The party was at its peak and the footsteps of young dancers, the sound of drums, the notes of the harmonium and the melodic voice of the singer made the atmosphere fairly romantic in a dry, mountainous region. More than five hundred villagers of various ages were listening as they found a musical heritage that had all but disappeared – now returning to their doorsteps.
Suddenly people in long white attire, wearing white turbans on their heads, arrived at the scene – and started beating the artists. In the ensuing stampede, much of the audience cleared the scene in a few moments of panic. The musical instruments were confiscated. Having made their point, the men, described as ‘mullahs’, asked the people to leave the spot.
As if this were not troubling enough, the attackers weren’t alone: they were supported and accompanied by representatives of the local governing authorities.
One of the artists later narrates what he saw. The process had been quick and violent.
“It felt like experiencing one of Mahmud Ghaznavi’s 17 raids!” he exclaims – referring to the famed 10th-centuryTurkic warlord Mahmud of Ghazni. “A religious group along with local Khasadar forces and seminary students were shouting as though they were in a war with some ‘infidels’. Once they had cleared the gathering, they raised very emotional slogans – as if they had won a great victory!” The artist wishes not to be named.
It would appear that the people responsible for the raid were administrators of a religious seminary, Darul Uloom wa Astana Banoria Ashkhel, in Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, bordering Afghanistan.
The local religious clergy appear to have been outraged by musicians performing at entertainment events organised for two weddings –the occasion was that of two weddings at villages Sheikhmal Khel and Mukhtar Khel –in Landi Kotal.
The confiscated musical instruments were burnt by the clerics after Friday prayers in front of a huge crowd. At a gathering in the premises of seminary, the ‘sinful’ devices were burnt as religious slogans were raised. Darul Uloom spokesperson Ibrahim Khan, alias Bacha Jan, had thanked some of the local elders for extending support to them in what he described as “eliminating obscenity and un-Islamic acts from the roots” in this region.
Having burnt the instruments, Bacha Jan spoke to the media. He stated: “We won’t allow any kind of immoral, un-Islamic or musical activities in the area.”
Jan proudly announced an end to “gana bajana” (playing music) in Landi Kotal.
“We have burned down more than six music items. In the future we would not tolerate music or dance parties in this pure land!” Jan informed residents. He further announced that future violators of such a policy would be dealt with in a similar manner. He also warned them of a social boycott from the community.
“Once they had cleared the gathering, they raised very emotional slogans – as if they had won a great victory!”
Such a crackdown by self-proclaimed moral crusaders inevitably reminded local people of darker times just a few years ago.
During the era of active armed militancy by various fundamentalist forces across north-western Pakistan, the Khyber Agency was in the grip of hardliner Mangal Bagh. During his heavy-handed rule, no one was allowed to keep music – even stored on a cellular phone. Dance, whether on an individual or community level, was strictly banned, too. Not surprisingly, local artists, musicians and transgender individuals (who are often associated with the musical and performing arts, especially in popular perception) fled the area. But interestingly, the Waziristan Taliban, nearby, were proponents of traditional dances to the sound of drums.
Today Mangal Bagh is dead – and his organisation does not hold total sway as it once did. Nevertheless, the recent crackdown by local clerics was bound to evoke traumatic memories – with the spectre of armed militancy still looming large over the region as a whole.
Soon after destruction of musical instruments in premises of the seminary, the Assistant Political Agent (APA) Landi Kotal issued notices to the seminary administrators. In response, the latter, including Bacha Jan, his son Habib Banoori, close relative Ishaq Banoori and tribal elder Haji Khan Dad, expressed their regret for the act through a written apology. In their confession before the political administration, they put the whole matter down to a case of misunderstanding. They also promised to refrain from such actions in the future and avoid breaking the law.
The apology was given to the political administration on a piece of white paper, also received by this scribe.
For his part, APA Landi Kotal, Niaz Muhammad, vows the administration won’t “allow anyone to bypass the law.” He further says:
“We keep an eye on such people in the vicinity. The writ of the state is paramount and we intend to maintain it in every corner of the [Khyber] Agency.”
Common tribesmen and elders, especially those associated with political parties and civil society organisations, have welcomed the political administration taking notice of the matter in the way that it did. However, seeing the relatively effective steps taken by the local political administration to counter the efforts of the religious groups, there are those who wonder why the state could not take action as effectively and decisively in earlier years, especially when Mangal Bagh and other militants had overrun the region.
Tribal elder and Awami National Party (ANP) Khyber Agency President Shah Hussain Shinwari, when contacted for his views on the matter, says, “There was nothing unlawful, unethical or un-Islamic in the music programs arranged for wedding ceremonies.” He insists it is part of tribal and Pakhtun culture in the area. He believes “these elements have taken society hostage for several years now”.
Painful memories of threats and violence against artists are not limited to the Khyber Agency and its experiences with Mangal Bagh’s men. The Taliban and affiliated groups have generally made it a hallmark of their presence to crack down on music and other arts.
In all these years of horrific conflict, having often found themselves at the receiving end of violence by the insurgents, a large number of singers and artists have either abandoned the profession or migrated to Western countries and other foreign lands. During the peak of militancy in FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, when the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had extensively destabilised the writ of law, a female singer was murdered in Mingora, Swat. Similarly a number of artists fell victims of terror in Peshawar, Mardan and other urban areas.
In such a context, local journalist Rahat Shinwari greatly appreciates the administration’s action against the violators of prevailing law. Khyber Agency is the tribal region adjacent to the KP provincial capital of Peshawar. “Due to this proximity, the youth in Khyber are vigilant and adept at the effective use of social media for protest. After all, this is a region which does not have the usual police forces.”
Shinwari, who covers the region in his journalistic work, continues:
“The ugly, unwanted and unlawful incident scared people, because episodes of cultural suffocation from the recent past are fresh in people’s minds. After all, it was in the recent past that the resident of FATA and Swat spent years of their lives as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps.”
For his part, Maulana Ibrahim alias Bacha Jan, the seminary administrator, says that his family has been living in the area for some 200 years. His seminary was established in 1964 – four year earlier than the famed Haqqania Akora Khattak seminary.
They have more than 100 students of ages ranging from five to fifteen – all of them day scholars.
Bacha Jan insists that he had at least some level of approval from local authorities. He says: “Before the action against the music programs we had asked the Tehsildar of Landi Kotal and on his instructions 15 Khasadar men also accompanied us in the noble cause. This raid was against immorality in the region and we were were joined by the government or administration as well elders of the village!”
He may have apologised for recent actions, but he continues with a smile: “The legacy of our forefathers, of struggle against evil, will not be ended. But in the future we would ask the local authorities.”
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @theraufkhan