Looking Back into the Glorious History of Lahore

The straightforward title was appealing — it promised a fact-filled account of the city’s journey through the centuries.

By Ramachandra Guha (South Asia)

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Published: Mon 20 Jul 2009, 1:07 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:04 AM

The title page informed me that the author was a former professor of history at the University of the [West] Punjab, and that he had an MA and PhD from the University of London. The title and pedigree were misleading. For this was a book written in a self-consciously Islamist vein. It devoted a mere 40 pages to “Lahore during the pre-Muslim period”. Then followed 160 pages on the achievements of the Muslim rulers of the city. The Sikhs who controlled Lahore in the 18th and early 19th century were disposed of in 18 pages, the British conquerors who followed them in 22. The book ended with a long section on Lahore between 1947 and 1980, from which I have taken the following, and highly representative, quotes:

“Lahore witnessed a ‘red letter day’ on Thursday the 9th March, 1950 A.D., when this town, the nerve centre of the country, feted His Imperial Majesty, King Muhammad Reza Pehalvi, Shah of Iran, to glimpses of Pakistan’s military might, artistic talent, musical aptitude, educational enterprise, the grandeur of Emperor Shahjahan’s Shalimar Gardens, state banquet and an after-dinner reception….”

“Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto unveiled on the afternoon of Saturday the 22nd February, 1975, the foundation-stone plaque of the monument to be constructed in Lahore to commemorate the Second Islamic Summit Conference.”

“Another legacy of the British colonial rule was abolished when Friday (July 1, 1977) was observed as a weekly holiday for the first time throughout the country.

“The change in weekly holiday marks the end of a colonial practice persisting for about 128 years.”

“The Islamic Summit Minar, a lasting monument to the historic conference, of about 40 Islamic countries, hosted by Pakistan three years ago, was inaugurated in Lahore by Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, on February 22, 1977.

“The 48-meter high white marble minar commemorates the spirit of the unity of Islamic brotherhood, which manifested itself in the Second Islamic Conference (February 22, 24, 1974)…. .”

The book’s mission and message were epitomised in its description of the Pakistan Day Memorial, built in Minto Park in the 1960s to commemorate the meeting held there two decades previously wherein the Muslim League passed a resolution calling for the establishment of Pakistan.

Our London-trained historian complains that the initial call for funds for this memorial met with a lukewarm response, whereupon, “disappointed at the situation and the lack of spirit on the part of the public in general and philanthropists in particular”, the Punjab government chose in 1964 to levy a special cess of five paisa per cinema ticket and 50 paisa on each race ticket. “This legislative measure solved the financial problem of the project.”

The memorial was completed in 1968. Significantly, the rostrum was built facing the great Badshahi Mosque.

The crucial part of the description runs as follows: “The design and construction pattern of the base and the first four platforms depict the history of the Pakistan Movement through architectural symbols. Rough and uncut stones have been haphazardly laid representing the chaotic conditions and the lack of any sense of direction in the early stages and the humble start of the freedom movement of the Indian Muslims.

The stones used for constructing the first platform are the rough Taxila stones. Hammer dressed stones are laid for the second platform.

At the third platform are laid chiselled stones while the fourth and final platform is of highly polished marble symbolising the ultimate success of the struggle for freedom and the glory that is Pakistan.”

In some ways, the most telling as well as most farcical of the excerpts quoted above relates to the decision to make Friday the weekly holiday; this seen by our historian as a revival of an Islamic practice which “symbolises Pakistan’s affinities of common faith and destiny with the Muslim World”.

This measure, we may note, was instituted by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who, some claim, represented the secularist trend in Pakistani politics.

Despite the ethnic cleansing, which it was subjected to in 1947, Lahore remains a city of great charm and social depth. It awaits a historian who can do justice to its complex history.

This man, or woman, need not have a PhD from a great Western university. What he, or she, requires instead are stout walking boots, a zest for working in dark and badly maintained archives, an interest in the lives of the common people as well as the elite, a desire to go beyond the realms of economics and politics into society and culture, and finally, a proper scepticism as regards the Islamist ideology of the Pakistani nation-state.

Ramachandra Guha an eminent Indian historian and author, most recently, of India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. This article is published in arrangement with the author and The Telegraph, Calcutta. He can be reached at ramguha@hotmail.com

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