People’s history as a discipline may be new but people have been here since time immemorial and so has been their history.

People’s history has been ignored because people have been ignored. History writing, we all know, is inexorably linked with power. Power has exclusionary nature. Consequently power wielders invariably tend to have an exaggeratedly positive self-image based on a sense of self-importance. They feel convinced at the expense of objectivity though that it’s they who make history, not the people. That’s why we see that standard history writing is more concerned with power and its shenanigans. Fortunately there has been an increased realisation in the recent times that people are a real historical force and their history is as important as standard history if not more.

Recently Pakistan Punjabi Adbi Board, Lahore, has published a valuable book by Professor Saeed Bhutta titled “Raj Dhaara Te Lok Takkni” [Official course and people’s view].

The book is divided into eight chapters which deal with the various aspects of people’s life such as the tradition of oral history, origins and nature of folktales on Raja Porus, Gogera’s insurrection of 1857 and distortion of history, a critique of R.C Temple’s “The Legends of the Punjab”, storyteller, audience and society, lays on invaders, normative values of Sandal Bar and Shahadat Khan Lakhera.

Saeed Bhutta is an erudite scholar who harnesses diverse historical sources from written and oral histories to build his narrative with an express purpose of highlighting the struggle and worldview of the people of Punjab. The people have long been denigrated by historians and scholars who sang paeans to invaders.

He looks at both the official and people’s versions of the historical events and characters and juxtaposes one against the other to reach his conclusion. And of course there is usually a difference, at times huge, between the versions in question. The difference usually emanates either from opposing views of facts or from their contradictory interpretations.

In the tradition of oral history, he first gives us an overview of orality found in diverse cultures and then explores how the historical facts have been perceived, recorded and preserved in our folklore, stories and poetry.

Harappa’s epoch making significance for example, it’s generally believed, was pointed out by Cunningham when he looked at the stamps retrieved from the ruins in the late 19th century but the fact is that our scholars knew its significance much before the arrival of colonialists. “Wake up if you are asleep and get your act together / take the stamps you find in Harappa to jewelers [to know their value]”, says poet Shah Murad in the 17th century. In the chapter on Gogera’s insurrection what the author gleans from the ballads, lore, stories and official record explodes the colonial myth that the rebellion was a small local happening. The rebellion led by indomitable Ahmed Khan Kharral had clear concepts of patriotism and colonial occupation.

Saeed Bhutta while appreciating the remarkable work done by R.C. Temple on the folklore and literature of Punjab critically examines some of his colonial biases which mar his approach towards people, cultural practices, oral texts and tradition bearers. One of the highly readable chapters is the one that deals with how the foreign invasions have been dealt in the folklore and classical poetry.

Guru Nanak, an inimitable seer, pioneered the response to invasions when he composed his highly acclaimed “Nanak Bani” which lambasted Babur’s savagery and the orgy of blood and gore his troops indulged in at Saidour now called Aminabad in the vicinity of present day Gujranwala. Poet Nijabat, Ali Haider, Waris Shah, balladeers and Shah Muhammad carried this proud literary tradition forward by exposing rapacious Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah, and invading colonial forces. Chapter on Sandal discovers and highlights the shared values, traditions and cultural practices that have been prevalent among the diverse faith communities of the Punjab. The last chapter is a real treat as it brings to limelight a heroic figure much celebrated in the stories and ballads but almost forgotten by so-called mainstream historians. The folk hero who may be a serendipitous discovery for lay readers is no other than incredibly brave, wise and generous Shahadat Khan Lakhera of Kamalia who in the standard histories appears by the name of Sa’adat Yar Khan. He was contemporary of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb and well-known to both of them. He has been celebrated for his unusual life. Stories tell us that he was so dauntless that he dared to host and hide Prince Dara Shikoh when he was on the run in the Punjab after his defeat at the hands of ruthless Aurangzeb, his younger brother. He was summoned and confronted by Emperor Aurangzeb. Despite being in mortal peril he not only owned but also justified what he did as a man of honour. Shahadat Khan was generous to a fault. He was a typical folk hero as he was an epitome of sagacity, bravery and generosity, the supreme human qualities eternally celebrated by bards, minstrels and balladeers.

Professor Bhutta’s book successfully builds a serious cultural narrative which seems to be a part of a greater academic, intellectual and cultural endeavour afoot in Punjab to own what has been disowned, to reinterpret what has been misinterpreted and to celebrate what has been demonised in the aftermath of colonialism and post colonialism in Punjab. The book, well-referenced, has revealing insights and can be delightfully illuminating for scholars, lore mavens and lay readers. It’s a must read for you if you are interested in the people’s history, cultural habits and practices, political resistance and literary expressions. —

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2020


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