Across the border

Ayodhya parallel: A gurdwara in Lahore was at the core of a bitter battle between Sikhs and Muslims

The fight over the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj lasted centuries, from the Mughal era right up to the shrine’s renovation in 2004.

It is an immaculate white building, double storeyed, with a small dome on the top. A nishan sahib (flag) on a pole next to it signifies that a community of Khalsa now occupies the precincts. All year round, Sikh pilgrims visit this gurdwara, choosing to spend a few days in the rooms facing the shrine. Every day, the Guru Granth Sahib is recited and then, following rituals, placed in a special room reserved solely for the holy scripture, the living guru.

Activities at the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj in Lahore are always low key, with just a handful of people around at any given time. But outside its walls, there is a great big rush with several workshops of ironsmiths and beyond those, a market selling all kinds of second-hand goods, Lahore’s famous Landa Bazaar.

As Sikh pilgrims walk in and out of the gurdwara, sometimes venturing into the market, the ironsmiths and other shopkeepers barely spare them a glance, having gotten used to their presence after the construction of the shrine in 2004.

The Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj – much like the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh – has a long and tumultuous history, having been a bone of contention between the city’s Sikhs and Muslims.

Dara Shikoh, a steel engraving, 1845. The Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj in Lahore is believed to stand at the spot that once housed the palace of Prince Dara Shikoh. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Dara Shikoh, a steel engraving, 1845. The Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj in Lahore is believed to stand at the spot that once housed the palace of Prince Dara Shikoh. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mosque or gurdwara?

The gurdwara is located a little outside the walled city of Lahore, in an area called Nalaukha that is believed to have once housed the fabled palace of Prince Dara Shikoh. Shikoh served as governor of Lahore before his assassination at the hands of his younger brother Aurangzeb.

The Sikhs believe that it was at this site that hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children from the community were massacred on the orders of Mir Mannu, the governor of Lahore and representative of the Mughal Empire. Coming to power in 1764, Mir Mannu inherited a staunch anti-Sikh sentiment that had dominated Sikh-Mughal relations since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru. Throughout his lifetime, the guru had fought several battles against Emperor Aurangzeb and lost all his sons in the struggle. After the guru, his devotee Banda Singh Bahadur took up the mantle and continued the fight. After causing much havoc, he was captured and executed. Mani Singh, the priest of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), took up the political affairs of the community after his execution.

Annoyed by the ever increasing military strength of the Sikhs, the Mughals and their governors began persecuting innocent members of the Sikh community. Not far from the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj lies the spot where Mani Singh was hacked to death by Zakarya Khan, who was Lahore’s governor a little before Mir Mannu’s time. Soon after, Mani Singh’s disciple Bhai Taru Singh, too, was scalped by the governor, once again close to the vicinity of the gurdwara.

Mir Mannu, after being appointed governor, followed his predecessors’ policy with great vengeance. Sikh traditions note that he took a vow to exterminate all Sikhs and hold him responsible for the death of over 250,000 members of the community. Most of these deaths happened at the site of the gurdwara, in what was then a vacant space facing the historical Abdullah Khan mosque, constructed by Abdullah Khan, believed to be the cook of Dara Shikoh.

After the ascension of the Sikhs in Punjab, the entire complex, including the mosque, was granted to the Sikhs and a gurdwara constructed here in memory of the innocent people killed on the orders of Mir Mannu. The Sikhs claim Mir Mannu himself allowed them to set up a gurdwara here after they agreed to help him in the conquest of Multan, at the behest of Diwan Kaura Mal who was consequently given charge of Multan by Mir Mannu.

The Muslims, however, maintain the Sikhs forcibly took over the mosque, which was functional, after they came to power in Lahore following the demise of the Mughal Empire.

When the British colonised Punjab, the Muslim community felt they could wrest control of the mosque/gurdwara by asking the new rulers to intercede. A case was filed in the Lahore High Court asking that the mosque be reinstated. But the court ruled that since no one in living memory could recall offering prayers at this mosque, it was hence a gurdwara. Two other cases were filled but they were both dismissed.

Mani Singh, priest of the Harmandir Sahib, is believed to have been executed by the Lahore governor close to the place where the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj stands. (Credit: Gurbar Akaal / Wikimedia Commons)
Mani Singh, priest of the Harmandir Sahib, is believed to have been executed by the Lahore governor close to the place where the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj stands. (Credit: Gurbar Akaal / Wikimedia Commons)

Riots and court battles

Matters came to a head in 1935 when the property was handed over to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, an Amritsar-based organisation responsible for the functioning of gurdwaras in accordance with Sikh principles. After taking control of the gurdwara, the committee decided to demolish all “un-Sikh-like deviations and non-Sikh usages” of the gurdwara, which included the remains of the mosque. Several Muslim organisations rose in protest against this desecration of the mosque, leading to the worst Sikh-Muslim riots in pre-partition Lahore. Curfew was imposed in the city. However, the British maintained that the disputed structure was a gurdwara and would remain so.

After Partition, part of the gurdwara came under the control of the Auqaf Department, a government organisation tasked with looking after abandoned Hindu and Sikh property in the country. In the late 1950s, another petition was presented in the Lahore High Court asking for the conversion of the gurdwara into a mosque. With the creation of a Muslim country, there was much hope that such a conversion was now possible. But, surprisingly, the court upheld its decision made under colonial rule. Though the property was abandoned, Muslims were barred from turning it into a mosque. Another petition was made in the late 1980s but that too was turned down.

In the 1990s, as the number of Sikh pilgrims coming into the country increased, the expatriate Sikh community in Britain took up the case of the gurdwara, asking the government of Pakistan for permission to renovate it and convert it into a functioning gurdwara. The government hesitated for a few years but permission was eventually granted.

With the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj back in the news, fresh objections to it also arose. The protestors said that if they were not given permission to construct a mosque here, they would also not allow the renovation of the gurdwara. However, the ironsmiths and shopkeepers who worked in the area supported the gurdwara renovation, recognising its economic potential, and the protests gradually fizzled out. The new building of the gurdwara was completed in 2004.

While the history of the country is rampant with tales of Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist shrines being taken over and ignored, the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj serves as a unique reminder of when the judiciary and the local community came together in its support.

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

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.