Tag Archives: history


On April 13th 1919 protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India.  Several thousand people in all packed the public gardens.  The British Army officer in charge of the city, Colonel Reginald Dyer, assembled a unit of 90 Gurka soldiers under British command and proceeded to the gardens.  He ensured that the exits were blocked and ordered his troops, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, to open fire.  They continued to fire for ten minutes until their ammunition was expended.

The official death toll, according to the British, was 379 dead and over a thousand wounded.  The report issued by the Indian National Congress claimed that more than a thousand had been killed.  The alleyways leading to the garden were too narrow for Dyer’s armoured cars and so he had to leave them behind.  At the inquiry he testified that he would have used them, and their machine guns, if he had been able to.

I visited Amritsar on my way from India to Pakistan in 2009, ninety years after the atrocity.  I vividly recall visiting the Jallianwala Bagh and walking around the memorial site which felt very much like sacred ground for the Indian independence movement.  Bullet holes in the walls were still visible.  The well, down which many people threw themselves to avoid the bullets, is still visible.  120 bodies were later removed from its depths.

Yet the impression which is seared most powerfully onto my memory is the reception I received from Indians visiting the site.  I wanted to hide away, to go incognito, to avoid being connected with the massacre.  I am British, after all, and although even my grandparents were not born in 1919 I nevertheless feel a sense of regret and grief at what happened.  While not personally responsible for it I am nevertheless connected, by dint of my passport if nothing else.  I tried to avoid people, to avoid getting into conversations, and yet Indian people are so welcoming that this was impossible.

A group of Indian students came over to say hello.  I explained what I was doing and told them about my impressions of India and of Amritsar.  Eventually I couldn’t hold it in any more, and I blurted out:

“I’m so sorry for what happened here”.

The students smiled.  Oh please, do not worry.  It was a long time ago.  These things are in the past.  You should not worry about it.  You are welcome.  You are most welcome.

“You are most welcome in India”.

We shook hands and departed, and as I walked back to my hotel in the searing May heat my footsteps were oddly light.

One of the most frustrating things about being a foreigner in Pakistan is that everyone thinks you’re a spy.  Everyone.  It’s deeply annoying.

Of course, nobody says it to your face.  Pakistanis are far too polite for that.  When I tell them that I am here to raise funds for an NGO which provides education and healthcare to people too poor to afford it for themselves they nod and smile and thank me – but I have no doubt that somewhere at the back of their mind is a niggling suspicion that I’m doing something else entirely.  That I’m not an NGO worker but instead Jason Bourne, or James Bond.  The fact that I’m not going to my office in the back of a fancy car but instead am sweating it out on the bus like everyone else doesn’t seem to dissuade them.  Maybe that’s part of my elaborate cover.


A cartoon showing the Afghan Emir threatened by Russia and the UK, both of whom professed to be his friend and ally.

To be fair, their suspicion is partly logical.  There is a long history of Westerners meddling in Pakistan, from the days of the Great Game when British spies headed north in disguise to map out mountain passes and to bribe local leaders, all the way through to Raymond Davis, the moronic CIA contractor who shot dead two men in Lahore and bribed his way out of trouble.  You can’t blame Pakistanis for being angry about it.  Wouldn’t we be angry if a Pakistani intelligence official shot people in Birmingham or Liverpool and got out of trouble by handing over a suitcase of cash to the families?

But to attribute such nefarious motives to every single foreigner in the country is baffling.  I know many people who have dedicated their lives – their entire working lives – to providing healthcare and education to impoverished Pakistanis.  Doctors who could be earning six figure salaries in the West who spend their days sweating it out in Multan or Tank, saving the lives of people in return for a puny salary.  Foreign aid workers who come to Pakistan to administer aid grants from Western countries – immense amounts of money, donated by taxpayers in the West to strengthen educational systems in remote areas – who aren’t allowed to renew their visas and are forced to leave.  An entire hospital in the south of the country is on the point of closing because the only doctor can’t obtain a visa “for security reasons”.  Quite how an elderly female doctor working in a remote area poses a mortal threat to the stability of Pakistan is anyone’s guess.

Pakistan is a profoundly cynical and suspicious country.  That comes from being the punching bag for the world’s superpowers, I guess; it is reasonable enough to suspect the motives of people who have screwed you over in the past.  But to tar everyone with the same brush?  To attribute the same nefarious motives to every single foreigner who come here?  That is simply illogical.

So there’s not much point saying this, since people here suspect everything and trust no-one, but here goes: I honestly want to see Pakistan strengthened, made prosperous, to see its education system improved so that everyone can go to school, to see the economy flourish, to see clean water and power and books available to everyone, everywhere.  And you can quote me on that.


We were sitting outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.  A light rain was falling.  We huddled underneath a large umbrella and sipped the cups of chai which we had ordered.  We needed the warmth from the tea as much as the caffeine, in much the same way that people in England drink tea to dispel the murky chill of February days more than for the actual taste.  My son looked around.

“I don’t think God can love people here” he said sadly.

I was surprised by this.  My wife and I have made a point of teaching our children that God loves all people equally.  This is a fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, and a great number of cruelties in the world can be directly attributed to the mistaken belief that some people are more loved by God than others.  I asked him what he meant.

“Look at all the garbage” he said mournfully.  “How can God love people when they don’t care for the world he created?”.

I looked around.  There was, indeed, a lot of rubbish.  Paper cups, empty crisp packets, cigarette packs, crushed juice boxes – the detritus of a thousand tourists was strewn all around the courtyard in front of the mosque.  During our train journey to Lahore we had looked out of the window to see immense piles of trash heaped up on the sides of the railway embankments, flung carelessly out of houses and left to fester.  It is a part of life in the developing world that we have not yet learned to deal with.

“Well”, I said, “do you remember how Mummy and I told you that we love you always, even when you’re naughty?”.

He nodded.

“We do that because God loves us even when we’re naughty” I continued.  “Even when we do bad things, God always loves us.  So we should always try to be better”.

He was silent for a while, looking around at the heaps of rubbish strewn around the courtyard of one of the most magnificent mosques in the world.  Then he said:

“That’s a lot of love”.

One Saturday morning we took the kids to the Golra Sharif train museum on the outskirts of Islamabad.  The first difficulty we faced in this task was finding the museum at all, which is more difficult than you might think.  Very few tourist attractions in Pakistan are actually signposted or labelled, and only the major ones have websites with visitor information on.  Google Maps came to the rescue, indicating that the museum was in the E-11 sector of Islamabad.  We duly drove in that direction, arrived in E-11, and started driving down the Golra Sharif road. IMG_20160116_1205419_rewind

Somewhat remarkably we found it first time, although we had to stop by a police checkpost to ask directions from the friendly policeman sitting outside.  Several dozen speedbumps later, we arrived outside the museum and parked.

The museum is actually part of the Raj-era Golra Sharif train station which is still a functioning facility, seeing traffic every day as trains rattle through from Peshawar en route to Rawalpindi, Lahore, and eventually Karachi.  The waiting room has been converted into the museum’s main attraction: a collection of railway artefacts from the early days of the railways of the Raj.  Glass cases containing lamps, uniforms, tools and other memorabilia line the walls.  Unusually for Pakistan these are all well labelled in both Urdu and English.  Chief among the attractions (for my 6 year old son, at least) is a gun rack containing original Raj-era rifles – possibly Lee Enfields, although I am not an expert.


The musem’s sole attendant was only too happy to give us a guided tour.  He was friendly and well-informed about the history of the station and of subcontinental railways in general.  This being Pakistan, we were welcomed to handle the exhibits and were even given a brief lesson in how to load and fire the rifles.

The next-door room contained a remarkable collection of original furniture including some of the infamously-named “Bombay Fornicators” – easy chairs with extended arm rests for impromptu naps.  The room also featured an original Raj-era punkah or fan, a wooden beam suspended from the ceiling with a large square of linen attached.  When a rope attached to the beam is pulled the linen swings back and forth , fanning the room with cool air.  It was remarkably effective and an insight into how people managed to beat the heat before air conditioning was invented.


The main attraction was found further down the station platform: an original locomotive attached to two carriages which were used by the last Viceroy, Mountbatten, and Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, during a trip from Karachi to Lahore.  Incredibly, the lights and fans are still functioning; my kdis enjoyed lying on the bunk beds and examining the kitchen in which food was prepared for these two remarkable men.  It is fascinating to see such historical artefacts up close; in the UK they would no doubt be enclosed behind glass doors.


We spent time wandering up and down the platform admiring the beauty of the ancient banyan trees which give it shade, and wondering at the signs advertising chai for sale, complete with Hindi script.  The museum is a window into the past, truly a fascinating place.  We tipped the museum guide – there is no charge for admission nor for the tour, but it seemed appropriate to thank him for helping us appreciate the museum – and made our way back home.

Murree-Pictures-Old-photo-of-Soldiers-Home-Upper-Topa-Murree-1920s-30s IMG_20150629_094716396_HDR (1)

When the British captured the Punjab in 1849, in one of those acts of greed and military prowess by which my ancestors so distinguished themselves in the subcontinent, they realised two things:

  1. In the summer the plains of the Punjab are insufferably hot.
  2. In the summer the hills of the Punjab are lush, green and comfortable.

They therefore decided to move their capital from Rawalpindi to Murree during the summer months.  The entire British administration of the Punjab shifted into the hills for a summer of dancing, shopping, and gardening.  I have a map of Murree from the 1920s which marks all of the cottages built there by the British, all of them given suitably English names: Dingley Dell, Strawberry Villa, Derbyshire House.  It was as if the green hills and regular rainfall reminded them so strongly of England that they sought to recreate a second England here, far from home.

We are currently doing the same.  At the moment we are living in a building that was originally constructed as a sanatorium for wounded British soldiers.  An Irish missionary by the name of Miss Sandes built it as a way of keeping bored soldiers away from the opium dens, brothels and drinking establishments of India.  It is a beautiful place of lush grass, trees, birds and butterflies.  It had, I imagine, the same effect on the wounded soldiers of the Raj as it is having on us: soothing our souls, calming our stress, taking us away from the summer heat and into a place of coolness and comfort.  Our children spend their days running through the grass, exploring the trees, finding lizards and ladybirds, gaping at the spectacular and varied birdlife that zooms overhead.

The soldiers of the Raj are long gone, and even their graves that dot the Murree hills are being eroded, worn away by the slow but incessant passage of time.  Yet the buildings they left here are still being used to bless and refresh their distant compatriots, warriors in a different struggle, ambassadors of peace in a time of strife and fear.

Imagine that one of your neighbours had a disagrement with another neighbour.  Imagine, say, that the neighbour on one side of your house had a disagreement with the neighbour on the other side.  Now imagine that they decided to settle the dispute by fighting.  Further imagine that they decided to fight it out in your back garden, even though you had nothing to do with the original dispute.

Congratulations: now you know how Pakistanis feel.

It has long been the fate of this corner of the world to become the battleground for wars that do not immediately concern it.  Pakistan has played host to more proxy conflicts than one would expect.

Think about it.  Alexander the Great breezed through here, his army passing a few kilometres north of where I am currently typing, on his way east.  The Mongol Emperor Timur came down from Central Asia, crossed the Indus in what is now Pakistan, and went on to capture Delhi.  The Persian Emperor Nadir Shah came through on his way to sack Delhi a few centuries later.

The British later arrived, trekking through from west to east in their ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1839.  Pakistan then became the location of the Great Game as Britain and Russia fought out their differences in the late 19th century.  Then came 1989 and the war in Afghanistan, with Pakistan becoming a place for refugees, for arms storage, and training.  These days we see drone strikes and an increasing sense that the rivalry between the Saudis and the Iranians is being fought out in Baluchistan and, ideologically, the madrassas of Pakistan.

Perhaps the main problem is Pakistan’s conveniently strategic location, on the main route between East and West.  That is only going to increase as China invests in Pakistan in order to circumvent India and as foreign troops leave Afghanistan.  It is deeply unfair that the problems of the world are dumped in the lap of the Pakistanis and even more remarkable that they are still so welcoming to foreigners, considering what they’ve been through…

In 1947 British India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan.  Their lives as independent nations began at the same time, and yet since then the two countries have diverged drastically.

Modern India is a stable democracy with a growing economy.  Pakistan only just completed its first democratic transition of power, is burdened with serious security issues, and has a lacklustre growth rate.

India is a significant target for investment from the West and elsewhere in Asia.  Potential investors in Pakistan are put off by its predictable unpredictability and its chronic power shortages.

India just sent a space probe to Mars.  Pakistan is not yet able to provide more than half its citizens with an education.

This assessment is not entirely fair – things in India are not quite as rosy as Western filmmakers would have you think, with corruption, economic problems and a cruel caste system that often results in violence against women, while conversely Pakistan is really not as bad as the Western media makes out – but it is undeniable that, broadly speaking, the two countries have travelled along different and diverging paths since the summer of 1947.

The question is this: why?

Some people blame Islam, but this surely cannot be fair.  Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and yet is relatively prosperous, while Nepal, a Hindu majority country like India, is wretchedly poor.  Corruption is also notoriously high in Christian countries like Nigeria and Kenya.

Some people blame the army.  The amount of money spent on the Pakistani army is dizzyingly high – some 30% of GDP – but the army is more or less the only trusted institution in Pakistan and has saved Pakistan from domestic chaos on a number of occasions.

My best estimation would be that a number of factors are at play, including a lack of education, a culture of endemic corruption, the physical makeup of Pakistan (a couple of prosperous and fertile provinces, coupled with wild mountains and remote deserts that are chronically undeveloped and miserably poor), and a cruelly unjust social system in which the poor are kept in poverty by the avarice of the wealthy.

It simultaneously baffles and saddens me that a country with such potential can be so horribly misused.  The Pakistan Paradox is a rich and dark mystery for Pakistan’s leadership, and global institutions, to resolve at their earliest convenience…


The car scrunched down the gravel track, bumping from rut to rut before lurching to a halt in front of a battered old gate.  Children turned to look as we got out of the old Toyota.  Elderly men squatting by the side of the road stroked their beards pensively as they observed us.  As we pushed open the gate and entered the graveyard it felt as though several hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on us.  They weren’t hostile, merely curious, as the locals tend to be when a tall Englishman and his Pakistani friend turn up in a bazaar in northern Pakistan.

I had come to visit Murree’s Old Cemetery.  Murree, a town some forty miles from Islamabad, flourished when the soldiers and administrators of the British Raj realised that spending the summer months in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas was preferable to sweating it out on the plains of the Punjab.  Every summer, as the sun soared in the Indian sky and the mercury rose ominously, the British would flee, trailing up into the hills like animals fleeing from a brushfire.  Here they would remain for the worst of the summer heat.  Here they built hotels and cottages, here they danced, here they came to recuperate from injuries sustained on the battlefields of the empire.

And here they died.  The cemetery tells their tales well enough.  Rows of graves, some plain, others ornate, some crowned with crosses which seem incongruous in what has now become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, tell of the generations of British imperialists who died here, so far from home.  Some graves are those of soldiers – “In Memory of Lt. David Albert Beere”, “Pte. R. F Theobald” – others of administrators – “Charles Arthur Sharpe, scholar of King’s College Cambridge and Engineer in the Public Works Department of India” – while others are painfully personal, such as the grave of one Violet Rose Ward who died aged 30 leaving a husband and both her parents, or that of young Heather June Finnegan who died in 1945, aged 7.  The cemeteries of Murree – there are several – testify to the diversity of the British Raj.  All of society was here, from babies to grandparents, brilliant young scholars to hoary old veterans of the Afghan Wars, and when they died they were buried in traditional Anglican cemeteries, a last taste of home in a distant land.

The Old Cemetery is overgrown now.  Many of the graves are broken, their headstones toppled by tree roots, while goats crop the grass and leave their droppings on the decaying slabs of marble.  It is neglected, ignored by the seething masses that throng the bazaar outside.  It is a poignant place, full of memory, a corner of a foreign field that is, somehow, England.  We pushed the gate open, let it creak shut behind us, and walked back to our car as a squadron of emerald parakeets careered overhead, the sound of their screeching echoing around the valley.


Here’s a confession: I have been to Lahore a total of five times and only recently, on my fifth trip there, did I get round to visiting the Badshahi Mosque.  This is strange, seeing as it is one of the premier historical attractions of Pakistan and I am keenly interested in history.

Never mind, though – despite my tardiness I eventually got around to visiting it, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Its size alone makes it stand out – it is vast, with a courtyard large enough to accommodate some 95,000 worshippers.  It was the largest mosque in the world for over 300 years, until it was overtaken by the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

I don’t want to add much more – if you want to learn about it, head over to Wikipedia in the first instance – but I can confirm that it is large, beautiful, a remarkable piece of Moghul engineering, and that we were welcomed warmly when we visited.  Hopefully the above photo will speak for itself…

The film protests seemed to make people around the world think that Pakistanis are inherently angry people.  Such a small issue, they said, and such a disproportionate response!  The days of rioting seemed to confirm their suspicions that the population of Pakistan consisted of mainly angry people and religious fundamentalists, many of whom were also pretty angry.

I disagree.  The thing which strikes me most about Pakistani people is how hospitable and friendly they are.  I was struck by this when I arrived here and it continues to have an impact on me, more or less every day: when shopkeepers offer to buy me drinks and chat, when taxi-drivers and samosa-sellers try to refuse my money, when just about every man I meet in the bazaar engages me in polite and interested conversation.


The amazing thing about this is that Pakistanis have every reason to dislike and distrust foreigners.  The land which is now Pakistan has been invaded by just about every military conqueror that history has to show: Alexander the Great, the early armies of Islam, the Afghans, the Persians, the Moghuls, and finally my ancestors, the British.  And even after that, when Pakistan was founded and people finally achieved their independence, the influence of world powers flowed across this land: the long proxy way against the Russians in Afghanistan and then the Americans, with their counter-terrorist operations and their drone strikes.

Think about it: if your country had lived through all of that, wouldn’t you be suspicious of outsiders?  And if those same outsiders were still bombing targets within your country, free from any restraint imposed by international law, mightn’t you be a bit angry?

But no, Pakistanis are invariably polite, welcoming and hospitable, despite the fact that foreigners have been meddling in their affairs for about two thousand years.  Angry Pakistan?  Painfully Polite Pakistan, more like.