India versus Pakistan: How quickly we have forgotten that 'they' were once 'us'

It is not easy to navigate between watan, qaum and mulk and painful family histories.

 |  9-minute read |   24-04-2017
  • ---
    Total Shares

Watan is a contested space, complicated further by the concepts of mulk and qaum. Similarly, we seamlessly transition between the multiple identities we have. But what happens when one takes precedence over the other?

In 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was portioned into three geographic identities as it gained independence from colonial rule, many had to make such a choice (either by force or voluntarily) between their watan, qaum and mulk. I would leave the reader to decide what it means by these seemingly similar words, for they know the best.

While the year of 1947 is much celebrated as we got independence from colonial rule, at the same time it was catastrophic as identities and affiliations (to community, territory or religion) were questioned and challenged. It is unfortunate that the meaning of Partition continues to be “footnote to decolonisation”.

It has been close to seven decades since then, but it’s strange how this stasis continues to prevail. There were many Toba Tek Singhs of Manto’s famous story, which history has granted a refugee status and our collective consciousness has selectively chosen to ignore.

Historian William Dalrymple, reviewing Nisid Hajari’s book on India-Pakistan Partition, wrote that perhaps “1947 has yet to come to an end”. Isn’t it true, we are fascinated by the other like it isn’t yet over. Skirmishes at the border, verbal duels and the even more ludicrous ban on artists and sportsmen are testimony to the fact the same sentiments are salient as much since then.

What is staggering is the fact that much of the hatred comes from those who never knew what it was to be part of one geographic entity. People on both sides of the border are to be blamed. This artificially constructed narrative of "us versus them" goes without realising that once upon a time, there was only “us”.

The nationalist Hindu organisation in India RSS champions a clarion call for claiming the whole of “Akhand Bharat”. They want a piece of land without those who inhabit it. On the other hand, Pakistan mobilises its nationalistic identity on an anti-India cause.

What they don’t realise is that the identity of a nation which is based upon espousing hatred against any other is counterproductive.

I am an Indian Muslim, born in the 1980s named after a Bangladeshi poet who wrote in Urdu. I don’t belong to the generation of people who witnessed Partition, neither do my parents. Still, 1947 is etched in our collective family history.

The mention of Partition in our history textbooks only taught us an impersonal account of the nation, there was no mention of brothers and sisters becoming strangers for ever. Somebody who would have watched MS Sathyu’s masterful movie Garam Hawa would know what it means.

Family stories are never reflected in photo albums, they are better narrated by who all are missing from it. I have aunts, uncles and cousins in Pakistan whom I have never met. They have always seemed as mythical characters of a family lore to me. I have seen their photos, heard about them, but never met any of them.

My father always wished to meet them, but could never gather the means to make the travel. Neither he, nor his brothers on the other side of the border, are alive today. When my uncle was not keeping well, he called my father and told him, “I am not well. The doctor is even stopping me from smoking a cigarette”. That was the last conversation the two brothers had. Both had moist eyes and I had my history lesson.

I recently moved from India to the US and had the opportunity to visit off-springs of my maternal grandmother's sisters who moved with their respective husbands from India to Pakistan. They said I speak like I have grown up in Karachi. I have never met anybody from Karachi and don’t know what it means to speak like a person from Karachi. But, I take that as a compliment since it shows we are no different.

dilip-kumar-embed_042417063337.jpgDilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand were from Lahore. All of them are my own. So, am I a Pakistani?

This family was fascinating for the reason that they spent their childhood in India and moved to the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as kids after India's Partition. From there, they moved to Karachi after Bangladesh's liberation (I am using the term my history lessons have taught, without questioning its appropriateness) in 1971 and are now citizens of the US.

I am amazed at how one can traverses through four separate national identities in one lifetime. I am not saying their choices were involuntary, but without a doubt these decisions were circumstantial. Part of it was the feeling of otherness and animosity (or the fear of it) from the other groups, be it India or Pakistan.

Now they live in the US, a mulk where language and culture are very different. I am not sure if they consider this as their watan though and I am unaware of what qaum means now.

In hordes, Muslims from Bihar moved to Bangladesh in the quest for a qaum leaving their watan behind. They didn’t realise that language too is a marker of identity which is different from religious affiliations. Disappointed, many of them moved to Pakistan on the western side of India. They did struggle, but prospered.

Education and hard work were the only way out for those betrayed by the idea of a qaum. Admittedly, the life of muhajirs is different, so why not move to an alien culture where this identity is not a constraint. Better opportunities would trump their cultural affinities. The relatives I am talking about did succeed in managing a better living and I am extremely happy that they did. Still, watan is what we all crave for.

Historian Papiya Ghosh mentions in her book The Partition and the South Indian Diaspora, how Muslim Bihari women in Dhaka would poetically recall, “watan is in India, but not India”. Among the older men whom I met, I could see their deep love for their ancestral place. They did feel like missing out and not being there.

Am not sure what they missed or whether they felt betrayed by the times they lived. But the sense of not being able to see the land they were born in was palpable. I was the only one from their homeland who can claim that as their homeland. Their sense of surprise and shock driven by nostalgia did move me.

It is not only family history but our shared culture that we do not appreciate. It is extremely sad but a hard reality. I wonder how haleem belongs to either Karachi (Pakistan) or Hyderabad (India). For me, Iqbal and Tagore espouse the same spirit of the triumph of human will. How can one chose between Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hasan? Without Farida Khanum, Abida Perveen and Nusrat saab, it wasn’t possible for me to finish my dissertation. Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand were from Lahore. All of them are my own. So, am I a Pakistani?

My Hindu friends jokingly call me a Pakistani and we always laugh over it. The truth of the matter is that most Delhi people I know are second generation migrants from the current Pakistan. Similarly, much of my Bangla-speaking friends trace their ancestry to the current Bangladesh. My ancestors, however, always lived here, in India. At least for the last 10 generations that I know of. It’s funny how some identities get ossified so soon, while for some mulk has to be their watan.

A couple of years ago, one of my childhood friend’s mother wanted to go to meet her brother in Pakistan. She was trying hard to persuade my friend that he accompany her. She asked me, “beta, apne dost ko kyun nahi kahte ho ki chale mere saath. Bhaiyya ko dekh aaongi. Woh to aane ki haalat me nahi hain. Abhi nahi gayi, to shayad kabhi na dekh paaon unhe” (son, why don’t you convince your friend to accompany me to Pakistan? My brother is ill and can’t manage a visit here. If I don’t go now, then we may not meet ever.)

My friend works for an MNC in India and is required to travel to the US. He said it may jeopardise his chances of business visits to the US with a Pakistan visa on his passport, given he is in his 20s and hasn’t visited any other country. Fair enough, given the profiles anybody from South Asia with a Muslim surname has to go through in America.

That courageous lady did make her visit, all alone, when she herself found it difficult to walk properly and had to take wheelchair assistance. The day she had to leave from Pakistan, a soldier was beheaded at the border and tensions ensued again which generally result in no visa to visits from either side.

I wonder had her visit been delayed by a couple of months, any chance of the brother-sister meeting would have been non-existent.

These narratives get lost in the larger dialogues of Aman ki Asha or ban on bilateral cricket matches. These are potentially larger damages, to which nobody is sensitive.

I feel sad to mention that our parents' generation was the last one to have had one-on-one connect with their family members from either side of the border. We have only heard their stories. I wonder if the next generation would even be aware of any of this, given watan for us has become a mirage with floating jobs and jettisoning across cities, at times mulk.

The interesting pattern is that again the identity of a religion or qaum would replace both the mulk and the watan. In a world where nationalism and xenophobia is on the rise, this may not be a bad option. But history shows that such organisational calls for a qaum too have been disastrous. Look at Israel, look at Pakistan. Just look around the newspaper headlines and one can see.

Also read: India needs a museum for those scarred by Partition


Andaleeb Rahman Andaleeb Rahman @andaleebr

The writer is a researcher based at Cornell University, Ithaca.

Like DailyO Facebook page to know what's trending.