Can India and Pakistan Overcome Their Partition?

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Is the India-Pakistan relationship broken beyond repair? Sylvia Vetta narrates an experience of a plural and united subcontinent.

The story of a decent young person’s behaviour mutating when fired by nationalist/ religious emotion is not unique to India. There are examples in every part of the world.

My husband is a Hindu who was born on the wrong side of the border. The stories he tells of the culture in and around Lahore during his childhood are in sharp contrast to the intolerance and violence that has grown insidiously in Pakistan in recent years.

His Hindu family knew an impoverished local Imam and his family, who they helped feed and set up a shoe shop so he could have another livelihood. Aged eight, my husband would regularly mind the shoe shop when the Imam stepped out for prayer.

It was this Imam who warned his family to leave Pakistan early, saving their lives. But on the other side of the coin, whilst they waited for transport, all their possessions were stolen. The gang who stole it was led by a young Muslim who my husband knew at school – a senior boy who had protected him from bullies when he was a small and easy target. In 1947 it was hard to believe that it was that same boy now taking part in ethnically cleansing Hindus and Sikhs from the place of their birth.

An international perception of both India and Pakistan is that the trauma of Partition has defined both countries and poisoned the relationship between them. Instead of focusing on the wellbeing and education of the people, the two countries have allowed conflict to drive the post-1948 history of both nations. If India and Pakistan could stop blaming each other for the consequences of partition could that lead to a process of reconciliation? Increased prosperity and success of both nations could flow from harmony and peace in the region. Is that a pipe dream?

In my husband’s Pakistan, Sikhs and Hindus worshipped in each other’s temples and many Hindus revered the shrines of Muslim saints. My Punjabi-speaking husband learned Urdu as well as Hindi and English and loved the language. Nearly all his life he has enjoyed the poetry of Ghalib. The most-appreciated present I gave him was an exquisitely illustrated copy of “Nagsh-e Chagtai” published in Lahore in 1946, which I found in an antiquarian bookshop. The irony is that the sensuality of Ghalib’s poetry would not be admired by today’s radical Muslims, who champion a form of pleasure-despising Islam a million miles from the tolerant, music and dance-loving Sufi Islam that evolved when Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in amity in the sub-continent.

(Image: 7MB) Nagsh-e Chagtai

That culture unravelled rapidly and unpredictably. Partition led to one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims headed to West and East Pakistan and millions of Hindus and Sikhs – my husband’s family included – headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

I get annoyed when opponents of racism imply that racism is ‘white’. Certainly, the British Empire generated an attitude of racial superiority over the colonialized. It damaged not just the ruled but the rulers. But ‘racism’ has many faces. It is the belief in your country, your religion, your tribe or culture right or wrong and that it is somehow superior. In the mind of the believer it can justify destroying the ‘other’. It can change something good into a motive to carry out acts of violence.

This is the most frightening aspect of human behaviour. Researching Mao’s Cultural Revolution for my novel “Brushstrokes in Time”, the story was not colour, race or religion – but culture. Mao’s desire to maintain power saw him identify the enemy as the older generation of intellectuals. Traditional Chinese culture had a Confucian respect for elders at its heart for two thousand years. But on Aug 18, 1966, Mao’s deputy Lin Biao told over a million teenagers gathered in Tiananmen Square to “destroy the Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits” and thereby destroy the enemies of Mao. Most of the assembled patriotic teenagers obeyed and destroyed cultural objects from the past. They turned on their teachers, even beating some to death. No one from their parent’s generation was safe.

One of my favourite poets W.B. Yeats describes the effect of that destructive passion. Yeats was an Irish patriot but he witnessed the rise of inter-communal violence with heartbreak.

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Nagsh Chagtai, illustration
(Image: 7MB) An illustration from Nagsh-e Chagtai

It’s a good description; not just of Partition but of conflict driven by nationalism, racism or the pursuit of power. Those driven to violence are often motivated by a dream of a perfect new world moulded on their vision – with no regard for who and how many people are hurt, especially if they are poor or don’t look or worship like them. The double tragedy of Partition was that the Muslims who left the Indian side of the Punjab to settle in Pakistan and Hindus who headed into the half of the Punjab that remained in India did not experience a brave new world but struggled to be accepted.

Was the manner of the British exit from India a tragic botch-up? Could the negotiations that took place have been longer and more thought out before the act of partition was passed? Was the United Kingdom, exhausted and bankrupt after World War II and preoccupied with the task of reconstruction at home, too eager to wash its hands of India?

The rush exacerbated the chaos. Cyril Radcliffe, the judge assigned to draw the borders of the two new states, was given only forty days to remake the map of South Asia! The borders were announced two days after India’s Independence.

Discussions of partition tend to focus on religious differences. In 1947 East Pakistan and West Pakistan shared a religious identity, but that didn’t prevent them from dividing in 1971, leading to the formation of Bangladesh. Likewise, the Bangladeshi Biharis who supported the Pakistani army were initially welcome in West Pakistan, but that welcome did not endure. Sharing a religion is no guarantee of peace and harmony.

Could the first step to reconciliation between India and Pakistan be to look again at the history of the end of the Raj and to tell the story from a different perspective?

In “Midnight Furies”, Nisid Hajari wrote of the vivid horrors of Partition. In his conclusion, he tries to move away from the past:

It is well past time that the heirs to Nehru and Jinnah finally put 1947’s furies to rest.

If India and Pakistan could relook at Partition, and stop seeing it as the amputation of a nation, there is hope yet that the multicultural, tolerant subcontinent could return as a reality – without the looming threat of war to remind us of Partition’s children.

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