HARKING BACK: Remembering holocausts small and large

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 4, 2015

There is no doubt that over the centuries Lahore and its environs have seen a lot of bloodshed, and that the last major holocaust was in 1947 when the Punjab was divided and the greatest exodus in human history took place.

But then before this holocaust, which sadly our elders refuse to discuss openly and record the killings on both sides, there have been holocausts surely greater in intensity which we have forgotten.

We deliberately forget 1947 and earlier such incidents because they have a communal twist, which tends to divorce the reality of the underlying reasons.

It is about time that we start to re-examine past events from the point of view of the people and not the rulers. Let us start this piece with an abiding slogan that still lives in the hearts of a lot of Punjabis.

‘There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim’. The year was 1499. In the middle of the chaos that Punjab faced with repeated Afghan and Mughal invasions, this slogan lay the foundation of modern Punjabi nationalism. Within exactly 300 years of this slogan reaching every Punjabi’s lips, all foreign forces and rulers had been ejected from the land.

It is a fact of life that because of the great Sufis, the speed with which Islam spread was amazing. The people accepted the ‘message’ willingly.

But once brutal force and threats were applied by invaders, the appeal of the ‘message’ faded.

Within this fact lies the causes of the rise of Sikhism, which I would term the beginning of the rise of Punjabi nationalism. The process had more to do with the terrible persecution of the peasants of Punjab. We read of terrible slaughters, as also amazingly comic rulers filling power vacuums created by the constant struggle against foreign rule.

Thankfully a ‘peoples’ way of researching our past is increasingly free of communal colour, hue, shade or prejudice. If we dwell, briefly, on the end of the rule of Mir Mannu (1748-53) in Lahore, followed by that of his three-year old son, who died in mysterious circumstances a year later in May 1754, we see Mir Mannu’s wife Mughlani Begum taking over power, who handed over ruling Lahore to three eunuchs.

Many claimed that the mother killed her son so as to be able to rule directly. This amazing and crafty woman had love affairs galore and ended up inviting the Afghans by promising to inform them “where all the treasures of the sub-continent lay”. Traitor or patriot, her role remains dubious.

But before we get into what she ended up doing, let us devote this piece to describing the massacre of Sikhs and supporting Muslim peasants that led to the rise of Mir Mannu. This is known as ‘The Lesser Holocaust’, or in Punjabi as the ‘Choota Ghallugara’ of 1746.

The massacre was the result of the revenue minister of Lahore, Lakhpat Rai, who lived in his Bazaar Mochi ‘haveli’, seeking revenge against the Sikhs over the death of his brother in a skirmish with Sikh and Muslim peasants. One account says he was trying to remove their women. The peasants resisted and killed him.

Lakhpat Rai got Governor Yahya Khan to allow the persecution of Sikhs for being ‘infidels’. Imagine Hindus calling Sikhs infidels! The Muslim ‘mullahs’ of Lahore, invariably opposed to the Sufi influence over Sikh and Muslim peasants, supported Lakhpat Rai.

It was basically a struggle for power by the Jat peasants of Punjab. Sikh peasants, like Muslim and Hindu peasants, were basically Jat tribes with mainly Khatri leaders.

For starters all the Sikhs living inside the Walled City were rounded up and paraded outside Delhi Gate. Inside this gate, from Mohallah Qasaban (butcher’s precinct), the butchers of Lahore were forced to slaughter their Sikh neighbours, their women and even small children.

All of them were given the option of converting to Islam. Each and every Sikh refused. This incident took place in Lahore on March 10, 1746. Peasants from around Lahore fled across the River Ravi, but were surrounded and massacred. It is estimated that over 7,000 Sikhs were massacred and over 3,000 brought to Lahore in chains.

These frightened 3,000 Sikhs were then butchered after all of them refused to convert to Islam. Their heads were mounted on pikes and spears. Outside the gates of Lahore the entrances were lined with them on both sides.

Sikh temples were all pulled down, the use of the word ‘Guru’ was banned and a punishment of 50 lashes imposed on anyone using this word. There was a ban on the use of the word ‘gur’ (sugar) because it was very near the word ‘guru’. Shopkeepers used the word ‘metha’ instead.

In such circumstances and given the conflict between Afghan invaders and the Mughal rulers of Delhi, the power vacuum led to Mir Mannu being appointed. His ‘diwan, Kaura Mal, whose ‘haveli’ still stands at Lal Khoo inside Mochi Gate, advised that peace with the Sikh was useful. The real historical enemy of the Punjab was the Afghan.

Mir Mannu agreed, and when battle with the Afghans was about to start, Mir Mannu turned his forces around and started killing his Sikh and Muslim peasant supporters. The communal die was cast, and the mistrust was to lead to terrible events over the next few centuries.

The rise of Punjab’s peasantry began to take a communal militant twist, and within the next 17 years an even bigger holocaust was to strike Lahore and its environs.

The Afghans forces under Ahmad Shah had defeated the Marathas at Panipat in 1761, and during his victory march back to Lahore the Sikh and Muslim peasants of the Punjab harassed them in their classic “we fight when we move and when we move we fight” strategy. For a second time the call went out to massacre all Sikhs.

The second holocaust, which is known the ‘Biggest Holocaust’, or the ‘Vada Ghallugara’, took place on the 5th of February, 1762, and starting from Sikhs within the walled city to far flung areas of the Punjab. The death toll in historic accounts varies, but Sikhs count their death toll as being near 50,000. Most historians today agree that the number was approximately 35,000. It was without doubt the greatest massacre since Raja Jaipal lost 100,000 Punjabi soldiers to the Afghans in 1021.

But the scene at Lahore that February, 1762, during the ‘Vada Ghallugara’ was grotesque. On both sides of the city, from the Ravi to the city and from Delhi Gate towards Amritsar, the roads were lined with Sikh heads on spears.

At all the city gates again butchered Sikh citizens had their heads on spears by the dozen. Lahore’s walled city had never before, or since, experienced such communal killing. The question is can all of us, today, rise above our current communal madness to remember those lost martyrs of the land? This we must all ask ourselves.


Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page