Do Not Kill My Baby - The Lyallpur Museum

Do Not Kill My Baby - The Lyallpur Museum
Living is like visiting a museum. Not until later we start taking in what we saw - thinking about it, looking it up, and by remembering. It is also easy to develop nostalgia, for something which does not exist, while having a drink with your friends in suburban London. But I had never been somewhere I belonged, or to the place where I thought I could be happy, until I arrived in Lyallpur.

Lyallpur, built akin to a Union Jack, was small but a diverse town. You were bemused by the richness of its land, and by its ability to overwhelm the senses with intensity of colours, smells, tastes, and sounds. The people were like pieces of a patchwork quilt; different but stitched together into a community. Living here was like living in a glass house as everyone knew everyone. Mundane enquires, therefore, turned into many answers because everything and everyone had a use and a value. You did not have to chase happiness because it was in front of you in those small moments wrapped in kindness and gratitude. When Lyallpur abandoned me, and became Faisalabad, I went back to my birthplace, Lahore.

I came back twice to look for Lyallpur; but only found love, and went away. The truth is that I cannot understand Faisalabad. It is a city you can love, hate, blame, and resent, but nothing changes. Most people who live here believe that they live in a place which is only good for leaving. Every man is an island in himself, and every hour carries a new challenge. Whenever I visit, the people feel and look the same; the sluggishness of speech and manners, and a firm ruling of their spirits by a desire to appear respectable. It seems they have settled here even though they know there is something better just beyond where they are.

In 2009, I tried explaining to Mr. Shehbaz Sharif that a town without a museum is spiritually poor because museums, like theatres and libraries, are a means to freedom. Most people who lived in Faisalabad were emigrants from different parts of India or their descendants. They were always preoccupied with an angst to progress financially and feel no connection to the land, its community, its monuments, or its history. Therefore, they had no inclination to defend its invisible borders or even its name (Lyallpur) from declared or undeclared antagonists. Also, the young people in town were possessed by a rage, dulled to slumber by the tired repetition of nothing happening, over and over again, day after day. Shehbaz Sharif looked at me as if I was from a different planet; and started playing with his Blackberry phone.

I was better prepared when we met next time. Some key players in the Chief Minister’s Secretariat (Dr Touqeer Shah, Nabeel Awan & Azmat Mehmood) were already on board, partly due to their own connections with Faisalabad. My main ally was, however, Saeed Iqbal Wahlah (late), the District Coordination Officer (DCO) at Faisalabad. He had helped me prepare the proposal for Lyallpur Museum, which included the site identified, costs involved and a timeline for its completion. Finding Shehbaz on a high after prize-distribution to the toppers in High School examinations, I slipped in the proposal while highlighting his chance to live in history through a living monument. He advised Nabeel Awan (Additional Secretary) to immediately issue the directive with my name as Chairman and my proposed names of Touqeer Shah, Haseeb Athar (Secretary Education) and Saeed Wahlah (DCO) as members of the committee to oversee this project.

Saeed Wahlah took the timeline to start the museum in 03 months rather literally. He called me daily in London to give updates and was in touch with other committee members for their guidance. Before leaving London in February (2010), I had agreed a date with Shehbaz Sharif for its inauguration. However, when we met in Lahore, I found him rather hesitant to visit Faisalabad for a “small project”. I promised to make his visit worthwhile by going into a brainstorm with Wahlah and come back quickly with three almost-complete projects he could inaugurate during the visit: Faisalabad Institute of Science & Technology, Foundation Schools, and a formal name-change of “Lyallpur Town” in Faisalabad to Lyallpur. Shehbaz Sharif agreed enthusiastically but let us down on the day before the visit by going off sick. Azmat Mehmood had conveyed that message remorsefully.

The Institute and the Foundation schools could not be inaugurated but were later given to the charitable foundations like Akhuwat to be adopted in line with my original proposal. Wahlah and I believed that Lyallpur Museum was too important a project to die at the alter ego of a chief minister. Since museums take years to evolve, we decided to carry on developing it with support from local stakeholders. We had a major glitch, however, when Saeed Wahlah was promoted to become a Commissioner at Gujranwala. He was soon replaced by Mr. Nasim Sadiq who did wonders at Faisalabad but had no interest in the Museum. Calls from the Chief Secretary and Shehbaz Sharif on my behalf failed to change his antagonistic attitude. Each time I visited from London, I was faced with a locked museum building, with little security for the precious artefacts people had donated to us.

During this dark period, my efforts turned to operationalising the Museum by getting it recognised as an Institution by the Punjab Government. Mr. Mohiuddin Wani, as Secretary Information & Culture, was a God-sent support. Upon my suggestion, he kindly amended its by-laws to make the Commissioner its Chairman, and got it recognised soon afterwards. When its, otherwise talented, In-charge was accused of shouting obscenities while being drunk on top of a public building, Wani kindly revoked his punishment/transfer order at my request. The man did marvels in return by making the museum functional in 2012 with valuable support from the Commissioner, Mr. Tahir Hussain. A new gallery was added and some employees were hired on work-charge basis. I was so glad that an international conference took place, trips from the local schools, and visits by external dignitaries had started taking place. Occasional meetings of the Board of Governors (BOG) also took place, which usually coincided with my visits from London.

Lyallpur Museum was inching forward as we had employed regular staff with plans to add new galleries and acquire artefacts from inside and outside Pakistan. Following the 2018 elections, however, we were thrown under a bus by Mr. Fayazul Hasan Chohan, the new Minister for Information & Culture. Due to his limited mental endowments, he thought Lyallpur Museum was a lucrative venture worth gifting to the newly elected Pakistan Tehreeke Insaf (PTI) members of the parliament. All of us, including myself as the conceiver and founder of Lyallpur Museum, were unlawfully sacked, and a new BOG comprising of PTI MPAs and their local patrons was installed. I was given this shocking news when I visited the Museum in March, 2020. I went away quietly because a museum is not a good place to lose one's head. The new BOG also needed time to find its feet. It was not personal but considering Mr. Chohan’s antics a risk to public mental health, I did contribute to his subsequent sacking.

A museum is not meant for the wanderer to see by accident or the pilgrim to see with reverence. Visiting a museum is actually a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. You give to a museum and not take from it, as such ventures are above politics, religion, and personal glory. Regrettably, according to recent newspaper reports, Lyallpur Museum is dying due to lack of funds, dearth of attention, and absence of ownership. This is extremely painful for all those who selflessly contributed to its creation in terms of finance, time and skills. Having Commissioner Faisalabad as its Chairman was very helpful because it kept the museum functional on day-to-day basis until we pushed it towards the next milestone. It has lost its official patronage, including regular payment of bills, monitoring, and official visits, because a PTI MPA is now the Chairman of the Board. He or the BOG are not to blame because they neither asked for this responsibility nor have any knowledge, interest, or ownership of this project.

Lyallpur was conceived, built and developed by several generations of civil servants. Some of the current and retired big names from among them either belong to or have served in Lyallpur/Faisalabad. We also know that all government policies are made and administrative are decisions taken by the civil servants in Pakistan. Their powers and clout may not be the same as a few decades ago, but I cannot understand how Lyallpur Museum is being allowed to disintegrate under their watch. I was there when Mr. Momin Agha, as Commissioner Faisalabad, chaired the last meeting of the BOG and proposed some great initiatives. He is the current Additional Chief Secretary (Punjab) and was probably the Secretary for Information & Culture when Mr Chohan tried to annihilate the Museum. Why did he not object to this illegal and nonsensical action at that time or tried undoing it later on? For all his sophistication and pedigree, Mr Agha has really disappointment us in more than one ways.

It is said that if you don’t know history, you are like a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. Lyallpur (Faisalabad) has always been unfortunate in this regard. Despite having a huge potential, it has lost its character, niche and eventually its name (Lyallpur) in less than a century of its birth. All stakeholders including native politicians, civil society, civil servants, and military personnel are to be blamed for this crime against their heritage. Some of us have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to reverse this unfortunate trend over the years (I have written that story elsewhere which makes people cry but only in secret) but have not found many allies. Now, it seems, it is the turn of Lyallpur Museum to wither. And this museum was supposed to be a place where nothing native gets lost; it was also going to be a journey of rediscovery.

Lyallpur Museum is a living monument. It is bigger than Fayyaz Chohans, Nasim Sadiqs or for that matter Shehbaz Sharifs of this world. Whether you are a resident or a non-resident Lyallpuri/Faisalabadi, I invite you to join me in saving this museum and become a part of its history. I request civil servants serving in the Punjab Government Secretariat to start by helping approve its Rules of Business passed in 2014. I also beg them, the local politicians, the native military personnel, and the media to lean upon the Minister of Information & Culture to reconstitute a proper BOG with the Commissioner as its chairman, and people with right credentials as its members. Friends in all these 4-tiers be warned that in future you will be only be judged for being with the Museum or against the Museum – your actions must speak louder than words. Your time starts now….up until the travel restrictions are eased, and I pay you a personal visit. I have no other choice.

M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.