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Pakistan’s Mughal syndrome

Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, and his warriors visiting a Hindu temple in the Indian subcontinent

IN RECENT years, India has begun to view the Mughals and other Muslim dynasties before them, not as natives but invaders and colonisers. Hindutva’s rise sees even Islam as a foreign religion and the Mughal monuments, including the Taj Mahal, as occupiers’ relics. The 1947 partition takes on new meaning as India reincarnates Hindu glories whitewashing the Muslim rule.

As Hindu India resentfully re-evaluates the Muslim takeovers spanning over several centuries, Pakistan takes pride in calling itself a Muslim country though, oddly, without owning the invaders as forefathers. However, progressively, Pakistan is forming closer ties with the Central Asian states, Iran, and Turkey, where the invaders originated. The partition between India and Pakistan is deepening and will continue to do so as India and Pakistan reconnect to their different histories. Except for religion, Bangladesh shares a much more cultural and linguistic history with India than Pakistan. As such, the India-Bangladesh alliance is much more authentic than the Pakistan-Bangladesh partnership.



IN THE early 16th century, the Muslim descendants of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan invaded the Indian subcontinent via Afghanistan and established the Mughal Empire that lasted over 300 years (1526–1857). The Muslim conquest of the subcontinent began in 711 BCE, when the Muslim Arabs landed in Pakistan (Sind), the year Muslim Arabs entered Spain. For 800 years before the Mughals arrived, Muslim dynasties had been fighting to control the subcontinent. For the first five centuries (711–1192), the invaders mostly remained in Pakistan. More and more, they began to conquer India’s eastern and northern portions. In 1206, Muslim invaders established what is known as the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526), which lasted for more than three hundred years under various Afghan and Turkic dynasties until the establishment of the Mughal Empire.

The Mughals built upon the achievements of the earlier Muslim dynasties. Together, the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire ruled Pakistan and various parts of India for over six hundred years (1206–1857). But since 711, Pakistan has been under constant invasions, occupation, ethnic depositing, and religious cleansing. Under the invasions pressures, the Hindus left Lahore and other cities. Thus partition was in slow but steady progression centuries before 1947.

Situated next to Iran, Afghanistan, Turkestan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan — the bastion of invaders — Pakistan has been the stepping stone for the western adventurers, from Alexander the Great (180 BCE) to the Mughals. All roads to the invasion of the subcontinent passed through Pakistan. After repeated conquests for centuries, Pakistan fundamentally changed into a settlement territory for the invaders and their progeny. ‘Welcome but keep going east’ became Pakistan’s mindset towards the new invaders.

In 1947, Pakistan partitioned off from India as a Muslim country, just as ripe fruit falls off the tree.

Even though Indians and Pakistanis understand each other through a common language called Hindi/Urdu, a language the Mughals launched. Yet, Hindu India is Sanskritisation Hindi to separate it from Urdu (a language still alive among Indian Muslims). Being part of Pakistan, Bangladesh also resented Urdu’s imposition over its highly developed language, Bangla, the language of Rabindranath Tagore. (If Islam were not a dividing factor, Bangladesh and West Bengal are inseparable.) However, in the spirit the Mughals intended, Pakistan’s Urdu continues to grow across all provinces. The language of the Mughal Empire was Urdu, so is that of Pakistan, even though 90 per cent of Pakistanis speak Urdu as a second or third language. Pakistan’s Urdu commitment is a connective tissue with the past, with the Mughals. However, Urdu, much like English, is wide open to accept and actively borrow foreign words from other dialects and languages.

In addition to the Urdu commitment, Pakistan seems to have begun relating to the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. The Pakistan army names the weapons after the Muslim dynasties. For example, a surface-to-surface ballistic missile is named after Ghauri, the Afghan invader who defeated and killed a Hindu prince and established the Delhi Sultanate in 1206. One short-range missile memorialises Ghaznavi, an Afghan invader who expelled the Hindu ruler from Peshawar. Three cruise missiles memorialise Babur, the Mughal dynasty founder. These names are deliberate attempts to connect Pakistan with Muslim conquerors. Afghanistan objects to these weapons naming on the theory that the named warriors were Afghans, not Pakistanis.

Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan fully realises that Pakistan has been a settler territory for the Afghan and Turkic invaders. Much more than India and Bangladesh, but as much as Afghanistan, Pakistan is related to the invaders through geography, culture, languages, religion, and gene pool. Indeed, the invaders’ children (Khans, Ghauris, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Syeds, Lodis, Suris, and Mughals) have ethnically metamorphosed into Pakistan. Pakistan was born with the Arab invasion of Sind in 711 BCE. It matured and multiplied among the Afghan and Turkic conquests. Pakistan is the entity that the Muslim warriors have jointly manufactured. On the eve of the 1947 partition, Muslims who migrated to Pakistan are, for the most part, ethnically related to Afghan and Turkic dynasties and belong to Pakistan, making it ahistorical to call them muhajirs (immigrants).

Because of its focus on religion rather than history, Pakistan does not rationalise its existence as the continuation of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire that the British interrupted for nearly ninety years (1858–1947). Most Pakistanis have sparse knowledge of the Delhi Sultanate or Mughal history. They might not even know that Akbar, the greatest Mughal Emperor, and Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, were both born in Pakistan. Shahabuddin Ghauri, who established the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, is buried in Jhelum, Pakistan. A dozen or so Mughal and other dynastic architectural monuments exist in and around Lahore — a city that welcomes invaders with open arms — a favourite capital for the early invaders. Some monuments are degenerating into ruins through neglect. Very few Pakistanis express any ownership of these monuments, except the Badshahi Mosque.

Pakistan lives in a self-imposed historical vacuum. Under Islamic influence, Pakistanis, especially the ruling elites and mullahs, idealise the 7th century Arabs, known as the Prophet’s companions, as their forefathers. However, the same Pakistanis would readily complain that the Pakistani rulers have no matching behaviours with the Islamic forefathers. Even the love for the Arabs, in general, is non-existent. Pakistanis working in the Gulf States cast Arabs as discriminatory and arrogant. The 7th century Arabs are indeed the founders of Islam and command respect among Muslims, but they are not Pakistan’s ancestors. Ironically, there is no public or academic embracing of the Muslim dynasties as Pakistan’s forefathers. Nevertheless, as if by genetic determination, Pakistan’s ruling elites display the Mughal syndrome, much more than they know or will likely admit.

The Mughal syndrome is the combined mindset of the Muslim dynasties that invaded the subcontinent, including the Mughals and the Delhi Sultanate’s five dynasties. The syndrome contains several distinct behaviours. Here I discuss three conducts that the Pakistani ruling elites share with the earlier dynastic rulers: (1) foreignisation, (2) ayashi (eat, drink, and enjoy), and (3) takht ya takhta (throne or gallows). From Ayub Khan to Imran Khan, the Pakistani rulers have adopted these behaviours. By contrast, the Indian rulers rarely show any of these attitudes, making the Mughal syndrome even more relevant to Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan simplifies history by focusing on Islam, ignoring the motives, violence, and psychology of conquering dynasties.



THE Mughals, like prior Muslim dynasties, were indeed foreigners when they invaded India. What is most intriguing is the fact that they aspired to foreignise India. Consider cuisine. Not content with the Hindu vegetarian cuisines, the Mughals imported the Iranian and Central Asian recipes, which had a heavy reliance on rice and meats. Biryani, a concoction of rice, lamb, and spices, now an international food, was a classic Mughal invention. Samosas, chicken tikka, korma, nihari, haleem, and many other popular items sold in the ‘Indian restaurants’ worldwide originated in the Mughal kitchens. While Hindu India is turning vegetarian again, Pakistan takes pride in crafting even more ‘ foreign’ and ‘exotic’ foods, borrowing recipes from Italy, China, and the US fast foods.

Ignoring that India has more than a hundred actively spoken languages in diverse regions, the Mughals imported Persian and Arabic, two vital foreign languages. They planted these foreign languages into a brand new language, Urdu, which revolutionised ordinary conversations, philosophy, and literature. Urdu poetry and lyrics flourished. For decades, Bollywood produced unforgettable Urdu movies and songs. The movie culture might change as India turns inward and indigenous.

The Mughal foreignisation was most manifest in the architecture. Even though the Hindu architecture employed in temples was exquisite and sophisticated, the Mughals were not interested. They embarked on building mosques, shrines, gardens, and forts drawing inspiration from the Iranian and Ottoman sources. The Taj Mahal stands out because it has little resemblance to native temples and palaces. Its beauty is nonlocal. The Hindus do have a point in not owning the Taj Mahal. (It is like Native Americans not owning the Mount Rushmore National Memorial).

In fighting for independence from the British Raj, the Hindu and Muslim leaders adopted markedly different styles. Jawaharlal Nehru, the founding father of India, though affluent and erudite, wore native clothing styles, kurta and chooridar pajama. Mahatma Gandhi bared his frail body to connect with the poor and the wretched. By contrast, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, hired an Englishman as chauffeur to drive his Bentley, an Irish man cooked his food, and Jinnah donned nearly 200 custom-made suits and silk ties. Jinnah, like his buddy, Winston Churchill, smoked a pipe. (The British imprisoned Nehru and Gandhi, but never Jinnah). Marketing his playboy fairy tales, Imran Khan, the current prime minister, wears shalwar kameez and Peshawari chappel — the local wearings — but as a fashion statement.

Toeing foreignisation a la Mughals, within a few years after coming into existence, Pakistan crafted a brand-new city, Islamabad, as its capital. Ayub Khan, the military leader, selected a Greek architect, Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis, to design Islamabad and its spectacular buildings. This city in panache and layout shares little in common with other cities in Pakistan. Islamabad stands out as a foreign city in Pakistan. Not just Greece, Poland, too, had a hand in Pakistan. Wladyslaw Turowicz, a Polish aristocrat and aviator, was summoned to lay the Pakistan air force academy’s groundwork and lead Pakistan’s space programme.

More recently, the foreignisation of Pakistan has taken on the Chinese contours. One province has decided to teach Mandarin to children in government schools. Pakistani women are marrying Chinese men. While India is fighting a border war with China, Pakistan is building a new port, Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea to facilitate Chinese trade. Pakistan touts China as its ‘iron brother for all seasons.’ Pakistan’s prior love affair with the US has cooled off after receiving repeated rebuffs and sanctions. Still, civilian rulers, military generals, business communities, and bureaucrats dream of sending their children to England and America.

The love of the things foreign is a profound cultural pathos of Pakistan. This attitude is deeply ingrained in the Mughal dynamics that Pakistan inherited through its social veins.



BABUR, the Mughal dynasty founder, wrote a line in Farsi, Babur b’aish kosh ka alam dobara niest (Babur live it up as you’d never see this world again), a line that many Pakistanis recite with vicarious joy, but the ruling elites translate it into real action. Muslim dynasties invaded the subcontinent to plunder wealth, just as the British colonisers did. They defeated each other just as the predators do. They taxed the people to upgrade their royal life. The welfare of the people was tangentially relevant only because an affluent populace can pay more taxes.

While some invaders were indeed pious Muslims, piety was no barrier to lavishness. Muslim empires in other parts of the world, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Ottoman, and others were mostly luxuriant. Babur, who portrayed himself as an Islamic warrior, loved to drink alcohol, though prohibited in Islam. ‘I am drunk, officer. But punish me when I am sober’ was his favourite retort. Following the Ottoman sultans, Akbar and other Mughal Emperors established harems to house multiple wives and concubines. The jurists generously interpreted Islamic law to allow four wives and unlimited concubines, including Hindu women captured in battles.

For the mighty and the powerful, the law itself is a concubine.

The concept that you acquire the power to do good for the people, the so-called democratic ideal, was rarely part of the imperial mindset. Empires were overwhelmingly vulturine. The ruling elites had no guilt feelings if the people lived in wretched poverty or starved to death while the royal kitchens were crafting new recipes. Muslim empires were no exception to the imperial mindset. The Mughals were ruling a foreign people, and their guilty feelings were as low as would be of the Brits ruling the subcontinent.

Ayashi does not necessarily mean living a sinful life. Ayashi is an entitlement for rulers to use public funds for a luxurious lifestyle. Most importantly, ayashi means indifference as it separates the rulers from the people, undermining the moral paradigm that both must have roughly the same standard of living.

In the pursuit of ayashi, Pakistan’s ruling elites mimic the Mughals. Prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who advocated Islamic socialism in the 1970s, belonged to an affluent family, lived like a nawab, and wore custom-made suits. Only ayashi mindset can integrate socialism with an extravagant personal lifestyle. Like Babur, Bhutto adored drinking. And yet, in the name of Islam, Bhutto declared in the constitution a sizeable Pakistani population, known as Ahmadis, to be non-Muslims, opening the way for their persecution. In physics, Abdus Salam won a Nobel prize but had no recognition in Pakistan because he was an Ahmadi.

Talking repeatedly about the people’s welfare in his speeches, Bilawal Bhutto, Zulfikar’s grandson, lives in a newly built palace in Lahore, Punjab’s capital. In papers, the mansion is a gift that a real estate tycoon has given to the Bhutto dynasty. Frequently gifts legalise illegal money. Bilawal, who spent years in London and Oxford, is more fluent in English than Urdu, maintaining a delightful foreignness. Bilawal refreshes the Mughal syndrome under which foreignness is superior to native accents.

The Sharif dynasty has built their palace in Jati Umra, outside Lahore. One of the world’s wealthiest men, Nawaz Sharif, who has been the prime minister for three terms cut short for various reasons, now lives in exile in London in a multi-million dollar apartment. Sharing the Mughal syndrome, Sharif had a knack for building high-speed highways though most people cannot afford to buy even clunkers. After building the Lahore-Islamabad highway, it is rumoured that prime minister Nawaz Sharif would drive his Mercedes at a very high speed, singing with a friend hawa main urta jai mera lal dupatta mulmul ka (my red scarf is fluttering away in the wind). If accurate, this ecstasy, this romance, fit the notion of ayashi.

Prime minister Imran Khan built his palace outside Islamabad with money he says his wife, an Anglo-French billionaire’s daughter, gifted him before the divorce. Imran, famous for his playboy lifestyle in England, now carries a tasbih, to repeat Allah’s names. While Khan is fond of delivering uneducated sermons on the Medina state and Sufism, another former wife accuses him of getting high on nonpharmaceutical drugs. If true, this duplicity is a classical element of ayashi.

The mansions in which the prime leaders live provide a shocking contrast to how ordinary people live in villages and crowded cities, without clean water, gas, and electricity. This appalling disparity, however, is entirely logical under the notion of ayashi. It is consistent with the Mughal syndrome.

The allure of ayashi trickles down to ministers, bureaucrats, law enforcement agencies, and other government officials. Ayashi breeds corruption, commissions, tax fraud, unlawful collaboration with the business community, as everybody in the government aspires for a lavish lifestyle by any means necessary.

Only the unwise would wonder why Islamabad carries the feel of a royal capital of an economically struggling country. The furniture, the chandeliers, the halls, the courtiers, the servants, the expensive infrastructure revive the Mughal style of lavishness and a clear separation from the people’s lifestyle. If you compare Pakistani rulers’ lifestyles with Indians and Bangladeshis, the contrast is even more astounding.

More than indulgence and material exhibitionism, ayashi is a state of mind embedded in duplicity, apathy, arrogance, and making things harder for ordinary people. Ayashi invites the rulers and their underlings to spend time and energy planning palace coups rather than developing solutions for the people’s social and economic problems. (Even the Pakistani media and prominent TV anchors spend most of their air time talking about real and possible palace coups.)


Takht ya Takhta

GET the throne or be killed. Throughout India’s Muslim rule, the succession took place through rebellion, capture, exile, and murder. The transition from one king to the next within the same dynasty, or from one dynasty to the other, was frequently filled with violence. In fighting for the throne, Muslims did not hesitate to collaborate with Hindu princes. Takht (throne) ya (or) takhta (gallows) portrays the history of more than ten centuries of Muslim dynasties, including the Mughals.

For example, Babur defeated the Lodi Sultanate (1451–1526) and killed the ruler to change the dynastic rule. Khusru, the beloved son of Emperor Jahangir (1605–1627), rebelled against his father to usurp the throne. Jahangir did not kill the son but blinded him as punishment. When Emperor Shah Jahan (1628–1558), the Taj Mahal builder, fell ill, his sons fought for the throne, and the victor, Aurangzeb (1658–1707), imprisoned the father for nearly eight years until he died in prison.

The Mughals did not invent usurpation or the bloody transfer of power; they sanctified the syndrome. Before them, the various Muslim dynasties were no less violent in succession matters. For example, Razia Sultana (1236–1240), the first female Muslim ruler in the subcontinent, a descendant of the Mamluk dynasty (1206–1290), was popular among the people, but not among the Turkic ruling elites and provincial governors. When she began to assert her authority, such as riding on the elephant in the Delhi streets and demanding power in setting policies, the resentment grew among the nobles. First, she was accused of a nonmarital relationship. Eventually, the nobles overthrew Razia. As the guards deserted Razia, a Hindu mob killed her.

Exile was an essential feature of takht or takhta. The disfavoured princes, crown princes, even Mughal Emperors went in exile to regroup or avoid imprisonment and death. Emperor Humayun (1530–1540) retreated to Iran when his brother revolted against him and forced him to exile. He returned to fight for the throne and ruled for a short second term (1555–1556). In 1858, the Brits exiled the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Myanmar (Burma), where he died writing sad poetry.

Following the Mughal syndrome, the Pakistani constitutional system has failed to streamline peaceful succession. Three different constitutions (1956, 1962, and 1973) have been made, unmade, amended, unamended, and suspended with and without lawful authority. The elected prime ministers have been removed from office, exiled, and hanged. Within three years of independence, the first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in broad daylight. This chaos looks abnormal only in the absence of historical context, but it is customary if viewed in light of the Muslim dynasties.

The Mughal syndrome, deeply rooted in Pakistan’s social psychology, does not allow a person from an ordinary family to acquire power. A chai-walla can never imagine being Pakistan’s prime minister. The system requires you to show some authentic or feigned ‘royalty’ to claim the throne. You must be a dynasty member or have the dynasty’s blessings to be the chief minister or prime minister.

In the past seventy-three years of Pakistan, three dynasties have surfaced that compete for power: the Bhutto dynasty, the Sharif dynasty, and the military generals as an institutional dynasty.

The Sharif and Bhutto dynasties operate in the form of political parties. Millions of people are their workers and voters. They contest elections. They win and lose elections, though always complaining foul play. What makes them dynasties is that the ultimate decision-making power resides in a dynasty’s family member.

The Bhutto dynasty has survived its founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, hanged for the murder of a political opponent. His progeny carries on the Bhutto dynasty. Prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the first Muslim woman, was elected twice (1988–1990, 1993–1996) to the highest office in a Muslim country. In both terms, she received little support from the military dynasty. Furthermore, the Sharif dynasty bitterly opposed Benazir Bhutto and even conspired with the generals and judges to remove her from office.

In 2007, Benazir was assassinated in Islamabad in a suicide bomb attack during the General Musharraf rule. Her assassination was no different from that of Razia Sultana. Most notably, upon her death, a handwritten will surfaced in which she had bequeathed the party leadership to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari. ‘I would like my husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best,’ wrote Bhutto. Bilawal Bhutto, then nineteen years old, acquired co-chairmanship of the party with his father. Bilawal is now looking forward to being the prime minister. The Bhutto dynasty has ruled the province of Sindh for the last several decades.

Nawaz Sharif, the founder of the Sharif dynasty, has been elected Pakistan’s prime minister three times. Each time, he could not complete his term. He was either overthrown by the military dynasty or removed from office by the Supreme Court. Additionally, Nawaz Sharif has been imprisoned and exiled. However, he continues to dictate the dynasty in exile from London. Shahbaz Sharif, his brother, has ruled Punjab for decades and hopes to be the next prime minister. The children of the Sharif dynasty are also looking forward to assuming power in Lahore and Islamabad.

The military generals have consolidated the most effective dynasty that has ruled Pakistan for nearly thirty years. If a general takes over, the entire army establishment supports the general. The supportive generals are related to the usurper through the institution without any blood ties.

General Ayub Khan (1958–1969) overthrew the first civilian president and ruled Pakistan for more than ten years. General Zia-ul- Haq (1978–1988) overthrew the first Bhutto government. Much like Emperor Aurangzeb, General Haq launched Islamic fundamentalism, making life difficult for religious minorities. General Pervez Musharraf (1999–2008) overthrew the Sharif government and later detained the Supreme Court judges to suppress legal opposition to his regime. He also forced the Sharif family to leave Pakistan and made them sign an agreement of exile.

Sensing that military coups are no longer acceptable to the international community and that coups trigger economic and weapons sanctions, the military dynasty has found new ways to control the state machinery. The intelligence agencies under the control of the army manipulate politicians to do what they are told to do, including voting in the parliament. The anti-corruption agencies, also under the military thumb, launch corruption cases against out-of-line politicians. Divide and rule politicians work like a charm. The military dynasty even rigs elections to mount a prime minister of their choice. Imran Khan, for example, is the product of rigged elections. He is the first ‘elected’ puppet prime minister that works on behalf of the military dynasty.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court actively participates in shielding the Mughal syndrome. For most of its history, the court appears to have aligned with the military dynasty. The court has legitimised military coups with innovative legal theories, allowing the usurpers even to amend the constitution. More recently, the court removed two sitting prime ministers for almost frivolous legal reasons, one prime minister belonging to the Bhutto dynasty and the other to the Sharif dynasty. Some chief justices assume the executive powers and begin to run the government.

Takht ya takhta also applies to the judiciary. Judges who write opinions to challenge the military dynasty face corruption cases, just as politicians do. Judges are helpless in retrieving the people who disappear. They can offer little assistance when the journalists who expose the dynasties are abducted, imprisoned, or murdered. Judges are threatened with consequences and removed from office if they take on any dynasty. The freedom of the judiciary is subject to the supremacy of the dynasties.



INDIA has reasons to disown the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire because Muslim warriors occupied a Hindu homeland. However, whether it accepts it or not, Pakistan is the continuation of the Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. Like nature’s laws, the forces of history do not go away; they continue to shape and even determine nations’ dynamics and destiny. Indeed, Hindus converted to Islam, some voluntarily, some by compulsion. Predominantly, though, Pakistan is a land of the progenies of invaders —Greeks, Arabs, Afghans, and Turkic groups propagating for over thirteen centuries. Pakistan started to form in 711, not in 1947.

History demonstrates that the Muslim dynasties enjoyed regal lifestyles regardless of whether the people they govern were doing well. They resorted to mutiny, capture, exile, takeovers, and even murder to acquire the throne. Behind the veil of democracy, Pakistan is dynastic, a continuation of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. The rule of law, peaceful succession, and the constitutional supremacy do not work when the ruling elites engage in ayashi and habitually gamble for takht ya takhta. Pakistan needs a profound self-analysis to counter the historical gravity of the Mughal syndrome., October 1. Liaquat Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy, a firm dedicated to the protection of civil rights and human liberties.

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