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When pirs seek people’s blessings

Updated June 27, 2018


IT is time for politicians to exhibit acts that reconfirm their faith in mystical and mysterious men — occasionally a woman — to create the required awe and reverence amongst voters. It is time for them to court the holy soul with a magic broom or the venerable bearded man draped in white from head to toe, who allows you to sit close to him. Maybe he will let you sit at his feet if he really wants you to sweep the election.

With elections just round the corner, excitement runs high the moment Imran Khan, a claimant to power, is spotted walking without shoes to his destination — a driving seat in Islamabad probably.

This is big news since everyone is so keen on seeing the signs. And there’s a reason, rooted in recent personal history, of why there’s a spiritual explanation for everything this gentleman, your ‘prime minister in waiting’, does these days. He is the one destined, they say. So long as he wears the right colour on the right occasion and follows the right rituals.

At another locale, deep inside the land of Sindh, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, a young saviour of our ‘original’ ways, either moves by his own conviction or is prodded on to the right path. His camp thinks it wise that — like his mother did once — he is photographed as he undergoes the ritual of seeking blessings from an old man with a white flowing beard and an unmistakable glow around him.

History tells us that spiritual leaders are adept at finding ways of staying relevant

The picture is supposed to convey two messages: one that the boy has the blessings of the people who can make or break an electoral contest; two, that he favours a way of life — studded with the right number of pirs as the guardians of a more tolerant order— that is under a grave threat.

He needs these as good luck charm as he is about to make his electoral debut. If this expedition requires the good services of the pirs — usually the respected custodians of the shrines— he, like the chiefs of other political parties, will be more than happy to employ them as individual candidates from various constituencies.

And this is where the circle is complete. The pirs give the blessings to the people only to claim them back at the time of an election.

This is a classical reverse. Elections contradict the notion that the resourceful pirs, the exalted souls who connect God’s motley with the Creator, are infallible and not dependent on the ordinary people to meet their needs.

To claim divine favour is fine. To insist that the pirs are indispensable intermediaries who connect rulers and their subjects has its own consequences. Like them having to, once in a while, kneel down in respect to the jamhoor, the people, and ask them for their votes.

The people are in the habit of, every now and then, surprising a conventional holy man, or wherever due, a woman. But the big question here is: whether the incidence of someone turning the tables on a respected spiritual leader increase around general elections in the country or are the pirs as powerful today as they were, say, in 1988 when a guy named Pervez Ali Shah drubbed Pir Pagaro in a famous electoral contest in Khairpur? Before that, are pirs really unwanted in a democracy?

Now if the pir was to be replaced by a more modern player in a democratic culture, the so-called political worker has not quite lived up to his promise even when things might appear to have changed drastically in some areas over these three decades. The pir has stuck to his territory, side by side with old and new successful political players. They coexist uneasily, each suspicious of the other.

The urban centres are now increasingly dictated by newer pressures, pushing old factors such as reverence or fear as a determining reason for voting, biradari, not to speak of ideology, into background.

The big cities teeming with all kinds of guilt-ridden people may be replete with pirs and shrines ready to serve those looking for quick solace, but as a journalist in Jhang points out, “the cities have their own electoral dynamics” that may not have too much space for the pirs.

Another journalist, from Multan, holds that” these spiritual leaders have much more open space to flourish in rural areas.”

Punjab is an ideal place for this urban-rural comparison that has pirs as a central character. One, it has so many of these pirs tied to shrines spread all over the province. Two, it is where the process of urbanisation is faster than most other parts of the country.

A study by Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali Mirza a few years ago found 64 shrines in Punjab with direct political connections. The study, entitled “Religion, Land and Politics: Shrines and Literacy in Punjab” thus provides a summary of the genesis of pirs in the Punjab, which, with minor differences in detail here and there, is true for the nurturing of pirs in other provinces as well.

“When the British opened the political arena, the pirs, as spiritual and feudal lords, were natural contenders for power… The combination of religious and landed power, in particular, is a vital political asset in a milieu where, in the words of Anatol Lieven, ‘it is not wealth alone, but wealth plus either kinship or spiritual prestige, or both, that gives political power’. A shrine, in this regard, provides an ideal platform.

“Medium-sized shrine makes him a small landowner and a local squire. The big shrine gives him an entrée into the zamindar club and makes a magnate of him. A leading shrine is a gold mine, which catapults him into the aristocratic category and brings him riches large enough to...enter politics directly at the highest level.”

Over decades, these pirs have come under pressure from other entrants into politics. Many of them have branched off into new ventures that ensure money and power.

Yet the old stereotype of the pir stays as an unfazed undeterred player out to get his share of the spoils, and more. Quite often the pir is inseparable from the jagirdar – even though it is clear that the modern ways of spreading the protest fast and far sometimes make it tough for the Mian Mithoos of this world to find a party.

History tells us that the species is adept at finding a way of staying relevant. They have the facility of a seasoned practitioner to align themselves with cause and parties that can protect their interests well.

In the recent past, the PPP, with its dependence on the rural constituency, was a favourite refuge.

It wasn’t that the PPP’s opponents didn’t have their pirs to rely upon but the emphasis on the rural and later on the electable did paint the party of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari as the real patron-follower of the pirs for many elections.

The pirs were considered so vital to maintain the balance between the two themes pursued by the two opposing parties, that being far from an ideal political discourse.

The pirs essentially lived at a distance from the cities, trying to resist the urban sentiment. The lines may have been blurred.

The media is making inroads into the country and selling the singular dream without distinction between the rural and the urban. The city’s frontiers are being pushed back. The observers deep in the districts say the pirs are holding on for the moment – in Multan, in Jhang, at so many places in Sindh, in their stronghold all over Pakistan.

In the long run, however, they have a far bigger struggle at hand to stay relevant, with the urban model juggernaut promoted by the media threatening to gobble them.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018