Punjab, Curriculum and Heroes

Issue 8 | شمارہ ۸

Purusha | Artist: Murad Khan Mumtaz

اُٹھ شاہ حُسینا ویکھ لَے، اسیں بدلی بیٹھے بھیس
ساڈی جِند نمانی کُوک دی،اسیں رُل گئے وچ پردیس

uth way shah hussaina vaikh laey, assi bdl baithay bhaesSaDi jind namani kook di, assi rul gaiey vich pardaes

Wake up O Shah Hussain, look at our disguise
Our life is miserable and we suffer in foreign lands

In 1947, we welcomed a bride called Freedom. She brought piles and piles of dowry from her in-laws for she was, after all, a daughter of Queen Britannica and a niece of America. Among her many trinkets, there was a washing machine called “The Educational System”. This machine not only cleared out our ability to understand, to think and to question–it made sure to smack you so hard if you tried, that you would never dare to ask another question again.

Her marriage was called Independence, and her groom, Army. Army put the machine she had brought to use right away. This time, those who were thrown into the tumbler did not have stains that needed to be removed. And if they did, those stains were given a name: A stained pair of pants was called Jewish Conspiracy, and every dirty shalwar-kameez Work of the Enemies of Pakistan.

We do not read textbooks or history books. Instead, we eviscerate the more local and cultural means of speaking our history. It is as if the minds of those who are born here develops some sort of amnesia around the age thirty, when he is told that his name is Allah Rakha (kept by God), and that he comes from a place where people speak some backward language he should forget, wear shameful dresses he should abandon, have heathen traditions he should reject and inherit primitive cultures he should ignore. He will fall for the story and believe it completely, even if he is the Sarmad or the Socrates of his time. He will believe it, despite what he wears, despite the refined manners of his forefathers, and despite the distinctiveness of his inherited traditions. It does not matter if he is from the Punjab, a land of which a wise man once said:

مُلّا جو ایک لوٹے پانی کے ساتھ منہ ہاتھ دھو کر کہتا ہے کہ وہ پاک ہو گیا ہے تو پھر اُس دھرتی کی عظمت اور پوِتر ہونے کے بارے میں کیا کہا جائے کہ جہاں دریا ہاتھ کی انگلیوں کی طرح بہتے ہوں۔

mullah jo ek lote paani ke saath mana haath dho kar kehta hai ke woh paak ho gaya hai do phir us dharti ke azmat paretar ke hone ke baare mein kya kahan jaye ga jaha darya haath ki ungliyon ki tarah behte hain

The mullah washes his face and hands with a tinsel of water and declares them clean; what to say then of the grandeur and hollowness of a land where the rivers flow like the fingers of a hand.


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اج آکھاں وارث شاہ نوں کِتوں قبراں وچوں بول
تے اج کتاب عشق دا کوئی اگلہ ورقہ پھول

Aj aakhan waaris shah noo kitoN qabraN vichoN bol!
Te aj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol!

Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from your grave!”
And turn to the next page in your book of love.

In his new book, Tareekh ka Naya Zaviah (A New Turn of History), Dr. Mubarak Ali argues that facts, verification, interpretation and appraisal are all important parts of doing history. It is when the spirit of critical interpretation is breathed into facts, he says, that they “come to life, are awakened and become active”. He goes on:

When a writer assesses events, he does so on the basis of a subject, an ideology and a thought. As a result, history is not written from a singular perspective but from several. That is why there is no break in historiography but fresh new analyses arise and give life to new meanings and understandings.

This can be said about our curricula as well. Take a look at Urdu, Islamiyat and Social Studies–all subsumed under the umbrella course, Pakistan Studies. There is no meaningful difference between the three. And, the heroes we are taught in Social Studies and Pakistan Studies are based entirely on lies–the history we are learn is in no way tied to the motherland or its people, the land that surrounds us.

People sing the praises of our Mughal rulers because they are Muslim. A negative remark about Shahenshah Aurangzeb in the presence of The Educated prompts a strong reaction: it is as if the Prophet Himself has been insulted. But, if we look more closely at history beyond our textbooks, we discover that Aurangzeb killed his brothers, threw his father in prison, and (according to some sources) had his eyes plucked out. Turn to our curriculum, however, and you will find that he was a God-fearing man who transcribed copies of the Quran with his own hand, sew prayer caps, and managed his domestic finances with the proceeds he received from his work. One wonders when he ran the affairs of the state! In the same vein, the Mughal emperor Akbar is called Akbar-e-Azam (Akbar the Great) in our curriculum. A tolerant man, we learn, who had all of Hindustan kneeling before him.

But in the pages and pages of textbooks and history books we read, there is not a single line about Dulla Bhatti. Who was he? Where was he from? Was he a soldier of the Mughal Army or was he a general? Did he fight with Akbar The Great for peanuts? What crime did Dulla’s father commit, to justify his killing? Whose body was quartered and hung from the spires of Lahore’s Shahsi Qila? Characters like Dulla Bhatti, everyday heroes of everyday folk, find no space in our curriculum.

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اندر کھوٹ باہر سچیار
علموں بس کریں او یار

andar khaut bahar suchyaar
ilmon bas kariaN O yaar

Deceit in your heart but honest on the surface
Enough of learning my friend.

Anti-Sharia and anti-Pakistan content does not make it into our curriculum, it is claimed, but that has not stopped the stories of these heroes from reaching ordinary people. Perhaps, if you are from Lahore, you have heard of Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Aashiq Jat and Alam Lohar’s theater group. Theatre groups like theirs were alive and energetic 20 or 30 years ago. They would regularly perform tales of historical characters like Puran Bhagat, Dulla Bhatti, Rani of Jhansi, Malangi, Chin o Rayam, Nizam Lohar, Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal, Dad Fatiana, Bhagat Singh, Sohni Mahival, Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, and Mirza Sahibaan. The stories of these figures would be told recounted through Qissa Goi, a form of traditional story-telling. Many of these characters, who did not become a part of our curriculum or shared memory, continued to be presented in theaters, and in plays like Bacca-e-Jamhur. Performed at festivals, these actors and story-tellers became a way of connecting people to their history, and their heroes.

Along with love, tolerance and humanity, these stories also teach about rebellion and revolt: against cruelty and tyrannical rule. Tales like as Sassi Pannu, Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahival and Mirza Sahibaan, nurture both a passion for love and a thirst for rebellion–against authority and feudal tradition. Where Sufi intellectuals and poets like Bhagat Kabir, Baba Bulleh Shah, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Mian Mohammad Baksh, Baba Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Baba Waris Shah, Sultan Al Gharafa Haq Baba Sarkar, and others were leading examples of religious harmony for the world. But they also taught us how to speak truth to power, by standing on the frontlines of the battles of their times. Dulla Bhatti, Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal, Dad Fatiana, Rani of Jhansi, Malangi, Nizam Lohar, and Bhagat Singh taught us about revolting against our tyrannous rulers, and called out the so-called educated, who used the curriculum to oppress others.

The constant praise of Mughals and other invaders, through the invocation of the magnificence of Islam, declares that a thousand years of Muslim rule was glorious. By doing so, they throw a shroud over the stories and struggles of ordinary people: farmers, laborers, women, children, elderly people, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

اَساں بیجے رُکھ انار دے سانوں لبّھے تُمّے کَوڑ
اَساں مرن دیہاڑ اُڈیک دے ساڈی ود دی جاوےَ سوڑ

asa.N beej rukh anaar dy saaNoon labhay tummay kauR
asa.N marn dehaR uDeek dy saaDi wadh di jaiey sauR.

We sowed pomegranate seeds but got bitter gourd in return
We await death but our painful life keeps on lingering.


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Muslims and non-Muslims are separated in our curriculum. That Dulla Bhatti and Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal are not included side by side with Muslims never ceases to amaze me. Our curriculum does not even name Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal or Dad Fatiana in passing. If we interviewed students who passed their Matric and Intermediate exams in 2012, we would undoubtedly find that 99.99% of them would not even know the names of the heroes that are actually their own.

Bhagat Singh, Dulla Bhatti, Nizam Lohar, Malangi, Sobhas Chandra Bose and Master Tara Singh fought for freedom by fighting their invaders–irrespective of the religious origins of the latter–including the British. The British Empire declared these freedom fighters thieves, robbers and rebels before they hung them. The sad part of this is, that the very Empire that evicted our heroes from our history pages, have done their job so thoroughly that history-as-we-are-taught continues to call them thieves, even today.

That means our contemporary leaders have followed in the footsteps of the lords they supposedly kicked out. Like the lords that once ruled them, our leaders today fear the dangerous thoughts and struggles of these ‘madmen’. They worry that the people of our land–tired of cruelty, oppression, inflation, injustice, poverty unemployment and the wars imposed by imperialism–discover their own heroes. They are afraid that our people would turn these figures into an example for their own lives. In the words of Malangi, who speaks here of the suppression of the local:

دِنے راج فرنگی دا تے راتِیں راج ملنگی دا۔

dine raaj farangi daa te raatein raaj malangi da

The rule of the foreigner by day; the way of malangi by night

Those who rule us wish to sever the ties of our common people from their soil. They want to expunge any memory or knowledge of great individuals who were born in this land: the intellectual, the surme, the qalandar, the madman. They want to render invisible anyone who would give testimony to the existence of this land. They want us to forget those who nurtured relations not with the durbar of the Shah, but with durbars of the hamlet; not with those who mastered the language of the Shah, but spoke the language of the people; not with those who would pen tales for the Shah in exchange for concessions, but those wrote of and for the people. Remembering these people reinforces the sentiment that culture does not equal singing the praises of those who invade us, but through a telling and re-telling of our own stories.

اسیں پُتر ہیں پنجاب دے ساڈی رہتل گئی گواچ
اسیں اپنا آپ پچھانیئے سانوں نئیں پئی اُوندی جاچ
ساڈی ڈور کِسے دے ہتھ اے اسیں نچیئے پُتلی ناچ
اسیں ڈِھڈُوں ہاراں منِّیاں ساڈے جُسّے نئیں کمزورے

assi puttar haa.N Punjab dy saaDi rehtal gaeyi gawach
assi apna aap pachanieay sanoo.N naei paei aundi jach
saaDi Door kis dy Hath aiey assi nachiey putli naach
assi DiDhon haara.N mnyaaN saaDay jussay naie kamzooray

We are sons of Punjab who have lost their daily life
How do we recognize ourselves we don’t have a clue
Who has our strings making us puppets dance
In our hearts we have conceded failure now our physique is weakened

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Upon the death of Baba Bulleh Shah, the durbar qazis issued a fatwa proclaiming

Abdullah Shah Ghazi, popularly known as Bulleh Shah, has been evicted from Islam and to offer his funeral prayers is not in accordance with Sharia.

It is said that Baba Jee’s body remained unburied for three days, awaiting permission to be laid to rest in his ancestral cemetery. The permission never came, and he was laid to rest behind the city. Though it is possible that the body was buried promptly, the important point to take note of is the role of ulema then and the role of the ulema today. Today, too, they carry the titles of Qazi, Maulana, Sheikh-ul-Islam and Doctor.

The truth is that yesterday’s mullah had a trade: he was an employee of land grabbers. He would try to extract fragments from religion so he could declare his masters God’s regents. It was a way to justify their forcible acquisition as the will of Allah. Today, he is trying to prove that the wealth employers enjoy is a bounty from God. He is engaged in dividing people on the basis of religion, to prevent them from uniting on the basis of their victimhood, and rising up against his current masters.

Our contemporary mullahs are afraid that if we connect ourselves to our land and language through our religion, then we will refuse to follow these venerated mullahs. People, they fear, will leave Islam en masse.

Who are these mullahs anyway? They are people who justify the indiscriminate killing not only of believers from other religions, by of believers that come from their own mosques. They worry that people may begin to follow Baba Bulleh Shah–figures that unite people from different religions, individuals who would not feed the dove to the hawk in exchange for a penny.

نہ مِیں مومن وچ مسیتاں
نہ مَیں وچ کفر دیاں ریتاں
نہ مَیں موسیٰ نہ فرعون

Na maiN momin vich maseetaN
Na maiN vich kufar di reetaN
Na maiN moosa na firuan

I am neither a believer going to mosque
Nor given to non-believing ways
Neither Moses nor Pharaoh


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Just as the qazis of the time announced fatwas calling for the death of Baba Bulleh Shah, Baba Jee Waris Shah was expelled from Malka Hans in Punjab upon the fatwas of a qazi. The mosque in whose courtyard Baba Jee wrote Heer Ranjha sits on a narrow street; across the road from a historic Hindu temple. The remains of the temple can still be seen today–it has not yet occurred to a protector of Islam to erase this part of our history.

In neither the pages of history, nor in the words of Baja Jee, does one find any mention of tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Malka Hans. But in the space that is given these people–in our curriculum or our 6th or 7th grade Urdu textbook–leaves us wondering whether Baba Jee was deeply ashamed of his work, or just another devout maulana.

In the meantime, Punjabi as a subject is almost second-class, and is offered as an elective at the BA or FA level. Most students pick it to get an “easy A.” And even when they do, universities, like Punjab University, say they can take the Punjabi test in Urdu.

For the last 67 years, the state has relentlessly attempted to malign and erase Sufi intellectuals and their peers who speak the languages of our soil from our history books and our memories. We can see examples of this in our everyday: Their work can rarely be found in large book stores. To find them, one has to go scrounging in sidewalk stalls that sell erotic novels and questionable remedies. There is not a single school in the whole country named after some of our most magnificent heroes.

اساں مَورہ پیتا سچ دا ساڈے نِیلے ہو گئے بُل
اساں رہ گئے کَل مُکلّڑے ساڈاوَیری ہویا کُل

assaN mooruh peeta sach da saDay neelay ho gaey bul
assan reh gaey kal mukkalRay saaDa vairi hoya kul

We drank poison of truth and our lips turned blue
We are left all alone with whole world our enemy

Take Khwaja Ghulam Farid. Alongside Punjabi, he mastered four other languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, and the two court languages, Farsi and Urdu. Despite his prolific skill in languages, however, he did not turn towards the court, nor were courtly languages his medium of expression. Instead, he remained among the people, setting up camp countless miles from the thrones of Delhi and Lahore. He spoke a people’s language, stayed with them and made them the essence of his expression.

نال جوگ کر۔۔۔ کالا ویس
رانجھا ٹُریا ۔۔۔رنگ پور دیس
ہِیرنَمانی۔۔۔ پئی اُڈیکے
آوے رانجھا۔۔۔ بن درویش

naal jog kar….kaala vais
ranjah turya…rangpur dais
heer namani…payei uDeekay
away raanjha ban darvaish

He escaped in black cloak… like an ascetic
Ranjha went to… Rungpur country
Not too wise, Heer… awaits him (in the hope)
Maybe Ranjha… will come as a dervish

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After we have lauded the glorious Islamic ways of the Mughals, we move on to stories about the British and the struggle for Independence in the curriculum we run into in our schools. One gets the impression that Allama Iqbal had a dream one random night, and that Quaid-e-Azam flew in from London the very next morning to transform his dream into a reality. It is as if Pakistan is not a country, but a castle of sand made in a flash on the beaches of Karachi (though one suspect, given the way the state and the army have been steering this country through its so-called delicate times for 67 years, Pakistan may just be a sand castle.)

Our curriculum gives an account of the British by speaking about the Simon Commission, the Kent Mission, the Nehru Report, and so on. The accounts are less a history, and more a schedule of meetings between the lords and the gentry. One walks away with the impression that the British had a soft spot for Muslims and that Hindus were the true enemies. After Muslim-British meetings, we learn, the Father of The Nation made the case for freedom and won.

Even when a mafia outfit takes over a handful of land, it does not cede the territory unless the legal process is backed up by the use of force. Similarly, when someone occupies a piece of land in a village, the gun has to be used and blood is often spilt in the battle that must be waged to win back the land. How is it then possible that a philosopher’s dream and a lawyer’s arguments were sufficient to oust an empire that held such massive tracts of land, that it could say that the sun never set on its shores?

If we were to restrict our discussion to Punjab, then British control arrived approximately a century after it did in Bengal. This was a land where an invader’s attacks were consistently met with armed struggle and the sacrifice of people’s lives. How is it then possible that no one raised their gun against the British Empire? Dulla Bhatti, Rai Ahmed Khan Kharal, Dad Fatiyanah, Bhagat Singh, Sobash Chandr Bose and many other such individuals are, in fact, the very people who resisted the Mughals and gave their lives for their motherland.

میں قربان تِنہاں توں باہوؒ
جنہاں عشق سلامت کیتا ہُو

mai.N qurbaan tinhaa.N tau.N baho
jinha.N ishq salmat keeta ho

What an amazing deed you have done Baho
Keeping the spirit of love alive


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Curricula are designed by those who control the state. That is, dominant groups determine what will be taught in classrooms and who will be presented as heroes. No doubt the reader is also aware that, before the arrival of the British, there were no land deeds in the sub-continent, meaning there was no permanent lordship over the land. Instead, depending on how much land one occupied, one would pay tax to the sultan through temporary landlords. After gaining control of the territory, the British introduced the concept of permanent land ownership. This meant that the locals who sided with the British and betrayed their motherland were gifted vast tracts of land in return.

For this reason, those who were anti-British were also opposed to the Crown’s native collaborators. This is the reason that after 1947, when those loyal to the British, that is, the landlords, seized the state, they expunged all those who were opposed to their masters and to them from the pages of history.

آ ویکھ سُخن دیا وارثا تیرے جنڈیالے دی خیر
اج پُتر بولی ماں دے پئے ماں نل رکھن وَیر
اج ہِیر تیری پئی سہکدی اج کیدو چڑیا رنگ
اج تخت ہزارے ٹئے گئے اج اُجڑیا تیرا جھنگ

aa vaikh sukhan dya vaarsa tairay janDialay di khair
aj putr boli maaN day paiey maaN nl rakhan vair
aj heer tairi paiyi shkdhi aaj kaido churya rung
aj Takhat Hazaaray Deh gaye aj ojRya taira Jhang

Come and look O great poet, may your junDyala stay blessed
In these times, even sons are hostile towards their mothers
Today your heer is in trouble and keedo is prospering
Takht Hazara has been destroyed and your Jhang is deserted

What greater proof can there be of our continued loyalty to our past lords, than the expulsion of our languages from our curriculum more than 67 years after we have won our supposed freedom? Not only have we degreed the languages of our historical emperors the language of the land, but the weight of the state supports a curriculum and a media that convinces those who speak their mother tongues that their language is inadequate for the instruction of knowledge. They argue that local languages do not possess the capacity for scientific language, and that the process of innovation has somehow been halted within them. An even greater crime than all this is that rulers are bent upon convincing the people that their mother tongues are spoken by inferior and ignorant people; that their languages are backward; and, that they must learn the languages of their conquerors to become pious and modern.

Meanwhile, the mulla is busy establishing Arabic as the True Language of Muslims. All other languages, they say, are those of non-believers. After we die the angels will account for our deeds in Arabic! If this is true, I wonder, what will become of Baba Bulleh Shah, and others like him?

What I do understand is that the loyalties of these people were, and perhaps still are, with kings sitting very far away. They do not want people to adopt the languages of their soil. Surely, the negative consequence of this will be that people will develop a relationship with their land, their culture and their history. And this is the very thing that is the fatal for the authority of these rulers. They remain, even today, afraid that a Sachal Sarmast, a Rehman Baba, a Bulleh Shah or a Waris Shah may be born.

بلھے شاہؒ ۔۔۔ اساں مرنا ناہیں
گو ر پیا کوئی ہور

Bulleh Shah … assa.N marna naahi
gaur peya koi hor

Bulleh Shah will not die
It is not me in the grave, its someone else

Muhammad Babar is affiliated with the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) Punjab and a member of the Awami Workers Party (AWP). This essay was originally published in NSF’s journal, Talib-e-Ilm.

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6 Responses to Punjab, Curriculum and Heroes

  1. EHTASHAM GONDAL on Jul 2017 at 3:49 PM

    There are A lot of folk hero’s still unknown to us.will they remain unknown

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