Updated November 25, 2018


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Laddu, the yellow ‘sweet ball’ made from butter/oil, gram flour and chopped nuts is perhaps one of the most popular sweetmeats in the subcontinent. And there’s a good reason why this is so. It originated in South Asia. According to the food and culture historian, Madhulika Dash, the laddu was probably introduced thousands of years ago or as far back as 4BC. In a feature for the November 18, 2018 edition of The Indian Express, Dash wrote that the origins of laddu were medicinal. They were used as a cure for various ailments, and also given to teenaged girls ‘to keep their raging hormones in check.’

A.K. Sinha, in his book Anthropology of Sweetmeats, writes that (in India) the tradition of sweetmeats being distributed and enjoyed during festivals is linked to them first being used in this manner during religious occasions. By then the laddu had evolved from being a medicinal item to becoming a popular sweet. 

The Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, too, played a role in enhancing the status of the laddu. According to Dash they introduced the “Shahi laddu” by adding to it dates, figs, fruits and vegetable seeds brought from Persia. But Dash adds that the immediate ancestor of the modern-day laddu is about 300 years old, when the British colonialists first introduced white sugar in India. Interestingly, according to Dash, the locals called the sugar “white poison”, but this did not stop them from adding large amounts of it to their beloved laddu.

The traditional sweetmeat has a long history in the subcontinent but its political history is suprisingly short

So, for centuries the laddu has been the leading sweetmeat offered during various Hindu and Muslim festivities in South Asia. These include weddings, Diwali, Eid, the birth of a child, professional and educational successes, the urs of saints, birthdays of holy figures, etc. 

So it was natural that the practice of offering and eating laddus to celebrate a political victory would also become a norm. But surprisingly, the tradition in this context — though common in the region today — is not as old as one would expect. For example, during my research, I was unable to come across even a single news in any of the major pre-Partition Indian English and Urdu newspapers of the laddu or any other sweetmeat being distributed during a political win. 

In reports on the results of the crucial 1946 election, for example there is no mention of laddus being enjoyed by the winning candidates of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. What’s more, no laddus can be found even in the most detailed reports of the celebrations that broke out with the respective independence of Pakistan and India and the departure of the British in 1947. 

The first mention of laddus being distributed for political reasons only exists in the shape of anecdotes of those who were alive during Pakistan’s first military coup in 1958. They say that many people celebrated the coup by distributing laddus, even though there is no published evidence to substantiate this claim. However, ironically, I did come across a report about some students distributing laddus in Karachi the day Ayub Khan resigned in March 1969. The report was published in the April 1969 issue of the now defunct monthly The Mirror.

Laddus, in this context, become easy to find in newspaper reports after 1969. For example, various Urdu newspapers carried photos of winning candidates being offered a laddu after their victory in the 1970 election. Then, a report published in a 1974 edition of the Bangladesh Times mentions how laddus in their thousands were distributed on the streets of Dhaka after East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh in December 1971.

The first mention of laddus being distributed for political reasons only exists in the shape of anecdotes of those who were alive during Pakistan’s first military coup in 1958.

But the politics of laddus suddenly becomes rather morbid after 1977. J.C. Batra — in his 1979 book The Trial and Execution of Bhutto — and Christina Lamb — in Waiting for Allah — writes that men in Lahore and Karachi were seen distributing laddus after former PM Z.A. Bhutto was hanged in April 1979 by the Gen Zia dictatorship.

A similar thing happened in India in 1984. S.J. Tambia in Levelling Crowds writes that reports of groups of Sikhs distributing laddus and dancing after the assassination of Indian PM Indira Gandhi (by her Sikh guards) instigated violent riots against the Sikh community.

S.J. Iqbal, in the December 1988 issue of Third World International, writes that laddus were enthusiastically distributed in some areas of Punjab and Sindh after Zia perished in a plane crash in August 1988.

After 1988, the political usage of laddu transcends morbidity and becomes outright absurd. Newspapers carried photos of PPP supporters distributing laddus after Benazir Bhutto was elected PM in late 1988. Such images are followed, just two years later, with images of Nawaz Sharif supporters distributing laddus after Benazir’s regime was dismissed by then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, in 1990.

Then in April 1993, photos of PPP supporters treating each other with laddus can be found in various newspapers after the Nawaz Sharif regime was dismissed by Ishaq. However, in May the same year, pictures of Nawaz supporters munching on laddus appeared after the Supreme Court restored his government. But by October 1993, the laddus were back in the PPP’s hands after Benazir won that year’s election. The laddus then slipped back into the possession of cheerful PML-N supporters after Benazir’s second government was dismissed in 1996.

Gen Musharraf’s October 1999 coup could not stop the laddu madness. In fact, Mathew Joseph — in Understanding Pakistan — and Feroz Khan — in Eating Grass — write that newspapers then were full of reports about how hundreds of Pakistanis were seen distributing laddus and dancing on the day of Musharraf’s coup.

So there is a reason why on July 17, 2016, the current PM, Imran Khan, was quoted by newspapers as saying “People will distribute sweets if the army takes over.” He was in the opposition at the time. Was this a clever way to use the political laddu imagery to tempt the sweet tooth of the ‘umpire’? I am sure he is not thinking the same now that he is in power.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 25th, 2018