Jahandad Khan is an Islamabad-based history researcher with an interest in the preservation of the Sikh heritage of Pakistan.
Mr Khan is currently working on two projects, a documentary based on the heritage of regions now submerged by Tarbela Dam and a tourism company devoted to the promotion of Sikh heritage.
Dawn caught up with Mr Khan and talked to him about the projects.
Q: What got you interested in two such diverse projects?
A: Both these things relate to me at a personal level. My family belongs to a small piece of land along the Indus that was known as Amb State, Pakistan’s smallest princely state, which was submerged by Tarbela Dam.
One aspect of my work relates to the one million people who were directly or indirectly affected by the Tarbela Dam, where I’m making a documentary so they can reconnect with their heritage.
Amb State also had a fascinating history with the Sikh Empire during Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s time. His commander-in-chief, Hari Singh Nalwa, founded Haripur and spent 17 years in what is now the Hazara Division as the governor.
This was a turbulent region in the period and the Amb State was in this region. We had battlefields, shrines, historical forts from that era.
Q: How do you access material for the documentary if the region is submerged?
A: That’s actually one of the biggest problems. Growing up in Pakistan I realised that the history we are taught in schools is more of the history of empires that ruled Kabul or Delhi at one point or the other. There is very little about the people.
The people’s history narrative is missing. I wanted to see what life was like for the common people. Unfortunately, we don’t have a very strong tradition of writing so a lot of history is orally transmitted. And a lot of history we do know is from colonial texts, which have their own bias.
There is a whole chunk of literature in Persian which hasn’t been translated – so to de-colonise our past we have to make that work accessible. I started translating those works and that was a long process because it was hard to find Persian scholars today.
The Sikhs also wrote a lot at the time of the Sikh Empire, much of which is in India. There is also a large body of work in the Punjab Archives in Lahore that has not been examined. So I’ve been researching, networking and asking sources for literature. I’ve also been reaching out to people to get oral traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. A lot of history I’ve found through poetry which was passed down orally.
Q: Is there demand amongst foreigners for tourism to Pakistan?
A: I’m trying to develop Sikh tourism by reaching out to the Sikh diaspora in the West. I founded the Indus Heritage Club last year after I graduated from the National University of Science and Technology (Nust) in 2015.
There is very strong organic demand – the Sikh region was founded in the region that is now Pakistan. 80pc of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s empire is in Pakistan and Sikhs already know this. The problem is Pakistan’s international problem, where it is seen as a place that is unsafe to visit – although this has been changing over the past 6 years. International tourism has been picking up.
Q: What do you do other than research and network?
A: I have a book club called Bookay, which I started while I was at Nust. We started out on campus asking people to read up once a month and meet up and it developed into a big Facebook page with chapters all over – Karachi, Peshawar and other smaller cities.
We’ve been a hit with the Pakistani diaspora and we now have chapters in Melbourne and D.C. Young Indians and Pakistanis meet up through Bookay. I’m also trying to learn Gatka, a Sikh martial art which isn’t really played much anymore – I think my next project will be to set up a Gatka academy because it used to be played along the entire Pahari region.
Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2018