Swat and the Hur uprising

Monday, January 26, 2009
by Ayesha Ibrahim(THE NEWS)
From 1940 to 1947, the British colonial government in India struggled desperately to enforce its writ in a large portion of Sindh, controlled by a group known as the Hurs who had risen in rebellion against the state. The rebellion centred in Rohri, the seat of the Rohri Pir or the Pir of Pagaro, as he is more commonly known, and spread over a considerable area, where the disciples of the Pir lived. Pir Sibghatullah Shah, the Pir at the time, has been viewed variously as a champion of the nationalist movement and as a shrewd politician aiming for a regional fiefdom. Nevertheless, among the Hurs, he inspired what has been called a fanatical devotion and thus, when the Pir was arrested by the British for conspiracy against the government, the Hurs instigated a rebellion that ignited much of Sindh for a decade (continuing in the newly independent state of Pakistan).

This historical episode is similar to the current situation in Swat in some respects. Firstly, a group of people, a sub-set of the local population, rose in revolt against the state; the Hurs in one case and the Taliban in the other. This group managed to gain control over a considerable geographical area and either made allies of the local populace or intimidated the population into acquiescence. Secondly, both rebellions are ostensibly set in a pre-modern framework; the Hurs fought for the kingdom of Pir Pagaro over the region of Sindh (as prophesied by some other Pir) while the Taliban are fighting for the implementation of their version of the ‘shariah’. While these are the ostensible justifications for revolt, the Pir was taking revenge for humiliations wrought upon him by the British and establishing a foothold for himself in the soon to be decolonized subcontinent and the Taliban are obviously waging a political struggle for dominance in the region as revenge for and in reaction to what has been wrought upon them by the US-Pakistan alliance in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, in both cases, the military was called into resolve the conflict, to a large extent, in vain. Martial Law was imposed in a large part of Sindh during the 1940s and, though, the army took extreme measures to destroy any and every bastion of support the Hurs might have (including trying to burn the forests in the area), the Hur reign of terror prevailed in the countryside, in large part due to the local support they continued to command. Within the Hurs there was a body of active perpetrators of violence who sought to challenge the British, while the remaining Hurs, though peaceful, supported the cause of the active Hurs and provided them with food, supplies and information about the activities of the British. In the case of Swat, despite the deployment of military forces, the Taliban continue to wreak havoc and their authority reigns supreme.

The two rebellions are also eerily alike in that in both cases the perpetrators were initially patronized by the state and later came to bite the hand that fed them; the British state had a deliberate policy of cultivating relations with the Pir Pagaro in order to enlist his support in governing the country and the Pakistani state funded and armed (along with the US) the mujahideen who have now morphed into the Taliban. In both cases, also, the state showed signs of backtracking on its previous policy of patronage (the British imprisoned Pir Sibghatullah and the Pakistani government joined the war on terror), which triggered the rebellions. Last but not least, the policy of the state towards both the rebellions was marked by divided opinion over the wisdom of a military operation in unfamiliar territory and there remained, within the administration, considerable support for the opinion that only dialogue of some sort could resolve the dispute. While many among the Hurs were captured, their spirit remained unbroken until the incumbent Pir (succeeding Pir Sibghatullah) ordered them to stop; as his disciples, the Hurs obeyed but perhaps their obedience was also due to a sense that as the Pir had reconciled with the state, the Hurs’ interests would also be protected hereafter. The Pakistani state, too, is vacillating between an attitude of unrelenting aggression to a dialogue-loving position.

What do these similarities suggest? Firstly there appears to be little change in the capacity and posture of the state from colonial times to the present. Just as the colonial state relied on elites (such as the Pir) for effective governance and made little effort to positively influence the lives of the ordinary and thereby had little knowledge or presence in interior Sindh, so, too, has the Pakistani state made little effort to positively impact the lives of those in the northern areas, an extreme case of which is FATA, but it is also apparent in Swat. This lack of political will and the resultant lack of (civilian) capacity in the north-west has allowed the Taliban to gain a foothold.

Secondly, the similarities, along with the history of the rugged north-west, suggest that no resolution of the state of affairs is possible without recourse to both military means and dialogue. While the violence of the Taliban can only be stalled, in the immediate-term, through military means, a long-term solution will require some form of dialogue and negotiation.

The Taliban have obviously acquired a base, have access to supplies, and have made allies or recruits from some of the population and intimidated the rest. To wrest control from this force, without massacring the entire population, is an almost, if not entirely, impossible task. Therefore, despite the justifiable cries for military action in the area, a pragmatic view of the situation suggests that some form of negotiation will be required.

Once some level of peace and stability has been attained, it is the responsibility of the state to pay attention to the area and devote resources, both human and financial, to this troubled region. Only by doing so, can there be any viable hope for national integration and peace.

Pir Pagaro the Seventh (Urdu: پیر پگاڑو) (Sindhi: پير پاڳارو) or Pir Pagara is the title given to the leader of Sunni Muslim Sufi order of Hurs in Sindh province of Pakistan. It comes from Persian word Pir (Chief) and Sindhi word Pagara (Chieftain's Turban). The turban that Pir Pagaro's used to adorn was thought to belong to Prophet Muhammad.
Per legend, the first Pir Pagaro was such a high scholar that he won many scholarly debates. As per Sindh's tradition, the defeated scholar would submit his turban. With so many turbans on his head, he was declared Pir Pagaro or Chief with Many Turbans.
The current Pir Pagaro is Shah Mardan Shah II, who became Pir Pagaro in 1954. He and his offspring are widely known to use their influence and name for intimidation, much like the Mafia. People use their connections with pagara as possible threats. His father Pir Syed Sabghatullah Shah Pagaro was given the chair; he was hanged on 20th March, 1943 by the British colonial government after he was found guilty, in a sham trial, of inciting an armed uprising of Hur followers.
The writer is a staff member. Email: ayesha.ibrahim@thenews.com.pk

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