‘Horse stable archives’ and the latest promise to a gullible Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, April 05, 2015

As long as that great sage of Lahore, Sheikh Mubarak Ali, was alive, a visit to his small shop on the corner of Hakeeman-Tehsil bazaars below the mosque he built was a ‘must stop’ as part of my fact-collecting rounds. The loss of this ‘elder’ is still felt by all who knew him.

Now his son Shahid sits there, and my ‘mandatory’ cup of tea, ordered by him to all his children before he died, is always lovingly available. Old ‘walled city’ folk possess a hospitality that is endearing. But my story today is more than what Sheikh Sahib used to tell me. My story began one day while standing at the Lower Mall Road edge. I looked towards Nasser Bagh, named so by ZA Bhutto, whose original name was Gol Bagh, and beyond to my old college - the Government College – and I imagined the early days of British rule. Where today stands the college gymnasium was once a chapel, and before that in Sikh days the Lahore horse-driven stagecoach station standing on the hilltop. On the other side, now inside the French-built Punjab Secretariat, are two buildings that need to be also remembered. So let my story wander a wee bit. Now back to Sheikh Mubarak Ali.

One day he got up from his ‘takht’ and took me around the corner just off Tehsil Bazaar and up an alley. In an opening stood a huge house. He proudly told me: “This is the building where Maharajah Ranjit Singh set up his ‘Sadr Adalat’ (Chief Court), and this bazaar was named Tehsil because this is where the ‘tehsil’ (courts) was”. Ironically, this was the very house where the maharajah’s Hungarian homeopathic doctor Martin Honigberger also stayed. With French advice this first Chief Court was set up in 1830, much before the British took Lahore in 1849. I have been in search of legal documents which the French are known to have drafted, which set up a formal legal system in Punjab. They were, as one source puts them, an amended and modernised version of the old Moghal-era rules of procedure. The French word ‘pleader’ emerged for a lawyer, even though it does sound English, but initially this was what lawyers were addressed as, even in early British days.

When the British came, the Board of Administration of the East India Company, comprising Henry Lawrence, his brother John and Charles Mansel, the man charged with looking after ‘justice’, set up their Chief Court at this very place. Later on they shifted it to just off Court Street to a building which today is part of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. The British put in place a seven-tier court system, with the Chief’s Court at the top and the court of the Tehsildar at the beginning of the legal process. In 1866 the present front building of the Lahore High Court was built and the Chief Court once again shifted to its present location. Its current name is the Lahore High Court. Five years later, as work expanded fast and Punjabis took to litigation in a big way, an addition building came up. In 1924 two further wings were built as the workload increased. It goes to the credit of Mr Justice Azmat Saeed, who then as chief justice refused to knock down the damaged eastern building after a nearby bomb blast. His conservation work was, and is, much appreciated.

If you visit the Old Chief Court building inside the Punjab Civil Secretariat, to its western side is a huge building that now houses the main meeting halls. This is where the first Governor’s Council met. This was to serve as the first building where the Punjab Assembly met. In the initial days of the East India Company rule this is where the Board of Administration met. This building housed the ‘Fauj-i-Khas’ in the Sikh days and was built by the French, not the British. After the First World War, the British, weaken by the experience, moved to consolidate their rule by introducing a modicum of representative government. A Punjab Chief’s Council used to meet here. But as the parliamentary system was brought in, a formal structure was needed. This need saw the emergence of the present structure of the Punjab Assembly at Charing Cross.

Once the new Punjab Assembly building was completed in 1935, this ‘Old Assembly Building’ as old maps tell us, was handed over to the bureaucracy to hold important meetings, a function that it still carries out. With time as the number of elected members rose, next to the new Punjab Assembly a new structure has come up. To one side an MPAs hostel structure has also been built, creating immense traffic problems on both sides of the area.

The ‘Gol Bagh’ was initially called ‘Company Bagh’, a name that was also used for the Lawrence Gardens, now further renamed Jinnah Gardens. For some time this garden was also, officially, called ‘Band Garden’, because the first British rulers held Sunday picnics here with their military bands playing soft lilting music and the wives of British officers, dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ would mingle and chat and dance the evenings away. Locals were not allowed near this place. Once buildings on the Lower Mall came up, a road was constructed around the garden, and hence the name ‘Gol Bagh’.

It is interesting to find out how our essential structures of governance emerged from inside the Walled City to expand in size and distance from its origins. Research work on this is needed. It goes without saying that there is a need to take a fresh look at these structures from a utilitarian point of view, let alone given the bludgeoning logistic problems it poses.

The history of Lahore, no matter where you stand, is there for the new generation to discover and research. Our educational institutions do not teach local perspectives, let alone the history of Lahore, or Punjab. If our archives lie in disarray, with bureaucrats and lazy clerks making scholars and researchers feel like criminals if they seek an old document, or book, or manuscript, surely in the days to come there will be more honesty and openness, let alone respect for our history. To imagine that the younger generation does not care is an assumption which needs to be put to the test.



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