Less than two weeks after he resigned as Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif ended a long drive from Islamabad to Lahore on August 12 with a speech at Data Darbar, the most popular Sufi shrine in the city. The Pakistan Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from the post of prime minister on July 28, in connection with corruption allegations against him and his family related to the Panama Papers. His journey from the seat of power, Islamabad, to his hometown and stronghold of Lahore, via the historical Grand Trunk Road was meant to be a show of political strength and defiance. The fact that the journey ended at Lahore had immense symbolic significance.

Ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Lahore has earned the unique reputation of being at the forefront of all political movements that eventually engulf the country. For example, it was from here that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched his independent political career as an opponent to the military dictator Ayub Khan after resigning from Khan’s cabinet in 1966. The Pakistan People’s Party was founded in Lahore in 1967. The city became the political hub of the party, a home away from home for the charismatic populist leader originally from Sindh.

However, it was also Lahore that ushered Bhutto’s downfall. The Jamaat-i-Islami party with its impressive street power and head office in Lahore was at the forefront of the protest following the 1977 elections that gave General Zia-ul-Haq an excuse to usurp power in a coup and assume presidency the following year.

Almost a decade later, in 1986, it was in Lahore where Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, landed following a two-year-long self-imposed exile during Zia’s brutal dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of political workers flooded the city’s streets to welcome back the “daughter of the East”. Bhutto’s return to Lahore marked the beginning of the country’s transition to democracy.

In the years to come, Lahore was to become the political home of Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of Zia’s. While during Bhutto’s time Lahore was the political centre of the Pakistan People’s Party politics, in the 1990s a new political party – the Muslim League – under a new leader captured the imagination of the city. Lahore’s embrace of Sharif eventually transformed into national recognition with Sharif becoming prime minister a record three times.

But once again, just like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s story, it was Lahore that marked the beginning of Sharif’s downfall. In October 2011, former Pakistan skipper Imran Khan caught the entire country, including his own party members and supporters, by surprise when he was able to organise a mammoth rally in the city. It marked Khan’s arrival on the national scene after years of being on the political margins. He was the third political force in a country that, for years, had been dominated by the Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party. It was Khan’s incessant demand for a probe into the Panama Papers scandal that eventually led to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from office.

Sufi shrine like no other

On August 12, Sharif took the battle back to where it had begun. In the past, Lahore had raised him to the pinnacle of political power, and Sharif perhaps hoped that it would do so again. In this homecoming, the shrine of Data Darbar had to play a huge symbolic role.

The Data Darbar shrine in Lahore. (Photo credit: AFP).

Ali Hujiwiri, the saint of Data Darbar, is regarded as the patron saint of Lahore. With a mosque that can accommodate 50,000 people, it is the largest shrine in Pakistan in terms of size and number of annual visitors.

The shrine occupies a unique position in the political landscape of the country. Conventionally, Sufism and Sufi shrines are seen as anti-establishment. However, this shrine represents a form of political and religious hegemony and, unlike other Sufi shrines, has been used over the years as a symbol of Pakistani religio-nationalist sentiment with doses of religious orthodoxy.

Ali Hujiwiri, unlike several other Sufi saints such as Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, adhered to the religious orthodoxy. While other Sufi saints challenged several religious conventions and norms, promoting the esoteric and a personal connection with the divine through music and even dance, Ali Hujiwiri defined Sufism within the confines of religious laws, emphasising the maintenance of daily prayers, fasting and other religious rituals. This is the reason why the shrine’s popularity expanded immensely under the colonial regime – the urban Lahori society experienced a religious revivalism after confronting the foreign colonial state, leading to a heightened sense of communal identity.

The popularity of the shrine increased after the creation of Pakistan as it became increasingly aligned with the religious orthodoxy. In 1959, when the Auqaf Department – a government department meant to look after religious shrines in the country – was set up, one of its missions was to also reconfigure the practices and beliefs of several Sufi shrines with the State’s interpretation of religion.

The popularity of Data Darbar and its significant location meant that it increasingly came under the gaze of the department, which kept a strict eye on religious practices at the shrine, removing what it felt were “corrupt” religious practices, and only promoting what it believed to be “true” religious traditions. If Lahore was to become a symbol of political dominance in Pakistan, the shrine of Data Darbar was its symbol of religious dominance.

It is to this shrine that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto headed when he was leading a movement against Ayub Khan. When in power, he donated a golden gate to the shrine, which is still in place. Zia-ul-Haq too donated generously to the shrine – the religious outlook of its caretakers were aligned with the Islamisation policies of the dictator. In 1986, when Benazir Bhutto returned to Lahore and was greeted by a mammoth crowd, she also headed towards this shrine before she spoke to a sea of people at Iqbal Park in Lahore. Over the years, Nawaz Sharif has also donated generously to the shrine, overseeing its expansion when in power.

Coming full circle?

It therefore comes as no surprise that Sharif was to complete his journey home at the shrine of Data Darbar, the ultimate symbol of Pakistan’s religio-nationalism. But could this journey and its conclusion at Lahore be given a different interpretation?

Lahore saw the birth of Congress Purna Swaraj movement in 1929 and the Pakistan movement in 1940. In the 1960s it saw the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and in the 1980s, the return of his daughter. In the 1990s it saw the rise of Nawaz Sharif, and in the 2000s, the rise of Imran Khan. It ushered movements onto a national scene unlike any other city in Pakistan has been able to do. Sharif’s journey, however, felt like a journey backwards, the ebbing of a national phenomenon coming to die at the threshold of the city of its birth. Could this be a completion of Sharif’s history, a conclusion to his long and chequered history in the politics of Pakistan? Would this return home mark the end of Nawaz Sharif’s political career?

Haroon Khalid is the author of 3 books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.