Since independence, a large number of cities have undergone name change for all sorts of reasons. Not many among today’s younger generation would even know that Sahiwal used to be called Montgomery, Attock was Campbellpur and that Faisalabad used to be known as Lyallpur. So, for some odd reason, the name Abbotabad has survived. The name in our hall of national shame, is second only to the erstwhile Dacca. Now Dacca has had a spelling change in which we had no hand, but Abbottabad, for all its infamy, continues to be a thorn in the eye. Most changes occurred in pursuit of our national pastime of changing things in name, not substance. Cities have been renamed either to do away with the colonial past, or to Islamise them. Abbottabad — colonial, as well as un-Islamic — had, perhaps, to wait for the unguarded moments of the guardians of our ideology and territory.
Abbottabad was named after Major James Abbott, the son of a merchant from Calcutta who in his youth, joined the Bengal Artillery, but eventually moved to what Abbottabadis now wish to call ‘Suba Hazara’, in the middle of the nineteenth century. (There is a Bengali connection here too!). In its collection, the National Portrait Gallery in London has a watercolour portrait of his donning the dress of an Indian feudal lord. He played a small part in the Great Game of those days, but the great work he did for the Company Raj was to ‘advise’ Sikhs into submission and the pacification of the Frontier region. Major Abbott became the first deputy commissioner of Hazara in 1849, a stint lasting for about four years. Before becoming deputy commissioner, he was an assistant to the Sikh administrator sent from Lahore after the Dogra ruler of Kashmir traded unruly Hazara for a pliable Jammu. Major Abbott established law and order and the revenue system. After the Second Sikh War of 1848-49, the East India Company annexed Punjab. It was then that Abbott was formally appointed deputy commissioner. He shifted his headquarter, military as well as civil, from Haripur to what is now Abbottabad in 1853. The site was selected for its pleasing environment.
The environment, according to the website of the district government, is predominantly mountainous and rugged, the mean maximum and minimum temperatures are 23 degrees Celsius and 11 degrees Celsius and active monsoons keep humidity high. Small wonder, the website masthead announces Abbottabad as ‘Heaven on Earth’. One has visited another city, Hangzhou in China, which also proudly declares itself to be ‘Heaven on Earth’. This jewel is a city of gardens, full of Buddhist temples from the 13th century, and offers visitors to taste Dragon Well (Longjing) tea. One knew Hangzhou had its competition within China, the city of Suzhou, whose exquisite private gardens, date back to the sixth century BC. But one had no idea that there was a ‘Heaven on Earth’ in our own backyard. Major Abbott also wrote a poem when he was leaving Abbottabad for good. “I remember the day when I first came here/And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air/The trees and ground covered with snow/Gave us indeed a brilliant show/To me the place seemed like a dream/And far ran a lonesome stream.... Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now/To your natural beauty do I bow.”
Writing in a British newspaper, a critic described it as “one of the worst poems ever written”. The heli-borne drama to get Osama bin Laden for Obama was also one of the worst tragedies ever staged. And surely, a name-change is, in order.
The question is: what should we call Abbottabad now? Hazarewals are the ultimate judge. My suggestion is ‘Asgharabad’. It is time we honour an officer and a gentleman of our own — Air Marshall (retd) Mohammad Asghar Khan — who, even in the dirty world of politics, performed the rare feat of being completely incorruptible.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2011.