Pakistani Travelogue-I: Welcome to Multan

Ideology of Pakistan could be compared to a three-legged stool, supported by the pillars of (1) Islam, (2) the Two-Nation Theory, and (3) the fear of Hindu domination.

During my first visit to Pakistan in 1997 I was scheduled to make a speech in Multan at Bahauddin Zakariya University. Before flying to Multan, I spent a remarkable week in Sindh, where I met incredibly articulate intellectuals who eagerly and frankly discussed a multiple of issues from a highly informed point of view. There was an impressive level of intelligence and insight among Sindhi scholars and journalists with whom I spoke. Most were critical of the sectarianism and religious fundamentalism that had been encouraged during the years of General Zia-ul Haq’s military rule. Sindhi nationalists are exceedingly critical of General Zia who took extra pains to persecute Sindhi dissidents, many of whom were publicly flogged and imprisoned during that decade. After having been enriched by these frank discussions, I flew to Multan, where I found the intellectual climate to be far more restrictive and seemingly less informed about international issues, particularly compared to the Sindhis I had just met. My host, Professor Malik picked me up at the airport and drove me to the Zakariya University guesthouse.

July is mango season in Multan. On both sides of the road, fat dark green trees lined up in vast orderly rows sporting yellow- golden jewels hanging from almost every branch. Multan is famous for its mangos. That evening, my host took me to his home to meet his family. On the way back to the university guesthouse, I told him about my meetings with Sindh nationalists. We discussed the topic of my talk, scheduled for the next day at the Department of Mass Communication. He said he expected several hundred students to attend and the Vice Chancellor would introduce me. I described what I planned to say, bringing together my research into textbooks with parallel problems of censorship in the media. I said that curriculum policies implemented by General Zia had created social studies textbooks that were more ideological than historical. My host warned me that I should be careful not to be too critical of General Zia. I was startled. I have nothing but negative things to say about Zia’s impact on Pakistani society. He reiterated that this was “not Sindh and Pakistanis here were more patriotic”.

That evening at the university guesthouse there was a plastic bag hanging on my door full of large ripe Multani mangoes. I looked over my notes wondering how I could soften my critique of Zia without betraying my analysis. The mangoes were delicious. The next morning Prof. Malik, with five friendly young female students brought along to accompany us, picked me up in a university van and we drove to the Vice Chancellor’s office. Bahauddin Zakariya University, founded in 1975 during the Bhutto years, boasts an impressive modern looking campus nestled in the shade of huge trees. While I was sitting in the Vice Chancellor’s room, waiting for him to arrive, several professors from the Political Science Department came in to talk with me. Exploring the extent of the warning I had received the night before, I initiated a conversation about General Zia. To my surprise, the three professors told me they were “praying for another Zia.” I told them that I was praying that their prayers were not answered. They explained, appropriating General Ayub Khan’s justification for usurping political power, “Pakistanis do not know how to operate democratically.” They added, “only another benevolent strongman can solve Pakistan’s problems.”[1]

I reminded them that Zia had abrogated the constitution and hung the elected Prime Minister. They laughed and said that it was a “pseudo-democracy” and Bhutto had been found guilty of “arranging a man’s murder.” I pointed out, whether I personally like Z.A. Bhutto or not, there is plenty of available evidence indicating that the case against Bhutto was tried in a Kangaroo Court. I also mentioned that, regardless, Zia was responsible for the murder of numerous of citizens who opposed his military regime. The professors acted incredulous and said it was not true, “Zia was not responsible for any political murders”. Now I was incredulous, there were many people killed and incarcerated during Zia’s time; the information is well documented concerning public floggings and trumped up trials. The professors responded, “That was only a few radical Sindhis flogged and killed, supporters of the PPP.” I thought of my new friends in Sindh, with whom I had just spent hours in stimulating discussions, I shuddered. I told those professors, somewhat defensively, “Sindhis are your countrymen!”

I wanted to be an accommodating guest, but how could I ignore the fact that during Zia’s reign social liberals and ethnic nationalists who did not approve of his policies were publicly flogged and/or hauled into court for speaking against his version of “The Ideology of Pakistan.” There were many intellectuals who disapproved of the very things Zia tried to promote, including all forms of religious and political chauvinism. Many went to jail or into exile during the Zia period, only returning home after his assassination. Many others stayed in the country, mounted an opposition, risking the consequences and the threats. During Zia’s time, the fundamentalist faction increased their power and influence, though not their vote bank—Pakistanis never elected religious parties into power until 2002 due to the manipulations of General Musharraf.

One of the lasting impacts from the reign of General Zia is his declaration that degrees received at Deeni-Madrassa schools are considered equivalent with those from national universities. I have been told that many professors, such as the three fellows I met that morning in Multan, were promoted based more on their commitment to Zia’s agenda than on merit, as were many university Vice Chancellors. Years later, many of these professionals still occupied these positions, explicitly involved in the pedagogy and curriculum design– and in shaping the minds of the Pakistani youth.  Many of these officials, as I found out, were not in the least perturbed, and in fact were eager to serve under a new military dispensation.

Back in 1997 in Multan, by the time the Vice Chancellor arrived and we had been duly introduced, I was getting a bit nervous, I wondered how I was going to both make my point and not provoke my hosts. The night before, while eating mangos in my room, I had prepared a eulogistic introduction, describing how much I respect the people of Pakistan, and referring to the antiquity of Multan as a world heritage site. I hoped that would soften my critique of censorship in Pakistan.

We were shown in to the mid-size auditorium and seated on a dais at the front of the large room.  There were approximately two hundred graduate students in attendance. A petite student in a green salwar-kamiiz with a blue scarf draped over her short-cropped wavy hair, was serving as the Master of Ceremonies. She introduced several speakers who preceded me. The students were mostly from the Mass Communication Department, so after commenting on Multan’s antiquity, I discussed the problems with censorship and the responsibility of journalists to pave the road to democracy by protecting freedom of the press.

I mentioned the negative impact of military rule, particularly in reference to social studies textbooks, where since the days of Zia-ul Haq, emphasis is placed on ideology instead of historiography. I pointed out, if it is a capital offence to criticize the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’, journalists may feel hesitant to write a social critique? I asked the audience to enumerate the main components of The Ideology of Pakistan.

The students were listening intently. They looked interested and many had bright eyes that seemed to express an appreciation of what I was saying, so different, I supposed than what they were getting from the professors I had met in the Vice Chancellor’s office. I looked around to see who would answer my question about the Ideology of Pakistan. It is difficult not to be timid in that situation. One brave soul in the front row offered a reply, “the Ideology of Pakistan is based on the Two-Nation Theory”. I agreed, without the Two-Nation Theory there would be no Pakistan— that’s one component. I coaxed them for more definitions. One young man near the back of the room raised his hand and offered, “We are a nation based on Islam”.  That is true as well, this is after all, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the first state in the modern world founded in the name of Islam.

While I was listening to the student’s answer, I noticed behind him in the back row of the auditorium there were seven or eight middle aged men with longish black beards, black and gray beards, a few with orange henna highlights. They did not seem to be looking at me with the same enthusiasm in their eyes as were the students in the chairs in front of them. I asked the students if the foundation of their national ideology included democratic institutions and a constitution guaranteeing human rights. Several students shook their heads as if to signal no. I tried to get the students to provide some more foundations or ingredients that make up the Ideology of Pakistan, but no one else was venturing a reply, so I queried the young lady at the front again asking her to explain the Two-Nation Theory. She said it meant that, “Pakistanis did not want to be ruled by Hindus”.

I asked her if she would say that was a kind of “fear of Hindu domination in political affairs” and she nodded affirmatively. I then summarized what the students had just defined as the core elements of the Ideology of Pakistan. There were three pillars. The first pillar, basing the country’s raison être, its self-justification or national philosophy solely on the Two-Nation Theory, assumes a rather defensive posture, an attempt to justify Pakistan’s very reason to exist. August 14, 1997, Pakistani Independence Day, was less than a month away, after half a century of self-rule, I joked that it is time for the fifty-year old nation-state to “stop grappling with birthing issues”. I hoped that I was encouraging and inspiring them, their faces were certainly attentive. “You got your nation,” I told the students in Multan, “it is no longer a theory.” I offered an example, “It’s like praying for a car and then when you get it, you don’t learn to drive, you let someone else shift the gears. You got your nation, get behind the wheel!  You may have a few flat tires or fender-benders with passing periods of martial-law, but the vehicle is yours, it’s no longer a theory.”

I shared a quote with them from the mother of a friend of mine in Hyderabad, Sindh who had provided a similar metaphor, “As humanity travels forward on the road to progress and human rights, with the modern nation state as the vehicle, Pakistan is like a motorcycle, side-lined with one of its tires punctured.” This mother of two daughters and a son, all of whom have advanced degrees, explained that as long as half the population of Pakistan, namely the females, remains undereducated and disempowered, “our country will never claim its place among free and prosperous nations of the world.”

I then brought up what I referred to as the second leg or pillar in the Ideology of Pakistan, fear of Hindu domination. I pointed out that this paranoia is obviously out of sync with historical reality–none of the area comprising Pakistan has been ruled by Hindus for almost a thousand years. Since Mohammad-bin-Qazam and Mahmud of Ghazni, Muslim dynasties have ruled the soil of Pakistan, with the exception of a brief incursion of Ranjit Singh in Punjab prior to the arrival of the British Raj. Even in Sindh, where local kingdoms held sway after the Delhi Sultanate, the Sindhi kings had long before adopted Islam as their religion. I mentioned, bravely proclaiming my multi-cultural perspectives, that Hindus are not any more “conniving and manipulative”–as textbooks in Pakistan describe them–than are Christians or Muslims or any other group of human beings.

I concluded my speech by pointing out that according to the information provided, the Two-Nation Theory is not clearly definable outside its historical role motivating the creation of a homeland for the Muslim population of the Subcontinent. I suggested that this theoretical leg of the stool first collapsed, when crores of Muslims opted to remain in India and recollapsed, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. I compared the Ideology of Pakistan to a three-legged stool, supported by the pillars of (1) Islam, (2) the Two-Nation Theory, and (3) the fear of Hindu domination. While I was speaking, I heard a commotion on the dais behind me. A quick glance showed that one of the bearded men from the back row was bending over whispering with the Vice Chancellor and Prof. Malik. I continued, urging the students to build new supports for their national ideology. Islam, being the “great leveler” and the “religion of brotherhood,” certainly has room for human rights and democratic foundations. Pakistan exists, I told them, go drive it!  My speech received enthusiastic applause as I returned to my seat

The petite MC with the bobbed hair came to the microphone and informed us that an unexpected guest had been added to the agenda, Mullah (I forget his name) was going to speak to the students. She explained he was speaking in Urdu, and apologized to me, the guest. A rotund man with a long beard wearing a light blue sarwar-kameez and a dark turban stepped up to the podium. He began by saying, in Urdu, that I was yet “another American who had come to Pakistan to throw insults at our ideology and religion”. He used the word galatafahemi (wrong understanding or prejudice) numerous times. I was writing down Urdu words feverishly so I could present a rebuttal. I looked at Professor Malik in dismay and passed him a note asking if I could reply to what the Mullah was saying. He motioned silently that I could. When the heavily bearded man finished telling the students that I had insulted their country and their religion, I was allowed a few moments to respond.

I spoke using my best Urdu, which is not that good. I apologized if I had made a galatafahemi. Faces looked startled as they heard me speak in Urdu. The bearded gentlemen in the back row certainly did not looked pleased that I had understood and was able to respond to the criticism leveled at me by their colleague. After I offered my polite, apologetic rebuttal, in which I once again stressed the need for media specialists to resist all forms of censorship and official coercion, the tense event came to an end.  Numerous students crowded up to the podium and began asking all sorts of questions, trying to get my email. Before I could answer or mingle with the students, several of the large bearded men from the back of the auditorium surrounded me, garao as they say in Urdu, and I was led, almost marched, out of the auditorium.

Someone opened the door of a small, windowless room with a couch and coffee table and, turning on the light and fan, told me to sit down and wait. They closed the door behind me. I sat motionless, perched on the edge of the divan, clutching my purse on my lap with both fists, listening intently. There was absolutely no sound. When I could bear the suspense no longer, I stood and peeked out the door. Nobody was in the open air hallway or the adjacent courtyard. I gently closed the door and stood beside it at attention.

Just then Professor Malik pushed open the door, and hesitating a second when he saw me standing so near, informed me the van was ready to depart. As we came around the corner to the front of the Communication Building a group of waiting students approached us. They apologized profusely for the rude comments of the Mullah and assured me that they had appreciated my lecture. They explained that some of the staff at the university are very conservative. One young man asked me for my email address, he said he agreed, but had never looked at the Ideology of Pakistan from that perspective. He added he was glad he came to the lecture and wanted to correspond with me about these ideas. I never heard from him. As we drove away from the university, I told my host that the rather disconcerting events in the auditorium underscored the main point of my lecture–questioning outdated ideologies should not be discouraged in a democratic country.

For some reason, after my lecture, my host had arranged for me to meet the president of the local branch of the Muslim Commercial Bank–for a photo opportunity. When I arrived at the bank I was presented a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic and shown into the president’s office. Over a cup of tea and biscuits, the bank president asked me to “take a message back to the American people”, that they should “invest dollars in Pakistan”.  I explained that as a scholar, I had no connections with corporate executives, or banking institutions. He insisted, smiling broadly, concurring with the other bank personnel in the room that I “should go to America and find investment capital for Pakistan”. He explained that Pakistan was rich in natural and human resources, but poor in dollars.

Feeling rather feisty after the near altercation at the university, I brought up another controversial topic, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I pointed out that IMF loans to Pakistan meant to enhance development, were usually channeled into private accounts, enriching the elites. The limited number of middle class professionals whose salaries or products are actually taxed, are then left to later repay the debt without the anticipated economic benefits that the uncompleted development projects would have provided. The elites, such as waderas and zamindars (large landholders) and industrialists are thereby enriched twice, because they often benefit from the loans and then find ways to slip through the taxation net. The rich pay few taxes, whereas the middle class is taxed heavily. The poor pay in the form of excise taxes. I pointed out to the bank manager that the IMF actually oversees a reverse transfer of funds from poor, developing nations to wealthy banks in the West. My host, Dr. Malik sitting in the chair to my right, was once again looking nervous. I was not the ideal guest.


Idgah Mosque, Multan, Pakistan. Photo: Wikipedia

I suggested to the president of the Muslim Commercial Bank that he mobilize bankers in Pakistan to deal with this post-colonial highway robbery hypocritically masked in development rhetoric. The gentleman was a bit nonplussed. He didn’t quite know what to say. Just then photographers from the local newspaper arrived and we moved in mass to the front of the bank for a totally irrelevant media event. Back in the van, we waited for Dr. Malik to write a short article, in Urdu, for the local newspaper about my visit to Multan. He told me that he was not going to include the negative aspects of my interaction with the Mullahs. I made a strong plea that he must put the gist of my lecture, at least refer to my main points concerning censorship, democracy and freedom of speech. The young ladies in the van were quite amused by our conversation. I told him to also mention my opinion of the negative impact of IMF policies.

After depositing the article at the newspaper office, the driver of the university van drove us to a village fifteen kilometers outside of Multan, where the young university students and I shared a wonderful afternoon. We were fed lavishly. I shot several rolls of film of beautiful laughing college girls and photographed the interior compound of the host family. The men were all away for the day so it was only a group of women, and my host. We walked through their mango orchard and laughed away the morning’s tension.

That evening, my host, his son, and I visited with a very hospitable family, where I was offered an elaborate selection of tasty preparations and appetizers. The lady of the house and her daughters were all highly educated and asked many questions. My host told them I had come to deliver a lecture at the university. He jokingly said that some of the professors who were loyal to General Zia had not liked it that I had criticized Zia. The ladies took my side and said they didn’t like Zia either. I told them what the three professors had said about Sindhis—how they had discounted them as disloyal to Pakistan. To my surprise, Dr. Malik echoed this perspective stating that “Sindhis are too Hinduized”. When I asked him to explain he gave the following example.

The standard method of greeting among Muslims is to touch the right hand to the forehead or the heart and say, “Salaam alaikum.” On the other hand, Hindus place both palms together when greeting each other. Many Pakistanis will act surprised or slightly insulted if naive western tourists, traveling overland from India, unknowingly greet them with their palms pressed together in the traditional Hindu manner. My host explained that Sindhis also use this form of greeting.

I had seen this rebellious cultural expression when I was in Hyderabad just a few days earlier. But in Sindh it is no longer used casually, but represents a potent symbol of ethnicity. Sindhis have used this method of salute for countless centuries, but these days, only those who are dyed in the wool Sindh nationalists, willing to brave the scorn, still publicly greet each other with this gesture. They, however, employ it in a somewhat different manner than in India. Instead of a natural, almost unconscious habitual movement, it is done as a political statement, full of intent. This motion of the hands is so imbued with symbolic meaning that many Sindh nationalists are reluctant to use it in public and only the most self-confident will proudly greet their friends in the marketplace with their hands in supplication, often with the words, “Jeeya Sindh!” (Long-live Sindh!).

My host continued, “when Muslims offer prayers, they hold their hands open to God”. He demonstrated, palms up, and continued, “when Hindus pray they keep their palms together, as if they were hiding something.” His comment reflected descriptions of Hindus in Pakistani textbooks and the popular media as cunning, manipulative, and deceitful. I tried to explain the concept of “anjoli” to my Multani hosts–it is the empty space between the palms that is significant. But he interrupted saying, “When Sindhis use this form of salute, they are showing their disloyalty to the Pakistani nation.” Like numerous other people I have met in Pakistan, my host was so keen to denigrate Hindus that he felt no compunction denying Sindhis’ their identity as well. He argued that the word “Hindu,” and consequently the words, “Sindh” and “Indus,” were of Arab origin and had “not existed until the Arabs came and named them”. Therefore Hinduism was not really a religion, but an identity constructed by Arabs. This is not an uncommon theoretical perspective and even has amazing currency among Western scholars. However, I disagree with that theory, and I told my host as politely as possible.

Sindh, he must know, since he lives in the region, which was known in Sanskrit as “Septa-Sindhu”, is most definitely a pre-Arab word. “Sindhu” is the name used in the Rig Veda for this area where seven rivers flowed through what is now modern day Pakistan. The word therefore predates the Islamic period and indicates the usage of the term even in the ancient world.  My host was unimpressed and his young son was just a little bit annoyed that I had pressed my point, contesting his father’s proclamations. He even kidded me, saying “You like Hindus so much, maybe you are an Indian spy, a “RAW agent”. Everyone laughed, but knowing how “Indian agents” are accused of all of Pakistan’s ills, I surely saw the hidden significance of the jest.

The next morning, before my afternoon flight to Lahore, Dr. Malik took me on a tour of Multan, along with two of the charming students who had befriended me the day before, and also the gregarious and engaging mother of one of the girls. Prior to our planned tour of the famous shrines of Multan we went to the home of a retired college teacher, Mr. Ghulam Mohammed. Dr. Malik told me that I would “like Mr. Ghulam Mohammed since he was a social liberal and had opposed General Zia”. Mr. Mohammed was a dignified gentleman who had written a book about the nationalization of educational institutions during the Bhutto and Zia periods. We spoke for some time and he explained to me how the quality of instruction declined along with the condition of the school buildings after they were taken over by the central government. He was a strikingly handsome man with a thick stock of snow-white hair cropped below his ears. I photographed him in his library and he presented a signed Urdu edition of his book. Professor Malik said he felt obliged to introduce me to anti-Zia Multanis so that I wouldn’t have the wrong impression that everyone in Multan was “social conservative or religious fundamentalist”.

We spent several hours driving through narrow bazaar streets in the big white van that took up most of the lane causing merchants to move their wares aside so that we could inch past. We visited four of the most famous of the thousands of shrines within the old walled city. Multan is the city of shrines and has a past that stretches into prehistory. The numerous Sufi shrines within the old city offer impressive examples of workmanship and architecture, such as the Shams-e Tabriz shrine, built almost entirely of engraved bricks glazed a brilliant azure blue. A shrine/mosque from the Tughluq period boasts one of the biggest domes in Asia. The pavement from the gate of the mosque to the entrance of the shrine was hewn from large slabs of red sand stone. It was burning hot as the July sun blazed its ruthless gaze on Multan, one of the hottest spots in Pakistan. A long mat made from woven straw provided a runway to protect bare feet from the searing sandstone. Inside the dark interior of the shrines we visited, the air was cool and almost moist. In Shams-e Tabriz a woman was singing in the central room, standing before the main part of the shrine where the remains of the Sufi saints were buried in large elevated stone encased tombs with elaborately carved wooden canopy. She was singing in Sindhi, I was told, thanking the Sufi for saving the life of her son. She was a tiny, very thin woman with an old cotton salvar-kamiz, a face that was wrinkled beyond her years, and a very loud gravelly voice. She was singing and dancing with tremendous animation and enthusiasm and tried to get us to dance with her.

When we visited the Idgah Mosque, where several Muslims Fakirs were seated at the entrance, decked out in extravagant flowing robes with beads, musical instruments, and long free hanging hair, Dr. Malik told me the history of the Pahladpuri Temple adjacent to the mosque. By then he was convinced that I “liked Hinduism too much”. He told me that hundreds of years ago the priest at the Pahladpuri Temple had donated land for this Sufi shrine. The shrine now overshadowed what was left of the temple. He took me around the corner to see the charred out remains of the Pahladpuri Temple. He explained that the two buildings had coexisted side by side for centuries until a mob had destroyed the temple in December 1992 in retaliation for the destruction of the Babri Masjid. I photographed what remained of that symbol of the Sufi-Hindu syncretism, a sad reminder of a past that certainly seems, at least across the span of centuries, to have been a more tolerant and culturally fluid society.

On the way to the airport, we stopped by the home of my very engaging companion so that I could meet her husband. In the living room there was a large oil painting of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The man of the house explained that during the seventies he had been a Bhutto supporter. He said that his brother had been flogged for protesting against martial law and had spent several months in jail. He said he was no longer a supporter of the PPP—as a young man he had been passionate about politics, but now he was apathetic, since he now believes that political power only leads to corruption.

At the airport, Dr. Malik gave me a copy of the article he had written about my lecture and visit to Multan, printed on the front page of the newspaper. The story waxed eloquent about my praise for Pakistan, though in fact, I had praised the people, not the state. Dr. Malik’s description left out everything that I had actually said and instead described that I had talked about the lasting friendship between Pakistan and the USA. Under my photo with the bank president, the caption stated that I had promised to ask Americans to invest in Pakistan. I flew to Lahore with a better understanding about the perils of doing research in an ideological state and the limitations on free speech.


[1] Two years later when General Musharraf usurped political power in a bloodless coup, the Multani professors’ prayers came true.  However the decrees of this “benevolent strongman” had attempted to soften the impact of General Zia’s decade-long drive towards “Complete Islamization” and the influence of the fundamentalist Taliban type political groups in Pakistan. These efforts were accelerated by the international pressure to combat the jihadis after September 11, 2000.

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