On August 17, a young man vandalized a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore, the capital of the Empire ruled by the 19th-century Sikh Emperor. The statue was donated to Pakistan in 2019 by the London-based SK Foundation, led by Sikh historian Bobby Singh Bansal, to promote Sikh heritage and tourism in Pakistan. Since its inauguration in June 2019, however, the statue has been vandalized three times.
Ranjit Singh has a complicated heritage. For some Punjabis nationalists, he is a hero who built a nascent empire and held back British advances in India. To those in the Seraiki region and the Pashtun belt, he was a tyrant who imposed violence on ordinary people in his quest for territorial expansion. These themes have been hotly debated among historians of the Punjab and have aroused much passion in the field.
Still, it would be naive to suggest that the recent attacks on the statue of Ranjit Singh were prompted by alleged injustices during his reign. If this were the case, one could also attack symbols glorifying Muslim rulers who have been accused of committing atrocities, many times against the Muslim rebels themselves. In fact, for many who support this vandalism on social media, it was enough that the Maharaja was a Sikh ruler who clashed with the Muslim armies.
A similar reaction is seen every year on March 23, when activists gather at the Lahore site where Bhagat Singh was hanged to demand that the government honor the memory of the martyr. Their demands have always been ignored and have invariably led to a counter-mobilization of religious fanatics against recognition of a Sikh freedom fighter. Bigotry has never had much room for historical nuance.
Such incidents point to a larger identity crisis in Pakistan. In a desperate attempt to find an ontological origin for the nation-state, the history taught in Pakistani schools focuses almost exclusively on Muslims on the subcontinent. Non-Muslims are either erased from the books or periodically appear as evil accomplices in Muslim rule. This erasure of history in favor of ideology creates an awkwardly woven narrative as the raison d’être of Pakistan, one that rests on the repression of key facts from our common past.
Yet we know that repression does not eliminate the facts but simply turns our engagement with the past into a more traumatic experience. As the repressed stories become visible, they cause panic as they disrupt the fictions we are forced to tell ourselves. The statue of Ranjit Singh is one of those reminders of a story that we have long buried in the deepest recesses of our subconscious.
The appearance of such reminders of a forgotten past result is an endless purge of elements that undermine the ‘pure’ identity we aim to establish, a process that only breeds more paranoia about us- same.
In recent years there have even been debates over whether festivals such as Basant and Holi or more syncretic religious practices in shrines constitute ‘our’ culture or should be abandoned. The constant construction of an “other” against which we measure our identity has only fueled a politics of fear and suspicion since we can never formulate a fixed measure of our identity.
This crackdown not only targets religious minorities, but also aims to undermine Pakistan’s linguistic / ethnic diversity. Different ethnicities have historically imagined conceptions of cultural and spatial belonging that do not conform to the island narrative of the nation-state. For the past 74 years, the state has viewed these disparate histories as a challenge to its homogenizing narrative of a Muslim past, suppressing the challenges of ethno-nationalist groups. Violence against marginalized nationalities stems from this desire to discipline their memories in order to maintain myopic and punitive nationalism.
There are some positive signs, however. The provincial government of Punjab immediately ordered the arrest of the individual responsible for the vandalism of the statue in Lahore. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan intervened forcefully to condemn an attack on a mandir in Rahim Yar Khan, and ordered its reconstruction. In addition, many young people express their disgust at such incidents which violate the rights of minorities in Pakistan.
The struggle for identity is at the heart of Pakistani society today. Either we will accept the pluralism of our past to develop a cohesive narrative that recognizes the diverse cultures that shape our present. Or we will repress history (and historians) that deviates from the official narrative in favor of a simple, insular version of history. How we are able to face our past will determine how we manage to imagine a future for our country and for our region.
Ammar Ali jan is a historian of colonial India, based in Lahore. He is a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq movement and a cabinet member of Progressive International
Opinions expressed are personal