By demonising Hindus, Pakistan’s nationalist history overlooks colonial atrocities

Pakistan is erasing its Hindu heritage but seems to have no problem with the racist, colonial officials still commemorated on its streets.

By demonising Hindus, Pakistan’s nationalist history overlooks colonial atrocities
Lord Mountbatten visits riot scenes in Punjab in 1947. | Wikimedia Commons

Some historians have questioned if history can ever be disentangled from the nation-state. History has been a powerful tool at the hands of the state to explain and justify its origin and existence. In a previous article, I wrote about how the colonial state in British India weaponised history to sothe w seeds of dissension between different religious communities. Tales of historical injustices by Muslim rulers were highlighted to justify the arrival of the “neutral” British colonial state to rescue the non-Muslims from the “tyrants”.

After Partition, both the Indian and the Pakistani states carried forward the basic framework of the colonial historiography, highlighting and undermining certain aspects of this narrative to tell their own national stories. The “atrocious” Muslim kings who, during the colonial era had been used to justify the British intervention in the subcontinent, became heroes in the Pakistani national story. Their reigns became part of a glorious past that needed to be emulated.

Creating a Hindu enemy

Thus, right from the start, the Pakistani state obsessed over justifying the creation of the country. Hindu-Muslim relations became the focus of this inquiry. The antagonism that erupted during the Partition riots, inherited by the Indian and the Pakistani states were explained through these historical narratives. An argument was made that despite living together, the Hindus and Muslims never got along. There was an attempt to isolate the geography of what became Pakistan from the larger South Asian historical process. History in Pakistani historiography was nothing but a story of Hindu-Muslim relations.

While there are several problems with this narrative that sees the historical relationship between Hindus and Muslims through the lens of contemporary political relationships, another problem that emerged was a complete ignorance of Pakistan’s colonial past. With the focus on projecting the Hindus as the enemy, the colonial state almost comes across as a neutral entity, a narrative not much different from how the colonial state tried projecting itself.

In my informal sessions and questions with young Pakistani students, I have often found that a majority of high school students continue to believe that Pakistan gained independence from Hindus, instead of from the British in 1947. With the focus of the Independence movement on the Hindu-Muslim relations, there is absolutely no discussion on the nature of the colonial state, its economic and political exploitation, and how it permanently altered the region’s social fabric. It is, therefore, no surprise that while remnants of Hindu heritage in Pakistan became contested sites, with the state not interested in its preservation, physical markers of colonial heritage generated no such debate.

A demolished Hindu temple in Karachi on December 2, 2012. Credit: Rizwan Tabaassum/AFP

Lahore, Pakistan’s largest city, at the time of Partition offers an interesting case study. Using several examples from the city, which has vibrant colonial, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim legacies, one can get a good picture of how these histories are imagined and treated.

The first major appropriation of public spaces of the city took place during the riots of Partition. One of the earlier causalities was the statue of Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent member of the Indian National Congress, and a resident of the city. He had died in Lahore as a result of the colonial state’s atrocities and it was his death that Bhagat Singh and his comrades decided to avenge. His statue, which had existed at the end of Lower Mall, was removed and eventually shifted to Shimla.

Similarly, another statue that was destroyed during Partition was the statue of Ganga Ram, the iconic engineer responsible for several of the city’s landmark structures. Saadat Hasan Manto, in one of his flash fiction stories, The Garland, beautifully captures the fate of the statue.

There was a similar appropriation of public spaces in 1992. In the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, several Hindu and Jain temples scattered all over the city were attacked as the state passively watched. One such historical temple was the Jain Mandir, located close to Anarkali Bazaar. It is important to point out here that the temple had long been abandoned and was a mere structure. After destroying the structure, the name of the junction was changed from Jain Mandir Chowk to Babri Masjid Chowk.

Erasing history

Similarly, other localities in the city, which connected the city with its Hindu past were also changed. The name of Krishan Nagar, a suburban residential society established in the 1930s was changed to Islampura, while the name of Sant Nagar was first changed to Sunnat Nagar and then to Sandha.

In contrast to its Hindu past, the colonial heritage and legacy of the city was left unattended, similar to what was happening in the official historiography and school textbooks. Even today in Lahore, there are several roads and junctions that retain the names of colonial administrators. A few examples of these are Montgomery Road, named after Robert Montgomery, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab; McLeod Road is named after Donald Friell McLeod, who replaced Montgomery as the Lieutenant-Governor; Napier Road is named after Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief; Abbott Road, is named after James Abbott; and Nicholson Road is named after John Nicholson.

Interestingly all of these officers played a crucial role during the War of 1857, in which all of Punjab remained on the side of the colonial state. It is conjectured that the outcome of the war would have been quite different if Punjab had rebelled as well. In 1857, this seemed highly likely given that province had only recently been incorporated into the British Indian Empire and there was a large segment of the society, former disgruntled nobles and soldiers who had lost much economic and political privileges.

The relocated statue of Indian National Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai. Credit: Wikipedia

Aware of their vulnerable position in Punjab, these colonial officers came down ruthlessly on any opposition in Punjab, mercilessly punishing and killing anyone they doubted, in the process laying the foundation of the colonial state in Punjab and protecting it all over British India. The renaming of these roads and junctions was an honor to their memory by the colonial state.

At a time when the entire world it seems is engaged in a conversation about its colonial and racist past, the lack of any such debate in Pakistan is deafening. Colonialism and racism are inextricably tied together, with colonialism serving as the foundation upon which contemporary forms of racism in the world exist. Memories of these racist colonial officers, who crushed the soul of the city, to protect the British Empire, remains alive and vibrant in post-colonial Lahore. The situation is quite similar in many other parts of Pakistan.

However, the conversation cannot simply end at a de-colonisation of these public spaces from colonial history. This has to be accompanied by a de-colonisation of the state as well. One unfortunate aspect of not dealing with our colonial past has been a continuation of several colonial state institutions, primarily those dealing with law and order. The purpose of these institutions in a colonial state was quite different from what it should be in an independent country. The purpose at that time was to control a savage local population.

Without any meaningful conversation about the colonial past of the country, these institutions continue to serve the same role they did during the colonial state. The survival of these names of colonial officers in the forms of roads and junctions is just a symptom of a problem that is much more deep rooted. By obsessing about its Hindu past, the state it seems has failed to address a much more serious problem that continues to impact the lives of millions.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.