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Dissent Is Alive
Pakistan Diary: In Lahore Day 4

By Yoginder Sikand

08 January, 2007

It's a cold winter morning and a thick blanket of fog drapes the streets outside. Diep has invited a maulvi from a neighbourhood mosque to her home. She tells me that he claims he can predict the future by examining one's nails. I'm tempted to ask him to read my fortune but I restrain myself. It strikes me how folk religion right across the subcontinent shares much in common.

The maulvi is a cheerful man, rotund and dark. He tells me how similar Indians and Pakistanis are, and rues the machinations of politicians that keep the two countries at loggerheads. This, in short, is also the crux of the conversations I have with many other Pakistanis I meet throughout my one-month stay in the country.

The sun is now out and I head for the sprawling campus of the Punjab University, considered to be one of the leading universities in Pakistan. I chat with some students at the cafeteria, who take me around. I see posters put up by the Jamiat-i Tulaba, the students' wing of the Islamist Jamaat-i Islami, announcing a seminar to observe the fall of Dhaka to Indian forces in 1971. The Jamaat is known for its staunch anti-India stance and I wonder what the seminar, held a day before, was all about. Husain, a student who accompanies me, says that the only student organization that is allowed to officially function on the campus is the Jamiat-i Tulaba, which he describes as 'semi-fascist'. He compares the Jamaat-i Islami to the RSS in India and says, 'They both speak the same language, actually'. I suppose he is right.

The university's library is vast and well-stocked and the campus is impressive. Husain, however, complains of falling standards. 'Vice-Chancellors of most Pakistani universities are retired army
officers, so how can you expect them to allow free thought?', he asks. He tells me of how the government is trying to attract non-resident Pakistani academics back to the country by offering them hefty salaries. 'Many of them take up employment in private universities that are now mushrooming that cater to the elites. University education in Paistan is now quite expensive, making it increasingly out of the reach of the poor and the middle-classes', he says. Pakistan's public education system is in a shambles, he goes on. 'You can gauge how warped our education system is from the fact that a newspaper costs more than ten rupees, which means that decent education is way beyond the reach of the common man'.


I board a bus outside the university and head for the famed Shalimar Gardens, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. There are no public buses in Lahore, indeed in most of the country. I sit next to an elderly man who, when he learns I am from India, clicks his tongue and laments, 'Oh, Muslims in India are having a rough time. May Allah help them'.

The Shalimar Gardens are meant to be one of Lahore's major tourist attractions. They prove to be an amazing disappointment. They are set in the heart of a bustling, chaotic part of town. The walls surrounding the gardens are crumbling in parts and are unpainted, save for political slogans that smear large stretches. Inside, the flower beds are almost empty. At the corner outside I spot a tent put up by the Lashkar-i Tayyeba, soliciting funds and clothes for earthquake victims in Kashmir. On sale are dozens of Lashkar booklets, preaching an extremely literalist version of Islam. Some of them exhort Muslims to engage in violent jihad against India and other 'disbelieving enemies'.

I'm famished but in this part of Lahore there are no clean and reasonably-priced eating places, so I settle for an ice-cream. This is the last day I've given myself for seeing historical monuments—frankly, I'm tired of this—so I force myself into an auto-rickshaw and head for the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain. Madho, it is said, was a Hindu lad, and Shah Husain, a Muslim Sufi, one of the doyens of Punjabi literature. The two were inseparable companions and they lie buried together in a small shrine tucked away in a square that is reached through a series of winding lanes. The square presents an unimaginable picture of gloom, with filth and refuse strewn in large heaps. In contrast to dargahs in India, I find this shrine drab and neglected.

The shrine of the seventeenth century Miyan Mir, a noted Qadri Sufi, is set in an equally depressing locality, although from the architectural point of view it is quite striking. The amiable Chan Shah Qadri, one of the custodians of the shrine, tells me that Miyan Mir was a close associate of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, who invited him to lay the foundation stone of the golden Temple at Amritsar. Chan Shah insists I come with him to his home for a meal, and I willingly agree.

At Chan Shah's house I am introduced to a young man, Ghulam Mohammad, who tells me that he is a descendant of Bhai Mardana, one of Guru Nanak's closest companions. Mardana was a Muslim minstrel who played the rabab and accompanied the guru on several of his tours. Today, there are four main families descended from Bhai Mardana who still live in Lahore, Ghulam Muhammad says. Although they are all Muslims, they revere Guru Nanak as a sort of Sufi saint. A few members of these families continue with their ancestral tradition of singing the verses of Guru Nanak at gurudwaras and gurumandirs (shrines built by Sindhi Hindu devotees dedicated to Guru Nanak) in Pakistan.


It takes me an hour, through interminable office rush, to reach the Press Club, where I have to meet a friend. There's a demonstration on by a leftist group against a massive dam project, and another by a group of Christians decrying the attack on churches by radical Islamists. Waiting for my friend I watch the demonstrators raise slogans and wave placards. My friend soon joins me along with some others. One of them tells me he is publishing a book on Bhagat Singh. Another is an Osho fan. A third is translating Che Guevara and proposes to render the works of the Indian Muslim scholar Asghar Ali Engineer on liberation theology into Urdu.

They complain about how the Indian media depicts Pakistanis are programmed Islamist zealots.

'Dissent is alive in Pakistan', one of them says, 'and is bound to become louder. Do write about that when you get back', he insists.


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Crossing The Border- Pakistan Dairy: II
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Pakistan Diary- Part I
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