The heroic figures who resisted the British colonial onslaught and rose against occupation force have been sidelined rather binned in Pakistan as they have no place in our textbooks nor official history let alone national narrative.
There wasn’t a word from the state or government when last week the 164th death anniversary of Rai Ahmed Khan, a great freedom fighter, was commemorated by diverse non-government organisations across Punjab. Reasons for this ideologically motivated silence are not difficult to fathom. The post-colonial state - that Pakistan is - inherited colonial structure built by the European masters. The structure thus built had two manifest dimensions; it was extractive in economic terms and dehumanising in social and cultural sense. It mercilessly appropriated surplus produced by the people in the countryside and the cities. In order to rationalise the exploitation of indigenous people, they were deliberately projected as lesser human beings who were destined to be led by the White man who was presented as the pinnacle of human development because of his science and rationality. To prove that lesser human beings were really lesser the colonialists had to demonise them. This is a typical practice of the successful invaders in human history. Aryan tribes which overwhelmed more advanced Harappans used the same weapon i.e. demonisation, the ample evidence of which we find in Rig Veda and other scriptures when it comes non-Aryan people. You cannot really treat your foes as foes if they are not deprived of their humanity. It’s imperative to make your foes less or worse preferably both.
The East India Company captured the sovereign kingdom of the Punjab in 1848, of course, with the help of collaborators who weren’t difficult to find in the subcontinent.
One of the major reasons was that till 19th century there was no concept of nation state and patriotism in the modern sense in India. Here principalities, fiefdoms and kingdoms were ruled by autocrats and monarchs with unfettered power. People were treated as subjects, not citizens. The difference between a subject and a citizen is crucial; the former has no rights independent of ruler’s will while the latter has certain rights which are inalienable. Such a position makes a citizen a stakeholder in the matters of the state and governance. In the case of subject, the matter is the other way round. Since a subject is not a stakeholder he or she is not bound or obliged to defend the ruler and his jurisdiction against the inroads made by the hostile forces, indigenous or foreign. Secondly, rulers, powerful and weak, used to relentlessly conspire against one another and would remain in a perpetual state of war which weakened one and all. Mutually destructive conflicts and internecine wars have been historical feature of premodern Indian situation. Alien forces always took advantage of such disorder. One has to be reminded of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah if they need any proof.
The last foreign force that interfered in the Indian situation was European from across the sea. In old days any sea power that could reach Indian shores would have been successful in its invasion simply because there was no navy raised by any of its rulers to guard it. Superstition wrapped in religious myths prohibited journey across the sea. It reflected typical intellectual backwardness of Aryans, the highlanders, who had phobia of waters. They declared even the Indus a sea as they had no actual experience of sea. So the Vedic religion and subsequent Hinduism declared sea a no-go area. Secondly, in their smugness they took the sea as an insurmountable barrier that shielded the subcontinent. This regression was all the more striking when juxtaposed to the fact that people of Indus valley already had trade with Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia and Egypt using the waterways and sea routes. So in the absence of naval force the subcontinent was an easy catch. Imagine the Indian rulers with their immeasurable gold and glitter comfortably smashed by a private English company controlled by covetous merchants and officers sitting in their offices thousands of miles away.
The East India Company with [snatched] Indian money and [hired] Indian men overwhelmed such a large swathe, proud of its wealth, resources and knowledge. Politically conscious and open to the Western influence Maharaja Ranjit Singh realised the strength of the company based on modern knowledge. With his military strategy and political acumen, he kept it at bay - across the river Sutlej. But a period of intense unrest followed his death (1839) with usual chaos and internecine conflicts as no mechanism of peaceful transfer of power was in place. It had a devastating impact on what Ranjit had painstakingly built. Within ten years of his death everything melted and the company captured the sovereign kingdom of Punjab in 1849.
In 1857, there was an armed insurrection against the exploitation and ruthlessness of the company. In Punjab apart from the scattered uprisings in the districts of Lahore, Gujranwala, Sailkot, Ludihana, Ferozpur, Murree and Kasur where hundreds of rebels were butchered and at some places population air-bombarded, a major resistance movement was led by septuagenarian Rai Ahmed Khan Kharral in Ganji and Neeli Bar [Sahiwal, Arifwala, Pakpattan, Khanewal and a part of Multan].
The epicentre of the armed movement was Gogera which was the district headquarters at that time. It continued for more than a year. Finally, with the help of quislings and collaborators which included Pirs and landlords, the company succeeded in crushing the rebellion. A large number of rebels including Ahmed Khan were executed and exiled. They lost. But what’s worth remembering is that they fought for freedom.
The memory of the rebels was kept alive by local balladeers in the poetic genre of “Dhola”. Seventy-four years have passed since Independence [whatever it means] but Rai Ahmed and his comrades like so many other indigenous freedom fighters remain marginalised. The reason is that the very people freedom fighters fought against were handed over the reign of the state when colonial administration finally left in 1947. What can be expected from the state manned by the descendants of collaborators and quislings fed on the colonial largesse that jealously guards its anti-people legacy? The poet in his ballad says: “Wish, Ahmed Khan, you return and get the prisoners released”. The prisoners were no other than those captured by colonial forces. But now in our independent state, this grand freedom fighter has been consigned to the prison of oblivion. Who can release him? The people! A man of the people he was and would always be. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2021