The Lahore Effect Reminisces of pre-Independence Lahore

The Lahore effect

Reminisces of pre-Independence Lahore

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

ایک دل، ہزار داستان، از آغا اشرف

اور انسان مر گیا، از رامانند ساگر

میرا شہر لاہور، یونس ادیب

These Lahore boys, all of them in their late 70s or early 80s, reminisce a Lahore of a bygone era, when it was prided as the most communally harmonious city of northern India

I am a long-time resident in Sweden where I have been living since September 1973. When the initial euphoria of living in a new place subsided and life assumed some sort of normality, it began to dawn upon me that I shared the distinction of longing for a very special place on earth, which has a global following: Lahore, the city of my birth. It does not matter if the decision to leave was economic or political, voluntary or under duress and threat. For most old residents of this city, sooner or later, Lahore comes back in their lives as the centerpiece of a personal pride. The mystique of Lahore is special and grows on one with every passing year.

In Stockholm, a core Lahore connection has served as the basis of a continuous monthly rotating all-evening social get-together since 1991. It began on every Friday at six o’clock in the evening, but has now changed to Sunday afternoons. After dinner begins a long session of jokes, political commentary, argumentation on religion and God, Indian and Pakistani films and songs and so on, but as the evening wears on, most of us have travelled back many times to Lahore. We have some loyal Urdu-speaking members who have been with us all along. Over the years, they have learnt enough Punjabi and vicariously experienced the Lahore effect to experience a high when talking about the city. Our evenings continue till about midnight or even later.

I don’t know how many such regular Lahori baithaks (sittings) exist in the world, but I do believe they exist everywhere. I have twice had the opportunity to attend such a meeting in New Delhi at the residence of R.G. Nayyar who studied at Forman Christian College before partition. I was introduced to that ‘Lahore Club’ by the most famous ambassador of Lahore in Delhi, Pran Nevile. His book, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, is a great chronicle of the 1930s and 1940s.1 These Lahore boys, all of them in their late 70s or early 80s, reminisce a Lahore of a bygone era, when it was prided as the most communally harmonious city of northern India. I was amazed and somewhat embarrassed by the fact that no one showed any malice towards me although all of them had fled to India to save their lives from Muslim attackers. On the contrary, I turned out to represent all that was good in the Muslims of Lahore.

Almost all of them recalled the help rendered by some Muslim friend or neighbor during the riots. Pran Nevile said that his father opted for Pakistan and they had left Lahore temporarily with the intention of returning as soon as things cooled down. Dr Jagdish Chander Sirin told me how an uncle and a cousin of his were stabbed and taken to Mayo Hospital. They mentioned his name to the doctor on duty, Muhammad Nazir, who happened to be a colleague of his. He looked after them as if they were his own uncle and cousin. Yuvraj Krishan provided a detailed account of fires that raged in the walled city as observed from his rooftop in Purani Anarkali. Ram Parkash Kapur described how five truckloads of his family members and their belongings crossed the border at Wagah thanks to the special favor of his father’s friends, the Muslim League leaders Nawab Mamdot and Sardar Shaukat Hayat. Dr Prem Sobti also had a narrow escape from Lahore but came back in the 1980s and met his old class fellows who received him with great love and affection.

The general impression I got was that neighbors were almost never involved in the raids on Hindu and Sikh houses. The one person everybody remembered with acrimony was a magistrate, G.M. Cheema, who apparently had connived at various plots to set fire to Hindu and Sikh property in the walled city of Lahore. They were pushed away by him for violating the curfew when they came seeking shelter. I later learnt from the Muslims of Lahore that Cheema’s ire was a reaction to being fired at from a Hindu locality. Though he escaped unhurt, he sought revenge from all Hindus and Sikhs. The Indian filmmaker and writer, Ramanand Sagar, mentions such an incident of firing upon a magistrate by Hindus in his immortal work, Aur Insaan Mar Gya (And Humanity Died), which is set against the riots and fires in Lahore in 1947. 2 I spent a whole evening with him and his family in Mumbai on 18 October 2001. It turned out that Sagar was not only from Lahore but also from Mozang where my paternal ancestors have lived for ages.

Lahore before the 1947 riots: Ever since it fell to the Afghans in the early 11th century, Lahore had continuously been a religiously mixed and varied city. According to the 1941 census, the total population of the municipality of Lahore was 671,659, out of which Muslims constituted a majority of 64.50%. Except for a small Christian community and some individuals from other minor groups such as Parsees, the rest were Hindus and Sikhs who together made up 36% of the population. The situation was similar in Lahore district as a whole. Muslims constituted 60.62% while Hindus and Sikhs together formed 39.38% of the population. The Hindus and Sikhs, however, owned some 80% of the property in the city and the district. That Lahore ceased to exist at the time of the partition of India.

In his autobiography, Ek Dil Hazaar Dastan (One Heart and a Thousand Stories), Agha Ashraf describes at length his childhood spent within the walled city in the 1920s. Children of all communities studied together in the Dayal Singh School. He describes some of his Hindu and Sikh teachers in saintly terms. Ashraf played truant along with his Hindu, Muslim and Sikh class-fellows, often spending time in Hindu temples on such occasions. Drinking, opium eating, gambling and other such deviations were widespread in the inner city. Ashraf himself indulged in bouts of drinking, along with his friends.3

In another major autobiography, Mera Shehr Lahore (My City Lahore), Yunas Adeeb mostly dwells on the period from the late 1930s onwards. He could casually enter orthodox Brahmin homes and go to the temple with the older, unmarried sister of his neighbour Pandit Bhagat Ram.4 He notes that the people had evolved their own peculiar ways and means of circumventing the strictures of orthodox Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, thus creating a heterodox way of life that was based on mutual respect and affection. He recalls that Hindus would shower flowers on the Muharram procession while Muslims flocked to the great Ramleela festival held in the Minto Park behind the Badshahi Mosque, and many took part in the Diwali and Dusehra celebrations. He observes:

‘I remember in particular Lala Ganpat Rai because of his typical Hindu dress and appearance. He wore narrow pyjama-type trousers, a kurta (long shirt), a waistcoat, and a black pointed cap on his head. Looking at his face one knew that he was extremely cordial and friendly. It was his routine that when he passed the mosque in Kucha Darzian (locality of the tailors) he would stop, bend down to touch the steps of the mosque with his hands, and then with both hands pressed together pay his respects.’5

Communal harmony was on occasion seriously threatened and riots would break out. One such occasion was the publication of the book Rangeela Rasul (The Merry Messenger of God). It created a great commotion and Muslim tempers rose high. On 6 April 1929, Ilam Din, a Muslim youth, stabbed the publisher, Rajpal, to death with a knife.

6 The Lahore High Court found him guilty and sentenced him to death on 17 July 1929, and on 31 October the same year he was hanged in the Mianwali jail and buried there. It was due to persistent demonstrations and assurances by the notables of the Muslim community, that peace and order would not be disturbed if his body were returned to the family and buried in Lahore, which convinced the British authorities to comply with the demand.

7 A few years later, in 1935, the Masjid/Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj dispute between Sikh and Muslim zealots turned into a bloody conflict. It had its origins in conflicting claims to a place deemed sacred by both. Many people were killed and a veritable threat to law and order existed for some days.

8 Notwithstanding the occasional outburst of communal friction and confrontation, Punjab in general and Lahore in particular maintained peace and normality until the riots of 1947. The credit for this largely goes to the Punjab Unionist Party that had established a power sharing arrangement in the province since its foundation in 1923. It was the leading pro-British inter-communal party representing the powerful rural elite of Punjab. Tahir Lahori notes that the politicians of the 1930s observed high standards of honesty:

‘The finance minister was Sir Manohar Lal. His only son was an employee in a bank, but he did not hold any high position. If the finance minister had wanted he could have found him any high position. Sir Choutu Ram owned some agricultural land before he became a minister. When he left that job he still had the same piece of land. All leaders were of strong character. Muslim leaders were also of firm and exemplary patriotic character.’9

I had met the late songwriter and music director of the Bombay film industry, Prem Dhawan, at his old house in Juhu in Bombay in 1999. He had the following to say:

‘My father was a jail superintendent who was posted in different parts of Punjab. It was while he was posted in Lahore that I came in contact with Indian revolutionaries in the Lahore jail. By the time I graduated from the Forman Christian College in 1942 my conversion to Marxism had taken place. The atmosphere in F. C. College was cosmopolitan. The students came from all the communities. Most of us got along very well. Things were the same in most other parts of Lahore. It was indeed a city of tolerance and light. I left for Bombay in 1943. I have never understood to this day what happened that four years later all Hindus and Sikhs had to leave Lahore forever. To me this remains a puzzle.’

My (author’s) father, Mian Ghulam Muhammad Ghazi (born 3 February 1913), told me that Hindus and Sikhs were a minority in Mozang. All the communities got along well because in the traditional order there was a belief that everyone had his own way of relating to God. Orthodox Hindus would not eat food cooked by Muslims, given their aversion to meat and some other ingredients. Muslims, however, were not bothered about eating food served by Hindus or Sikhs. The Hindus happily accepted fruits and other gifts from Muslims. He recalls how he and his other class fellows found a novel way to protest the harsh methods of one of their Hindu teachers, a Brahmin. They put meat on his desk. The old fellow was livid with rage and beat up everyone but nobody in the class, including the Hindu boys, betrayed the plotters.

My father played hockey and kabaddi for Forman Christian College and came second in the one-mile race in the annual Punjab University sports competition held on 18-19 November 1932. In 1964, F.C. College and Government College celebrated their centenaries and the Government of Pakistan allowed some Formanites and Ravians from India to visit their old alma maters. It was a moving scene as old and middle-aged men met and embraced each other, some crying loudly. My father got an opportunity to meet his sports instructor, a Sikh who recognized him although my father had left college in 1933. Among those who came from India to the centenary was Prabodh Chander whom our principal, Professor Sinclair, described as ‘once upon a time the life and soul of the college.’ It was many years later that I learnt Prabodh Chander was a leading Congress leader of Lahore.

In March 2004, I spoke to the well-known leftist Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan about Lahore before partition. She was very nostalgic and remembered Lahore as a serene and friendly city where all communities easily got along. Her father, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, had been chief minister of Punjab and was an architect of the exemplary Hindu-Muslim-Sikh communal harmony represented by the Punjab Unionist Party. The poet Saleem Shahid from Mozang told me at the Punjabi World Congress held in May 2002 in London that Hindus and Sikhs lived very peaceably in Mozang. Despite the rise of militant Muslim movements such as the Ahrar and Khaksars who had a strong presence in our area, there were no communal attacks against non-Muslims. Such movements were basically anti-imperialist in their orientation and objectives.

On 29 July 2002, I met Professor Shaukat Ali, one of Pakistan’s most distinguished academics and educationists, at his son’s house in Mansfield, Massachusetts. He had taught several generations of students at the Punjab University from the 1950s onwards and later worked in the US where he now lives a retired life. He gave me the following sketch about his life in Lahore before partition and what happened during the partition riots. Despite his failing eyesight, I was pleased to know that he had read some of my earlier works. On 29 July 2002 I recorded a formal interview with him on pre-partition Lahore.

‘I was born in 1923 in a very poor Muslim family in the slums of Bhati Gate. We lived in a predominantly Hindu locality of Mohalla Jallotian, Kucha Nakarchian inside the walled city. We were five brothers and sisters with no earning member of the family except my widowed mother who performed various domestic chores for others, such as stitching and needlework. Of the 250 or more families living in that locality only five were Muslim. Our Hindu neighbors were gracious and God-fearing. Almost all of them kept a cow at home. Knowing that my mother was a poor but hard-working woman they would give us milk, butter and curd free of charge. At the time of Hindu festivals such as holi and diwali we would receive sweets from them. I don’t remember a single instance when they made us feel unwelcome in their homes. The only restriction was the kitchen where Muslims were not allowed. This was part of their religious practice and had nothing to do with discrimination as such. The Hindu women would come and spend hours talking to my mother.

‘I studied at the Dayal Singh High School. Most of my friends at school were Hindus. There was no discrimination at school, our teachers were fair and kind and very helpful. The school was located in Said Mittha Bazar and I had to walk that distance on foot from Bhati Gate. It was my great desire to become an academic, but my circumstances were most discouraging. However, my mother took on more work and my maternal uncle who lived in Said Mittha Bazar also helped me financially to get admitted to Dayal Singh College where I did well.

السلام علیکم و رحمۃ اللہ و برکاتہ!

الله حافظ!
محمّد عبد الحمید

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