For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.
Besides the salinity, the fertility of Jhang is being ravished by something else as well. How could a land with a Sufi heart allow the desecration of graves? Why is Jhang no more the city that it used to be? The answer to this question is in fact the answer to the existing mayhem of our state. Jhang is the story that spans from sectarian violence to the killing of foreign tourists.
To many minds, the problem started when a dictator tried to legitimise his rule in the name of religion, while others smell American involvement in it; there are few who take it as a Zionist conspiracy and yet others who blame India for this. But, the journey towards the truth is just as difficult as it is uncomfortable. An unbiased and incisive analysis reveals that as soon as Pakistan became a reality, religious parties started showing their force. The quarters that had once opposed the formation of the country, grew so powerful in a short span of time, that they enforced constitutional changes like the Objective resolution and summoned people to the parliament for passing a judgement on their religion. From the icons of Heer and Sultan Bahoo, to the fame of Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jhang has tread painful miles.
A group of historians traces the Shia community of Jhang to the time when Umer Bin Hafas was appointed the Governor, while another group believes that it was an influence of the Ismaili regime in Multan. Regardless of the two opinions, when Mehmood of Ghazni won over Jhang, the official historian recorded it as a victory for Islam.
With the British, came the colonisation schemes and lands were allotted. Due to the prevailing Baradari system, large portions of land were allotted to Shias who had most of their tenants as Sunnis (of Barelvi influence). Whether it had an economic undertone or the liberal mindset of the Barelvi branch, to-date the licence for Tazia in Jhang remains with the Sunnis.
When Pakistan came into being, a large number of refugees arrived at Jhang. Most of these immigrants came from the districts of Rohtak, Hissar, Gurgaon and Panipat and were staunch followers of the Deoband. They had left everything back home, save the dreams of a new land and the spirit for the revival of old faith. With the plunder of allotments and claims, the ideals for a newfound land were soon forsaken; however, the puritan ambition was strong enough to stay on. The universal remedy for homesickness, in case of immigrants, appears to be religion. Regardless of financial feasibilities, religious places develop faster in foreign lands.
A decade down the line, the demographic change was making its mark. The immigrant Deobandees initially frowned upon the liberal religious approach of Barelvis and then took it upon themselves to reform them. Interestingly, the first Manazra (religious debate) of Jhang did not take place between the Shia and Sunni but between a Deobandi and a Barelvi. The 50s saw, for the first time in Jhang, a Deobandi firebrand scholar slandering the landlords for being feudal and Shias. With one shot fired from this side, how could the other side refrain? Soon an act of contempt of the Sahaba was administered in the village of Hasso Balail by a local Shia landlord in 1957. That too, for the first time in the history of Jhang. As a result of these events, an organisation surfaced with the name of Majlis-e-Tahaffuz Namoos-e-Sahaba. A few peaceful years ensued and then started the vicious cycle of sectarian killings. The murder of a Sunni Imam of ShorKot in 1964 was the first of its kind in Jhang, but no one noted that apart from being a Sunni, he was a Muslim and a human being too. After a gap of three years, another Imam was killed in Rodoo Sultan, who also believed in the oneness of God and was born a human being before being raised a Sunni.
Apparently, the sectarian skirmishes started with the first of Muharram and subsided by the 1st of Rabi-ul-Awwal but then a subtle change started taking effect. The humility of the accent was being eaten up by hard talk. When the flash floods increased, the rage of the river finally spilled over the shores. The incident of Bab-e-Umar was not hard to foretell.
Out of the three entry points of Jhang, one was called Kheva Gate, in the memory of Kheva Khan, the father of Saheba. Tradition had it that every year on the seventh day of Muharram, a procession passed through this gate. Initially the name of the gate was changed to Bab-e-Umar and subsequently, both sides agreed not to mourn loudly in respect of the mosques en route. The mourners silently beat their chest and walked past the mosque. It was called khamosh matam.
In the Muharram of 1969, the city administration was extra vigilant in the wake of a volatile situation. It sought guarantees from both sides for not inciting violence. On the eve of the sixth of Muharram, a banner with instigating remarks was displayed on the route of the procession. The administration hurried up and saved the disaster by talking both parties to a peaceful solution. It was agreed that till the time the procession had not passed the mosque, the offensive wordings would remain covered. As soon as the procession reached the mosque, someone uncovered the banner. On seeing this, a participant of the procession, soaked a dirty cloth in the nearby drain and threw it at the banner. What followed next was the unprecedented violence. Had it not been the first day of Yahya Khan’s Martial Law, the killings would have never stopped at six.
The issue, however, was not solely an act of sectarian violence. The individual who uncovered the wordings and the individual who flung dirt on it, were both employees of a local political leader, unfortunately a Shia. Years after, the grandson of this Sial confessed that his grandfather wanted to bring down Col Abid Hussain’s rapport to avenge his defeat in 1946 elections. Other than clan politics, the rich of the city also added to this rift as they served the religion by paying off to their sect.
When Jhang went to polls after this incident, the traditional seat set up was totally upset. Dressed in black, the widows of the Bab-e-Umar incident had mourned through the streets and everyone voted for their sympathy.
But despite all this, the Shia Sunni issue remained on the back burner till 1974 as both sides were busy pushing the Ahmedis across the religious border. As soon as the Parliament declared Qadianis "Non Muslims", the venomous speakers directed their fury onto Shias. The Deoband scholars that once toured the districts to "gather support against Qadianis" were now visiting the same mosques to propagate against Shias. The self proclaimed guardians of religion always came up with a fresh threat to Islam. Qadianis, Shias, Barelvis, one can’t help but wonder who will be next?
(To be continued…)
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