Freedom Issue 2016: Essay

Pakistan Without Tears

Ramachandra Guha is a historian. His latest book is Gandhi Before India
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Lahore in Islamic glow and the repudiation of the past

Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out Judaism from Israel and it will collapse like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state: it would collapse
–General Zia-ul-Haq, quoted in The Economist, December 1981

IN OCTOBER 2008, I was invited for a meeting of historians in Lahore, to be held the following January. On 24 November, after weeks of trying, I finally got a visa from the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Two days later, terrorists coming from Pakistan struck in Mumbai, attacking the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus (among other structures). Inevitably, tensions escalated between the two countries.

My meeting was scheduled for the first week of 2009. Should I go? Must I go? With these questions on my mind, in mid-December I went off to the Niligiris on a family holiday. A few days before the New Year dawned, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a travel advisory, asking Indian citizens not to travel to Pakistan. My mother, for whom this middle-aged man was, well, still a boy, urged me to heed the advisory. An aunt added that I had no business to visit an ‘enemy country’, one, which as she put it, “was full of Muslims”. But their reservations were vetoed by my teenage daughter, who insisted that I must go to Pakistan, if only to show that (as she put it) “not all of us hate all of them”.

Pakistan had been founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims. At the time of its founding, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, insisted that India would not be a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. Three months after Partition and Independence, he wrote to state chief ministers about the Muslim minority in the country. ‘Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there,’ he said, ‘we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic state. If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it.’

In November 1947, the All India Congress Committee met in New Delhi. Addressing the meeting, Mahatma Gandhi said: “You represent the vast ocean of Indian humanity.” India, he added “does not belong to Hindus alone”. He reminded the delegates that “it is the basic creed of the Congress that India is the home of Muslims no less than of Hindus.”

Taking Gandhi and Nehru at their word, despite the formation of Pakistan, many million Muslims stayed on in India. Indeed, for some years after the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971, India had even more Muslim citizens than did Pakistan. I had Muslim classmates in both school and college. Yet among my close friends while growing up, there was not a single Muslim. The novelist and historian Mukul Kesavan, an exact contemporary of mine, has written that in his school in Delhi he rarely came across a Muslim name: ‘The only place you were sure of meeting Muslims was the movies.’ Some of the finest actors, singers, composers and directors in Bombay’s film industry were Muslims. But in law, medicine, business, academics, and the upper echelons of public service, Hindus dominated. There were sprinklings of Christians and Sikhs in these professions, but very few Muslims.

As it happened, my first Muslim friend was a Pakistani I met in America. In the mid- 1980s, the economist Tariq Banuri and I, both teaching at East Coast universities, were part of a colloquium on third-world development. Our bond was partly intellectual and partly linguistic, for we had grown up speaking Hindustani, that wonderful hybrid of Hindi and Urdu that was in living memory the lingua franca of much of the Indian Subcontinent. My hometown, Dehradun, and Tariq’s, Peshawar, lay at opposite ends of what was once a common cultural zone, fractured by Partition.

After I returned to India, and Tariq to Pakistan, the antipathy between our countries meant I could not visit him. The phone lines were blocked, and the internet had not yet been invented. News that trickled in from mutual friends was episodic and desultory; inevitably, we lost touch.

Then, in November 1988, Pakistan held its first elections in almost two decades. The People’s Party of Pakistan won a majority, and Benazir Bhutto was named prime minister. Her counterpart in India was the likewise young and charismatic Rajiv Gandhi. There was a thaw in Indo-Pak relations; seizing the chance, Tariq Banuri organised a conference for which he invited a number of Indian scholars, myself included.

So in February 1989, I made my first trip to Pakistan. The conference was in Karachi, and that city was all I saw. The meeting itself was unmemorable; its highlight, as far as I was concerned, was the beginning of a friendship with Benedict Anderson, the great scholar of Indonesia and of comparative nationalism.

There were, however, three brief episodes which were telling. The first was discovering the local paanwaala was originally from Kerala, his Urdu still coated with a thick Malayalee accent. The second was on joining a queue at a xerox shop where the owner, on hearing I was from India, did my job before anybody else’s. The third was when a bearded gentleman walked into our hotel. He had heard that some Indians had come for a conference, and wondered if any of them spoke Gujarati. As it turned out, one did. So I had the peculiar privilege of eavesdropping on a conversation in Jinnah’s hometown, conducted in Gandhi’s mother tongue, between a Karachi Parsi named Ardeshir Cowasjee and an Indian Christian named Ashis Nandy whose own first language was Bengali but who had picked up Gujarati after studying in Ahmedabad and marrying an Amdavadi girl.


Towards the end of 1989, Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party were defeated in the General Election. Then in August 1990, Benazir Bhutto was dismissed from office on charges of negligence and corruption. The next month LK Advani began his rath yatra to Ayodhya. A wave of bloody riots across India followed, with Muslims everywhere being the main sufferers.

The idea of India to which Advani and his Bharatiya Janata Party subscribed was the very opposite of Gandhi’s. These ideologues treated Muslims as potential fifth columnists. ‘Pakistan ya Kabristan!’ (to Pakistan or to the graveyard) they cried during the riots that followed Advani’s rath yatra.

In the winter of 1990-91, Tariq Banuri began appearing regularly in my dreams. He was now based in Islamabad, where he had founded the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). In my dreams, I was always on the verge of visiting Tariq in Islamabad, only to be thwarted by hostile immigration officials, barbed-wire fences, massed soldiers or cancelled flights. That I dreamt of my friend at a time when my fellow Hindus were mounting frequent attacks on Muslims was surely not accidental.

In December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya. Once more, riots led by Hindu mobs followed, these followed in turn by bombs set off by Muslims. Then the communal temperature began, slowly, to come down. Meanwhile, Tariq Banuri’s SDPI was making impressive strides in Islamabad. After some years of political turbulence, Benazir Bhutto had returned to power, and civil society was finding its feet. In July 1995, Tariq organised a conference of NGOs from across Pakistan, to which he invited me as well.

I got a visa (despite those tormented dreams) with relative ease. However, my flight was preponed by a day, information I could not get across to Tariq in time. After I landed in Islamabad Airport and got through immigration and customs, I consulted the city telephone directory. I found the name of Banuri, Tariq; remarkably, the entry just prior to it was that of the Banaras Silk House. (I later learnt that while Islamists frowned on the sari, to them a ‘Hindu’ dress, upper-class Muslim women still liked to wear the sari at least once, on their wedding day. And, even in Pakistan, who would buy a sari from a Karachi or Lahore Silk House?)

Islamabad itself was dreary, all concrete, the New Delhi locality of Chanakyapuri writ large. However, the day before the conference, Tariq took me on a trip to Taxila, through countryside that reminded me irresistibly of the Dehradun of my boyhood, green fields with forested hills in the background. We were driving on the road to Peshawar, Tariq’s home town, a place redolent with myth and history. Seeing the milestones, Tariq said wistfully that had my visa not been for Islamabad only, he would have carried on straight there. Taking me to Taxila itself was a stretch; but, with the holy war on against the Soviets in Afghanistan, going with an Indian to the capital of the Mujahideen risked everything for him, and for me as well.

The conference this time was more interesting than in Karachi in 1989. There were civil society activists from all over Pakistan, energetic and articulate, doing excellent work in women’s rights, environmental restoration and other fields. I remember particularly a veteran economist from Karachi, Asghar Zaman, who wistfully told me that both India and Pakistan had much to learn from Mahatma Gandhi and much to gain from revisiting his ideas; and a young activist from a pastoralist caste, Mushtaq Gaddi, with whom I spoke of the intimate links between rural life and forests across the Himalayas. I was also impressed by Omar Asghar Khan, son of a famous Pakistani air force officer, a brave democrat who had visibly inherited his father’s reformist genes. (It was with much sadness that I learnt, some years later, of Omar Asghar Khan’s tragic and still unexplained death).

The intellectuals and activists at the SDPI conference were warm and friendly. But, against the backdrop of the deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relations within India, I found the aam aadmi of Pakistan had more ambivalent feelings about my country. On the PIA flight from Delhi, I sat at the back of the bus, where, since there was an empty seat, the steward came and briefly joined me. Seeing the fields of West Punjab swathed in water, I asked, “Bahut baarish hui hai kya”, has it rained a lot? Taking me for a Pakistani returning home, he answered: “Nahin, saalé India waalé paani chhod dété hain”, no, these damn Indians have let water out from the (Ravi) river so as to flood our fields. Afterwards, on learning of my nationality, he came over to apologise, muttering the familiar nostrums about how our culture and lifestyles were the same, but those damn politicians divided us.

Later, in my hotel in Islamabad, I got talking to a waiter who had been in attendance for most of my meals. On my last day, I bid him goodbye, and invited him to visit India. He wouldn’t be able to come, he answered, “kyunki wahaan Mussalmanon ko maarté hain”, because over there they (routinely) beat up Muslims.

Tariq had prudently hesitated to take me to Peshawar. But I was determined to visit Lahore. I had grown up in a town in north India inundated with refugees from the Pakistan Punjab. The fathers of my friends had all been educated in Lahore, and spoke in elegiac tones about its colleges, parks, theatres and shops. A book that captured how they thought and felt is Pran Neville’s Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, an account of a sensuous and even sybaritic city, whose residents—at least in this telling—were preoccupied with clothes, food, music and sex. Speaking of the 1930s, Neville wrote that ‘Lahore was famous for its sexologists, mostly [Hindu] vaids and [Muslim] hakims. They promised sexual prowess to all those who could afford their expensive formulations, which had ingredients like gold, silver, pearls and rare herbs’. A visiting Italian named Martirosi had brought with him a potion known as ‘King’s Globules’, advertised as the ‘new Italian treatment for sexual weakness’. One could meet him by appointment at the very stylish Nedou’s Hotel.

Lahore is the Salonica of the East, a multicultural city in living memory that is now dominated by people of a single faith. Before Independence and Partition, people of three religions claimed it as their own: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs (this listing is alphabetical). In the Lahore of the 1920s and 1930s, business and the professions were dominated by the Hindu castes of Khatris and Aroras. There were prosperous Muslim zamindars with town houses; and also a large number of Muslim workers and artisans. In the great Anarkali Market, the sweetshops were run by Hindu and Sikh halwais, but the shoe trade was dominated by Muslims. The (plentiful) wine stores were largely Parsi-owned. A well-known hairdressing chain was owned and run by a Hindu, pretending to be a Christian, calling himself A[mar] N[ath] John.

However, after the riots of 1947, the Hindus and Sikhs of Lahore and the surrounding countryside fled across the border into India. Their fate was shared by the Muslims of eastern Punjab who, likewise, were either killed or became refugees in Pakistan.

On this trip to Islamabad in 1995, I was desperate to visit Lahore as well. Who knew if I would come to Pakistan again? Tariq Banuri was nervous, for formally I was in his charge, and if I was caught out, the SDPI would be in trouble. Tariq finally relented, and permitted me to travel there, insisting however on sending an escort, a charming young Pakistani named Nadeem studying in the United States. But I had meanwhile to do some jugaad of my own. Back in 1995, there were no direct flights from New Delhi to Islamabad. One had to fly to Lahore, and change planes. My PIA ticket had four leaves; one apiece for the four sectors. I tore the Islamabad-Lahore leaf, instead buying a ticket for a flight that left a day earlier, on a private airline named (if memory serves) Shaheen. After my stolen 24 hours in Lahore, I would present myself to the PIA international desk as if I had come directly from Islamabad.

Some scholars believe that if Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself had lived longer, Pakistani Islam would have been more liberal

On that first, illegal trip to Lahore in 1995, I had two companions: Nadeem and a portly Bangladeshi named Shahabuddin, who was breaking no laws, since his visa was not city-specific. Shahabuddin had studied in Lahore’s Forman Christian College when his land was still part of Pakistan. He, too, was at the Islamabad conference; and now Nadeem and he took me through Lahore’s main sights: the magnificent, white-domed Badshahi Mosque, built by Aurangzeb; a medieval watch-tower on an island in the river Ravi; the mazaar, or resting-place, of the medieval mystic Daata Ganj Baksh; and the mausoleum of the modern poet Allama Iqbal.

Knowing I was a Hindu, young Nadeem had been very keen to show me what he said was a Hindu temple, adjacent to the Fort. When we got there, I discovered that the Hindu temple was in fact a Sikh shrine, and a rather famous one, for it housed the ashes of Maharana Ranjit Singh. The shrine was tended by a dozen Sikhs, who were allowed by the Pakistani government to stay on for this purpose. That Lahoris did not anymore know the difference between a mandir and a gurdwara was saddening.

Even more depressing was a decrepit sign I saw on the steps. ‘Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, Lahore’, it read, a defiant but also pathetic affirmation of the now forgotten sway of Sikhs over all of the Punjab.

By the time we reached the Badshahi Mosque, it was evening. It was also Friday evening, and a large crowd of worshippers was coming out after the weekly prayers.

Walking against the flow, I had to jostle my way through. As I bumped into one worshipper, I was seized by panic. In one pocket of my kurta lay my wallet; in the other, an exquisite little statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, dancing.

I am not a believer, but this was my mascot, a gift from my sister, carried whenever I was separated from my wife and little children. What if it now fell out and was seized upon by the crowd? How would that turn out—an infidel discovered in a Muslim shrine, an Indian visitor illegally in Lahore?


The trip in early 2009 would be my third to Pakistan. The events of 26/11 caused me to hesitate. I chose finally to go ahead, disregarding my mother and aunt, instead heeding my daughter, who had asked me to show that not all of us hated all of them. I went partly out of a sense of professional obligation—some Pakistani colleagues had been kind enough to invite me, and I could not let them down— and partly out of curiosity: what would Pakistan be like at a time like this?

Leaving from Delhi, which had since my last trip to Pakistan acquired a brand- new international airport, I noticed a sign for a special ‘Haj Terminal’. When I reached my destination, I found that Lahore airport had a Haj Terminal, too. There were other similarities—thus, as in Delhi, the part of Lahore closest to the airport belongs to the army. Then again, Lahore’s main thoroughfare, the Mall Road, has large trees on its sides and elegant colonial buildings beyond. If one takes a left or right turn and drives on for a few hundred yards, one enters well- laid out residential colonies, with spacious homes of brick and concrete guarded by private security men. However, if one chooses instead to continue down Mall Road, one leaves the British city to enter the older, or Islamic, one.

Architecturally and aesthetically, Lahore is a sort of mini-Delhi. The buildings are of three distinct types— Mughal, colonial, modern—but generally smaller and on a less expansive scale than in India’s capital. Socially of course, the city is quite different. In Lahore, as in Delhi, one sees many women in burkha and salwaar kameez. But no women in saris and no men in coloured turbans, nor any in saffron robes either.

For 600 (and more) years, Lahore had been a city in which many Muslims resided and some Muslims ruled. Now, in 2009, it had for a mere 60 years and a bit been a Muslim city. Even so, it remained the most broad-minded of all the towns in Pakistan. Unlike Quetta and Peshawar, Islamic fundamentalists did not dictate how people should dress or otherwise comport themselves. Unlike Karachi, it was not crippled by sectarian violence. It retained a rich musical tradition, associated with such singers as the burly and full-throated qawwal, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was the centre of modern art and theatre in Pakistan. And the country’s best (and bravest) newspaper was published from Lahore.

One night, I was taken to dine at Kutu’s, a restaurant on the top floor of an old haveli overlooking the Badshahi Mosque. The views were nice enough, but my hosts were apologetic—apparently, on any other day in the year they would have been better still. For it was Muharram, the Shia day of mourning, and the lights in the mosque’s courtyard were unlit. The conversation was suitably sombre, focusing on the fears of the Lahore middle-class in this time of instability and transition.

On this 2009 visit to Lahore, I was mostly listening, as the people I met spoke about their hopes and fears for Pakistan. Among the latter, the threat of political Islam predominated. A town in the valley of Swat, a place once visited by many foreign tourists, had just fallen to a group of radical Islamists, whose first act was to issue an order closing down schools for women. Meanwhile, there were reports in the newspapers of how the Taliban now owned wide swathes of property in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan. The Lahore upper-class felt encircled and beleaguered—when, they asked themselves (and me), when would their own, more tolerant and mystical form of Islam be overrun and suppressed by the fundamentalists?

A second and older threat was from the army. For much of its history, Pakistan has been run by men in uniform. This was in part a product of bad luck—the loss, so soon after independence, of the nation’s founder, MA Jinnah; the accident of becoming a frontline state in the Cold War, which allowed the United States to woo Pakistan with arms and money and hence consolidated the position of the generals. However, it has to be said that the generals have used their good fortune to their advantage. Whereas, in Delhi and other Indian towns, the Army is confined to the cantonments built by the British, in Pakistan the army had captured large chunks of property inside and outside the major cities.

On the edge of Mall Road in Lahore is a massive shopping complex owned by the army, replete with a giant wheel and bright signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and other foreign brands. The complex carries the splendidly Orwellian name of ‘Fortress Stadium’. The generals had used their years in power to acquire the best land as well as controlling stakes in banks and hotels. That they so dominated the economy was worrying enough. Would they, wondered my hosts, now use the pretext of bad relations with India to once more acquire control of the government?

The third fear of the middle-class in Lahore in 2009 was of being abandoned by the world. The government of the United States, once so markedly biased in favour of Pakistan, was moving closer to India. The shift was even more pronounced in the case of the American public, for whom—even before the Mumbai terror attacks— Pakistan was seen as, increasingly, the most dangerous place in the world. Western states and their publics were getting impatient with their erratic ally. By having sponsored terror while claiming to be part of the war on terror, Pakistan had wiped away, from Western memory, the decades of close support and solidarity in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

As an Indian, I would probably have been welcomed by my hosts in any case; but the fact that I had come when advised not to, made them even more grateful for my appearance. On my flight, there were only 18 passengers. The stewards fell over themselves to attend on me; so did the staff in my hotel. When the time came for me to depart, I found the employees had lined up in a sort of guard of honour. The manager invited me to come back, and to bring my friends along next time. I asked them in return to come to my homeland. One person said that he had been to India. When I asked whether it was to call on relatives, or to see Mughal monuments, he answered (in Urdu) that no, he had come to see friends, and that these were a Sikh family living in Delhi whom he had befriended when they had all worked in the Gulf.

I was both moved and saddened. The young man may or may not have known that his own city, Lahore, had once been a great seat of Sikh culture and Hindu learning. He certainly knew that many foreigners thought of his country as led and directed by mad mullahs. And so he wished to tell me that among his own friends was an Indian who was not a Muslim.


When I had visited Pakistan in 1989 and again in 1995, Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. This time too her party was in power, although Ms Bhutto herself had been assassinated a little over a year previously. Driving down the Mall in Lahore, I saw a large poster mixing familiar faces with those that were less familiar. There was the current Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, wearing spectacles; next to him, but looming larger in the frame, his late wife Benazir Bhutto, her head covered with a chunni. Two others I recognised were the dynasty’s founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, broad-shouldered and bald; and the dynasty’s putative heir, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, young, fresh-faced and confused.

These four faces dominated the poster; but who were the smaller, lesser, people who made up, so to say, the extras? Since the lettering was in Urdu (a language I do not read), I could not decipher their names. But from my experience of similar visuals this side of the border I could make an educated guess. The lesser men in the frame must have been local, Lahore-and-Punjab-based, politicians of the Pakistan People’s Party, obliged to put up posters of their leaders to proclaim their loyalty and thus provide legitimacy for their own names and careers. In this respect, they were akin to district and state level functionaries of the Congress party in India, who, before an election or when their bosses came visiting, made haste to install hoardings where their own faces, writ small, nestle behind and beyond the larger portraits of Indira, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul Gandhi.

On my 2009 visit to Pakistan, I was often alerted to the similarities between their political style and ours. Thus, on successive days, I encountered evidence on the printed page that consolidated and deepened the impression garnered from that telling poster on the Mall in Lahore. I flew out of India on 5 January, which, coincidentally, was the 81st birth anniversary of the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party. That day’s Dawn newspaper had a piece entitled ‘ZA Bhutto Remembered’, and written by a Member of the Sindh Assembly. The writer said of the dead man that he ‘gave the people the courage to stand up to the high and mighty and confront any dictator and oppressor’; that he ‘was the architect of a new foreign policy which gave Pakistan a new identity among the comity of nations’; that ‘we have not produced so far anyone to match his wisdom, vision, commitment and achievement, [but] his daughter, the late Benazir Bhutto, was next only to him in her struggle for the rights of all the people of all the provinces of Pakistan’; that ‘his name remains engraved on the hearts of the downtrodden, and his voice is always recognised as the voice of the oppressed of Pakistan’; and that ‘the need of the time is to implement the democratic philosophy of Z[ulfiqar] A[li] B[hutto] to solve the existing problems. The Bhuttos are gone but their legacy will continue for ever’.

Lahore is the Salonica of the East, a multicultural city in living memory that is now dominated by people of a single faith

The next day, I read an even more fulsome tribute published in the Daily Times of Lahore, this written not by a lowly provincial politician but by a serving cabinet minister. In a signed article, extending over three whole columns, Sherry Rehman—then serving as the minister for information and broadcasting in the Pakistan government—extolled the life and legacy of one she referred to throughout as Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (or SZAB). She claimed that for SZAB, ‘people’s empowerment was a cause so important that he refused to make any compromises even when his life was at stake’; that his ‘model for people-oriented political order opened a definitive chapter for Pakistan’s politics’; that he ‘drew an entire political class, from the darkness of the urban ghetto and the dirt-poor village, into the sunshine of public life’; that he ‘devoted all his energies to the implementation of the pledges he made to the public that voted him to power’; that his ‘contributions to an impregnable Pakistan stand tall in the form of major industrial, commercial and military establishments that still serve as the backbone of the country’s economy’; that he ‘gave Pakistan the strongest institutional foundations by drawing up the 1973 Constitution, and building the consensus so vital to democratic processes in its signing’; that ‘Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, two leaders of global stature, both snuffed out in the prime of their lives, continue to stand relevant to Pakistan’s politics’; that ‘the two Bhuttos brought a consistent strain of democratic politics into the tumultuous history of Pakistani politics’; and finally, that ‘it is the Bhutto ethos that has given our government the integrity, commitment and the courage to fight the onerous challenges in the way of a stable Pakistan’.

This was 2009, when the UPA was in power in New Delhi, when I regularly read or heard of Cabinet Ministers in the Government of India writing (or speaking) in similar fashion about Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Any progress or achievement, modest or substantial, that India or Indians might have achieved in any sphere was attributed by Congressmen (and women) to their wisdom and foresight. At the same time, no weakness or error was ever admitted. Fortunately, in Pakistan as well as India, the field was not, then or now, entirely filled with self-serving chamchas. Writers with no axe to grind, no career to protect or advance, had given us their own, independent, assessments of these political families and their legacies.

In the case of the Bhuttos, we can thus juxtapose, to the paeans of praise I read in Lahore, some excerpts from Tariq Ali’s book The Duel. The author says of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s five years in power that ‘self-defense, self-love, self-preservation, and sycophancy became the overpowering characteristics of his administration’. He adds that ‘a personality-driven, autocratic style of governance had neutered the spirit of Bhutto’s party, encouraged careerists, and finally paved the way for his enemies. He was the victim of a grave injustice; his death removed all the warts and transformed him into a martyr… The tragedy led to the PPP’s being treated as a family heirloom, which was unhealthy for both party and country’.

Consider also the verdicts on the Bhuttos, father and daughter, of the distinguished Pakistani civil servant Roedad Khan. Of the father, he writes: ‘After he acquired almost absolute power, Bhutto reacted sharply to anything—criticism, opposition, even unwelcome news—and exhibited symptoms associated with paranoid states: chronic suspicion, self-absorption, jealousy, hypersensitivity, megalomania. He would attribute to others motives and attitudes that he refused to admit to himself. He would betray a friend or an ally and then justify it to himself and others by accusing the victim of the treachery he was himself intending’. And of the daughter: ‘the second Benazir government will be remembered for destroying financial institutions, rampant corruption, loot and plunder, widespread lawlessness, political vindictiveness, and last but not least, senseless confrontation with the superior judiciary and the President’.

In November 1988, Pakistan held its first elections in almost two decades. The PPP won a majority, Benazir Bhutto was named prime minister

As a student of modern Indian history, I can confirm that this characterisation can largely serve for the Congress and its first family, too. Indira Gandhi’s regime was likewise marked by sycophancy and self-preservation, the two coming together with deadly effect in the Emergency. Her style of administration was autocratic. However, these and other deficiencies have been retrospectively annulled by the brutal manner of her death. Her martyrdom permitted her politically under-qualified son Rajiv to succeed her; later, his own violent death at the hands of terrorists consolidated the claims of the family to the reins of the Congress, an identification which, here like there, has unquestionably been ‘unhealthy for both party and country’.


On another day during this trip of 2009, I read a story in Dawn about a new government initiative. This was the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), whose focus was on providing credit to women in rural areas. The programme had attracted the ire of the Taliban, who claimed that for women to receive money in public was not in keeping with the tenets of Islam.

Dawn ’s own story dealt with the response to the Taliban’s criticism offered by Farzana Raja, the chairperson of the BISP. “We are committed to launching the programme because it is purely Islamic and aimed at helping the poor,” said Ms Raja. She clarified that the beneficiaries would not have to enter a government office themselves. The newspaper quoted her as saying that “the women will not have to go out of their homes to get their cards because lady workers… will visit them and complete the process”. She added that the card would require only the beneficiary’s thumb impression, and not her photograph (images being prohibited in fundamentalist Islam). In sum, as Dawn reported, Ms Raja ‘rejected [the] Taliban’s claim that tribal women would become morally corrupt and said that the programme was similar to the Zakat system. “How can one call our programme un-Islamic?” she said.

Reading this report, it was hard not to think comparatively, of rural development initiatives promoted by the state on this side of the border. In India, too, these programmes tend to be named after controversial politicians. But they do not—at least not yet—need to be justified in the name of the faith of the majority. No minister or official has (yet) had to make the case that the Jawahar Rozgar Yogna or the Indira Gandhi Pariyarvaran Puraskar is wholly in keeping with the tenets of Hinduism.

This difference between India and Pakistan goes back to the circumstances of their founding. That country was created as a homeland for Muslims. Thus the faith of the majority had, in lesser or greater degree, to be reflected in the policies and practices of the state. Some scholars believe that if Jinnah himself had lived longer, Pakistani Islam would have been more liberal—that is to say, more accommodating both of dissenting traditions within Islam (such as those represented by Sufis and Ahmadiyas), and of the interests of citizens who are not Muslim. As it happened, over the years a more exclusive model of Islam came to prevail over Pakistan. Under successive military rulers, the state began to openly ally with the clergy, and to change or modify state laws and policies in line with more literal interpretations of the Qur’an. Hence, the promoters of the Benazir Income Support Programme had now to go to such lengths to defend their activities as being consistent with principles of the faith.

Admittedly, in India too there are some who would like their state to be run on what they define as the principles of the majority religion. Fortunately, this view was resisted by our own founders, who insisted that all citizens would have equal rights regardless of religious affiliation. Their ideas were encoded in the Constitution, and in successive policy documents. Over the years, as the forces of Hindutva have gathered more support, there have been pressures to define our culture and history in exclusively ‘Hindu’ terms. However, there has been much less pressure to define our economic and social policies in these categories. Programmes of rural development (for instance, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme) are often widely debated—but in terms of economic efficiency and social equity, not whether they are ‘Hindu’ enough.

Pakistan was founded as a Muslim homeland—now, it is explicitly an Islamic State. Was the transition inevitable? Some Pakistanis blame Zia-ul-Haq for perverting the legacy of Jinnah by making common cause with the mullahs. Zia was, admittedly, as close to being evil as any modern politician, but taking the longer view, the case can be made that the original sin was Jinnah’s, who, by defining a country in terms of religion, made it very likely, or perhaps even inevitable, that in course of time both society and state would come increasingly under the sway of theocrats and fundamentalists.

Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims. Thus the faith of the majority had, in lesser or greater degree, to be reflected in the policies and practices of the state

In my own conversations with Pakistani liberals—the kind who admire Jinnah and detest Zia—I was struck by their nostalgia for the high noon of Muslim political power in the Subcontinent. One dinner conversation was largely devoted to the merits— literary as well as political—of the great Mughals. Which was the more moving and readable work, they asked, the Baburnama or the Jahangirnama? And although Akbar left no memoirs of his own, was he not the most enchanting of them all? I cannot speak for an RSS shakha, but in a comparable, upper-class, drawing-room in Delhi or Bangalore, the conversation would scarcely focus on the respective merits of Shivaji, Chandragupta Maurya or Rajaraja Chola.

One of the ladies at that dinner had married into an aristocratic family hailing from the Indian city of Hyderabad. As I was leaving, she expressed regret that her children (aged about ten and eight respectively) had not yet succeeded in obtaining a visa to visit that city. “Mujhe itna gussa aata hai,” she said in Urdu, before switching to English and adding, “After all, it is their history and heritage.” The next day, what was then the capital of the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh came up again, in a conversation with a television cameraman. Now based in Karachi, his family had migrated from the Deccan—as he put it, in another effortless display of bilingualism: “After the Fall of Hyderabad, unko yahaan aana pada.”

Hearing this, I recalled what the Pakistani cricketer Abdul Hafeez Kardar had written after he had visited Hyderabad in the winter of 1952-53. Kardar first went to the battlefield where ‘Aurangzeb Alamgir, the last of the great Moghuls’ had won a famous victory. He then went to visit the Salar Jung Museum to see, among other things, the wine-cup of the Emperor Jehangir and a sword of Tipu Sultan’s. Of the Museum and its treasures, he wrote: ‘This is civilisation! This is culture! …It is certainly a wonder of the world!’

Kardar was of the opinion that it was Muslim rule that had brought civilisation to backward India. Five and six decades later, these sentiments were being echoed by the aristocratic lady who believed that her own sweet, innocent, as yet intellectually unformed kids, themselves living between Lahore and London, had a claim to the (Islamic) history and heritage of Hyderabad. Her view was grand, perhaps grandiose; the perspective of the cameraman, in which the Fall of Hyderabad approximated the Fall of Muslim Spain, tragic and even pathetic.

Themselves decent, good people, these Lahori nostalgists were yet shaped by a warped view of the past and present of the Indian Subcontinent. Akbar lived five centuries ago; but the Nizam’s Hyderabad was, in living memory, known to be a state of extreme backwardness and inequality, in which a few nobles lorded over millions of illiterate, voiceless and desperately poor peasants. Only a strong or sentimental commitment to Islam could permit its defence or posthumous rehabilitation.


When I got the invitation to visit Lahore in late 2008, I scoured the shops of Bangalore for books on that great and ancient Pakistani city. In a used bookstore off Mahatma Gandhi Road, I picked up Lahore Past and Present by Muhammad Baqir. The book was first published in 1952, with a second edition in 1984. The copy I bought had been reprinted in India in 1993. The title-page identified the author as a former professor at the University of the Panjab, Lahore, his educational qualifications being ‘M. A., Ph D (London)’.

As it turned out, I could not read Lahore Past and Present before I left for Pakistan, but on my return to Bangalore I read the book with interest, and a growing sense of sadness. The first 40 pages or so were on ‘Lahore during the pre-Muslim period’. Then followed a spacious 160 pages on Muslim rulers and their epochs, then 18 pages on the Sikhs who ruled the city, then a further 18 pages on the British period. The final section, on the decades since Lahore became a part of Pakistan, itemised important events between 1947 and 1980, among them:

Lahore witnesses a ‘red letter day’ on Thursday 9 March 1950, when this town, the nerve centre of the country, feted His Imperial Majesty, King Muhammad Reza Pehalvi, Shah of Iran, to glimpses of Pakistan’s military might, artistic talent, musical aptitude, educational enterprise, the grandeur of Emperor Shahjahan’s Shalimar Gardens, state banquet and an after-dinner reception….

Under successive military rulers, the state began to openly ally with the clergy, and to change or modify state laws in line with more literal interpretations of the Qur’an

King Hussain of Jordan on Thursday, 10 March 1955, paid stirring tributes to the struggle for the creation of Pakistan and characterised this country as the ‘pride and glory of every Muslim’ and the ‘stronghold of Islam’ at a citizen’s garden party held in Shalimar Garden.

An International Islamic Colloquium, sponsored by the University of the Punjab, and the first gathering of its kind in an Asian country, was held in Lahore from 29 December 1957 to 8 January 1958; 170 delegates drawn from the following countries participated….

Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto unveiled on the afternoon of Saturday, 22 February 1975, the foundation-stone plaque of the monument to be constructed in Lahore to commemorate the Second Islamic Summit Conference.

Another legacy of the British colonial rule was abolished when Friday (1 July 1977) was observed as a weekly holiday for the first time throughout the country.

The change in weekly holiday marks the end of a colonial practice persisting for about 128 years. It was initiated in the Subcontinent by the British after the fall of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Some Muslim princely states, however, continued to observe Friday as holiday. These included Bahawalpur, Swat, Bhopal and Hyderabad (Deccan).

The revival of the Islamic practice symbolises Pakistan’s affinities of common faith and destiny with the Muslim World.

The Islamic Summit Minar, a lasting monument to the historic conference, of about 40 Islamic countries, hosted by Pakistan three years ago, was inaugurated in Lahore by Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, on 22 February 1977.

I was determined to visit Lahore. The fathers of my friends had all been educated in Lahore, and spoke in elegiac tones about its theatres and shops

The 48-metre high white marble minar commemorates the spirit of the unity of Islamic brotherhood, which manifested itself in the Second Islamic Conference (22-24 February 1974)… The entire monument symbolizes the unity of faith in Allah and is symbolic of the universally traditional non-pictorial, abstract, and formal manner of expression in Islamic architecture.

Professor Baqir’s book contained a description, extending over three pages, of the Pakistan Day Memorial, built in the 1960s in Minto Park to commemorate the famous Muslim League meeting held there in March 1940 which called for a separate state for Indian Muslims. The professor noted the initial call for funds for the Memorial was met with a lukewarm response, whereupon, ‘disappointed at the situation and the lack of spirit on the part of the public in general and philanthrophists in particular’, the Punjab government chose in 1964 to levy a special cess of 5 paisa per cinema ticket and 50 paisa on each race ticket. ‘This legislative measure solved the financial problem of the project’.

The memorial was completed in 1968. It has, as Professor Baqir described it, a tower shaped like a star, with the marble slabs of the central shaft having inscriptions of a brief history of the Pakistan movement, the Pakistan resolution in English, Urdu and Bengali, the 99 names of Allah and some verses of the poet Iqbal. The rostrum was built (significantly) facing the Badshahi Mosque. As Professor Baqir put it: ‘The design and construction pattern of the base and the first four platforms depict the history of the Pakistan Movement through architectural symbols. Rough and uncut stones have been haphazardly laid representing the chaotic conditions and the lack of any sense of direction in the early stages and the humble start of the freedom movement of the Indian Muslims. The stones used for constructing the first platform are the rough Taxila stones. Hammer dressed stones are laid for the second platform. At the third platform are laid chiselled stones while the fourth and final platform is of highly polished marble symbolising the ultimate success of the struggle for freedom and the glory that is Pakistan.’ All through this book, Lahore’s history was cast in a decidedly and often exclusively Islamic glow. Hindus, Sikhs and the British were given short shrift, but so, also, were social, economic and cultural changes in Lahore post 1947. Islamic pride, or dare one say Islamic chauvinism, comprehensively triumphed over any semblance of scholarly rigour or detachment that the professor might have come away with from his years at the University of London.

But perhaps one should not mock too much. Who knows, if the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power long enough in India, a professor at the University of Delhi might one day write a ‘history’ of his city in suitably Hindutva terms, with the Mughals, the British, and the secular Indian Republic barely mentioned, but, on the other hand, much emphasis placed on such historic Hindu landmarks as the building of the Akshardham Temple, Narendra Modi’s resolve to end 1,200 years of (Islamic and Christian) slavery while speaking in the Lok Sabha shortly after being elected Prime Minister, that now sits securely in the Guinness Book of World Records, the Art of Living’s ‘World Culture Festival’ held on the floodplain of the Yamuna, and, not least, the glorious renaming of Gurgaon as Gurugram.