By Tahir Malik and Irfan Ghauri
July 5, 2018
Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh, Lahore. PHOTO: AFP
Shrine ‘Gaddis’ and political parties in
Punjab have been intertwined in a mutually dependent relationship for decades.
However, the influence of the shrines progressively reduces as one move up from
impoverished south to more affluent central and north Punjab.
In South Punjab, the political parties bank
their fortunes on Pirs, the opposite is often true in constituencies of central
Punjab where most shrine families have to bargain and form alliances with
political parties to retain their political influence.
The situation further changes as one moves
further north. Besides other socio-religious factors, evolving political
economy in these areas has changed the shrine influence in these areas.
In the face of such changes, distinguished
spiritual lineage has not remained a sole guarantor of electoral success. The
pir has to adapt to the changing circumstance through intelligent political
moves to remain relevant.
In the regions with growing middleclass
along towns and villages near Grand Trunk road the choice of party platform has
become a crucial decision for poll contestants.
There is also variation within these
regions. In central or South Punjab, the political authority of Pirs is
stronger in rural constituencies and regions where religious and landed power
The relationship between ‘Sajjada
Nasheen’ and ‘Mureeds’ has traditionally been based on a stable
exchange that involves both spiritual and material domains.
Apart from offering religious intercession,
the Pirs have been providing a wide range of services; food for the poor,
healing touch for the ill, talismans for the superstitious and dispute
resolution for conflicting parties. Where religious and landed power has
blended the ‘mureeds’ remain economically dependent on the pir, who has been in
control of economic resources.
According to a research by Dr Adeel Malik
of Oxford University, out of 598 shrines across Punjab, custodians of 64 are
directly involved in politics. On per capita basis, there is no significant
difference in shrine density between northern and southern Punjab. However,
there is a significant difference in the extent of influence the Pirs of two
regions enjoy in contemporary politics, the research shows.
While shrine families of South Punjab
continue their dominance in local, provincial and national politics, many
shrine families in central Punjab – in Sargodha, Pakpattan, Sahiwal, Vehari,
and Mandi Bahauddin – directly take part in the elections. However, over the
years these families have been challenged by the newly emerged businessmen led
upper middle class.
For majority of Pirs a permanent foothold
in the corridors of power is an essential means for survival.
Hereditary succession is a predominant norm
among religious shrines and intra-family conflicts are common. In such
conflicts, the family member with superior political connections and more
access to state resources is considered de facto heir to the spiritual throne.
Shrine guardians enjoy group solidarity
based on shared material interests and a common spiritual ground; their
interests often consummated through nuptial bonds. Many of Punjab’s noted
shrine families are related through a complex web of marital ties that supersedes
their political affiliation and local interests.
Such marital ties have a larger political
significance, since they allow the involved parties to tap into complementary
networks of powers and help to expand both families’ reach and influence.
One such example is Gilani Syeds of Multan,
the family of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has nuptial bonds with
shrine families of Jamal Din Wali in Rahimyar Khan, Hujra Shah Muqeem in Okara,
Makhad Sharif in Attock, Golra Sharif in Islamabad, Pir Qatal in Jalalpur
Pirwala, Sandlianwali in Peer Mahal, Khairpur Tamewali and Pir Pagara in Sindh.
Marital connections are also strategically
formed to consolidate relationship with landed elite, businessmen and members
of civil service. However, very few politically influential shrines in north
and central Punjab have been capable of securing electoral success entirely on
their own strength.
Most are dependent on the strength of
factional alliances and party votes.
Many shrine families have lost their
political worth for a number of reasons. A pertinent example in this regard is
shifting fortunes of family of Sir Mehdi Shah of Gojra near Faisalabad.
He had been leading shrine aristocrats in
British era but his successors have subsequently found it difficult to break
the electoral barrier, managing at best small time district level elections.
The shrines of Mianwali district which in
the British era district gazettes was recognised as being influential are no
longer able to decisively shape electoral outcomes.
Rapid urbanisation, independent and new
sources of income, small and medium enterprises, increasing access to social
and conventional media have been among the factors in depleting influence of
Other factors such as connectivity,
education and migration have been playing important role in challenging
traditional structure of their authority.
In constituencies where Pirs are not strong
enough to win elections on their own, they engage in a bilateral political
exchange of sorts where they solicit support of each other’s candidates.
For example a Pir, running for the
provincial assembly, would support party candidate running for a National
Assembly seat. Similar exchange is common in local government elections where
candidates are fielded as part of a panel, where a pir can be nominated for a
slot in exchange for his support to other candidates in the panel.
Such transactional bargaining is
particularly prevalent in central and western parts of Punjab where growing
number of shrine families are awarded tickets for provincial assembly in
exchange for their support for party candidates in related constituencies. With
their well-established networks shrine elite figure prominently in this
calculation and enjoy a natural advantage in such electoral bargaining.
Changing circumstances also become another
factor for relevance of Pirs in political arena.
One such example in Pir Sial from Sargodha,
who had significant political clout and electoral presence in the district but
became more prominent due to his stance taken after emergence of scandal with
regard to change of in lawmakers oath regarding finality of Prophet-hood
Sialvi exhorted the PML-N government with
deadlines and subsequently many parliamentarians of the ruling party including
Ghulam Bibi Bharwana from Jhang and Dr Nisar Jutt from Faisalabad resigned.
This shows Pir Sialvi has considerable clout in many National Assembly and
provincial assembly seats.
In this month’s general elections, Pir
Sialvi has announced support for the PTI.
The PTI Chairman Imran Khan the other day visited him to seek his
support in the elections. The candidates
amongst his followers who had contested 2013 elections on the PML-N ticket at
various constituencies are now contesting on the PTI tickets in Sargodha and
neighbouring districts of Jhang, Chiniot and Faisalabad.
At NA-88 former religious affairs minister
Pir Amin ul Hasnat himself an influential Pir and follower of Pir Sialvi was
reluctant to contest elections on the PML-N ticket. Former ruling party had to
change candidate in Bhera against Nadeem Afzal Chan, now a PTI candidate. Pir
Sialvi’s nephew Pir Naeem Sialvi is himself contesting from NA-92 on the PTI
In Rawalpindi division Pir Jami of Golra
Sharif has issued written instructions to supporters to support the PTI in the
In NA-58 Gujjar Khan constituency, support
of Bhangali Sharif Shrine can tilt the election result from one candidate to
another. When Raja Pervaiz Ashraf of the PPP was the prime minister, he visited
the shrine many times and gave developmental grants to the shrine from his
In this election the Pir of Bhangali Sharif
is supporting his candidature. In neighbouring Jhelum district the custodians
of shrine of Jalal Pur Sharif have contested and won many elections in the
past. Pir Hasnaat and Pir Barkat were the JUP parliamentarians in the past.
Pir Anees of Jalalpur Sharif was an
aspirant of the PTI ticket for provincial assembly. The party denied him and
fielded its spokesman Fawad Chaudhry on both national and provincial assembly
seats. For the PTI’s candidate securing support of Pir Anees will be crucial to
win polls as in the last year’s by-elections the PML-N candidate Raja Matloob
had won the contest by a narrow margin.
Traditionally Pirs have been considered
trusted intermediaries between state and its subjects, the leading shrines of
Punjab have historically acted as important nodes of rural power structure.
Allies of Mughals, tolerated by Sikh rulers, and appeased by the British,
majority of the shrine families of Punjab have never remained out of favour and
this trend continues to a varying degree even in 2018.