Arising from the same soil, breathing the same air, moving to the same folk songs and music, defined by the same five rivers, Punjab over the centuries has yet produced two distinct types of personality: the Muslim Punjabi and the Sikh Punjabi. There is also the Hindu Punjabi but for ease of discussion let the first two categories suffice.
The Sikhs were not just the followers of a new religion. Under a succession of Sikh warlords taking advantage of the long twilight of the Mughal Empire, and then under Ranjit Singh who founded a Sikh kingdom – the first unified Punjabi political entity in over 2000 years – they became a nation.
In this journey from obscurity to kingship, the Sikhs proved themselves tough warriors, more than a match for the Mughals to the east and the Afghans to the west. After Nadir Shah’s invasion of India (1739 – a mere 32 years after the death of Aurangzeb) Punjab fell from Mughal hands, becoming first a possession of Nadir Shah’s empire and then part of Ahmed Shah Abdali’s kingdom of Kabul.
The Sikhs took back Punjab from the Afghans and through war and conquest Ranjit Singh made Peshawar a part of his Sikh kingdom. Successors to the Sikhs were the British and when the Lahore Durbar, after the death of Ranjit Singh, became a victim of intrigue and dissension, and the Khalsa army suffered defeat in two wars, Punjab became part of the British Empire.
And we have succeeded the British. Ranjit Singh’s success was on the battlefield. His failure was the failure of Indian despotism, Muslim and non-Muslim alike: the inability to lay the foundations of a lasting political order. The Delhi Sultans couldn’t do it; the Mughals couldn’t do it; and Ranjit Singh failed in the same measure.
There’s one thing missing from this picture. Even when Ranjit Singh was lord of Punjab, Muslims constituted the majority in his kingdom, as also in Kashmir. But from the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 right up to the British annexation of Punjab in 1849, a span of 150 years, Muslim governors and commanders – in Kasur, Multan and elsewhere – appear as minor characters, acknowledging the suzerainty of Kabul or Lahore, but lacking the dash or energy to fill the vacuum caused by the collapse of Mughal power in Punjab.
The Sikhs made that grab for power. They had the drive and the ability, and the fighting prowess. But where was the Punjabi Muslim? Why wasn’t he able to throw up a leadership equal in valour and élan to the rampaging Sikh? The Chathas would sometimes put up a fight, as would the Bhattis and, to the north, tribes like the Janjuas. But they couldn’t stand up to Sikh power.
One Muslim name stands out: that of Adina Beg Khan who through ability and intelligence became very briefly ruler of Lahore. But he died and that was it and soon over the battlements of the Lahore Fort, built by Akbar the Great, shone the star of Ranjit Singh.
This is not history for the sake of history. It sheds some light on our predicament today. Indian Punjab is just a planet in the Indian constellation. But Pakistani Punjab because of numbers and resources, representation in the army and administration, is the engine, the motor, the driving force of this republic.
We lament the quality of leadership… that we could do much better if we had a better leadership class. But if Muslim Punjab couldn’t perform this feat in that long interregnum of Mughal decline, by what magic does it reverse the dynamics of history and from the same air, the same soil, the same rivers – in fact no longer five but three – produce a class of warriors and administrators (warriors in the metaphorical sense) that can lead Pakistan out of the shadows and into the sun?
We are successors not to the Sikhs but the British. Lahore today – its Mall, its old buildings, its seats of authority, the best of its schools and colleges, the best of its hospitals, the Secretariat, the police chief’s office, the assembly building, the high court – is a reminder not of our Sikh but our British past. The settlement of land, the demarcation of tehsil and district boundaries, qanungo and patwar circles, even thana jurisdictions (many of them) are a reflection of that past.
The British were not just conquerors. They were more than that, flag-bearers of a superior civilisation. Japan embraced this civilisation and became a great power. China has embraced the same civilisation – signified by knowledge and learning – and is on its path to world greatness.
The Punjabi Muslim had no qualms about enlisting in the British army and fighting its battles in distant lands. The Muslim Punjabi from Chakwal, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Attock and the other enlistment districts distinguished himself under British colours, sometimes even winning the highest awards. As a subordinate there was no one who came near his merit. But when it came to acquiring the mental habits of that superior civilisation there arose before him problems of the mind and psychology.
Punjab was the sword arm of the empire but the Muslim component of its mind remained trapped in a time warp. Instead of looking forward and stepping into the future the Punjabi mind harked back to an imaginary past, there seeking its greatest comfort.
The Pathan was not afraid of India. He had ruled India in the past. The Sindhi had no problem with India. For centuries past Muslims and Hindus had lived together in Sindh in amity. The Baloch imagination moved in other spheres: Iran to the west, Afghanistan to the north. As for the Kashmiri, his fate had not figured in the convoluted events leading up to Partition.
The fear of India was an obsession of the Punjabi ruling class and its ideological fellow-travellers crossing over from East Punjab, Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal, Bihar and Hyderabad Deccan. Fear and insecurity they carried in their hearts and minds and fear and insecurity they made part of the ruling ethos of the new state.
There was another thing to note. Muslim conquerors had won their Indian dominion at the point of the sword. The Mughals had gained their empire the same way. Ranjit Singh created his Sikh kingdom by the sword and a high order of statesmanship. The British won their empire through the sword and the power of a forward civilisation. But the Punjabi Muslim, now the dominant partner in the new state, was receiving his gift not through dint of effort but the sheer force of circumstances.
So is it any surprise if the Punjabi Muslim and his Mohajir ally, sharing the same mindset and the same analysis of history, instead of making something of their gifted acquisition went back into the past, worshipping at the altar of confused ideology, looking at the future with fearful eyes and falling into the lap of outside powers to gain a feeling of security?
And the differences which still persist: look at Indian Punjab, its dance and vitality and the thing they have made of the bhangra. In Lahore kite-flying and basant become a threat to national security. Talk and think a bit openly and you invite the wrath of the ideological battalions. And in a city on the crest of whose fort the emperor Jahangir drank deep and looked into Noor Jahan’s eyes, to get a drop of anything requires a visit to a Christian friend or a spiritual mentor (otherwise known as a bootlegger).
Getting a drop is not the point; liberating the Muslim Punjabi mind is. For hundreds of years men and women entered the Data Darbar through the same gates. Then a committee, of which Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is a member, decided that piety was best served if the gates were segregated. And minds keen as his are supposed to fix our economy.