Questioning Bahawalpur’s historiography

The politics of Bahawalpur has gone way ahead for anyone to put the ‘geneie back into the bottle’ of its history.

Ayesha Siddiqa February 16, 2012

Whoever said that reading and writing history is not an art? The presentation of select facts without understanding or explaining the context doesn’t make for good history writing. Such historical analysis with a slant seems to be fueling the ongoing debate on the possible creation of new provinces in Punjab. For example, an argument is being built about restoring the status of Bahawalpur as a province on the basis of the economic efficacy of the area when it was a princely state. Since it is believed that Bahawalpur was successful when it was independent of the Pakistani state system, turning it into a province again would be a major contribution towards development.

The Abbassis, who are a breakaway faction of the Kalhora family — though the princely family tries to propagate themselves as direct descendents of the Abbasids — established the princely state in the early 1800s. The histories commonly available do not emphasise the fact that the rule was essentially a family dictatorship, though some of the rulers may be benign. For instance, we rarely hear of histories written by Shahamat Ali or Syed Murad Shah Gardezi that speak of brutal methods applied by Nawab Bahwal III against some of his top bureaucrats.

To use a cliché that history is mostly written by the victors, historiography that just presents events without explaining the context — the sociology and politics of those times — tends to create illusions that often shape the way societies think about themselves and their rulers. It is a fact that the Seraikis of Bahawalpur show respect towards the Nawab’s family. While economic development may be one reason there are other explanations as well. The Seraiki-speaking population of Bahawalpur, indeed, remembers the old nawabs with great fondness, especially because they share a common language and heritage. The common Seraiki has no cultural tie with the  ‘outsider’ who seems to have prospered over the years, leaving the ‘native’ in relative poverty. The present-day longing of the Bahawalpuri Seraiki for the Nawab is largely driven by his sense of isolation within what he considers as his own home. Popular accounts rarely expose the fact that successive nawabs spent much less on developing indigenous human resources and instead imported Punjabis, Urdu-speakers and some Pashtuns to run the state bureaucracy and the state in general. The ‘native’ remained less developed compared to other ethnicities that prospered. Thus, without undermining the fact that the princely state of Bahawalpur was well run, it cannot be ignored that widely available accounts do not include accounts less popular with the rulers or those that contain ethnography of the ‘native’.

There are two other interrelated critical issues worth considering. First, state-making is never a static process. The political decision taken at the time of the creation of Pakistan by the nawab of Bahawalpur to integrate with Pakistan meant that other or larger forces that would govern the politics of the new polity would determine the future of the area. From then on, Bahawalpur or any other princely state would not remain a small entity but part of a larger whole. The question is, could it have happened otherwise? Could Bahawalpur, Khairpur, Swat, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Junagarh and several other states swim on their own? The winds in 1947 were blowing differently and with a different velocity.

Second, even if the princely states remained politically as they were, there is no guarantee that the quality of the polity would have remained the same or in the imaginary ideal condition. The issue with dictatorships, even though they may be benign at some time, is that such entities are extremely temperamental. A lot depends on the IQ and EQ of the ruler and a stable intellectual capacity is not a constant. A glance at the rulers of Bahawalpur and their modern generation will bear me out in this context. While some of the old ones had a vision and were progressive, the same cannot be said about the current lot which lacks vision. A visit to the crumbling Derawar fort and other palaces bears witness to this. In any case, the politics of Bahawalpur has gone way ahead for anyone to put the ‘geneie back into the bottle’ of its history.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th, 2012.


Avatar | 9 years ago | Reply

The nawab no longer has any political authority but is still respected and adored by the rayasties.

Avatar | 9 years ago | Reply

The forts no longer belong to the nawabs and most of them have been occupied by the army. In India the palaces were given to the nawab families and most of them are no profitable and beautiful hotels.

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