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A battle with the past

Tuesday, 8 April 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore was built amidst sprawling British bungalows, but the neighbourhood is now run down: mechanics, workshops and small houses dominate the area, a far cry from the wide tree-lined avenues where the government offices and the city's elite live. The Hall lies in disrepair, locked by the Evacuee Trust Property Board. There is no sign indicating what it is, except the relief at the base of the front wall showing that Surendranath Banerjee, then president of the Indian National Congress, inaugurated it in 1900. I had no idea about the Hall when I went to Lahore for a conference at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) but found it when exploring the old city looking for my wife's family home.

The people in the area, warmhearted and hospitable, had no idea about it either. In a way it represents Pakistan's erasure of large areas of its past, an erasure that probably contributes to its current turmoil Bradlaugh Hall and its present state brought the historical and the personal together. The hall was where the Indian National Congress announced a call for Purna Swaraj, it was here that Lala Lajpat Rai established a National College to give Indians a different education from that given by British schools. Bhagat Singh studied here (from 1922-1926) along with Sukhdev and Yashpal, and it was where his parents waited while the trial against them was going on, watched over by the British police. It was next to Bradlaugh Hall that my wife's family had a house, built by her great-grandfather Ruchi Ram Sahani (1863-1948), a professor of chemistry in Government College Lahore, who played a crucial role both in popularising science through Punjabi and in the independence movement.

Charles Bradlaugh was a famously militant atheist who, on being elected to Parliament, refused to take an oath on the Bible. A strong supporter of Indian independence, he came to Lahore and bought the land, but the colonial authorities saw him as a troublemaker. He was ordered off British land. Bradlaugh promptly moved to a boat on the Ravi river, arguing that he was no longer on British 'land', but that didn't wash; he was packed off to England where he continued to work for Indian independence. The convergence of family and national history was further layered by my reading Haroon Khalid's blog on Charles Bradlaugh after a friend put us in touch. Khalid, writing under the takhallus of Raza Rumi, is the anchor for Express News, and a tireless questioner of the standardised history that the State has been spreading through its Pakistani Studies courses.His liberal stand has not been welcomed. On March 28, he was attacked in Islamabad.

He survived but sadly his driver was killed. It brought home the fact that those in Pakistan who struggle to preserve a balanced view of the past, accepting the diversity that existed on the ground, work in a very threatening environment. That they continue to do this speaks of their courage.Ruchi Ram vigorously promoted science, lecturing in Punjabi to people in the region. In those days, the idea that you could speak about science in the 'vernacular' struck people as amazing. Today, while Punjabi is spoken and functions as a business language, Punjabi intellectuals bemoan it is losing ground as a political language.

Pakistan has, under the Islamisation initiated by Zia-ul-Haq, been transformed into a society at war with its own culture. The subcontinental influences are being reshaped under the influence of Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi Islam. Ahmadiyyas are considered heretics and Christians have been attacked, as have Shias. A recent blast in Mustang, Balochistan, killed 22 Shia pilgrims. Language, dress and thinking are being reshaped under this influence. But there are those who seek to balance the Persian Islamic and the Indian influences: both, they say, are vital to contemporary Pakistani identity. They wage an uphill battle, one that affects us, and which is being fought here as wellRuchi Ram worked with an Indian architect Bhai Ram Singh. Ram Singh built some of the iconic buildings of this period: The Lahore Museum, Aitchison College, Government College, Khalsa College in Amritsar, as well as a building for Queen Victoria in England.

Trying to find out more about Ram Singh led to a meeting with Pervaiz Vandal, architect and historian, who, along with his wife Sajida, has written the definitive book examining Ram Singh's contribution in building Lahore. The Vandals, like many others, are working to resurrect and preserve the diverse history of Pakistan. They have established an organisation, the Trust for History Art and Architecture, Pakistan (THAAP), that has been working since 2006 to improve the state of education and sustain diversity through multi-disciplinary conferences. For a Dilliwala, Lahore seems neater and cleaner, the trees and flowers beautifully maintained, the food mouth-watering and the people amazingly hospitable. But it is an armed city: houses are ringed by barbed wire, entry into universities and public buildings heavily guarded.

Other cities like Karachi are not as safe and people are leaving them. But travelling around, we faced no problems; rather, we always found friendliness and warm hospitality. Here in India, we face a growing atmosphere of intolerance where the freedom to debate and question is being attacked, increasingly with violence. These attacks threaten the varied fabric of our personal and public life. In that sense, what we see in Pakistan is a warning of the road we are taking. What happens there is not irrelevant to us. Mirroring their erasures, we have turned them into the villains of our story. Bradlaugh Hall and its history is the history of Lahore, and its restoration may be one way of recovering a common history that is being forgotten.

The author is professor of Modern Japanese History, Delhi University (Retd)

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