It’s not that societies have histories that are devoid of heroes. Some individuals may be exceptional but what makes them exceptional invariably depends on exceptional circumstances.

History would have treated Raja Ambhi and Mahasamrath Porus the same way had there been no Greek invasion of Punjab in the 4th century BC. The nature of response to invading Greek army on the parts of two kings determined their place in history. The former capitulated and genuflected before the invaders to his eternal shame but the latter fought bravely and demoralised the enemies to the extent that they lost their nerve to cross the river Bias. What made Porus immortal was not just his prowess in warfare but also his sense of honour; he forced Alexander with his moral courage even after his defeat –which modern historians contest—to treat him as his equal.

In the normal course of life certain historical personages are part of collective memory but their presence is subdued. It’s only when a society is confronted or subjugated by hostile forces that it digs out and flaunts its half-forgotten heroic figures to proclaim its intent to deal with the situation heroically in the face of adversity. Such a phenomenon came to surface in the era of colonialism in the sub-continent whose reverberations are still felt across the region.

Diverse religious communities fired by a sense of their self-importance opened their communal closets and dusted off their heroes as symbols of their exclusive identities. Such newly resurrected personages were juxtaposed against the images of colonial forces which signified modernity and contemporaneity with its ineradicable effect. The act at some level became a rallying point and galvanised the society but it proved divisive at the same time highlighting communal fault lines. Consequently revivalism emerged as a dominant faith-laced political trend. Hindus harked back to how things were in the past. They came to uphold that ‘Varnashsram Dharma [ancient caste based social set-up]’ was sacred, Rama RAJ [the rule of Lord Rama] was an epitome of justice and equity, and all those who resisted and fought Muslim invaders from Middle East and Central Asia were great heroes.

Muslims, the second largest community in India, dreamed of restoring the splendour of Caliphate and identified with invading Muslim kings and warriors with whom they shared little in terms of ethnicity, culture and language. In India’s struggle against the British colonialism symbols of Hindu purity clashed with the symbols of Muslim glory making the things easier for the occupying force.The claims of Hindu purity and Muslim glory were in fact untenable and equally hollow. But they re-ignited the underlying animosities between the two largest communities of India.

The Raj administration as a part of its political strategy provided grist to the mill of communalism by harping on the exclusive identities of communities. Resuscitated Hindu and Muslim heroes had feet of clay when it came to taking on occupying force but were strong enough to maul each other. The situation exacerbated in the run-up to the independence as Hindu and Muslim political leaders failed to come up with a viable plan that would ensure co-existence.

Communalism which took ideological and political shape in the first four decades of the 20th century bequeathed a hate-filled legacy that refuses to go away even today in India and Pakistan.

Pakistani state promoted what it inherited; deification of medieval Muslim kings and invaders who are equated with the Muslim might and glory. History is deliberately distorted to paint Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznavi, Shahab Uddin Ghauri, Zaheer Uddin Babar, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah as godly men and holy warriors. The fact is officially hushed that these warriors acted with the motive of conquest and plunder which was nothing unusual in their times as all rulers irrespective of their faith followed this practice to expand their territories and increase their riches. The practice was driven by imperatives of power, not faith.

Faith at its best could serve as a guise like any other guise. Ghauri, Babar, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah invaded and looted India when it was being ruled by Muslim kings. Mahmud Ghaznavi didn’t spare Muslim ruler of Multan either. Non-Muslim and Muslims suffered equally at the hands of these ruthless invaders. A large body of folk-lore and classical writings in Punjabi is available as evidence if evidence is needed at all. One only needs to glance through Guru Nanak’s famous ‘Nanak Bani’to know how Babar’s ferocious troops disgraced and raped Muslim women at Aimenabad.

In Pakistan the state upholds and promotes a non-rooted, ultra- conservative and historically skewed national narrative which has nothing to do with the local people and their aspirations. Nationalists/culture activists of various hues across the country continue their resistance against the state’s politically motivated cultural onslaught by invoking personages from local histories and setting up indigenous heroes as a countervailing force.

In Punjab writers and culture activists started putting flesh on the bones of a folk legend known as Dullah Bhatti who was hanged in Lahore for his rebellion against Emperor Akbar. The other figures such as Ahmed Khan Kharal and Bhagat Singh as valiant heroes who resisted the might of British colonialism were popularised.

Similar process can be observed in Sindh but with far greater intensity. Rejection of Muslim Muhammad Bin Qasim as a holy warrior and glorification of Hindu Raja Dahir as a heroic son of soil by Sindhi nationalists has triggered endless arguing on both sides of the aisle. The state narrative is egregiously faulty having no roots in our historical reality and thus needs to be challenged for the good of all.

Now the question is; should those who are organic intellectuals and voice people’s aspirations distort history as the ruling elite has done? Murdering history in reaction to the murder of history done one’s opponent isn’t a rational response. Dullah Bhatti is of course a hero but Emperor Akbar can’t be rejected because his notion of separation of state and faith has contemporary relevance. It’s something too precious to be sacrificed at the altar of regional nationalism. Same is the case with Qasim-Dahir controversy. Qasim was an invader who plundered but Dahir wasn’t saint either. He upheld Brahmanic hegemony and ruled ruthlessly. Qasim and Dahir both were men of their times. There was neither the nation state nor the patriotism of current variety. Rulers invaded the territories of each other as a matter of routine. Regional chauvinism is no answer to the religious nationalism under which we groan. In order to avoid the mistake the state made the other side mustn’t let things get out of proper historical perspective. You are sure to have your vision distorted if you distort history no matter who you are. —

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2020