to the local populace in more ways than one. The state had begun using a religious language to further its agenda. This ‘anti-religious’ stance of the CPP made it easy for its opponents to call it an enemy of religion and hence of Pakistan.

  The party was also seen as operating under the shadow of the CPI, its mother party, which in turn was perceived as being under the influence of Kremlin. Whereas the CPI initially opposed the demand for Pakistan, calling it regressive, it eventually accepted it in a convention in Calcutta in 1948 and decided to form a separate Communist Party for Pakistan headed by Zaheer, a member of the Central Committee of the CPI.41 Members of the party knew that with no industrial class and no local representatives, they needed to build the party from the ground up in the new country. Its initial opposition to the partitioning of India and support to the Indian National Congress remained a liability in the newly established country.42

  Despite these political shortcomings, the party played a seminal role in fomenting a literary and intellectual movement in a Pakistan that was still trying to find its political and cultural bearings. Soon after coming to Lahore, Sajjad Zaheer, a prominent Urdu writer, set up the Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association, an offshoot of the Progressive Writers’ Movement of the 1930s, of which Zaheer was one of the founders. The association attracted several prominent leftist writers and intellectuals into its fold, such as Faiz and Manto. With regular meetings and gatherings, Lahore became a hub of literary activity. Several of these prominent writers sat in Lahore’s famous tea houses and coffee shops surrounded by college students, engaging in discussions about what should be the direction of literature in Pakistan.

  The wall fan creaked as it rotated slowly overhead. There was an air conditioner above the fan but it was switched off. The walls of the tea house were decorated with pictures of intellectuals, leftists mostly, who had spent a large portion of their youth sipping tea and smoking cigarettes in this hall. There was Manto in front of us, Faiz on an adjacent wall, Ustad Daman facing him. Next to him was Ahmad Faraz and many more. There was a menu listed on a pillar next to our table. I could see the dimly lit kitchen behind it, with waiters, sweaty on a humid summer afternoon, walking in and out of it, their heads covered by a net cap. I decided to order only a cup of tea.

  Next to the entrance was a plaque noting that Nawaz Sharif had inaugurated the tea house in 2013. The government purchased the building and leased out the cafe to keep it alive. History had come full circle.

  In the early days of Pakistan, Pak Tea House located on Mall Road, within Anarkali Bazaar, emerged as a hub of the Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association. Every day stalwarts of this movement would gather here and sit for hours, engaged in serious political and literary discussions with other writers and intellectuals. Students from the neighbouring Punjab University, National College of Arts and Government College would flock to them, crowding on chairs around them, listening intently to their debates.

  Every week the Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association would organize a formal meeting on the top floor of this cafe, where writers ideologically aligned with the movement would read out specimens of their writing, which would then be critically analysed by connoisseurs. It is here that some of the greatest pieces of Urdu literature, including Manto’s short stories and Faiz’s poems, were first read and appreciated.

  As the state began aligning with the Islamists and Americans, the leftist intellectuals became increasingly critical of its policies. These opinions were vocally expressed here, in the hall of this cafe, with members of intelligence agencies discreetly lurking behind the haze of cigarette smoke.

  The history of Pak Tea House is closely linked with that of the leftist movement in Lahore. As long as there was a thriving leftist literary culture, Pak Tea House remained at the forefront of the movement. Hounded by the state, which was becoming increasingly powerful, the movement slowly faded away, particularly after the Islamization by Zia in the 1980s.

  Pak Tea House, which had become a symbol of revolutionary talk, also took up a new identity. Under an unabashed spree of privatization and economic liberalization, a tyre market started up at Anarkali. With the writers gone, Pak Tea House was taken over by a tyre vendor who used it as his godown. The dictates of free market had taken hold of the last bastion of the leftist cultural movement in the city.

  There was much hue and cry about the fate of Pak Tea House amongst a new breed of intellectuals who romanticized the Lahore of the 1950s and 1960s as being an intellectual peak. Blogs and newspaper articles were written and petitions moved for the government to do something about the tea house. The government finally decided to act in 2012, when the cafe was purchased and renovated. From being at the centre of anti-state rhetoric, Pak Tea House in 2013 was resuscitated on the back of government support.

  Looking around the cafe, I tried to take stock of the other customers there. A family of travellers sat in front of me, the women at one table with the children and the men at another. There were several students, in groups of two and more. A man in his mid-sixties sat behind me, his chair touching mine, sipping a cup of tea.

  There are still some weekly literary meetings organized at the tea house, but there is no doubt that Pak Tea House is a shadow of its former self. The intellectual activity that had awarded a distinct status to it has receded. The intellectuals who once made Lahore the cultural capital of the country live today only in the frames hanging on these walls. From a thriving space that was at the centre of crucial literary debates, Pak Tea House today serves more as a museum useful only to display the achievements of the past.

  Soon after the constitution of the Pakis
tan Progressive Writers’ Association, there was serious debate about its place in a country created on religious rhetoric. There were several contesting opinions, ranging from those who argued that literature should help bring about political and social change to those who opined that literature reflects an inherent beauty and that itself is reason enough to pursue it. Perhaps no other writer from the movement has been able to reconcile these two opposing points of view better than Faiz, the poet of protest, who, despite using classical Persian poetic imagery managed to include in it political references.43 A committed communist, he was one of the accused in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and spent four years in jail. He died in 1984 in Lahore and is buried in a Model Town graveyard, close to where he spent the last few years of his life.

  Even today Faiz continues to be a symbol for leftist activists and writers. His poems, particularly those with overt political symbolism, are recited from leftist political podiums. The genius of his poetry and intellectual depth can be gauged from the fact that even those who might have disagreed with his political opinions have embraced his poetry. On many instances, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, chief of the Jama’at-e-Islami from 1987 to 2009, recited Faiz’s poetry at political rallies.44 Faiz continues to be one of the most widely read Urdu poets in Pakistan among all segments of society, irrespective of their political opinions.


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