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Harking Back: When near Delhi Gate, let your mind’s eye wander

Published May 15, 2016 06:57am

Every time I enter Delhi Gate my thoughts are not on the splendid job done to conserve the Shahi Hamam, or even to the dilapidated mosque of Wazir Khan, but the mind’s eye goes back 270 years when the main gateway and beyond had thousands lying slaughtered.

For this reason if you go through old descriptions of the ‘Chotta Ghalughara’ that took place in Lahore, one is amazed at the sheer scale of barbarity that took place. But this happening on the 10th of March 1746 needs to be put in its historical context. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the founding of the Lahore Darbar of Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1799 has a bloody 92 years of history. For purely communal reasons this time period has been ignored, more so because the sub-continent fragments with amazing continuity over a 3,000-year cyclic pattern that we know of, only to come together because of some uniting catalyst, mostly foreign. Lest you think history repeats itself, be warned for that is not the case.

The sole reason the entire sub-continent fragments is because of the way the poor of this huge landmass are treated by the rulers. In a way this process even today continues on both sides of the communal ‘line of hate’ that divides the sub-continent. Divided they rule more easily. Communal hatred created castes 3,500 years ago in our cities and villages. That wretched way of thinking remains part and parcel of our “allegedly pious” way of life. No one is able today to lump the fact that our historic ‘foreign liberators’ were in fact child slave traders. Our leaders remain, essentially, traders of our products, our wealth, be it gold, children, women, spices, indigo, cotton, forced labour and cheap soldiers, and now the easily-convertible dollar. This wealth of our land has been taken to faraway places of ‘relative safety’ and ‘ease’.

That is why what happened in March 1746 inside the once walled city, in the gateway and outside Delhi Gate needs to be remembered as a communal outrage. In the 92-year time period mentioned above, a relatively new religion had aggressively emerged, one that did not believe in castes or idols or directions to pray towards, but rather rationalised the Almighty within oneself. Sikhism, a very simple concept that liberated the very poor, had emerged and this was being attacked by the rulers, who happened to be foreigners and Muslims at that.

After the creation – for a seven-year period, of the ‘First Sikh State’ in the Punjab east of Lahore by the revolutionary Banda Singh Bahadar, known popularly as Banda Bairagi, the ‘zamindari’ system was abolished and tillers given their lands. True freedom had come for the poor. The Mughals, landowners that they had become, amassed armies from all over the sub-continent to tackle this “freedom-loving revolutionary”, finally capturing him. He was brought to Lahore and outside Delhi Gate was chained and put in an iron cage and put on an elephant. Then a procession started out for Delhi with 700 Sikh heads on spikes proceeding alongside. There he was skinned alive after the heart and liver of his five-year old son were stuffed in his mouth. Not a cry from him came forth. Another Punjabi hero was born.

Before him at the same place outside Delhi Gate, the great Dullah Bhatti had been skinned alive for daring to challenge Akbar the ‘Great’. The issue was unfair taxation of peasants. The revolutionary did not let a whimper reflect the pain. Over time one cruelty followed another.

In place of Banda Bairagi emerged the founder of the ‘Second Sikh State’, a leader by the name of Nawab Kapoor Singh, who made a daring plan to capture the Mughal Governor of Lahore, Nawab Zakarya Khan. Inside the walled city trickled in a force of 2,000 men all of whom were in disguise. On that eventful Friday they all went to pray at the Shahi Mosque. Their spies had informed that Zakarya Khan always offered his Friday prayers at this huge mosque. But then it was a lucky day for Zakarya Khan as he did not visit the mosque.

Kapoor Singh threw off his disguise, and waving his sword and a knife shouted “Sat Sri Akal’, and with his Sikh force marched out of Lahore, vanishing in the jungle beyond Mahmood Buti on the River Ravi. This incident was one of several others that set the stage for Zakarya Khan and his chief minister, Lakhpat Rai, to launch a campaign to exterminate Sikhs, for as the ‘farmans’ now tell us they had been declared as ‘Kafirs’ and it was their Islamic duty to exterminate them.

From the bush country and forests as far away as Kahnuwan, they started massacring Sikhs, and a procession was again brought to Lahore. According to the historian S.M. Latif, over 7,000 men, women and children were massacred and another 3,000 brought in chains to Lahore and parked in the horse market outside Delhi Gate. What followed is known in Sikh history as the “Choota Ghalughara”.

The scene outside Delhi Gate has been described by Latif: “Lakhpat Rai separated over 1,000 Sikh men from the over 3,000 captured alive. These men were bare-backed, faces blackened, sitting two astride facing outwards on donkeys. A huge procession went all the way through the bazaars of Lahore returning to Delhi Gate.” Along the way excited frenzied people threw whatever they could at them. This was orchestrated communal hatred at its height. When the bloodied procession returned to Delhi Gate on that fateful day, all the butchers and the scavengers of the city were engaged to behead them, one at a time. By late in the evening the entire area inside the gateway and in the horse market outside, lay butchered bodies by the thousands.

The women and children of Sikh families were also not spared, with most managing a less painful death by jumping into the ‘Shaheedi Khoo’ outside the city, now in Landa Bazaar. This terrible day is known as ‘Choota Ghalughara’ and it was the catalyst that led the Sikh ‘misls’ to attack Afghans, ultimately expelling them from Punjab. The Bhangi ‘misl’ took over power in Lahore and set up the ‘Second Sikh State’.

But then the Afghans returned, only to be taken on by the Sukerchakia ‘misl’ of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, leading to the setting up in 1799 of the ‘Third Sikh State’, and the greatest of the three. Within 92 years of Aurangzeb passing away, power has passed on to the oppressed. Aurangzeb on his death bed was to say: “I do not know who I am, why I am here, and what has happened.”

That is why Delhi Gate is not merely about old decaying and neglected monuments. It is, to my way of thinking, more about the people of this neglected city and the way they have been treated by our rulers. Pious words mean nothing for communal hatred rules our minds and ways.

Ironically, 250 years after this massacre, the Afghans have trickled back into the old city, where they form a majority. In the evenings in most ‘mohallahs’ Pushto has replaced Lahori Punjabi. A lot of them are now traders as are their workers Afghan. What this holds for the future is worth pondering over in a land where our Punjabi mother tongue is frowned upon. Surely an explosive communal mix.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016