This I-Day, A Look Back…And Across the Border
On the eve of Independence Day, we take a look back at Partition, through an interview with a young development professional, educationist and the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians — Anam Zakaria.
Zakaria has also worked with the Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan, and brought a delegation from her country to India, a few years ago. She tells us about some of her most memorable interactions with students, her major concerns for what we’re losing with the last of the Partition survivors… and much more.
On the eve of Independence Days, what are some of your thoughts, given your work documenting oral histories for The Footprints of Partition?
As Indians and Pakistanis celebrate their respective independence days every August among heightened fervour and patriotism, I often wonder how Partition survivors feel. From my work with the Partition generation in Pakistan, I can share that there is a fiery sense of passion for the country they sacrificed so much for. However, at the same time there is nostalgia, remorse, regret and gratitude towards Muslims and non-Muslims who rescued them. As we move further away from this generation, we are increasingly at risk of losing these nuances in our linear and one-dimensional understanding of history.
As we move further away from this generation, we are increasingly at risk of losing these nuances in our linear and one-dimensional understanding of history.
In India, I have felt that over the years it has been easier to express some of the nostalgia because Partition is seen as a loss, quite similar to how the creation of Bangladesh is viewed in Pakistan. In Pakistan however, Partition and as a result Independence Day is celebrated as a great triumph. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating the victory of securing a new homeland, it doesn’t have to mean that other narratives, that may challenge the two-nation theory, are suffocated.
Both India and Pakistan have been so obsessed with their national projects that any narratives that seem to threaten nationalism are either discarded or labelled as ‘anti-national.’ We have found it necessary to base our patriotism on hostility and that is a very dangerous thing. Today we are close to losing the Partition generation and face a grave risk of carrying forward only a myopic understanding of history on both sides of the border. A version with will soon become the only truth for those who witnessed the pre-Partition and Partition years will no longer be with us.
You chose to look at four generations of Pakistanis and Indians — any particular story or stories that really stayed with you?
Every interview I have conducted has left an imprint in some way. One very special story is of an elderly man, Naseer Ashiq (name has been changed to protect identity), whom I interviewed at a border village in Kasur, Punjab. He told me that his father was adopted by a Sikh family before Partition and he continued to consider them as his real family even after they sent him to Pakistan to live with his biological parents in order to save his life.
As a third generation Pakistani who has been indoctrinated in the two-nation theory and the premise that Muslims and non-Muslims could not co-exist, this was very difficult for me to understand. It was even more surreal to learn of a mela that takes place on the zero line every year where Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, come together at shrine that they all revere and respect. It was here that Naseer Ashiq’s father was able to meet the Sikh family he had left behind. I have always understood borders as the epitome of separation but here was a story where families were connected at the very line, which is meant to divide them.
It was also fascinating for me to observe how blurry the division was for Naseer Ashiq. Living at the border has meant that Naseer sees more Indians on an everyday basis than Pakistanis ever do in a lifetime (according to Gallup Pakistan, 76% of Pakistanis surveyed have never met an Indian).
During the 1965 war the Pakistani army took over parts of Indian property and Naseer’s ancestral home became a part of Pakistan overnight. During the 1971 war, the Indian army took over his residential village and he had to flee and seek refuge elsewhere. The fluidity of the lines of division has meant that he does not view Partition as a linear definitive historical event that most Pakistanis and Indians see it as. Partition continues to be an every day reality as he makes sense of his life, lurking in between the lines.
Both India and Pakistan have been so obsessed with their national projects that any narratives that seem to threaten nationalism are either discarded or labelled as ‘anti-national.’ We have found it necessary to base our patriotism on hostility and that is a very dangerous thing.
For a generation now, there will soon be no first-hand survivors recounting their tales — and yet, it’s hard to imagine that politically or culturally either country has come to terms with Partition. Take us through some of your thoughts, perhaps based on what you’ve seen from both sides of the border? (Also why it is important to come to terms with this history)
Though common sense may dictate that Indians and Pakistanis would have moved on from Partition, this is hardly the case. If anything, I think we have re-appropriated history to fit our respective nationalistic discourses. In Pakistan we have largely rejected the pre-Partition years. History textbooks declare that Muhammed Bin Qasim (the teenage Arab general who conquered Sindh) came and rid the land of “impure” and “infidel” practices, establishing the foundations of pak(pure)-istan. We have gone through a systematic process of censoring any parts of history, which challenge the two-nation theory. Instead of wiping out the past and forcing people to “move on,” this has created a vacuum, which has been usurped by jingoistic sentiments, extremist organizations and biased education curricula.
In Pakistan we have largely rejected the pre-Partition years.
I have witnessed that the younger generations are far more hardline and bitter towards the ‘other’ than the Partition survivors. This is a difficult reality to grapple with because it was the Partition survivors who lost everything. Yet because they lived in a society where the other wasn’t really the other but an integral part of the larger community, they remember a past, which was more nuanced than the versions the younger generations have inherited. I once interacted with a mother who refused to let her child go to India as part of a cultural exchange project. Though she was born several years after Partition in Pakistan, she told me that she had grown up hearing stories from her father of how much he had lost in Kapurthala at Partition. She was afraid that if she let her son go, he may never come back. When she asked her father, he instantly told her to let his grandchild go. “It is home, he will be safe,” he said. It is remarkable that the man who had lost everything was more trusting, more open to the ‘other’ than his daughter who had never interacted with an Indian.
Across the border, though textbooks have undergone revisions and there is more space to engage with nostalgic feelings and remorse, I have noticed that very crucial historical events and processes are often omitted or brushed over. Primary and secondary school history books move from the Quit India movement straight to Partition, leaving young Indians confused about the need for Pakistan and completely unaware of the struggles of the Muslim community. Other important events like the 1965 war and the Kashmir conflict are largely overlooked during these critical years of education. The vacuum this creates forces children to look elsewhere for answers. In the age of social media, hardline media channels and political parties, this makes them all too prone to propaganda and distorted versions of history.
Far from being able to move on, we have not even started to come to terms with our history and shared past. Wars, religious extremism and terrorism have left further imprints on the narrative of Partition. The need to engage with the past in a holistic way should be an utmost priority across both sides of the border. Unfortunately, both states are doing anything but that.
There is a fascinating piece you’ve done in Scroll. Can you talk us through some of what you’ve seen — first-hand how opinions can change, and also how dangerous it can be if they don’t? Even as both countries and governments are stuck in a very tricky situation. Do you feel optimistic/ hopeful that things will change?
As clichéd as it sounds, I am all for people-to-people contact and dialogue. As minorities are less than 3% of the Pakistani population, ordinary Pakistanis spend their entire lifetime without ever coming across a Hindu or Sikh.
As the Gallup Pakistan study reveals, 76% of them never meet an Indian either. In the absence of this ‘other,’ the other does not just disappear but rather becomes a figment of our imagination, an imagination that is fuelled with distorted histories and biases. Children imagine Indians, Hindus and Sikhs as monsters across the border.
A child in an upper middle class school had begun to cry when I showed her a picture depicting a deity. She believed that her eyes had sinned and she would now go to hell. Other children who had come with me to India as part of an exchange project I was leading for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, had started to wail loudly when a school principle leaned forward to place a tikka on their foreheads. They thought they had been forcibly converted to Hinduism because that’s what they learnt these “deceitful Hindus” did to their ancestors. Words like treacherous and mischievous are used openly to describe Hindus in textbooks and become the only reality for children who never interact with this ‘other.’ One student who accompanied me to India had told me that he had read in his class 5 Urdu book that Sikhs would slaughter little children, cutting them into tiny pieces. When we were crossing the Wagah border, he expected Sikhs to be standing there holding daggers. That image shattered for him when he saw them holding garlands instead. Unfortunately for many of his class fellows, that image of daggers and butchery still resonate loudly.
In India, the situation is unfortunately no better. Pakistan is automatically associated with extremism, terrorism, savagery and backwardness. I have been asked if I know how to use an ATM machine, if I’ve ever eaten pizza, if I know Hafiz Saeed and why I’m not wearing a burqa. A 6-year-old child in Mumbai ran away from me when he heard I am from Pakistan. He had automatically thought I must be connected to Ajmal Kasab.
I have been asked if I know how to use an ATM machine, if I’ve ever eaten pizza, if I know Hafiz Saeed and why I’m not wearing a burqa. A 6-year-old child in Mumbai ran away from me when he heard I am from Pakistan. He had automatically thought I must be connected to Ajmal Kasab.
I worry about growing resentment, trolling and bullying, potential wars, and extremist attacks. I worry about fanatic elements in society becoming pre-dominant and hijacking the discourse. And I worry that our governments are not worried enough.
Micro-level initiatives can be transformative in such a scenario. I have seen mindsets change after brief interactions, challenging stereotypes and intergenerational mistrust. Earlier this year, I connected with Indian students in Mumbai over Skype. Initially they were hesitant to speak to me and shared that when they thought of Pakistan they automatically thought of war and terrorism. Yet, an hour into our conversation I could see the shift. One student announced, “Now I know not all Pakistanis are murderers, I can think of going across too.” Others added me on Facebook and told me how the conversation had completely changed their opinion of Pakistan.
According to Gallup Pakistan, 73% of Pakistanis surveyed felt that their opinions about Indians changed positively after meeting them. As both countries engage in mindless jingoistic debates, I remain anxious about the future. Structural changes are essential. Until then, people-to-people contact serves as the only window of hope.