Musharraf lets in the lions” By Stig Toft Madsen

Yesterday (November 26th) the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidenske ran an article by Sten Jensen called “Musharraf slipper løverne ind” (“Musharraf lets in the lions”) about the triumphant return of Nawaz Sharif. How come Nawaz Sharif is associated with a lion?

Historically, there is a long association between lions and leaders. Men standing tall among fellow men are presumably like male lions proudly lording it over their pack. Therefore, kings are the lions of men.

The last major king to rule Punjab before the advent of the British, Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), was known as Sher-e-Punjab, i.e. the Lion of Punjab. More recently, the sobriquet Sher-e-Kashmir was applied to the Kashmiri politician Sheikh Abdullah. Nawaz Sharif follows this tradition. He is a latterday Ranjit Singh, a contemporary Sher-e-Punjab. 

When Ranjit Singh ruled Punjab, there might well have been real lions within his realm However, towards the end of the 19th century, the lion gradually disappeared from South Asia.

The last stronghold of the lion was the Gir forests in the state of Junagadh in present-day Gujarat in western India. The rulers of this state protected the lions. Repeatedly, the ruling Nawabs of Junagadh curbed the hunting instincts of fellow high ranking nobles. Even the requests for hunting permissions from the British masters  – always keen for sports – were turned down. Thus, by the time of independence and partition, the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) was confined to the Gir forests only.

 The Nawabs of Junagadh had often been advised by Hindu diwans or Prime Ministers. However, at the time of the partition, the adviser to the Nawab was Khan Bahadur Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto. It was Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, who convinced the last Nawab of Junagadh to join Pakistan rather than India. When he left India for Pakistan, the Nawab is said to have “expressed a memorable lament, sotto voce, to no one in particular: ‘Who will protect my lions now?’” (Divyabhanusinh p. 169). In the event, the lions did survive in Gujarat.

Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto was the father of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and grandfather of Benazir Bhutto.

The Persian term sher or shir , writes Divyabhanusinh (p. 97) refers to a lion, but in South Asia the term is often used for a tiger. Though the social organization of tigers and lions differ considerably, the two species are often mentally merged. When Nawaz Sharif arrived in Lahore, television screens carried the image of a woman happily waving a striped tiger toy in honour of the “Lion of Punjab”.

Reference: Divyabhanusinh, The Story of Asia’s Lions, Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2005.