Shah Hussain, Shah Inayat Qadri Lahori, Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Ghulam Farid, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and many other great names can be considered as the representatives of the rebel tradition of Sufism
We have a discussion-cum-social group in Stockholm that has been meeting regularly every month since 1991. It comprises almost entirely Punjabis, mostly from Lahore but other places as well and from East Punjab. Last time we met, an excellent paper was read by Ajmal Butt on Sufism in which he assessed its overall political and social impact on society. He was of the opinion that although Sufism advocated love and friendship, and thus appealed to broad sections of society, in the historical process it was co-opted by Muslim rulers as part of the state project and thus became an extension of the status quo. He was also of the opinion that Sufi influence had muted resistance to oppression by preaching withdrawal from worldly affairs.
Some of us took the view that Sufism needs to be distinguished from piri-faqiri, even though both emanate from the same mystical roots. Ideally, a Sufi represents anti-conformism but pirs may not. Over time, the shrines of Sufi masters can be exploited by their descendants or custodians for mundane purposes such as receiving money and other gifts from the gullible masses who visit them in search of miracles and so on.
However, historically pristine Sufism’s pantheistic thrust furnished avenues for stepping out of the box of dogmatism and embracing unconventional ideas. Shah Hussain, Shah Inayat Qadri Lahori, Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Ghulam Farid, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and many other great names can be considered as the representatives of the rebel tradition of Sufism.
Most interestingly, Sufism, as a tradition of resistance to the status quo and inclusion in an egalitarian brotherhood, has evolved in the contemporary Indian East Punjab into a great movement of Dalit assertion. Inspiration from the teachings of Guru Ravidas (a 15th-16th century Dalit), Bhagat Kabir, Guru Nanak and many others has synthesised with East Punjab’s Sufi revival and created syncretic movements.
This fact dawned upon me in a most powerful manner when I saw documentaries on this subject by an exceptionally talented and enlightened filmmaker, Ajay Bhardwaj (a Brahmin). His remarkable contribution comprises a trilogy: Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (where the twain shall meet); Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (thus departed our neighbours), and Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te (We shall meet at the festival of Baba Ratan).
Bhardwaj is a socially aware and committed progressive who contextualises Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (2005) in the grim social reality of contemporary East Punjab society. He interviews the legendary Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga of the Ghadar Party in Jullundur. I have had the privilege of meeting Babajee in his son’s home in northern England some 20 years ago. My friend Mahfooz Ahmad drove me all the way from London to meet him. He reminded me of a generation of old revolutionaries who till their last days remained steadfast in their commitment to the uplift of the oppressed and downtrodden.
Now, the dominant group in East Punjab is that of Sikh Jatts. They are the main landowners, mostly independent peasant-proprietors. In East Punjab and the adjacent Haryana state, the maximum agricultural landholding is 7-21 hectares (17-50 acres), depending on access to irrigation and whether crops are grown or it is a fruit orchard. Despite Sikhism’s egalitarianism, caste prejudices are salient among its followers. The Jatts look down upon the Dalits. As a result Dalit Sikhs, also known as Mazhabi Sikhs, often go to separate gurudwaras.
Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga (himself a Jatt) tells Bhardwaj that the policy of reservation for the scheduled castes (Dalits) and scheduled tribes (indigenous people) mandated by the Indian Constitution has enabled those oppressed groups to achieve social mobility and now a Dalit intelligentsia is asserting its separate identity in opposition to the Jatt Sikhs and upper caste Hindus. As a true revolutionary and humanist Babajee says the Dalit assertive movement should be welcomed and they should be made to feel equal to others so that they become part of a progressive India.
Bhardwaj interviews a Dalit poet and revolutionary, Lal Singh Dil, who recites some poems about the historical and contemporary injustices to his community. Dil can be seen as having converted to Islam and praying according to Muslim rites. He speaks of the Dalit attraction to the Naxalite movement and supports it as a means to resist caste oppression. On the other hand, he laments that Dalits who through reservation become government officials, try to hide their identity to escape social stigma.
In any case, through the teachings of Ravi Das, the Dalits connect to the Qadri and Chishtia Sufi Orders. Dalit Sufis can be both men and women, which is a fascinating innovation. These men and women bear Hindu names but are buried in graves painted in green and in the case of their leading saints, the tombs are covered with a green cloth. They proclaim themselves as disciples of Ghaus-ul-Azam, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid Shakarganj and other famous Sufis. We hear qawwals bearing Hindu names singing classic devotional poetry in praise of the Muslim saints and, indeed, Hazrat Ali and the Prophet (PBUH). Thus, the syncretism that I identified as a very robust feature of pre-partition Punjab continues to thrive in East Punjab.
Dalit Sufi saints named in the documentary bear the title Shah at the end of their name. Thus, Doshinde Shah, Najjar Shah and so on are Dalits who bear the honorific title of Shah to express their saintliness. It is a fascinating subject that Bhardwaj captures with great sensitivity in Kitte Mil Ve Mahi.
By probing the Sufi connections of the social and cultural world of East Punjab Dalits, Ajay Bhardwaj has opened new vistas for us in West Punjab. After 65 years of a violent partition, we catch glimpses of the other part upholding the 1,000-year old common heritage. In the second documentary, Rabba Hun KeeKariye (English title: Thus Departed Our Neighbours), the author tells the story of the partition violence as it affected the poorer sections of society. It revolves around four main characters: Professor Karam Singh Chouhan, the musician PuranShahkoti, a Muslim survivor of the 1947 genocide, Hanif Muhammad, and an upper class Sikh Jaswinder Singh Dhaliwal. No review can ever do full justice to the creative art it has become in the form of larger-than-life visual images.
The film begins on a nostalgic note as a number of individuals deplore that the politics of partition communalised the question of language as well. It deprived the Punjabis of the beauty and aesthetics of Urdu — a language they assert is part of the historical Punjabi identity. I must say I was quite pleasantly surprised at the inclusive approach of those elders. It stands out in sharp contrast to Punjabi chauvinism that is making the rounds these days in some Pakistani circles.
The musician PuranShahkoti sings Heer, the poetry of Bulleh Shah and other Sufi masters in a voice patently Punjabi — loud and powerful — easily ascending to the higher notes and then gracefully descending. Now, the character of the bard is intrinsic to traditional Punjabi culture. Shahkoti, however, emerges not as a stereotypical jester but as an extremely enlightened and well-informed individual who can speak with authority and confidence on a range of issues. Very eloquently, he makes the point that the Indian and Pakistani people are the closest to each other and India does not enjoy such close cultural affinity with any other nation. His haunting melodies are interspersed throughout the film.
We also visit several mausoleums of Muslim Sufis, even when the local Muslim populations have long been gone or eliminated. Glimpses of Dalit Sufi activities are also constantly taking place as we move from one scene to another.
The extended interview with Professor Chouhan, a scholar in the best traditions of humanism, is something to cherish and remember. He tells how he learnt to read and write when a Muslim patwari from Ludhiana arrived in their village. He and his wife, Zebunnisa Begum Chughtai, were a childless couple, so they persuaded Chouhan’s father to let him come to their home to learnto read and write. We learn that in accordance with the prejudices of those times, Sikhs and Hindus did not eat food cooked by Muslims, but she convinced him to eat her food, telling him that the ingredients had been obtained from Sikh and Hindu sources. In March 1947, Professor Chouhan was to study for an MA in Persian at the famous Oriental College, Lahore. He was witness to the firing in Lahore on March 4. His teacher, Professor Mustafa HussainBukhari, told him that such madness was expected as private communal armies had been recruited on all sides. At the time of the publication of the Radcliffe Award on August 17-18, he was in East Punjab and saw the slaughter of Muslims with his own eyes. Some of the scenes he describes are heart wrenching. One can see that deep scars have been inflicted on his memory by those scenes of total human degradation.
We also learn about the genocide-massacres of Muslims from Hanif Muhammad, who was only three at that time. He hails from the poorer service sections of Muslim society, as his aunt was a midwife. It seems that the frenzied mobs went away after taking out their morbid aggression. Muhammad has lived to tell that story and now is the custodian of the shrine of a Muslim saint where Hindus, Sikhs and the few Muslims who still live there congregate every Thursday. We learn that Hindu shopkeepers and Sikh peasants have made donations to construct a proper shrine. I met many Muslims from the non-landowning sections of society. Their services are always needed by village communities, and once the 1947 rioting was over, they were left alone.
Jasvinder Singh Dhaliwal, the scion of a powerful Sikh family, describes vividly and with great pain how the border at Bahadurgarh between British Punjab and the princely Malerkotla State ruled by a Muslim nawab became a killing field where thousands of Muslims perished as they tried to cross into state territory to escape the Sikh jathas (militias) pursuing them. During my field research in East Punjab, I conducted several interviews in the villages around Bahadurgarh and had noted that apart from some Sikh princely states, this border region between the then Ludhiana district and Malerkotla was the venue that Muslim loss of life was the greatest.
In a moral and philosophical sense, such research does not necessarily induce pessimism and despair because as long as men and women of conscience continue to speak out the truth, there is always hope. Very skilfully, and with great sensitivity and compassion, Bhardwaj contrasts the peace, harmony and amity of Punjab bequeathed by its best and noblest minds with the rioting of 1947 unleashed by politicians delirious with religious nationalism. The return of Sufism in the lives of the Dalits of East Punjab has meant that the old traditions of accommodation and synthesis are again at work.
The final documentary in the trilogy on Sufism and the Dalits of East Punjab, Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te (“We shall Meet at the Festival of Baba Ratan”) begins with the recitation of pantheistic Punjabi verses about God existing not outside the universe but in intimate communion with it; in such a worldview, man, woman and God become one. These ideas are eloquently put forth by Machhandar Khan Maskeen. Many Muslims from the humbler sections of society remained in East Punjab as their services were needed by society. Maskeen represents the wisdom of such people.
We catch vivid glimpses of people of all faiths congregating at Sufi and Gorakhnathi shrines. One is fascinated by the ingenuity of ordinary people to not only verbally speak about a common humanity but also in real, everyday life, live in accordance with such principles. Women and men, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — dancing ecstatically to the beat of drums and other instruments — merge into one fraternity, thus rejecting the strictures of caste, creed and gender.
The partition of Punjab remains the central narrative highlighting the devastating impact it has had on the cultural and social history of the common people. We learn how the existing Sufi communities were broken up in 1947 when Muslims left for Pakistan while their Hindu and Sikh members who were part of the same fraternity founded around particular saints and shrines remained in India. However, messages across the borders continued to arrive through occasional visits from both sides. In some cases, the Sufi masters have continued to communicate with their disciples and thus the old connections have survived the surgical severance of Punjab into two. In my own research on Punjab, I noted that the desire to visit the old homes and mohallas (neighbourhoods) remains strong on both sides.
Chaudhry Jalil Ahmad Khan, the former MNA from Gujranwala, recently sent me his book, Jidojaihad-e-Hayat (The Struggle of Life) (Lahore, Jahangir Books, 2011). He has vividly described the peace and amity before the idea of dividing India entered the politics of the subcontinent, the horrific suffering of the East Punjab Muslims in 1947, and the great warmth and love with which he was received when he returned to India and, particularly, Patiala from where he hailed. He was received as a prodigal son. My own research on the Punjab partition amply corroborated that and Bhardwaj’s film further attests to the great pull the soil exercises over the people who were once rooted in it but had been forced to leave.
Bhardwaj very deftly leads us towards enunciation of the philosophy he wants to convey in his trilogy through the legend of Baba Haji Ratan. We learn that Baba Ratan was born in a Brahmin household. According to folklore, he was an astrologer who when he learnt that the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had been born, went to Mecca and thus became a companion of the Prophet (PBUH). Later, the Prophet (PBUH) advised him to return to India to preach the love of the true God. Apparently, the female camel he rode on the journey is buried close to his tomb outside Bathinda.
I did some research on this topic and found out that he lived much later, at the time of the invasion of Muhammad Ghauri (early 13th century). He was originally a Gorakhnathi saint who incorporated Sufi ideas in his message of love and peace. Over the centuries, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs became his devotees and apparently, before 1947, the annual festival held at his mausoleum attracted thousands of people. Rajab Ali, who migrated to Pakistan, was one of the most prominent devotees of Baba Haji Ratan. Even now, people remember him and are moved to tears when his name is mentioned. He wrote devotional poetry not only on Haji Ratan and Muslim saints but also on the Mahabharata epic and on the suffering of the children of Guru Gobind Singh at the hands of the Mughals.
At one point in the film, we come across a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who says that although he does not believe in God but he can identify with the notion of an embracing and compassionate God of Sufism and corresponding Hindu and Sikh movements that believe in an indivisible humanity. This is indeed a point to be considered as both approaches to the ultimate nature of reality converge on an agreement that all humankind is one indivisible family.
My own take on Sufism is that Ajmal Butt is right in pointing out that historically it has not served as an ideology of social activism that could challenge the powers-that-be. It might have induced a mindset prone to escape from worldly matters. However, it can be asserted that it did provide an avenue for marginalised people, with their diverse caste, sectarian and religious antecedents, to socialise on the basis of a common, shared humanity. That tradition continues to thrive in East Punjab.
In West Punjab, however, Sufism was co-opted into power politics when the Muslim League drafted the pirs into the 1945-46 election campaign. Ironically, after the so-called Afghan jihad the Taliban and other purist monotheistic Islamists movements began to target Sufism with a view to supplanting it with a worldview that rejects all ideas of a pantheistic symbiosis between God and his creation. One can also assert that the evidence from East Punjab confirms that religion and state have to be kept apart if Sufism is to play the emancipatory role of including marginalised and stigmatised people into an egalitarian and inclusive brotherhood of man.
[Serialised in the Daily Times before, this essay has been posted here with author’s kind permission]