Diversity enriches a society as much as it challenges it. Enrichment comes from multiple sources and challenge springs from the conflicting tendencies embedded in these very sources.

Our subcontinent is hugely diverse because of its geography, topography, climate and long history of human settlement. Ancient society here devised what one may call strategy of rings which in practical terms implied the acceptance of new social phenomenon by allowing it to carve for itself a ring outside but close to what was pre-existent. This in a way explains the multiplicity of races, religions, languages and cultures which while being self-contained interacted with one another in specific ways reflecting the dynamics of power structures of the time. But what’s undisputedly clear is that such an arrangement regulated multiple social organisms and thus enabled people to come to terms with diversity.

Bulleh Shah [1680-1757], a great fiery poet and rebellious saint, lived at a time when social and political structures failed to deal with the threatening phenomenon of diversity created by rise and fall of conflicting social forces. With the reversal of Emperor Akbar’s sagacious policy of tolerance and ‘Sulehkul’ [harmony among all], exclusivism was adopted as the state policy. Last great Mughal Aurangzeb pursued it with a vengeance and brought it to its logical conclusion; irreconcilable differences between ruling Muslim elite of foreign origins and non-Muslims and Muslim converts who espoused accommodationism. The policy had serious consequences; it deprived further already alienated Non-Muslim majority breeding social repression and political unrest which undermined the power structure. Conditions thus created further encouraged centrifugal and fissiparous tendencies which created space for long suppressed local socio-political forces and at the same time attracted foreign invasions against which India had been secured since the times of Akbar.

Bulleh Shah witnessed a great political upheaval and social turbulence. Nadir Shah invaded India in 1739 and ruthlessly plundered Punjab and sacked Delhi shattering the Muhgal prestige. His protégé Ahmed Shah started his series of attacks against Punjab in 1748. His forces trampled Punjab and ransacked Lahore in the vicinity of which lived Bulleh Shah. Commenting on the situation he says: “Punjab is in shambles / the dread of hell’s deep recess has stricken us”. The Mughal regime, battered and adrift, unable to protect the people provided an opportunity for the local political forces to rise against the oppressive rule which had been enfeebled. “Men with coarse brown blankets have been made kings / Mughals drank the cups of poisoned hemlock”, he tells us.

The men with coarse blankets epitomised the peasants power who led by Sikh leaders rose in rebellion against the desperate but dispirited elite. Peasants led by Sikh warlords in Punjab and Marathas across Yamuna challenged the writ of the empire which was fast becoming ineffective because of internal decay and external pressure. Uncertain and trying conditions created by foreign invasions and internal rebellions produced a violent free for all where one could see all against all.

The crisis caused great anguish to Bulleh Shah who saw Muslim ruling elite pitted against Hindus, Sikhs and foreign Muslim invaders, Hindus and Sikhs pitted against ruling elite and foreign Muslims invaders, and foreign Muslim invaders pitted against Indian Muslim elite and Hindus and Sikhs. It was a frighteningly complex situation which put an end to all certainties handed down by the past and created for Bulleh Shah a philosophic question of human identity. Identities, religious, national and regional, lost their meanings for him as these when emphasised and flaunted in a crisis situation exhibited lack of humanity and humaneness.

Clearly hinting at the clash of religious identities he says; “Muslims fear funeral pyres/ Hindus fear being tombed up/both die in just this/this is all their rancor sums up/in my shawl a thief’s bundled up/Here Ram Das, there Fateh Muhammad / to this age old babble they are keyed up / rubbed out now the bickering of both / something else turns up / in my shawl a thief’s bundled up”- [Trans – Muzaffar Ghaffar].

Religious identity without humanism only exposes its exclusive nature which denies the reality of other than what it is. Here is what he says on racial, ethnic and national/regional identity; “I am neither Arab nor from Lahore/nor Indian from town Nagor/neither Hindu nor Turk from Peshaur/ nor in Nadaon do I stow / Bullah who am I, what do I know”? The role of diverse identities wasn’t the conundrum for their being diverse but because of specific conditions which made them conflicting and exclusive. Diversity has been an inescapable fact of life in the subcontinent since time immemorial.

Existence of diverse identities has created serious problems whenever it hasn’t been tackled and dealt with rationally in a naturally evolved historical context with humanised consciousness. All of us will have a space for ourselves as long as we are ready to share it with others. Basis of sharing can be nothing other than our humanity. Common good is what can bind us together.

While pointing to multiplicity of identities which causes conflict, Bulleh Shah refers to what can eliminate the friction; our humanity. “First and last, only know I/ knowing every other I deny/ to greater wisdom none qualify/ Bullah, who’s the inner one on show/Bullah who am I, what do I know”? He can see through the waffle of identities. The fundamental reference for him is human being per se shorn of externalities. So man is the measure, not in the sense the Sophists taught us but in the sense of man per se being the very core of what constitutes human. What constitutes the core of being human is what’s shared by all human beings regardless of race, class, colour creed and gender.

In Bulleh Shah’s view we can live with our diverse identities if they are premised on the assumption of our shared humanity.

Note: Urs [death anniversary] of Baba Bulleh Shah falls on Wednesday this week.soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2020

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