Saturday, 30 June 2012

I am a Pakhtun, I am a Muslim, I am a Pakistani but I am not a terrorist

By Javed Aziz Khan

Advocate Khurshid Khan offers prayers at the Jamia Masjid, Chandigarh, during his visit to India; (right) Polishing shoes at a gurdwara; photo: TOI

“I wanted to tell the world that I am a Pakhtun, I am a Muslim, I am a Pakistani but I am not a terrorist. I want to tell the people that what they hear about Muslims and Pakhtuns is not true” - Khurshid Khan, Deputy Attorney General, Pakistan

Peshawar-based advocate Khurshid Khan thinks of himself as a “fundamental Muslim”. And he is proud to be one who has polished shoes, swept floors and washed crockery at worship places of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, from Peshawar to the Indian Punjab. His aim? To promote interfaith harmony and bridge the gap between the people of Pakistan and India, and to tell the world that Muslims, and Pakhtuns, are peace-loving people who are not terrorists.

When sixty-two year old Khan, who represents the federal government at the Peshawar High Court as Deputy to the Attorney General of Pakistan, recently visited several cities in India, the chief minister of in East Punjab Parkash Singh Badal received him as a state guest. Khan visited worship places of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities in Chandigarh, Jaipur, Delhi, Amritsar and other cities to convey a special message of love to the people of India from the Muslim and Pakhtun community of Khyber Pakhtunkha.

He conveyed his message not just through words and prayers, but also by performing the humblest, lowliest tasks. He swept the floor at the Jamia Masjid in Chandigarh and Delhi, and did sevadari (service) with menial chores at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Birla Temple in New Delhi, Durgiana Temple in Chandigarh and Seesganj in Delhi. Many were caught by surprise when they learnt that Khan is not only a Muslim but has come from across the border to serve these holy places.

“I washed floors, polished the shoes of those coming for prayers and worked in the kitchen washing dishes and doing other jobs. My purpose in doing all this is to tell the world that Pakhtuns and Muslims are not terrorists,” Khurshid Khan, a former chairman of the students union of the University of Peshawar, told Aman ki Aasha at his modest University Town, Peshawar residence, shortly after his return from 11-day visit to India. The senior lawyer-cum-politician from Peshawar said he was touched by how people in different cities of India received him. “The way I was accorded such a warm welcome and given respect and love is unexplainable. I discovered that the Indian people love us a lot and the same is the case with the people of Pakistan.”

Khan has now sent gifts of Peshawari chappals (sandals) to some of his new friends in India. “I met an octogenarian who owned a huge building in Peshawar’s Rampura Bazaar before he left for India several decades back. I loved his reply in Hindko ‘Landay kee haal aey’ (young man how are you), when I called him Lalay, a word we use for elders in Hindko.”

Khan said that several other people also narrated their memories of living in Peshawar and other parts of the Pakistan before the partition. The senior lawyer was prompted to start his sevadari after the kidnapping of three Sikhs from Peshawar in February 2010. One of the kidnapped men, Jaspal Singh, was killed while army managed to rescue the other two. Around 3,000 Sikhs have been residing peacefully in Peshawar for hundreds of years. Thousands of others live in the southern parts of the province as well as in the tribal areas.

Wanting to express his solidarity with the Sikh community, Khan began going to the Sikh gurdwara in Peshawar’s Dabgari Bazaar. “I used to go and sit silently in a corner. The people coming to worship there were initially suspicious of me,” recalled Khan.

However, they soon realised that the lawyer’s intentions were only to express his sympathies with them.

“I told them that I don’t have any agenda but to serve them. So I was allowed to take the shoes of those coming for worship, polish them and place them in a rack,” said Khan who wore a yellow piece of cloth on his head, like the Sikhs coming to pray. “I wanted to tell the world that I am a Pakhtun, I am a Muslim, I am a Pakistani but I am not a terrorist. I want to tell the people that what they hear about Muslims and Pakhtuns is not true.”

Encouraged by the response, Khan started visiting a Hindu temple in Peshawar’s Karimpura Bazaar, and then a church in Peshawar’s cantonment, adding to his list of places to serve. He has visited the Gurdwara Panja Sahab in Hassanabdal several times, serving thousands of Sikh pilgrims coming from all over the world.

“I’ve also served at a number of mosques in Peshawar and Mardan. I did the same services in the main mosques of Delhi and Chandigarh,” said Khan. He is also looking to visit the Buddhist holy sites in Sri Lanka.

“The one thing I want to do now is to visit the United States on the coming 9/11, arrange services at the ground zero (the site where the twin-towers of the World Trade Center were located before attacks). I want to convey to the world that Pakhtuns and Muslims are not terrorists.”

Originally published by The News on Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The writer is a former twice-elected president of the Khyber Union of Journalists (KhUJ) with 16 years of experience of working with various national and international media organizations, covering key issues related to KP, FATA and Afghanistan.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Denigerating the Hazaras - I

by Dr. Mohammad Taqi

The post-1978 ethno-national revival of the Hazaras has been a subject of serious scholarship, which apparently Mr Marri is unaware of An article titled “Balochistan: sectarian strife or Hazara community targeted?” written by Mr Surat Khan Marri appeared in these pages this past weekend. The piece is not just an extremely callous one but is littered with factual inaccuracies too. Given the prevailing situation in Balochistan and the important position of Quetta, where most of the Pakistani Hazara community resides, it is pertinent to set the record straight. Mr Marri starts with a not-so-subtle attack on the ethnic origins and the social and political status of the Hazaras in Afghanistan. He wrote, “The Hazara community may claim to be descendants of the Great Khan of the Mongols or a remnant of the Mughals/Mongol conquerors of India via Afghanistan. However, in their recent abode, Afghanistan, they are considered and treated as of low-caste, compelled to work as sweepers and clean latrines, like some Christians in Pakistan and Harijans in India. In Afghanistan, they are in a considerable number, maybe half a million, but in Afghan challenges or wars against the British, Russians, the recent resistance termed as the war on terror, American and NATO aggression, the Hazara community in Afghanistan has no role. Afghans blame them for collaboration with the US and Pakistan.” I find Mr Marri’s slur no different than, and perhaps picked from, 14-pages that the Afghan Gazetteer had dedicated to the Hazaras or Mountstuart Elphinstone’s 1815 drivel against the Hazaras. It is well known that Elphinstone never went beyond Peshawar, and even there, he stayed about four months and gathered information from people who had been fighting the Hazaras for ages. 

There is no hiding the fact the Hazara of central Afghanistan have historically remained at odds with the Pashtun dynasties of Afghanistan and faced extermination at the hands of the latter. Persecuted communities and especially those forced into internal and external displacement doing hard labour — I would not even call it menial or odd jobs — is not an uncommon phenomenon around the world. But Mr Marri has thrown the epithet to rule out a political role for the Hazaras in Afghanistan, and by extension in Pakistan, as he states later. 

On the eve of the 1978 Saur Revolution in Afghanistan, the Hazaras, like most other Afghans, were active on both sides of the political divide. They were a part of the Marxist movement in the 1960s, especially in the Parcham faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Affiliation with the Parcham earned them the wrath of the Khalq faction, which imprisoned thousands of Parchamis during the intra-party feuds of 1978. With the rise of the Parcham leaders Babrak Karmal, and then Dr Najibullah to power, the Hazara leaders like Dr Sultan Ali Kishtmand and the brothers Syed Nasir Nadiri and Syed Mansur were restored to power. Dr. Kishtmand remained the prime minister of Afghanistan until parting ways with the PDPA in 1991. Syed Mansur’s forces in Shiberghan and Baghlan had the status of the official PDPA government militia. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the rural Hazara uprisings against the PDPA started as early as 1979, e.g. in Waras and Yakaolang and led to the formation of Shura-e-Inquilab-e-Ittifaq-e-Islami and its various reincarnations, including an eight-party Mujahedeen alliance, and then the Hizb-e-Wahdat party of Abdul Ali Mazari and Karim Khalili (currently the second vice president of Afghanistan). 

The post-1978 ethno-national revival of the Hazaras has been a subject of serious scholarship, which apparently Mr Marri is unaware of. Another allegation Mr. Marri has leveled is that the Quetta Hazaras somehow exploited the local Baloch welcome – he fails to mention the dominant Pashtuns as the host population – and switched loyalties first to the British and then to the succeeding state of Pakistan. He says:” On their migration to Balochistan, they enjoyed and felt comfortable living in a Baloch liberal and heterogeneous society. However, they soon realized that power and the future lay somewhere else. They allied themselves with British employers and camp followers and had friendly relations with local Baloch-Pashtun collaborators.” Mr. Marri alleges that the Hazaras of Quetta found new patrons in the new Pakistan Punjabi/Urdu speaking elite and somehow were given more than their due share in government services, especially the armed forces. This assertion ignores the fact along with Hazaras like Qazi Issa, Pashtuns like Nawab Muhammad Khan Jogezai and Baloch like Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti Shaheed had also embraced the new power players like Mr. MA Jinnah – the same “Karachiite” that Mr. Marri castigates elsewhere in the piece.

Mr Marri then writes, “Because of their (Hazara’s) allegiance to the new power, the rulers were of the opinion that this minority may replace and fill the vacuum created by the departure of the British army Gurkhas. The Pakistan army started recruiting a large number of Balochistan-based Hazaras, some of whom rose to the rank of general — General Musa being one example; brigadiers (Brigadier Sharbat), and other high ranks.” Sharbat Ali Changezi was a Hazara but not a brigadier. I know this because his children were my schoolmates in Pakistan Air Force School, Peshawar in the 1970s/80s. Air Marshal Changezi served multiple tours of duty at Peshawar at the PAF base and then the Air Headquarters. Out of the two servicemen, Mr. Marri names to make his case, he is wrong about both. Even his spiel about Hazaras being a replacement for the Gurkhas is a farfetched one. The British had formed a Hazara Pioneers regiment but it was already disbanded by 1933.

 One will be hard pressed to find names other than General Musa and AM Sharbat Changezi in the top tiers of the Pakistani armed forces. Officers like General Musa were absorbed into the Frontier Force regiment and no Hazara ‘Gurkha’ regiment ever existed in Pakistan. Mr Marri’s claim that made the lead was, “When General Musa became the governor of West Pakistan, he declared the Hazaras a local tribe of Balochistan through an ordinance.” This assertion needs vetting as the Political Agent Quetta-Pishin issued the final notification declaring Hazaras and three other Afghan tribes, viz Durrani, Yusafzai and Ghilzai, as local/indigenous tribesmen of Quetta on June 22, 1962. The notification refers to two letters dated February 19, 1962 and May 10, 1962 from the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions. The dates put Nawab Amir Muhammad Khan of Kalabagh as the governor West Pakistan and General Musa as army chief, not governor. Regardless, it is the xenophobic and sectarian undertones of Mr Marri’s article that are of primary concern in the evolving situation in Balochistan. (To be concluded)
The writer can be reached at and he tweets at

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Comments from Khyber

The fall of Tirah valley to the Taliban in Pakistan's Federally administered tribal areas has triggered a wave of internally displaced refugees. As part of our focus on challenging the narrative; local researchers Farooq and Shabir with help from writer  Noreen Nasser compiles information on the region for Qissa Khwani.
The mandatory orientalist reference for any article on the tribal areas

Some information and names have been changed to protect the identities of people.

Background: Located in the northwest of the Khyber Agency is the  beautiful and fertile Tirah Valley, the original home of all the Afridi and Orakzai tribes. Tirah Valley has two parts: one is in  Khyber agency and other is in Orakzai Agency.  In Khyber agency, eight tribes of Afridis are residing and are at war with each other for power between the militants groups ( Qamber Khail, Koki Khail, Malak din Khail, Zakha Khail, Aka Khail, Adam Khail, Sipah and Kamar Khail).

Presently in Khyber Tirah there are five major militants groups fighting for power and control: Lashkar- e -Islam (Mangal Bagh group, Mangal Bagh a bus conductor by profession). Ansar –ul- islam     (Mehboob group, Mehboob an imam of local Madrassa). Tehrik- e- Taliban (Tariq Afridi group an extraneous group, Tariq Afridi came from Dara Adam Khel a college graduate and brother of a Judge, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Judiciary), Tauheed-e- Islam (Aman lashkar of Zakha Khel sponsored by Pakistan Army: sarcastically referred to as ' good taliban' ) and 'Amar bil maroof wa nahi ul munkar' ( Haji Namdar group controlling lower Khyber Agency).  Lashkar- e- Islam apparent agenda is to implement Islamic Sharia but according to local people Mangal Bagh has no knowledge of Islam, he simply wants to control Khyber Agency. This group has people from  all the tribes of Afridis, it was controlling Bara area but now due to military presence they are carrying out their activities covertly.

In Tirah, it is presently occupying Aka Khail and Sipah tribes and also has some presence in small pockets of Malak din Khail and Kamar Khail areas. No body exactly knows about this group hideouts as they are constantly changing places. But it is believed that Mangal Bagh a Sipah himself resides near Pak-Afghan border in the area of Sipah tribe and guarded by young boys age 15-21.Ansar- ul- islam group is the main militant group in Tirah. It controls Tirah Zakha Khail, partial Qamber Khail area, Malak din Khail, Adam Khail and Shalobar (was part of Qamber Khail now known as independent tribe area). They are staunch rivals of Mangal Bagh group in the valley. Due to their skirmishes and differences hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands were displaced in lower parts of Khyber Agency. Tehrik-Taliban Tariq Afridi group of Dara Adam Khel is presently stationed and controlling Koki Khail area of Tirah Valley. It is also one of the strongest opponent of Mangal Bagh in the valley as well as in the lower parts of Khyber Agency. Tariq Afridi group moved to Tirah valley due to Pakistan Army operation in Dera Adam Khel. This group influenced by Sipah-e-Sahaba was involved in sectarian violence and kidnapping. Besides kidnapping and killing, Tariq Afridi was also fighting another group back in Dara known as Momin Afridi Group supported by Pakistan Military (good Taliban). Momin Afridi group stationed in Dara Adam Khel has Pakistan Army’s support against Tariq because its activities are more based in Afghanistan. Tauheed-e-Islam (good taliban) is a newly formed group with the blessing of Pakistan Army to counter Lashkar -e -Islam also called Aman lashkar. It has limited control over the territory of Zakha Khail and failed to contain Lashkar-e-Islam in Tirah. Amar bil Maroof Wa Nahi Ul Munkar group founder was Haji Namdar later assassinated by a young boy while praying in 2008. In Khyber Agency, it was the pioneer militant group created to fight evils of the society. Lashkar-e-Islam is its splinter group but even they are not on good terms, clashes occurred several times between them.  Amar bil Maroof Wa Nahi Ul Munkar control Qamber Khail Bara area and some parts of Tirah.

The major questions are : who are fighting and killing thousands of innocent people of  Tirah, Khyber Agency? why they are fighting?, where they are fighting? and who suffers the most in their lust for power?

Lashkar- e -islam and Ansar –ul- Islam are the two major militant groups in confrontation with each other. Initially their clashes started in Malak din Khail area of Tirah Maidan and according to local people it was the peak of their cruelty and violence, brothers and cousin were forced to fight against each other. Here I would like to narrate a tragic story of Najib hailing from Tirah Valley. He was a student of intermediate (computer science),studious, humble, calm and a normal boy of eighteen and never harmed any one. He was forced to fight for Lashkar-e-Islam against Ansar- ul –Islam as he was the only young boy in his family, his elder brother was in United Kingdom and father was too old.
 It is mandatory for the people living in these militant controlled areas to handover one young man to fight the rival group. Najib was not trained for war, therefore he was used as a shield to protect the trained militants. This strategy was adopted by both the groups that untrained would be in the front line to protect the trained militants and if anyone tried to escape or leave, either his family would be harmed or that person would be slaughtered. Najib fate was no different from those who tried to escape, he was cut into pieces and delivered to his family in a sack. These  atrocities terrorized Tirah people so much that they never tried or had the courage to oppose any group. After taking over the Malak din Khail areas in Tirah, Ansar- ul -islam started its aggression in  Kamar Khail (Sokh Area), Akka Khail (Dars Jummat), Sipah (Saanda paal). But again after furious fighting with Lashkar-e-Islam surrendered back these areas except Shalobar.  According to informal sources more than 1500 people are killed from both sides and nearly 2500 were injured (these are estimates of militant death toll, local population is not included that was killed in a collateral damage). Interestingly both groups claimed their dead as martyred of Islam (Shaheed) and the other “murdaar”,(derogatory word of Pashtu used for dead).

In Zakha Khail area rein of terror was unleashed when Lashkar- e -Islam killed a religious scholar . In reaction to the assassination of their scholar Zakha Khail tribe formed a group with the help of Pakistan Army Tauheed-ul-Islam (good taliban). Before the emergence of this group Zakha Khail area was under Lashkar-e-Islam, major conflict areas are Nari Baba and Sur Ghar. During their skirmishes almost three hundred people lost their lives.

Who suffered the most?

All Afridi tribes were affected but we have tried to generally categorize on the basis of death toll, displacement, and other financial and property losses: Malak din Khail is the most affected tribe in terms  human, financial losses and displacement. Sipah tribe was affected financially due to closure of Bara Market since 2007, human losses are also there as they were forced to take part in those clashes. Shalobar is the second largest tribe in terms of human losses and also suffered a lot due to displacement. Kamar Khail occupies the third position in death toll and financial losses. Aka Khail can be placed at fourth position that suffered a lot after Kamar Khail Zakha khail their losses are less as compare to other tribes but after creating its own group suffered human losses recently from Mangal Bagh group (local people are quite skeptic about this army supported group).

Pakistan Military and its role?

Pakistan Army for the first time enter into the area of Tirah Valley in 2002, formed several check posts at Pak-Afghan border and also in Morga ( which connects with Tora Bora via Kurram Agency).

In 2007-8, army pulled out of Tirah and now there is no army camp, post or base. The FC and Militia is looking after the Pak-Afghan border and whenever needed Pakistan Air force is called upon to target militants causing huge casualties and displacement.  According to locals a Pakistan Army major excuse for pulling back was the lack of facilities in the hard terrain which creates problem in the supply for the security forces.

Why government  and army failed in controlling the situation:

According to local opinion government and army is not interested to eliminate militancy in Tirah. Government and Army excuse is that Tirah is a difficult terrain and they don’t have the resources to combat militants. The recent fighting in the Tirah Valley between Lashkar-i-Islam and Ansar -ul -Islam is for the control of Saanda paal. This area is strategically important because through Saanda paal peak the whole valley of Tirah can be guarded and controlled. Whoever gets the control of this peak, can control and if needed target Tirah areas.  Nowadays it is under the control of Mangal Bagh. It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan Army has left these groups to their own devices, waiting and watching but in this process of indifference hundreds of innocent people have lost their lives.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Peshawar: The land of my childhood

By Musafar

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
Your children so fair, maids as pretty as flowers
Handsome, stalwart sons brandishing guns as adornment
With gazes averted from our mothers and sisters
And your men courteous and true to their word
Your cities were the praise and envy of people from lands afar
Yea, they were called the Cities of Flowers
O where, O where, have you gone

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
The kehwa-khanas of Qissa-Khwani in Kabalae Darwaza
The seekh kababs of Sabiri astride the ganda nallah
The aroma of tikkae mingling with the dust and smoke
Roganae, kulchae, amrasae and zalobae to make you drool
Ucha mewa, sheer chai, and the chugha besides a winter log fire
The sitar to draw a chord and mangae with accompanying beat
O where, O where, have you gone

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
The citadel of Bala Hissar of my distant memory
With crumbling walls yet majestic and intimidating
The Chauk Yadgar, a confluence spot of yore for the mazdur
The Ghanta Ghar clad in its brick elegance striking the hour
The glory of Sethi Mohalla, a pearl set in an oyster
The masjids of Qasim Ali Khan and Mahabat Khan
The Samdo ki Gali of Kohati Darwaza
O where, O where, have you gone

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
The plaintive cry of the mashki filling mangee door to door
Sprinkling the parched earth on a hot torrid afternoon
The rich age of craftsmen priding themselves in their wares
A rich time when there was respect between the old and young
A rich time when one’s word was an irrevocable bond
The reverence and awe of the passing Moharram procession
The human sound of the azaan floating over the air waves
The clip clop of a horse drawn tonga a melodious beat
O where, O where, have you gone

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
But nay, tarry a while and ponder
How could you go away, it was I who abandoned you
Why didn’t you beckon me to stay and grow in your shade
Why didn’t you enfold me to your bosom from distant places
Why didn’t you reach out to me then, as I reach out to you now
Why didn’t you plead with me, not to forsake you to the wolves
O why, O why, did I go and forsake you my beloved

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you
I berate myself for returning so late in the day
But I perceive a silver lining in the resilience of your being
May the Almighty cleanse your soul and restore your dignity
I shall cherish the day when, by His will, you shall rise from the ashes like the Pheonix

Land of my childhood, how I yearn for you

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Life and times of Peshawar's Kaka Ram

By Naeem Safi

Gorak Nath Temple, at the Gor Khutree Archaeological Complex Peshawar, is now open for Hindu worshippers who regularly visit the site to pray.

The sun has just disappeared behind the mountains. Beneath the long hanging branches of the old banyan tree, a devotee is sweeping leaves to clean the floor for worshippers who are expected to arrive in a while.

Hundreds of birds above are chirping before settling down for the night. The fenced lawns outside are full, with noisy children running around and playing, the adolescent sauntering on the paved walkways, and their mothers gossiping.

These late evening visitors are usually from the nearby mohallahs who come here to escape power outages — and take refuge in the Gor Khutree Complex.

The colour palette for the sky is rapidly changing and the light tones of gold are turning into crimson, and violets merging with dark greys. Calls for evening prayers over loudspeakers lure males of all age groups to the mosque at the north-western corner of the Complex.

Gorak Nath Temple, at the Gor Khutree Archaeological Complex Peshawar, was built during the Sikh period around 1834 to 1849. Their Italian General, Paolo Avitabile, used the Complex as his residence. The temple is now open for Hindu worshippers who regularly visit the site to pray to their gods.
Just a few yards south, Kaka Ram, the seyvek, is giving final touches to the preparations in the Gorak Nath temple. Unlike the marbled floors and numerous fans at the mosque, his temple has earthen floor and a couple of helpers are connecting a power cable to the central building to light a few bulbs. Kaka Ram is waiting for the prayers at the mosque to finish, as some of his guests are Muslim, colleagues from his office at the secretariat, who will also attend Sheranwali Mata’s parshad tonight.

Six decades back, he was born in a humble little house adjacent to the temple. Many generations of his ancestors have served this temple before. His father died when he was seven. They were expelled from their ancestral house; his mother had fought back through courts. She won the temple back, in the year 2011, but their home at the compound is lost, almost forever, and she parted with life on the first day of last May.
According to Kaka Ram, more than 2000 people attended her funeral, the majority of who were Muslims. He recalls his childhood times, when the huge well under the banyan tree used to be frequented by parents with ailing children, both Hindu and Muslim,to receive ashnans, a sacrament that is believed to cleanse and protect its receivers from evil spells. His dealings and relationships with Muslim friends and neighbours are not tainted with biases or discriminations. They all celebrate Holis and Eids together and there is no purdah among their families, something reserved only for very close relatives in a traditional Peshawari society.

The Muslim guests have finished their prayers and are now waiting near the well for the ceremony to begin. Pundit Gokal has arrived from another temple to lead the prayers, and the number of worshippers is gradually increasing. The pundit is preparing a huge platter of fresh fruits at Mata’s mandir while the attendees are gathering in the arched aisle in the front. Following a few rituals, the congregation, with equal number of women, and quite a few children, started chanting the parshad.

The sky has turned deep blue and the banyan tree looks more imposing against it. The birds have gone almost silent. The visitors outside, in the lawns, are gradually thinning out and the peace of the night is gradually engulfing the compound, and the streets around it.

Originally published by The News on Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Passage to India: A Pashtun in Guwahati

By Aneela Z. Babar

Guwahati is characteristic of small town India caught in the struggle of coping with rapid globalization and still not able to successfully shrug off the time warp it has been living in for the past few decades. For years it has existed as the ‘gateway to India’s North East’ and tried to live down its reputation of being a violent little dot on India’s map suffering from insurgency in the 1980s and the all too famous Assam bandhs. However today it exhibits what Pankaj Mishra in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India discovered of similar former ‘unremarkable places’. These small towns ‘have shed their sleepy, half apologetic air’ and ‘modest’ is not an adjective that one can use for it’s inhabitants as they pursue their ambitions, appropriate brand names and ‘create a whole new pan-Indian culture’ (Mishra, 1995). So the city is caught in the chaos of gawking men from nearby villages trying to make sense of the Van Heusens and Tag Heuers on display in the shiny new malls, a constant influx of brand new cars jostling for space on dusty broken down roads and the traffic police bewildered by motorists who leave their cars parked on fly-overs. The expansive wetlands near the airport soon give space to the concrete jungle the city is turning into.

My second day in Guwahati finds me in the midst of the notorious Assam bandh. My host family is not sure the evening before whether it will be a ‘complete’ bandh or not and a flurry of telephone calls are exchanged across the apartment building. The barometer of a ‘complete’ read successful bandh is if the buses don’t ply early morning or the maid doesn’t turn up for work. The residents of the city are reconciled to bandh culture and take it in their stride. Though the city loses millions of rupees in revenue every month, no one seems overly concerned. It has long been a feature of their relaxed existence and it is only the burgeoning business class that is making polite noises now. The day goes by peacefully and in the late afternoon I decide to visit a local monument that gives a birds-eye view of the surrounding valley. Billed as Gandhi mandap, though everyone is unsure whether Gandhi ever visited the city, it is a research centre set up by a Congress government trying to build a profile in Assam’s heartland. The state had earlier been cool towards the Congress party post a rueful Nehru who apologized that mainland India could not do much to protect the region.

This was as China threatened to march through during the 1961 Indo-China war. An Amitabh Bachan who came garnering votes for his best friend Rajiv Gandhi was sent away garlanded with shoes by an incensed city that was still harboring its hurt. However, today the Congress sits comfortably in power. The Gandhi mandap has a surly Gandhi with his back to the city as he gruffly views the city’s young who find it a convenient place to escape the moral police in the valley.  

The Kabuli Wallah

I am eager to explore the city’s Pashtun population, they are the progeny of former money-lenders and fruit sellers who traveled frequently to the region. Many of them still carry on their ancestral profession of lending money and what is politely called ‘debt collection’ (Truant children are still cautioned of the Pashtun who will carry them off). Guwahati Pashtun form a fascinating microcosm of an immigrant population that has kept its ways in a city that is so different from their earlier homes. Saleem Khan who welcomes me to his home is in his late twenties and he says his family moved here from Ghazni. Saleem is one of the ‘settled’ families of the city, there is also a sub-class of transient single men who travel through the region. His living room seems out of a baithak in Quetta , though he says he was born here and has never been home. Afghanistan is a mysterious land which he tries to fathom through B-grade films and his parent’s tales. As I settle down on the floor cushions, he takes a mock interview of the intermediary who has introduced us. He explains it is ‘close to election season’ so these times make it necessary to be sure of who I am. His concerns allayed, he is quite the eager host, calling up assorted uncles and aunts on his mobile to make them speak to the visiting Pashtun. One uncle is quite sure that he has visited relatives of mine in my village. Saleem attempts to brief me about his life here, where we are sitting now are rooms attached to his ‘public life’, it is here that he conducts his work and entertains guests. His family lives in a separate Afghan colony some two hours away. He jokes that people in Guwahati claim that their community is very ‘cruel’ towards their women. Though women in his generation remain uneducated and live in seclusion, he assures me that the younger generation of women has started going to school. His parent’s generation stay in touch with family back home in Afghanistan through exchanging audio cassettes, I picture his mother recording our conversation today in an audio-letter home. Saleem speaks in the classic Pushto, unlike me he doesn’t speak a hybrid dialect. Perhaps over years it will be only the ‘first generation’ of Pathan diaspora like his that will speak the uncontaminated Pushto of earlier years. I am curious about Saleem’s money lending business and whether it has been effected by the budding finance companies in the region. Saleem says that he works with the low end of the market, with those who cannot afford the collateral that the organized financial sector requires. However, his services come with a hefty interest. Don’t borrowers default? He says he has a ‘scientific assesment’ process, the ‘applicant’s’ home is first surveyed for items of equivalent value which can be easily hauled away if anyone defaults on payments. And he says he can judge people in a manner the anonymous financial companies don’t. I inquire whether he gets into trouble with the police due to his high-handed tactics. It’s the first time in the afternoon that I see the arrogance that comes with his genes expressed in his conversation. ‘They know me, and no one messes with us. Everyone knows who we are’. Our interview done, Saleem struggles with being a good Pashtun host. I had come on short notice and he fears that he has not accorded me the welcome that demands my ethnicity. There must be something that I would like to take with me, he gestures towards his house. Could he arrange a loan for me he inquires after he has exhausted ideas.

Outside the Assamese Muslim families that neighbor his house are eager to invite me for a cup of tea. Like others in the city they ask me to make a list of ‘Pathan’ (read Muslim) sounding names for their children. Similar to diligent city officials and their love to ‘rename’ roads, schools and buildings I take a perverse pleasure on meeting the Wahdanas, Palwashas and Zaraks of the city ten years on.

Originally published in 2006

Aneela Z. Babar (Pindi/Delhi/Melbourne). When she is not busy being the bane of her three year old's existence, Babar works on gender, culture, religion and militarism (with a heady dose of Bollywood trivia).