By Peter Jacob
Scholar Yahyah Amjad is of opinion that the inscriptions found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, yet to be interpreted, could be a primitive script of the Saraiki Language. The hypothesis carries a high probability because Saraiki is still a major language spoken between these two archeological sites roughly 700 Kilometers apart from one another. This vast area was part of Indus valley civilization that was built without weapons which explains the high value its inhabitants attached to the ethos of peaceful coexistence. Hence, over 4000 years ago the region was a bastion of human development, cultural vitality and spiritual pursuits.Cotton fabrics are a common commodity in the 21st century; the agriculture and industry of the region were so advanced 2300 years ago that it gave the world this product. Over 1100 years ago the region borrowed Kashigari or art of making blue tiles for construction work and pottery from Central Asia, much like it immersed the essence of multiculturalism and common ground for humanity symbolized in Bhakti tradition from other parts of India.
As empires were built around the area, the socio-political landscape became violent in later times. Farishta (1560 -1620) recorded a glaring example of cold-blooded massacre and amputation of limbs of Kramta Muslims and non-Muslims in Multan by Mahmood of Ghazni, which was one of his many brutal expeditions.
Annals of history record that Mahmood destroyed the Ismaeli (Shia) state of Multan whose allegiance was to the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, in order to please the Abbasid Caliphate of Arab. His savagery included forced conversions. This shows how the sectarian politics of greater Middle East was playing out in this region the millennia before the advent of Taliban and Al-Qaida. Religion had already become a tool for state power that built an institutional nexus minimizing the spans of peaceful coexistence.
In recent history, it is worth recalling the incident of Masjid Manzalgah in Sukkur, an important city of the region, in the adjoining Sindh province. A dispute arose in 1939 in Sukkur that resembled the one in Ajodhya in the 1980s and 1990s between Hindus and Muslims about the possession and identity of a place of worship. As in the more recent example of Ajodhya, a debacle was built to establish Hindu right-wing supremacy in India; the Manzalgah incident became a precursor to the Muslim League’s domination of the Sindh province before the partition of India. 60 years before Salmaan Taseer, the prominent leaders of Muslim League in Sindh got the liberal minded Chief Minister Allah Bux Soormo dislodged from his office and murdered for political gains. The Anjuman-e-Islam, with the support of Muslim traders, portrayed Soomro as someone who betrayed his Islamic faith. Dozens, mostly Hindus, were killed and injured in the riots that followed.
Over half a century later in Multan in 1992, a mob supposedly angered by the demolition of Babri Mosque in India, demolished a Hindu temple attributed to Prahlad Bhagat a pre –Bhagvatgeeta legend of Hindu mythology that stood next to the Mausoleum of Hazrat Bahauddin Zakaria.
Zaigham Khan, a journalist from the region noted with empathy that “patron Saint of Multan stood lonely” after the demolition of Prahlad temple. In his story for Friday Times after the incident, he narrated that in the 13th century, the Hindu caretakers of the temple had welcomed the stranger mystic Bahauddin in Multan and generously gave him pieces of land to build a Madrassah adjacent to the temple.
Later, this order of religious men blended themselves with Muslim rulers so closely that they were buried in tombs prepared for or resembling those of kings. Historically, a section of religious orders, the institutions of shrine and madrassah allied themselves with the court of kings, even if it was a mere continuation of a trend that existed before.
Though, personalities like Prahlad, Pooran, Nanak, Gautama Buddha, Bhaghat Kabir and Meera Bai, Shams Tabrezi, Shah Hussain and Bullah Shah broke way or kept away from the political power. The most recent and glaring example in this tradition in the Saraiki region is literary giant and mystic of Ghulam Farid, who criticized Nawab of Bahawalpur for accepting foreign domination for his personal gains.
Since 2009 after the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore, the term Punjabi Taliban was increasingly used, bringing the attention of commentators on South Punjab, painting that it was a stronghold of extremist ideology, needing military action like other areas. The crime cartel Chotu gang was linked to Punjabi Taliban too in this hypothesis contested by Rahim Ullah Yousaf Zai.
Nevertheless, the locale and base of some of the icons of terror and extreme, Malik Isaac, Masood Azhar, Haq Nawaz, Adbullah Salfi and others suggest that Saraiki region has been a recruiting ground for foot soldiers in the least. The opposition parties pointed fingers at the government of Punjab for their inaction in South Punjab. The International Crisis Group also criticized the selective approach in counter-terrorism policy.
In December 2016, Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi’s victory in Jhang district in by-elections over the ruling party PML (N)’s candidate created quite a murmur. The media questioned the permission to a banned organization to run in elections.
In policy confusion, the government indulged with and banned activities of civil society organizations in the South Punjab since 2014 particularly. A reduced presence of the humanitarian, development and human rights organizations naturally means lesser social sector protection to already marginalized regions.
Initiatives such as the government of Punjab’s subsidy on agricultural inputs, especially fertilizers are a timely relief for the oppressed farmers and the poverty alleviation program. Supported by International Fund for Agricultural Development, subsidies for the region in 2011 were worth US$ 49.120 million though the result might take time.
Earlier on, people of Saraiki region raised their voice, questioning their underdevelopment, language rights. The Punjab and National Assemblies passed resolutions to accommodate their demand for a separate province. In reduced civil space, people there have preferred silence about the genuine sentiment of a restoration of social- cultural identity of the Saraiki region. Such a withdrawal in a democratic dispensation is not a healthy sign.
In conclusion, while the efforts for ending abject poverty and underdevelopment in Southern Punjab are appreciated, it is extremely necessary that social processes be allowed because they will support government’s efforts in breaking the millennia-old nexus between religious intolerance, political alienation and state policies.
The counterterrorism and counter-extremism may not be a one window operation. The social and political approaches may be as crucial as a military approach in dealing with the mammoth challenge.
The future of the Saraiki region can be brighter than it’s past if the lessons of history guide the policies and social action in respect for religious diversity, life at large and the environment. Its future in the 21st century may be as promising in religious tolerance and peace as its remote past.
About Author: The author is a researcher, freelance journalist and a human rights activist of Pakistan. He is also Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice (www.cskpak.org), a Pakistan-based research and advocacy organization.