Tag Archives: caste

People’s history of the Punjab: Humanism and equality

The poetry of Shah Hussain explored the socio-political dimensions of Punjabi society

Shah Abdul Latif Bhita’i was a contemporary poet of Bulleh Shah

Dr Manzur Ejaz writing for TFT

Islamic extremism is not new in the subcontinent: At one time even the Emperor Akbar, the most liberal among Mughal rulers, was forced to ban alcohol under the pressure of the religious establishment. However, at that time the difference was that an alternative ideology was also evolving, but this is not the case in the political discourse of today. The Pakistani state has successfully created a disconnection from the tradition of an alternative ideology by promoting the religious version of the ruling Muslim elites – most Muslim rulers were conservative Sunnis – and Mullahs.
The alternative ideology in the Punjab started with the Chishtia’s challenge to the establishment through the rebellious poetry of Baba Farid-ud-din Masood Ganj-e-Shakar (1175-1266). Baba Guru Nanak, following this tradition, critiqued the political economy as well as the system of ideas prevailing in both Hindu society and ritualistic Muslim religion. Nanak negated the political system more directly than anyone else had done in the Punjab before him.

Baba Nanak (1469-1539) was very methodical in his intellectual discourse. In his Japji Sahib, he undertook the rebuttal of the presumptions of the Hindu religion and its philosophy. He negated the Muslim practice of ritualistic practices, but because of Islam’s monotheism his criticism of it was not as harsh as it was against Hinduism. Furthermore, since he absolutely negated casteism and gender differentiations, his main target was Hindu philosophy and its practices. Probably, this is the reason that Muslims wanted to bury him according to Islamic tradition.

On the political level Baba Nanak’s main criticism was against foreign invaders and their religious pretensions. Baba Nanak is the only poet who described the invasion of the Mughal Emperor Babar, (1483-1531). He observed that Babar did not differentiate between Indian Muslims and Hindus and dishonoured their women indiscriminately. According to him, Babar arbitrarily destroyed mosques and mandirs. In conclusion he sums up:

Pap ki janj ley Kabloon dhaia, jori mangay dan vey lalo

([He] mounted an invasion with his sinful party (army) and he demands donations by force)

Baba Nanak also provided a deep insight into the exploitative economic and social systems in India. This was one of the main reasons that he attracted so many Punjabi artisans to his teachings. The class of poor Jat peasants joined him at a later stage. Baba Nanak’s complete comprehension of the system became the basis of a religious and nationalist resistance in the Punjab, while the works of Sufis were not able to induce an organized movement that could sustain itself. This had positive developments in the Punjab as far as putting an end to the invaders from the North was concerned, but Sikhism lost its edge in due course because it became just another organized religion with all the usual ritualistic aspects. Nonetheless, this negative development does not diminish Baba Nanak’s significance as a thinker espousing an alternative ideology to the one enforced by orthodox Islam and Hinduism. Continue reading

Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi’s invasion and its consequences

A 17th century depiction of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi holding court

The ill-fated Somnath temple, restored many moons later

Ghaznavi’s tomb

Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi

The medieval Ghazni

Romila Thapar, the renowned historian of antiquity, argues that the temple of Somnath may never have been attacked by Mahmud or that his attack was of little significance. It was the British House of Commons that brought it to life by demanding that the gates of Somnath be brought back from Ghazni. The funny thing is that when these gates arrived from Ghazni in India it was found that they were made in Turkey. The gates were then put in storage for white ants to feast upon!

Instead of ending caste-ism, the new Muslim rulers of Punjab added another layer to it: they became a super caste overriding all others … while the converted peasantry continued to till the land for the benefit of Muslim warlords from the north, lower class neo-Muslims were employed in court stables and other lowly jobs. Nothing changed for the newly converted Muslim peasantry

Dr Manzur Ejaz writing for The Friday Times’ series entitled: People’s history of the Punjab

Punjab’s fate started changing in the 11th century when Abu Mansur Sebüktegin, a slave king of Ghazni, began invading Raja Jaypal’s Punjab empire which stretched from Kabul eastwards, covering most of northern India. After two inconclusive wars between Jaypal and Sebüktegin, the latter died and his son Mahmud (971-1030) ascended the throne in Ghazni. It was during Mahmud’s several incursions into the Punjab that Muslim rule was established and Lahore became the province’s capital.

Ghazni and areas around it mainly depended upon trade of various goods as well as slaves for its commerce. Renowned from Ghazni to Central Asia these slave markets dealt mainly in slaves captured in remote parts of Central Asia and Russia and later, most numerously, in India. Mahmud’s father, Sebüktegin was himself a Turk slave captured when he was 12 and sold to Alaptigin. When he grew up, his talents were recognized and he married Alaptigin’s daughter and became his general and then his successor. Ghazni and its adjoining areas needed abundant agricultural products and slaves to prosper. This was one of the main reasons why the Punjab, with its rich resources and large population of would-be-slaves, was such an attractive target for the Ghaznavids.

Legend has it that Jaypal, to uphold his honour, burned himself on a pyre after Mahmud defeated him twice (and according to some thrice). Some Hindutva historians maintain that Jaypal and his family were enslaved and taken to Ghazni but the great Raja committed suicide before he was put on the market. However, this is probably not true because after Jaypal, his son Anandpal took over the reins of the empire and continued resisting Mahmud. Eventually, Anandpal was overwhelmed and Mahmud established a government in Lahore.

Mahmud did not only overwhelm Punjab’s Hindu dynasty, he also attacked Multan’s Muslim state in the same manner. Muslim apologists who consider Mahmud a but shikan (an idol destroyer) and great preacher of Islam forget to mention his destruction of Muslim rulers in Multan and elsewhere. And hardline Islamists go further, and vigorously support his invasions because Multan was ruled by Shias and Ismailis whom they do not consider to be real Muslims. Present-day Taliban are following this same tradition.

Sultan Mahmud may have been made a grandiose Muslim icon by the later historians of the Slave Dynasty to legitimize their own rule in India. Similarly, Hindu nationalists exaggerated his killing and plundering to support their own agenda. Muslim historians claim he looted unbelievably large amounts of gold, silver and diamonds from Hindu temples (as in the alleged two hundred maunds of gold from Nagarkot mandir). Hindu nationalists take the same exaggerated numbers and give it their own spin. Muslims call Sultan Mahmud an iconoclast because of his destruction of Somnath temple while Hindus take it as the greatest insult to their religion. However, Romila Thapar, the renowned historian of antiquity, after examining Persian, Gujrati and Sanskrit texts and manuscripts from the temple itself argues that Somnath may never have been attacked by Mahmud or his attack was of little significance. It was the British House of Commons that brought it to life by demanding that the gates of Somnath be brought back from Ghazni. The funny thing is that when these gates arrived from Ghazni in India it was found that they were made in Turkey. The gates were then put in storage for white ants to feast upon!

Sultan Mahmud’s character may have been idealized or demonized by opposing ideologues but it is clear that he targeted Hindu temples that were known for hoarding wealth. Hindu temples were known as depositories of accumulated wealth because they levied high taxes on worshippers and invested heavily in trade, reaping profits from, in most cases, Arab Muslim traders who had settled in the coastal cities of India much before Mahmud was born. In addition, Mahmud’s conquest of Punjab provided multitudes of slaves for Ghazni’s slave market. These slaves were used for private pleasure and for different craft industries manufacturing for the Silk Route trade.

Mahmud’s duels with Indian rulers and elites were very interesting. High caste Hindus, ready to be co-opted or to spy for him, were left alone to stick to their own religion. Many high caste Hindus opportunistically converted to Islam: we have seen the same phenomenon of opportunism during the Muslim rule that followed and even during the Sikh Raj in the Punjab. Therefore, by and large, the same ruling elite retained power after Mahmud established his writ in the Punjab. Nonetheless, many scholars and skilled and talented people ran away towards the south. Al-Beruni, Mahmud’s chronicler wrote: “Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country …This is the reason too why Hindu sciences have retired far away from parts of the country conquered by us and have fled to places, which our hand cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Benaras and other places.”

Al-Beruni also notes the change in gender relations after Mahmud’s conquest of the Punjab. According to his observation, Punjabi men always used to consult their wives about important matters. However, in Central Asian male chauvinistic society, women were not considered worthy of advice or consideration in important matters. After Mahmud’s occupation of Punjab, women began to lose their previous important status.

Most of all, the Hindu peasants, artisans and those belonging to lower castes bore the brunt of Mahmud’s invasions. After every conquest, most of the fighting men were killed and women and children were taken as slaves to be sold in the Ghazni market. Keeping in mind his talent for exaggeration, the famous historian Continue reading