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Jhang and the wedge of sectarianism

Two factors that shaped the city

Jhang and the wedge of sectarianism

Part II

When asked about the reason of the disarray the district of Jhang finds itself in, a former civil servant hailing from Jhang contemplated hard and finally came up with two prime causes, unravelling of which may lead us to some interesting inferences.

He attributed the general chaos and anarchic dispensation in various districts, including Jhang, to the erosion of the power and status of the deputy commissioner. Later on that office was replaced with the district coordination officer (DCO) during the Pervez Musharraf era. Deputy commissioner as a representative of the state was the core keeping all divergent interest groups in a fine balance. In that capacity, he was also a chief protocol officer. Besides, he wore several hats simultaneously — that of district magistrate, revenue collector, coordinator of the different government departments and controlling authority of the local government institutions like municipal boards etc.

That was the reason, the deputy commissioner in any of the districts in the Punjab had been likened to the tiny autocrat and it was he who lent sustenance to the steely edifice of British Imperialism.

The populist politics, he averred, under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dealt a debilitating blow to the omnipotence of the deputy commissioner. In the name of empowering the people, the Pakistan People’s Party promoted jiyala culture which was quintessentially antithetical to state apparatus underpinned by the administrative hierarchy in which the deputy commissioner was the kingpin.

As time rolled by, alternative claimant(s) of power emerged in the district at the detriment of the singular source of authority and power, the deputy commissioner. Those alternative claimant(s) of power were the politicians of the ruling clique. Some of them hailed from the same party but had competing interests at the local level.

Read the first part: The city of Jhang

In such a scenario, peace and progress ensured through the district supremo in the days of the Raj and immediately after the partition were markedly compromised. Hence, when the cobra of sectarianism raised its ugly head, it could not be effectively quashed.

The second factor underscored by my interlocutor was the feudal stranglehold which was well-entrenched in Jhang. According to him, River Chenab can be taken as a line of demarcation. Beyond Chenab, feudalism is the determinant of socio-cultural and political profile of the whole region. Many of the feudal lords are well-educated and apparently enlightened people but their constituencies are deliberately kept backwards and their electorate uneducated. The social evolution does not take place.

In that circumstance, change comes only through violence and Jhang was a glaring example of it. In order to break the feudal stranglehold, sectarian violence had to be deployed against the Sial-Syed duo. In Jhang, these two kinships or, in the local parlance, baraderis have been the most powerful in terms of landownership. Most of the Sials and Syeds subscribe to Shia denomination. Therefore, the rage of the urban bourgeois was unleashed and directed against Shiaism.

But before proceeding any further, it will be pertinent to hark back to history so that the political prominence of Sial-Syed duo can be contextualised.

Almost eighteen baraderis inhabit rural Jhang, Sials being the most influential because of their numbers, affluence and political clout. The political importance of the baraderis remained throughout the colonial period as its chiefs fitted very well into the client-patron network set up by the British. In population terms, Jhang has been overwhelmingly a rural district. Nevertheless, migrants from East Punjab, drawn largely from the trading and weaving communities, form an important group which lends political support to Sipah-i Sahaba Pakistan.

When the Pakistan movement was in full throttle and the creation of a new state was in the offing, the chief of the Sial clan, Inayatullah Khan opposed it. Syed Abid Hussain, leading person from amongst the Syed clan, was in the camp of Quaid-i-Azam. Amanullah Khan is one of many claimants to the Sial leadership but the internecine conflicts have weakened their power relative to other kinships including Syeds in local politics. Apart from the Bharwana, Sials of Tehsil Jhang and Janjiana Sials from Tehsil Shorkot, the leading Sials are all Shia. But the subsequent response, in terms of the whipping up of the anti-Shia sentiments that gripped Jhang in the 1980s onwards, came as a reaction to the attitude of Syeds, Abid Hussain being the central figure among them.

How did the Syeds come and settle down in Jhang is shrouded in mystery.

The prominent Syed families are that of Rajoa (in Chiniot, which is now a district) and Shah Jewana in Tehsil Jhang. They also have a marked presence in Shorkot. Most of them trace their descent to Sher Shah, Syed Jalal al Din Surkh Bokhari and adhere to Shia denomination. Both families enjoyed full patronage of the British as a reward for the ‘good service’ that they rendered as and when it was needed.

Syed Muhammad Ghaus, Syed Chiragh Shah, Sardar Hussain Shah and Syed Ghulam Abbas among Rajoa Syeds held positions of pre-eminence during the British rule. Similarly Syed Khizar Hayat from Shah Jewana was virtually reared by the British through the Court of Wards. His younger brother Mubarak Shah and Syed Raja Shah’s son Abid Hussain shot to political prominence that kept resonating in his daughter Abida Hussain and her cousin and political rival, Faisal Saleh Hayat.

Many political analysts looked askance at them for manoeuvring sectarian loyalties for political gain. As mentioned before, Abid Hussain was a close associate of Quaid-i-Azam in the 1940s and used his influence quite sagaciously to earn ministerial positions in the 1950s. He was also the longest serving Chairman of the Jhang District Council, probably in the entire Pakistan.

Despite having a profound understanding of the social situation of the district and an extraordinary political acumen, he failed to do anything worth mentioning which could ameliorate the lot of the poor and dispossessed. That was the typical feudal attitude which provided the pretext to the sectarian exclusionism among the Sunni majority. With the leftist movement having no trace in the entire region, the reaction against feudalism came in the garb of Sunni/Deobandi condemnation of Shiaism and its followers.

The two factors analysed in this article, undoubtedly have played a significant role in bringing a once peaceful district to the brink of civil war-like situation. However, to conclude, the deputy commissioner and the feudal lords of any district have always complemented each other. The British used to dispense political patronage through the office of the deputy commissioner. Thus the feudal lords worked as the sinews of the bureaucracy of whom the deputy commissioner was the kingpin. But that point deserves a separate article.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • Jhang is the birthplace of the physicist Abdus Salam, probably one of the most eminent people in the history of Pakistan and certainly the greatest man Jhang ever produced.

    • Indeed so. It is also the birth place of a well liked and prominent teacher of mathematics, Zulf Hussien Haidri. Incidently, Zulf Hussien and Abdus Salam were cotemporaries at Government College, Lahore.

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