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Pakistan Disowns History: It Must Learn To Celebrate Its Vivid Diversity and Rich Culture

By Bhopinder Singh

March 9, 2017

Till very recently, Sindh or ‘Mehran’ was an oasis within Pakistan’s undeniably syncretic past, a melting pot that gently hosted the forgotten and faceless diversities of the ancient land. The name ‘Sindh’ itself is etymologically derived from Sanskrit for river i.e. Sindhu (reference to the Indus river). Even the name ‘India’ owes its origin to the Greek pronunciation of Sindh. This cradle of civilization that dates back to 7000 BC, and predates all modern religions of the world has the famous Mohenjedaro ruins within its geographical womb.

Sindh’s fabled spirit of ‘inclusivity’ was sustained with the acceptance of Mohajirs (Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan after Partition), and by retaining nearly all of the remaining Hindus in Pakistan (40 per cent of Tharparkar district identifies itself as Hindus).  It also played host to Balochis and Pashtuns in an occasionally uncomfortable huddle in the tinderbox of Karachi, as well as the adherents of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian and Zoroastrian faiths. But  it was always the generous and welcoming presence of the Sufi Khanqahs, dotting the dusty arid lands of Sindh that were symptomatic of the hope and counterpoise to the rising extremism and militant strains that have been recently imported from the distant Arab region. The land of mystics, wanderers and poets like Abdul Latif Bhittai, Manjhi Faqueer, Sachal Sarmast and of the Sufi sites like the holy shrine of the great Sufi patron saint Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalander, has been brutally convulsed by the new reality of a terror-inspired, retrograde and increasingly intolerant Pakistan, which is at war with its own history, ethos and instincts.

A major problem with Pakistan are the dangerous untruths of history ~ the supposition that the narrative starts with the advent of the Arab commander, Mohammad Bin Qasim (8th century CE), as the “first Pakistani”. This is factually wrong, insincere and contrary to the Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of the modern state of Pakistan. The project to artificially ‘Arabise’ itself and deny the actual  past was undertaken by the massive pumping of  petro-dollars by the Arab Sheikhdoms who generously funded the burgeoning madrasas that imparted regressive, sectarian and reactionary instruction. Today, the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.

The terror attack in Sehwan that targeted the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and killed nearly 100 people was an attack on Pakistan’s deep-rooted sensibilities and future hopes. The Islamic State’s Khorasan faction, which claimed responsibility for the dastardly action, represents the antithesis of the all-encompassing and pacifist school of thought, exemplified at the shrine of Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, generally referred to as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Sehwan. This revered site is for Hindus and Muslims alike beyond the sectarian divides of Shia-Sunni-Ahmadiyya denominations, a place that willingly accepts the singing transgenders, dancing dervishes and non-conformists who simply want to celebrate divinity without the doomsday interpretations, impositions and rigidities of the Mullahs and the Pundits. The Dhamals in these Sufi shrines, replete with philosophical questions, unanswered quests and celebratory Qawwali strains, are in sharp contrast to the austere, ultra-conservative and non-questioning compliance ordained by the orthodox school of monotheistic Salafism.

Pakistan is posited at the virtual crossroads of making a choice between the original syncretic and profound moorings of its vibrant history, and that of the intolerant strains injected by its recent Arab benefactors who summarily declare all non-adherents as Takfir (apostates) and Kafirs (non-believers), hence justifying the violent means of expressing dissent against them.

The outrage at the Sufi shrine was followed by the familiar political response of “eliminating terrorists with full force” and such vacuous statements as, “It is time for us to unite and fight against the internal and external terrorists”. The Pakistani army indulged in more kinetic bluster ~  “Every drop of the nation’s blood will be revenged, and revenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone”. All this was too trite and meaningless. Pakistan has relentlessly persisted with the dangerous game of selectively patronizing extremist elements as part its ‘strategic depth’, while pointing fingers across its borders (in this case, Afghanistan), whenever terror has struck on its soil. Directly or indirectly, the Pakistani establishment has been a willing accomplice and catalyst in institutionalizing religious intolerance in its society, and no amount of counter-drives (apparently 100 suspected militants were ‘neutralised’ within three days of this terror attack), will address the fundamental issue of Pakistan disowning its genealogical past, with the parallel regression of rewriting its sovereign narrative with narrow religiosity, iconography and inspiration from the Gulf monarchies (who are paying their own price for living by the sword and perpetuating ignorance).

The devotees of the Sehwan shrine refused to be deterred by the obvious terror threats, and immediately resumed the customary Dhamal ~ an ode to the centuries-old tradition. But the official establishment has routinely failed to confront the ‘terror nurseries’ that breed hatred, bloodlust and exclusivity.

One is reminded of the haunting lines of the sub-continent’s poem, Dama Dum Mast Qalandar (originally written by Amir Khusro and later fine-tuned by Bulleh Shah) ~ Har Dam Peera Teri Khair Hove, Naam-E-Ali Beda Paar Laga Jhoole Laalan, O Naam-E-Ali, O Naam-E-Ali Beda Paar Laga Jhoole Laalan, Sindri Da Sehvan Da Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar, Dama Dam Mast Qalandar, Ali Dam Dam De Andar (O Lord, may you prevail every time, everywhere, I pray of your well-being, In the name of Ali, I pray to you to help my boat cross in safety….in the river of life). The words ring more true today than ever before. From the voice of Runa Laila in Bangladesh to the Wadali brothers in India to the irrepressible Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Pakistan, every singer has graced and invoked the name of Shahbaz Qalandar in soulful reverence coupled with the call for peace.

Pakistan has to reconcile itself with its own past. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was an early warning of the twin-nation theory (a united ‘Muslim’ nation), the non-acceptance of which is violently felt in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its hinterland. It is a tryst with the home-grown extremist organisations. The occasional attempts to selectively address the mushrooming terror nurseries are as cosmetic as they are inadequate.

Pakistan must first learn to celebrate its own true history, vivid diversity and rich culture and not suffer from any inferiority complex, as that aids the facilitation of alien sensibilities and their brutal implications.