The actual perspective

How the historic Swat eclipsed into the current tenor of violence…

By Rafi Ullah

Swat makes interesting copy, both for electronic and print media these days. The world community seems to have perceived the people of this historic area as barbaric, vandals and religiously bigots. Few locals and non-locals have written about Swat but a comprehensive and holistic study of the area is still awaited.

The valley of Swat has a great importance in the annals of world history. Human development owes much to this historic area, a fact that is well-reflected by its various historical names such as 'Suvastu' (having good dwellings) of Rig-veda, 'Soastene' of Greeks and U-Chang of the Chinese pilgrims of which Ujjana (Pali) and Uddiyana (Sanskrit) are cognates.

If Swat is contextualised against its 3,000 to 4,000 years long history, it will appear as the land of significant social, cultural, religious and political developments. And all of this will rightly be attributed to its geographical location as a crossroad and melting pot of different people and cultures.

For a proper understanding of the history of Swat we must take into account all the historical developments in the area such as migrations, invasions and proselytism. From these phenomena stem the subsequent syncretism and progress in culture, religion and politics of Swat.

Its central position in Asian continent destined Swat to witness the incomings of the Aryans, Persian domination, Greeks' invasion, Mauryan rule, Kushan suzerainty, Huns' overlordship, supremacy of Turki Shahi and Hindu Shahi and, lastly, the invasion of Mehmud of Ghazni. Mehmud's subjugation of Swat resulted in the migration of Afghans from various areas of modern Afghanistan. The Yusufzai tribe ousted these Afghans in the first quarter of the 16th century. The Yusufzais still dominate the valley to a large extent but other ethnic groups also make integral part of the Swati social structure/ set-up.

All of these developments in terms of migrations, invasions and missionary activities have rendered Swat a home of different moral, philosophical, political and religious influences. Thus, the fabric of Swati society represents the geniuses of myriad of people and their worldviews.

In the story of human development migration plays a crucial role. "It might even be documented that human progress, no matter how this phrase is interpreted, is closely correlated with such movements." (J. J. Mangalam) Similarly, wars and invasions also bring different people in contacts. Needless to say, the importance of proselytism or missionary work in this regard cannot be ignored at all. And all of these attributes make Swat an attractive locale of study for historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. But, unfortunately, all the works of history, archaeology and anthropology todate conspicuously seem bereft of highlighting the process of syncretism, something which if given due attention will help in the proper understanding of the past, present and even future of Swat.

Currently, Swat is experiencing a wave of terror, extremism and violence. The situation is analysed in different ways. Most commonly, the crisis in the area is connected to the religious stereotype that since Pakhtuns are extremely devoted to religion, therefore whatever is happening in Swat is the direct outcome of that form of Pakhtun religiosity.

Some other analysts, confidently, interpret the mess as a class war and present orthodox Marxist arguments in support of their position. Still others see the spate of violence in the valley in the backdrop of Afghan issue and the presence of the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But all of these interpretations can safely be waved aside if the historical developments in Swat were kept in view especially the valley as a scene of a mélange of different cultures in the human drama. There is, in the historical tradition, no place for religious extremism and the apartheid psyche or intolerance towards "otherness" in Swat.

Swat has smoothly assimilated people of different backgrounds be it religious, cultural, political or regional throughout its history. The traces of this phenomenon are most apparent both in material and non-material culture of the valley.

In the art and architecture of the valley Graeco-Roman, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Islamic influences in addition to the native element are most conspicuous, making it a valued heritage of Swat. We must not lose sight of the importance of this point as it points to the element of syncretism and cultural space in the development of civilization in Swat.

In the superstitions of the area, a bulk of Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist traces can easily be found. There are many superstitions about oor (fire) in Swat that reinforce Zoroastrian influence on the valley. Most of the villages still bear the names, which have pre-Islamic origin (for instance "Muthra-Pindai." Maitreya-Pindi meaning village of the Maitreya, according to the Buddhist holy scriptures Maitreya is Future Buddha, in the vicinity of Saidu Sharif). Some other stories that are now generally associated with Islam clearly seem as distorted versions of the pre-Islamic religiosity of the area. This, again, reflects the cross-cultural historical amalgamation in Swat.

Another watershed example of cross-civilisational confluence in Swat is the origination of Vajrayana school of Buddhism in the valley. This sect mostly represents the reconciliation of many Hindu, Buddhist and Tantric traits, an obvious example of assimilation giving Swat the status of the most holy place on earth throughout the Tantrayana/Vajrayana Buddhist world. It testifies that Swat has, historically, the capacity of adaptation, an attribute that leads to progress and cosmic unity.

This interpretation of Swat's history aims to assert that Swat per-se has adapted itself to change whether it is related to religion, politics or culture. And here lie the secrets of Swat being an earthly paradise.

Now the question that how did the historic Swat eclipse into the current tenor of violence is to be dealt with in the context of systematic and imposed obscurantism, a clear-cut but at the same time, an indiscernible story. It starts with the Walis of Swat (1917-1969). There is no doubt that they were often progressive in the affairs of statecraft but still they could not get rid of some undesirable temptations.

In the first place, the Walis introduced religion, for all practical purposes, into the traditional secular politics of Swat and, thus, added a new dimension to the secular national culture (Pakhtunwali) of the Swati Pakhtuns. Secondly, the Walis gradually deprived the Swatis of freedom of expression and freedom of choice (in Fredrik Barth's words "free choice and contract"). Exemplary punishments were inflicted upon political dissenters. Such an obscurantist tendency, definitely, led to stagnancy in the context of political consciousness and development of the people of Swat.

As a matter of fact, this callous obscurantism reached its zenith with the merger of Swat state into Pakistan in 1969. An already politically-numbed and religiously-betrayed society drifted into a new wave of extreme suppression and obscurantism. This unfortunate story, at last, came down the pike in the wake of Afghan Jihad and Zia-ul-Haq's ideologically obsessed regime and its subsequent aftermath.

Prior to these unfortunate dark phases, the socio-cum-religio-political history of Swat valley depicts rhythmic pluralism, tolerance, harmony, and syncretism. Let me call it a mythical cosmos, a new perspective about Swat and the story of Swat.

The writer is lecturer at the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Email rafi_ula@yahoo.com