with thanks : Dailytimes
WASHINGTON DIARYWaris Shah’s battle against mullah shahi—Dr Manzur Ejaz
In his first encounter with Heer, Ranjha teaches the arrogant and pampered daughter of the feudal chief that ‘human love’ is not based on good looks but on being humble and serving the needy
If I were the US ambassador I would have certainly made it to Waris Shah’s 212th anniversary because he is the most adored Punjabi poet and was the most articulate ideologue against ‘mullah shahi’. He used the epic story of Heer Ranjha to critique the entire system of the feudal era in which mullah shahi played a key role. Waris had an ideological edge over his competitors like Damodar Das who, being the pioneer of the poetic version of Heer Ranjha, was much more skilful in dramatic depiction.
If Waris Shah could look at the world today, he would be smiling to see that in many countries women can wed the person of her choice irrespective of caste, creed or economic status. However, he would weep at the sight of contemporary Punjab, where he might be killed for criticising mullah shahi within hours of the critique. He would also be howling to witness honour killings and all other kinds of tortures meted out to women in his beloved Punjab. He would be astonished to see that in most areas of his land the Heer of today does not enjoy the freedom that his Heer of the medieval period was granted.
Though Waris Shah wove his story around a disaffected artistic-minded Ranjha, a flutist, and Heer, a strong-willed daughter of a feudal chieftain, he critiqued the key institutions of society that do not respect individual choice. Waris Shah expanded the horizon of the folktale of Heer Ranjha by explaining the core issue: that a woman cannot marry a person of her choice because of a system plagued by tribalism, caste discrimination, religion, corruption and other prevailing regressive forces. Therefore, Waris Shah makes it clear in the beginning that he is creating a new version of Heer (qissa Heer da nawan banaaiye ji).
Unlike his predecessors who started the tale on idealistic notions, Waris Shah concentrated on the role of property in society. After the death of his father, Ranjha’s brothers are jealous of him because of the deceased’s affection for him, manoeuvre the system of justice and give him barren land. The qazi, who used to have control over the revenue and system of justice along with the village panchs — headmen — were bribed by Ranjha’s brothers.
Wadhi de ke bhoin de banay waris banjar zimin Ranjaithe noon aai hai (They became the owner of the cultivable land through bribery while Ranjha was given the barren land).
Throughout the story, Waris Shah depicts the qazis as the most corrupt persons who always collaborate with the feudal lords against the common people. In fact, Waris was harshly criticising the Mughal era system of justice that was based on a network of qazis, appointed on the basis of religious education.
After criticising the corruption-ridden society of Takht Hazara, Ranjha’s native village, Waris Shah takes him to a mosque, which sheltered travellers. Ranjha plays the flute in the mosque to attract everyone in the village but the mullah. A very few historians mention that the mosque was a contested place between mullah shahi and sufis from Baba Farid to Khawaja Farid. The qazi of Pakpattan had lodged a complaint against Baba Farid alleging that he listens to music and dances in the mosque. Most probably Waris Shah was an affectionate follower of Baba Farid and must have had him in mind through Ranjha debating the mullah. Waris Shah, through describing the long detail of curriculum taught to the mullahs makes it certain that he is debating not only a village mullah but also the entire system of mullah shahi. He concludes that mullahs are evil forces clinging to the house of God.
“Waris Shah, Khuda dian khanian noon eeh mullah bhi chambray hain blain” (Waris Shah, mullahs are evil forces clinging to God’s place).
Waris Shah does not spare the greedy business class that worships money. Through Ranjha’s encounter with the boat owner, who declares that “we give a damn about God and we only work for money”, Waris Shah shows how the mullah and the mallah (boatman) say the same thing about common people, though one uses God’s name and the other negates it. For Waris Shah, the mullah was a parasite and the mallah was a vulture, playing a similar role in society.
In his first encounter with Heer, Ranjha teaches the arrogant and pampered daughter of the feudal chief that ‘human love’ is not based on good looks but on being humble and serving the needy. In the opening dialogues between Heer and Ranjha, Waris Shah defines what real human love is and how to achieve it.
Through Ranjha’s servitude to Heer’s father, the chief of the tribe, Waris Shah exposes the contradictions of the feudal system. For example, Heer’s father dismisses Ranjha when her daughter’s love story starts making the rounds but when his herd of buffaloes cannot be managed he tells his wife that they have to overlook the affair till Heer is married. Depiction of the villain, Kaidoo, is also used by Waris Shah to taunt the hypocritical feudal boasting about honour but ignoring it when his self-interest is at stake.
While criticising the system, Waris Shah rejects the institution of jog as well, which teaches the abandonment of the world. When the head jogi, Balnath, asks Ranjha to go beg and consider every woman as his mother or sister, Ranjha rebuts: “I have adopted jog for the love of a woman, how can I consider every woman as my sister or mother?” For Waris Shah the individual has to fight the system and giving up is not the solution. In this backdrop, through a debate between Ranjha and Sehti, Heer’s sister-in-law, Waris Shah criticises the theories of social science, clichés and commonly held beliefs.
Waris Shah’s tomb has been upgraded from a neglected grave where the anniversaries were celebrated by busloads of activists from Lahore. Now, the Waris Mela has become very huge but his message has been ignored: there are even fewer people in the rural areas that read Waris Shah’s Heer. Waris Shah has been embraced as a ‘pir’ but not as a thinker. But Amrita Pritam’s wailing is still haunting:
“Aj aakhaan Waris Shah noon, kiton qabran wichoon bol” (Today I would beseech Waris Shah to speak from the grave).
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org