Who was Brigadier General John Nicholson? And what should we do about his monument on GT Road?

It is important to preserve monuments, but also to contest the narrative built around them.
Updated May 17, 2019 07:58pm

My heart would sink at the sight of Nicholson's Obelisk, towering high atop Margalla Pass near Taxila on the left flank of the Grand Trunk Road as I travelled from Rawalpindi towards Peshawar.

It indicated that my boarding school, Cadet College Hasan Abdal, was only 30 minutes away and I would have to part with my parents, who would accompany me and my brother on the drive back to our college after vacations.

I remember asking my father once if he knew what that monument was. He had remarked that it was named after a British brigadier general. My father, being an alumnus of the same college, had frequented that road many times.

Nicholson's Obelisk.—Wikimedia Commons/Ibnazhar
Nicholson's Obelisk.—Wikimedia Commons/Ibnazhar

Wikimedia Commons/Usman Ghani
Wikimedia Commons/Usman Ghani

I knew very little at the time who Brigadier General John Nicholson was, but assumed he must have been a very distinguished and remarkable man to have a towering structure in his remembrance.

It wasn’t until recently that I read about the moveable column (a tactical military formation) that he led during the uprising of 1857, the atrocities he committed and his extremely prejudiced, racist hatred towards the people of the Indian subcontinent and Afghans that I realised how important it is for us to recognise this British-era relic as an embodiment of our colonial subjugation.

William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal recounts that by the time the uprising started against the British in Meerut in 1857, Nicholson had already developed a very strong hatred for the people here:

"Nicholson loathed India with a passion (‘I dislike India and its inhabitants more every day’) and regarded only the Afghans as worse (‘the most vicious and bloodthirsty race in existence’). These views he had already formed before he was captured during the disaster of the 1842 Afghan War. By the time he was released, only to discover his younger brothers dead body, with his genitalia cut off and stuffed in his mouth, his feeling about Afghans — and indeed Indians and Muslims of any nationality — were confirmed: he felt, he said, merely ‘an intense feeling of hatred. Only his wish to spread the Christian Empire of the British in this heathen wilderness kept him in the East".

Dalrymple goes on to add that when Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab at the time, gave Nicholson a mixed-race Anglo-Indian subordinate, Nicholson felt insulted and humiliated:

"Nicholson’s response was to threaten to murder Lawrence, or, as he put it, ‘commit justifiable homicide… Individuals have their rights as well as nations’".

Perhaps the brigadier general did attract some unsuspecting admirers amongst the population during his time and was called “Nikul Seyn”, possibly as a mark of respect.

But Charles Griffiths, writing in 1910, suggests in his account of the Siege of Delhi that the word ‘Seyn’ (saeen) in Nicholson's case implied more than that:

"Many stories are told of his prowess and skill, and he ingratiated himself so strongly amongst a certain race that he received his apotheosis at their hands, and years afterwards was, and perhaps to this day is, worshipped by these rude mountaineers under the title of “Nikul Seyn”."

However, others contest this. The young Lieutenant Edward Ommaney who accompanied Bahadur Shah Zafar to exile in Rangoon was “one of the few who remained immune to the hero worship of this great imperial psychopath”, according to Dalrymple, and was shocked by Nicholson’s absurd viciousness directed not only towards the ‘mutineers’ (from his perspective) but also towards the unfortunate cook boys. Dalrymple recounts in his book:

"'He shows himself off to be a great brute,’ Ommaney wrote in his diary on 21 July. ‘For instance he thrashed a cook boy, for getting in his way in the line of the march (he has a regular man, very muscular, to perform this duty). The boy complained, he was brought up again, and died from the effects of the 2nd thrashing’".

In another incident, he hung all the regimental cooks. As the officers in the mess waited for their dinner, Nicholson walked into the mess tent and announced:

"‘I’m sorry gentlemen to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks’. According to Nicholson he had discovered through his spies that the regimental cooks had just laced the officers’ soup with aconite. He first invited the cooks to taste the soup, then, when they refused, force-fed the hot liquid to an unfortunate monkey. It writhed for a few seconds, then expired. Within minutes, as one of the officers present put it, ‘our regimental cooks were ornamenting a neighbouring tree’".

The history of the subcontinent has other, more infamous generals who were of course celebrated by the British as saviours of the Raj.

With the recent centenary of the massacre at Amritsar, everyone in India is already familiar with General Reginald Dyer, who on April 13, 1919 led and ordered his soldiers to open fire on some 20,000 people — including women and children — who had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, mostly to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

Monument at Nicholson's Obelisk.—Wikimedia Commons/Omarjhawarian
Monument at Nicholson's Obelisk.—Wikimedia Commons/Omarjhawarian

The monument's verandah.—Wikimedia Commons/Omarjhawarian
The monument's verandah.—Wikimedia Commons/Omarjhawarian

In 2015/16, there was an unsuccessful campaign in Oxford to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes; the protesting students did not want his imperialist legacy to be celebrated. The Rhodes Scholarship is administered through his will.

Although I support the preservation of Nicholson’s Obelisk as a part of our history, what I contest is the narrative that is built around it.

For example, a news report from 2016 about the first ever archeological survey conducted in the federal capital concludes with a remark about Nicholson:

“His life and career became a source of inspiration for a generation of British youth seeking adventure in emerging colonies, especially the Indian subcontinent”.

A lot more needs to be added as to who he was and how prejudiced and despicable his views and actions were. The British wanted to pay homage to Nicholson's imperial achievements. To us, it should serve as a reckoning of our past. It is imperative for us to know the man for who he was as opposed to what the colonial empire wanted to remember him as.

Today, the road leading up to my alma mater brings back fonder memories; my heart still sinks at the sight of this obelisk though, but for different reasons now. Globally in academia, there is a strong student-led movement to decolonise curriculums. It is all the more important for us in Pakistan to do the same.

When students at a premiere boarding school aren’t taught anything about a monument that is in such close proximity to their campus, it points to a systemic issue. We ought to engage more openly and critically with our history, so that we know our past better than I did when I was in school.

Header photo: Path leading up to Nicholson's Obelisk off the old GT Road.—Wikimedia Commons/Ibnazhar


Are you revisiting Pakistan's colonial history? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com

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Osman Ehtisham Anwar is retracing the footsteps of one of the greatest travellers of all time, Ibn Battuta. You can read more about his journey at A Wandering Within. He tweets @OEAnwar.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (58) Closed

zane
May 17, 2019 06:25pm
Great Article and very informative about our history. Thank You Ehtisham
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Usman Nasir
May 17, 2019 06:28pm
My grandfather used to tell me stories about all those moments. My ancestors migrated from current India as well , when I read the "The Last Mughal" I realized whats the true meaning is of Pakistan Keep it up !! We really need people like you to take us back in history and give us lesson about mistakes our ancestors did.
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Gautham
May 17, 2019 06:45pm
Great article! Thanks for the research and the accompanying pictures. We owe a lot to William Dalrymple for a series of books on the lost history of sub-continent. It's one thing to read history books and totally different experience when you see and feel the places. Your personal connection to that place, your curiosity to get to the bottom of it, which probably intrigued you from your childhood has helped me to feel the place and the story. so, thank you, again!
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Pradeep Shetty
May 17, 2019 06:46pm
Very informative article. In some ways this story in some ways reminds me of how Indians feel about crimes and brutality of Arangzeb and his views about Hindus in general. This is our history anyway. But what do we do now about it? Can we erase the history ?
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Daanish
May 17, 2019 06:47pm
excellent article. May our citizens become a civilized nation.
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Akhtar Naveed Syed
May 17, 2019 07:22pm
Great informative article. There is a need to know Pakistan's real history - not what is taught in schools. There is intense scope for attracting tourists from UK with regard to buildings and monuments erected during the British Raj.
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Akhan
May 17, 2019 07:23pm
Living in wah since since birth watching this monument every now and then..one of the elder of wah village was generals loyal servant and while the general was dying he orderd to give his servant as much as possible..all that i know that from this monument till wah village in hasana abdal he gave all land to his servant
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wasim
May 17, 2019 07:41pm
Agree .. his true character be in-scripted on a plaque and displayed at the monument for the visitors to read.
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M.Y Najam MD
May 17, 2019 07:54pm
An eye-opener. There appears to be a resurgence Sayeen,s thought process, unfortunately.
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LL
May 17, 2019 08:35pm
He was brutal to the local Hazara tribes especially Thairkhelis. I'm surprised we still have cities and roads named after James Abbot, General Nicholson, and Henry Lawrence.
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Imran
May 17, 2019 08:40pm
Great write-up baby
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DW
May 17, 2019 09:03pm
@Akhan, The land was a robbed land from the locals. Let's not glorify the guy here
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Facts Matter
May 17, 2019 09:12pm
Thanks for the wonderful article.
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Jamal Soomro, Karachi
May 17, 2019 09:12pm
Nicely written and very well depicted a forgotten part of history. The monument is very well kept and is in good condition. Keep it up DAWN! You made my day!
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Omar Khan
May 17, 2019 09:27pm
Thanks for a beautiful article voicing nearly the feelings I had. Omar 18 J/I
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AW
May 17, 2019 09:31pm
Thanks for sharing this chapter of history. I have seen this monument since childhood and have always wondered about Gen. John Nicholson’s contributions to the area. It is not only this small chapter but chapters of huge significance were never taught in schools and remain hidden as of to date. A Pakistan made distorted history was taught in schools and is still being taught. A nation which is not connected with true historical facts, lives in a bubble and unable to move forward. While we keep and protect this monument of Gen. Nicholson, we demolished the statue of Sir Ganga Ram in Lahore just because he was a Hindu, thus ignoring his highly valuable contributions to punjab and his outstanding public services
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Amit
May 17, 2019 11:01pm
The million dollar question is..Is it a pre independence or post independence monument??
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Zak
May 17, 2019 11:43pm
Good article. But the genocide has not stopped. What Modi did to the muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the hate he is displaying now, is no different to Nicholsons or Dyer.
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Bakhtiar Ishtiaq
May 18, 2019 12:04am
Very nicely done. I agree with you that we as a nation should interact critically with our past and preserve it rather than revise it. I can identify with the gloomy when the monument would come in view on my way back to the cadet college.
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Khurrum Taimuri
May 18, 2019 12:08am
@Pradeep Shetty, Aurangzeb had Rajput generals in his army & he gave money to build temples. If he was intolerant towards the Hindus then he had 50 years to eradicate them. Indeed, all Muslim rulers were tolerant otherwise they would not have lasted so long. This animosity towards them stems from British rule with the aim of separating the muslims from the Hindus and this has suited the Brahmins to exploit. Hence, RSS and hardline Hindus which led to Jinnah demanding a separate homeland for Muslims.
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Garland
May 18, 2019 12:17am
@Pardeep Shetty , Aurangzeb was against hindu religion? what a joke India has been teaching their generations , did you know half of the Mughals were inter married with hindus and used to have hindu festivals arranged throughout their kingdom with dignity and respect?
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Shafiq
May 18, 2019 12:30am
Excellent article can not agree more
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AMITAVA TRIPATHI
May 18, 2019 01:33am
I find several of such historical articles published in the DAWN impeccably researched and extremely well -written. The photographs usually accompanying such articles are also a delight to behold. I compliment the paper and its editorial staff for publishing such writings which illuminate our rich, shared history.
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Shakeel
May 18, 2019 01:48am
Excellent article ! very informative and perceptive .
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Ahsan Gul
May 18, 2019 02:33am
These are the monuments that we should have included in our educational books so that our young should know about the good, bad and ugly ones of the British raj. Usually Indian and in Pakistan our young and old like to emulate these British era men.
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Saeed
May 18, 2019 03:22am
Thanks for the great research
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Shahryar Shirazi
May 18, 2019 03:50am
@Amit, “The million dollar question is..Is it a pre independence or post independence monument?” It was built by the British prior to their departure
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Zaheer
May 18, 2019 04:31am
Thank you for highlighting this concern. I too have read The Last Emperor, Darylample's ( one honest Britisher) book, and find Nicholson acts abhorring as well. The least our countrymen could do is to place a historical correction at this site and educate our children and masses about the atrocities of this man. Also, Lahore's Nicholson Road is still named after him, should be renamed, with a historical marker. Maybe the victims if identified , should seek reparations from the British, as the holocaust survivors rightful do. Last discussion with friends fell on deaf ears, stating the multitude of serious pressing issues our county faces, this being the least. How can we live with this monument and Nicholson Road staring in our face.
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Ali Jan
May 18, 2019 04:34am
Nicholson had 40 mutineers (Freedom fighters) blown from canons and hanged in Peshawar (largest mass execution in 1857 anywhere in India) before rushing to Delhi and successfully breaking the seige and was mortally wounded in the process dying two days later. It was this absolute determination by few stalwarts in early days of British rule that helped to consolidate their empire. There are lessons to be learned from history and it has to be preserved - good or bad. If English were colonisers, so were the Sikhs, and in turn so were the Mughals (Turk mongols) before them
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Daskalos
May 18, 2019 06:11am
Mr Anwar's article is an interesting one but does not entirely take into account several historical facts. First of all, though John Nicholson was often considered harsh and cruel by some , he was generally admired as a fair and just administrator by most people in the Punjab and on the NW Frontier at a time when chaos and lawlessness were common and he had to take strict steps to establish the official writ. He was so popularly admired that a whole 'Nikalsayni ' cult developed around him. Secondly, the Nicholson Memorial/Obelisk has nothing to do with Nicholson's cruelty or harsh measures in 1857. It commemorates the defeat of the event more brutal Sikhs during the Anglo-Sikh War of 1849 when Nicholson , joined by the majority of Muslims from Taxila, Wah, Fatehjang, Hasan Abdal and environs, defeated a Sikh garrison who held the Margalla Pass at this same location. This freedom of Muslims from 'Sikha Shahi ' was seen as a great victory.
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Daskalos
May 18, 2019 06:19am
@LL, at no time in history were either John Nicholson or James Abbott cruel or harsh to the Tahirkheli or other such Hazarawal tribes. Look up your history factually and objectively. The Hazara region stood up 90% to support these British officers against the cruelty and total brutality of the earlier Sikh rule. They gave law and order, peace and prosperity to the whole of Hazara and Northern Punjab and what is now NWFP/KPK. Many Tahirkheli and Mashwani people found jobs in the British army and civil service from 1840s onwards. Don't let post-colonial ideas color your honest judgment. While colonialism is not in itself a good thing, we must admit that British colonialism did a lot for the peaceful development of the whole of South Asia, for whatever purpose.
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Daskalos
May 18, 2019 06:20am
@zane, on the contrary a very one sided and subjective view of history.
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Daskalos
May 18, 2019 06:31am
@Akhan, all the major chiefs of the Northern Punjab, including Muslim chiefs of Rawalpindi and Attock areas (including Wah) supported the British strongly. Why not? In a time of total chaos and anarchy , after the Sikhs plundered and destroyed the Punjab with their extreme brutality and greed, the British administrators like John Nicholson, James Abbott, Herbert Edwardes and others brought back peace and prosperity to this ruined region. At times, they had to impose laws strictly and hand out punishments but the majority of people accepted these. As to the 'rewards' given to a Wah 'Khan ' you probably refer to Nawab Muhammad Hyat Khan - he was general Nicholson's aide and Persian interpreter not his servant, son of Nicholson's friend Karam Khan of Wah. That family have been landowners since Mughal times, Nicholson didn't give any lands to them, Hyat Khan worked in government service and earned many rewards on retirement in 1899. Don't twist history falsely.
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Fawad
May 18, 2019 07:11am
Dear Osman Ehtisham, Thanks for such an informative article.
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M.Jan
May 18, 2019 07:31am
As is usually the case, this man was someone's hero but a vicious enemy to others. The monument can stay but the narrative must be rewritten reflecting the perspective of the current inhabitants of the land. He was indeed a brutal killer, a bigot and an oppressor. A plaque at the monument should identity him as a war criminal involved in the subjugation of locals and slaughter of resistance fighters.
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Ali kazmi
May 18, 2019 07:56am
@Pradeep Shetty, You can take solace in the fact that that Modi has avenged all of Aurangzeb's transgressions.
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Raj
May 18, 2019 08:40am
@Khurrum Taimuri, If Hindus exist, it is not because of Turkic or Mughal dynasty ,it is in spite of them.
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Arzal
May 18, 2019 09:22am
I am not surprised that this monument s being saved by all previous and present Pakistani Governments whilst all the traces of Buddhist,Hindu and Jain civilizations has been or are being perused as scorch earth policy
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Mann
May 18, 2019 11:59am
@Pradeep Shetty, I am sorry but have to disagree. Aurangzeb has been much maligned. However not all that is written about him or Tipu Sultan in our history books is accurate.
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M. Fida Hussain
May 18, 2019 03:16pm
@Daskalos, You can not lookup 'The history' because there is no 'The history', there are several versions of history, every version is 'A history'.
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M. Fida Hussain
May 18, 2019 03:28pm
@Daskalos, Probably so, and you want your one sided view of history. History is multi-sided, and South Asia is an extreme example of it.
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Asif jamil
May 18, 2019 03:29pm
@AW, Sir Ganga Ram’s grandson did a presentation in the Pakistan High Commission in London last year. A friend who attended told me about what this great engineer and philanthropist did for Lahore, and his hospital is still serving humanity (sadaqa e jaria). When his statue was being demolished, a fanatical demonstrator got seriously hurt. Someone in the crowd shouted “Take him to Ganga Ram!) What a pity, that we destroyed part of our history of which we should be very proud. Most of the famous buildings in Lahore today were designed by Sir Ganga Ram.
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M. Fida Hussain
May 18, 2019 03:33pm
@Ali Jan, All large groups in South Asia are colonizers, the original inhabitants are buried in Harappa and Moenjo Daro. I call them 'original' because we haven't dug up anything more ancient.
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Avc
May 18, 2019 08:20pm
@M. Fida Hussain, True
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Moeed Khan
May 18, 2019 10:27pm
Thank You Ehtisham for making me atleast realise that what this monument is all about. Heard a lot from people travelling with me or even the locals but none was even an iota closer which I have just learnt, Thanks to You.
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Syed Rizvi
May 19, 2019 01:32am
Thanks for sharing. The sad part is that even today, same mentality exists. Its relatively easy to document past history wolves, but present era butchers are not identified.
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Raza
May 19, 2019 01:36am
@Daskalos, you know your history. You are absolutely right
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Basharat Qamar
May 19, 2019 04:20am
Thank you Ehtisham for providing such useful information's. Always passed by this monuments but never looked at this with such perspective. There is so much to learn from history rather then learning about Mughals era and memorizing the dates. I wonder who wrote the history we have been tought at our schools and the saga continue till today.
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Yousuf Khan
May 19, 2019 05:54am
Excellent article!
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Yousuf Khan
May 19, 2019 05:54am
Excellent article!
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HashBrown®
May 19, 2019 09:01am
Excellent article, and also very thought provoking. I like the idea of keeping the statue but changing the narrative around it, so Pakistanis can better understand the suffering of their ancestors. I also think it's shameful that so many sacrifices by non-Muslims have gone ignored. We must remember there was a time when all faiths fought for a free subcontinent - not to mention the people of other faiths who continue to serve Pakistan even today. Hinduism isn't responsible for the hatred and bigotry across the border - that comes from our neighbour's own state narrative. As Pakistanis, we owe it to all our ancestors, regardless of their faith, to remember them and their struggles. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
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Gopalaswami Parthasarathy
May 19, 2019 09:52am
Beautifully written. Reasoned criticism of the years of "Britsh Raj" is welcome while discarding starry-eyed notions that are still retained by sections of our small, over-westernised elite. But, the most important and interesting thing would be to critically, rationally and realistically analyse successes and failures that we, in the sub-continent, experienced after we became independent. G Parthasarathy
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jay
May 19, 2019 10:45am
Excellent article. Please remember, we are still ruled by Brown Sahebs instead of White Sahebs.
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Malik from Attock
May 19, 2019 02:00pm
According to our family's own historical records, the different local muslim clans of Taxilla, Attock and the the other surrounding regions. Became allies of General Nicholson and his forces, and with the combined forces fought and expelled the presence of the Sikhs empire from the region. Although, it can be called an unholy alliance, because they were facilitating foriegn Invaders. But the Sikh empire was very intolerant and used to persecute the local Muslims, who they suspected of assisting thier opponents or those who tried to revolt. Even, our village was razed to ground, four times by the Sikh authorities. In return for thier loyalty many of the leaders of the clans were rewarded with large areas of agricultural land and positions in the government by the British. The most renowned are the Hayat family of Wah Cantt, whose son Sir Sikander Hayat later went on to become the governor of Punjab, during the British raj.
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Zak
May 19, 2019 10:22pm
@Pradeep Shetty, You are misinformed by your disotrted history. Aurabgzeb was one of the greatest of the Mughal rulers, who ruled the entire south asian subcontinent and beyond. Great lrogress and law and order were established in his reign. He was fair to all communities.
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HK_Speckel
May 20, 2019 01:09am
@Akhan, I have heard this story as well. I am not sure if it is true.
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Amir Khan, M.D.
May 20, 2019 04:03am
Thanks for the insight on Nicholson. I also passed the same GT road between 1975 and 1980 to reach CCH but never knew about the history until I read your article. Great work Abdalian. Hope to hear more from your future expeditions.
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nighat
May 20, 2019 09:31am
i find you article interesting and informative.As a nation unless and until we focus on the "reformation process of our curriculum" thought process and approaches will remained stereotype and we as nation will never be able to think out of the box.thank you for your article.
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