The men who ‘stole’ the Ravi

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 30, 2007

ONCE upon a time there was a Prince, and then it so happened that under him, in one of his provinces, was a vassal Prince-in-waiting, or so he ‘loudly’ thought. It also so happened that under the vassal Prince-in-waiting was a ‘piouslooking’ crafty ruler of Lahore, who imagined that one day he would be the Prince.

This is not a fairytale, but are two amazingly similar tales of two very different eras. The lure of power makes one do the strangest of things. It is almost like the Emperor who lost his ‘regal uniform’ to a crafty tailor, only to be reminded by a little child that he was not wearing anything. We have had many a strange ruler of Lahore over the centuries, from saints to sinners, from eunuchs to wrestlers, from tyrants to men who were generous to a fault. But there have been only two men who actually dared to steal the sacred river of Lahore, the River Ravi.

Kanhaiya Lal in his book ‘Tarikh-eLahore’ mentions the 13 holocausts that befell the city of Lahore from 413 A.H. when the forces of Mahmud of Ghazni ransacked the city for opposing him till the time when Kabuli Mal took over as the ruler of Lahore when the rising Sikh forces were breaking through Delhi Gate to take Lahore, only to leave the city after being allowed to cut off the noses and ears of the butchers of Lahore as revenge of the cruelty leashed out to them in the ‘Big Genocide’ or ‘Wadda Hollarha’ as it is known in Sikh history. First let us dwell on the Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion of our city.

After his forces ransacked Lahore, for three years the city remained vacant. Then the Hindu population of Lahore, led by their Brahmins, went to the River Ravi and prayed to the Almighty to resurrect their beloved city. They made offerings for three days. The Almighty obliged and in return came the sage Ali Hasan of Hajweri, known today as Data Gunj Bakhsh, and the first city rebuilder, Malik Ayaz. Lahore regained its glory. The graves of both are intact after almost 1,000 years. Both are respected, still. The river, or what is left of it, still flows on as it had done since time immemorial.

Lahore, in the 777 years of Muslim rule, saw many a holocaust, including the bloody massacre in the reign of Feroze Shah Tughlaq by a Tatar general by the name of Timur.

Punjab was in the grip of a severe famine and the bloodthirsty invader ransacked the city, which he found abandoned and without an ounce of grain. The enraged Timur murdered any person he found anywhere.

But the river was stolen during the brief rule of the three Sikh rulers, Lehna Singh, Sobha Singh and Gujjar Singh, who ruled over Lahore before Maharajah Ranjit Singh broke onto the landscape in 1799. In those days was a Sikh chief called Changha Singh, who sought permission from the trio to rule over land along the river. He got his men to build high dams on the riverbed when it had receded. In this way he managed to create, out of the river, almost ten squares of land. Legend tells us that the reclaimed land was down river from Shahdara on the Sheikhupura side. But come the monsoon and the river swept away the curve and some workers of Changha Singh. Since then the proverb became famous in the quote: “Na Lehna Singh, na Sobha Singh, rhurtha janda Changha Singh” - (nor Lehna Singh, nor Sobha Singh, the man drowning is Changha Singh).

So Ahmed Shah Abdali set up the three Sikh rulers who allowed Changha Singh to carve out his little kingdom in the river. The Ravi took care of him. But will the now starved river mange to see off the latest attempt to steal it? The river is today under threat.Whatever written in this column has been checked, the place visited by this scribe, and people interviewed at the site. This is what is happening to our river.

The ‘ruler of Lahore’ and his ‘backers’ have carved out a major portion of the river itself. If you happen to cross the ‘obstacle course’ of a road going towards the Saggian Bridge from the Bund Road, as soon as you cross the River Ravi, to the left you will notice a series of white poles.These are for a lift-chair project towards a water park being constructed by the Lord Mayor. To expand his park, and kingdom, he needs land, and so, with official assistance he has ‘dammed’ a major portion of the river itself in the belief that floods will not ever come his way. The total land ‘grabbed’ from the river itself comes to 1,000 acres, with an LDA official claiming that the ‘pious-looking’ man has usurped land worth over Rs10 billion, or over $150 million.

The fun is that on paper it belongs to the river, and, therefore, in the records of the ‘patwari’ it is state river land which cannot be sold. Can it be leased out? To this there is no answer in the law books, or from tradition.The ‘patwari’ maps do not lineate river land, and are covered by what is known as ‘The Red Line’. That is why there is no way any court of law can get any official to declare that the river has been stolen. But then the fact remains that so much land has been ‘dammed in’. But talk to any ‘patwari’ informally, and he will smile, for, it seems, all of them are happy.

A few years ago a proposal was put forward to make a reservoir of the meagre water that flows through the Ravi, sold to India by another military junta in the Indus Water Treaty.That proposal was shelved for reasons still not known. The future of the underground water reserves of Lahore has been put in jeopardy. In the coming years the stealing of the Ravi and its water will prove the costliest madness this city’s rulers have imposed on the population. Probably Timur or Babar or Mahmud or all the other invaders did not damage the people of Lahore in a more permanent manner than what the ‘Prince in waiting’ has planned.

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