By Zubeida Mustafa
I was six years old when Pakistan was so turbulently born. Six obviously is a difficult age to try to comprehend major national and international events even when they create extreme upheavals in a child’s life. Still, I could sense the rising tensions around me. We already had just moved to Delhi when it was decided in June 1947 that India was to be partitioned. My father was appointed to the Railways subcommittee of the Partition Council to work out the division of the rolling stock and financial assets of the Railways between the new countries. Here we were positioned in the eye of what was for us the gathering storm. It was quite disturbing for me to find that the cheer and warmth of our home rapidly was vanishing. My parents spoke in hushed and somber tones and always urged the children “to go out and play” – in other words, not listen in to the fretful adult conversation. We found ourselves on prolonged holiday from school and, with no friends around, my brother and me grew quite bored with life, as our two elder sisters already had been packed off to my grandparents in Karachi.
All this was puzzling. I found it terribly strange. Being in the Railways service my father had always been on the move. Packing and unpacking, living in unfamiliar places and changing schools had become a normal pattern of our lives. All of us accepted it as routine. But in August 1947 the prospect of yet another move suddenly seemed radically different. My parents, though practicing Muslims, were really secular minded in all their social relationships. They had many Hindu and British friends with whom they mixed quite freely and unremarkably. It was the looming change, a splitting apart of old India, that was to shake up their lives – and the lives of millions of others – that made them so extremely apprehensive. Uncertainty of this magnitude breeds a gnawing sense of insecurity because of the fear of the unknown. Besides, they knew, once they departed, that many dear relatives and friends would be left behind and probably out of reach in the ‘new’ India.
There was no escaping the unsettling tension in the air as Hindu-Muslim riots already were breaking out in not-so-distant places. Those in government service had been given the option of going to Pakistan or staying in India. According to my harried father, a “snap decision” had to be taken for there simply was no time for “rational thinking”. My father opted for Pakistan but he frankly described this even at the time as a “gamble.” Later in the twilight years of his life when he talked to me about the partition days he didn’t regret his fateful decision to migrate – he was too pragmatic to agonize over bygones. But he did emphatically say that he and others of his idealistic generation had never visualized Pakistan as the actual flawed country that emerged. They had dreamt of a splendid secular nation where Muslims, generous to others in their midst, would have the freedom to live as they wanted to just as the founder of the country, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had promised.
On 4 August 1947 we took the train to Pakistan – one of the last ones to get through without suffering attack. I was later told. the train after ours arrived in Lahore from Amritsar full of corpses. After a mercifully safe arrival, however, came a number of grim and traumatic experiences. Our next door neighbor’s cook was stabbed, allegedly by a Sikh, in the market where he had gone to shop for groceries. (Many years later when I had grown up I did wonder why a lone Sikh would be foolish enough to attack a Muslim in Lahore, which was the heartland of the Muslims – obviously it was a figment of a fertile and malevolent imagination bent on inciting communal hatred.) Another friend found a trembling Sikh hidden in the washroom when she went there late in the night. He was trying to escape the sectarian fury and begged and pleaded for mercy, which was indeed shown to him. But the incident was enough to drive a spike of fear into the heart of a very young child. Then came a grim and memorable visit to the refugee camp at Walton with my mother. The vast camp had been set up by the government for the millions of people fleeing from East Punjab and the United Provinces (as India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, was known under the Raj) to seek shelter in heavenly Pakistan. The desperate refugees arrived in a mostly dreadful condition – women raped, families looted, and all in very bad shape after having trekked who knows how miles in the blistering heat of August to reach sanctuary. The camps were there but there was not nearly enough manpower or resources to supply and operate them. A large number of women who were lucky to have escaped rape and other abuses would visit the camps daily to distribute food and clothing to the hapless people. That is how I was brought face to face with mass tragedy. I had been in one of those troublesome moods which children at times get into when they must tag along with their mothers and do not let go of them. So she resignedly took me along with her and what I saw there affected me deeply: women in a state of shock with babies dying in their arms, men sitting gazing into space, whimpering children wandering all over. Mayhem everywhere.
Those were hardly uplifting memories and with so much hatred in the air, not surprisingly I grew up believing that all the Indians were bad guys and not to be trusted, ever. They wanted to destroy Pakistan at the first opportunity – that is what we were told and that is what we firmly believed. And that was the general belief in Pakistan. Why would a child think differently? A whole generation grew up in the painful shadow of the bloody partition experience and consequently perceived India as an implacable enemy. The new government only encouraged this black and white perception. The radio – in those days there was no television – and the newspapers overpoured with anti-Indian rhetoric and it was taken for granted that we could never reconcile with Indians.
Here was a state – the largest Muslim state at the time – that had sprung onto the world map out of nowhere. For the Muslim League, latterly, the struggle for independence had been directed more against ambitious Hindu rivals and the Congress Party than against the British. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had propounded the somewhat slippery ‘two nation theory,’ saying the Hindus and Muslims were two distinct nations which could not live together in the same country (although saying all religions somehow should live in amity here). Hence the bitterness and mistrust between the two communities – more political than anything – had spilled indelibly into the post-independence period. The nasty quarrels over division of assets between the two new dominions and the shocking bloodletting that accompanied their birth stoked incalculable anger and ill feeling. This found its way into our textbooks. We were told that the Indians were Hindus who deeply resented the Muslims who earlier had ruled India for a glorious thousand years. They were jealous of the “greatness” of the Muslims and could not accept the partition of India. Hence they sought to stamp out fragile Pakistan.
These hostile images of India were strongly reinforced by the 1965 war. Since 1947 the dispute over Kashmir – a Muslim majority princely state in the north ruled by a Hindu Maharaja – kept the two surly neighbors at loggerheads. The raja decided to join India. An uprising at the time in the area bordering Pakistan and a tribal invasion backed by the Pakistan Army failed to seize the Kashmir Valley — widely described, with some justice, as a scenic paradise on earth. Protracted debates in the UN and untiring mediation by UN appointed middlemen only generated greater frustration. Come 1965 with India’s defeat at the hands of China in their border war fresh in people’s memories, Pakistan opportunistically sent infiltrators across the ceasefire line into the disputed state and tried to stir a popular uprising in the valley. This gambit turned out to be a gross miscalculation on the part of General Ayub Khan’s government. The uprising never took place. As Pakistani forces tried to cut off India’s communications with the Valley, New Delhi retaliated and the Indian Army soon crossed the international border near Lahore. Thus the two states found themselves in a full fledged war in September 1965.
This clash was wholly different from the 1948 conflict, which had been confined to Kashmir alone. This time the vulnerable major cities of Pakistan came under deadly attack. On those long balmy September evenings we sat in semi-darkness observing black-out regulations – the window panes covered with black paper and the lamp draped in a blanket to keep its light dim — listening anxiously to the radio to catch the news bulletins and get the latest information on the war. Suddenly came the screaming sirens, the drone of the aircraft above us and the undercurrent of fear and excitement was like adrenaline to the animosity we felt against India. Here was the perennial enemy out to get us, yet again, unprovoked.
As we focused on our war with India, China jumped into the fray issuing its famous warning to New Delhi demanding the return of a dozen yaks and 40 odd sheep which Beijing claimed had strayed across the border in the Tibetan region from where they had been abducted by the Indians. China gave an ultimatum – return the yaks within 72 hours or face the consequences. Of course no serious action was taken. But the point was well understood as the changed tone of All India Radio amply confirmed.
We citizens were awash with an intense sense of relief. At last there was someone on our side who was trying to pin down wicked India. Our friends in the Muslim world had never done anything practical to help us except issue a lot of sympathetic, tongue-clucking statements. As Pakistan ran low on ammunition it seemed frighteningly clear that we all could be defeated, all the loud talk of our bravery and courage notwithstanding. Hence when the United Nations called for a ceasefire, Pakistan authorities readily agreed with relief. We would not face the specter of being occupied by India.
Yet I, and many friends, underwent a dramatic change in viewpoint after the war ended. I shall speak only of myself here to whatever degree I am representative of other Pakistan citizens at the time. People didn’t want to discuss the war, so strong was the sense of having been betrayed by the leadership. The post-war protests were used by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was out of the government by then, for political gains and to unseat Ayub Khan.
Having emerged safely from the dangers thrust on us, I could not ignore the grief and trauma of those who had lost their near and dear ones in the war. There was the constant stream of obituary notices in newspapers, some with pictures of young men in uniform who were declared shaheed (one who dies in jihad) I didn’t know these men personally but they were very like the young men I knew at work or had known at the university. I thought of their mothers and brothers and sisters and wondered how they felt. It was then that I began to ask myself, was war really unavoidable? Was India such a belligerent power? Do we have to remain locked in a confrontation on Kashmir? Isn’t there a way out?
Other developments helped to change my entire outlook. I hungered for news but the press was tightly controlled. So I would look for foreign printed material on the war published in non-partisan newspapers and journals abroad. Of course the BBC’s world service on the radio was something I had to listen to religiously. A colleague of mine at the research institute I worked in was highly and unguardedly critical of the government’s policy. Her brother was an Air Force officer who had emerged from the war unscathed but I shared her worries and relief when the war ended. Gradually the realization dawned on me that the government in Islamabad had taken me and so many other citizens down the garden path.
Four months after the armed conflict ended the two governments were invited by Alexie Kosygin, the Soviet prime minister, to Tashkent to formally wind up the war. Tashkent itself was food for thought. The meeting simply put a seal on the status quo ante. No one won and no one lost. We were back to square one after so many people needlessly died and were maimed. How could we be so certain that the Kashmiris really wanted to join Pakistan? If they did, why hadn’t there been a heroic mass uprising in the Valley when paratroopers from Pakistan crossed the ceasefire line, as it was called then? So the 1965 war was a major turning point, as wars inevitably are. It served as a catalyst and a crucible to our thinking process, hemmed in before by propaganda, history and habit. Although there were some intrepid souls who criticized the military regime of General Ayub Khan all along, the resistance was stepped up after the war. In East Pakistan, where a strong and highly justified sense of deprivation had taken root soon after independence, a movement for secession was gaining momentum. Many like us wanted to get better information about India. But there was no way to get it directly since the borders had been sealed. There was no official communication between the two countries. Even to send a letter to a relative in India you had to resort to the roundabout route of sending it to a mutual friend in a third country – maybe England or America – who then put it in another envelope and mailed it to the address in India. You could tune in to All-India Radio but being government-controlled it merely broadcast news bulletins that were as off-puttingly propagandistic as ours. Mercifully, some Indian newspapers were free and competent and did not simply toe the line regarding their government’s policy on India-Pakistan relations but in those days they did not offer a third option…
Up until the 1971 debacle got under way, our military dictator went all out to suppress the people of East Pakistan and tried to rule it with an iron hand with the help of the Army. It suited him perfectly to project India as an arch enemy so as to rally the people behind him – a not unfamiliar tactic elsewhere. But now much of my generation refused to swallow hook, line and sinker whatever accusations it read about India in our newspapers (incidentally I was not a journalist then). What was broadcast from the radio and television (recently introduced in major cities) was taken with some corrosive caution. Meanwhile, the world had been opening up for a new generation of Pakistanis who had not directly experienced the horrors of partition but had heard about them from their elders. They were travelling abroad for tourism, higher education studies, and jobs and in the process they were meeting Indians and finding them similar to our own compatriots, warm and friendly. When I arrived at the London School of Economics in 1970 I met many Indians there and discovered quickly that they were not at all unapproachable. States may not behave the same as individuals do, still It surprised me and others like me why India and Pakistan couldn’t work out a good relationship.
On my return to Pakistan from LSE I found it very nearly transformed. The crisis in East Pakistan was heating up. India was again declared the black-hearted villain of the piece, deviously wanting to break up Pakistan for no good reason. This time the supposedly foolish Bengalis were India’s accomplices – the ‘miscreants,’ as they were called. The Bangladesh crisis and the war with India in 1971 brought me much closer to the actualities of death. Although the press played the Establishment’s tune, it retained little credibility in the eyes of the skeptical public. Everyone I knew instead wanted to tune to BBC to hear the news bulletins. Another rather delicate exercise was to listen to both All-India Radio and Radio Pakistan and try shrewdly to negotiate between the two extremes presented to listeners. The public in Pakistan was remarkably subdued this time. Still, the war was on and the safety regulations had to be observed. The blackout rules had to be followed and the nation remained patriotic, despite so much skepticism and cynicism simultaneously in the air. We were torn. How else would one feel when you sympathized with the Bengalis for their just demand for a share in power but had your close relatives and friends butchered at the hands of the Mukti Bahini (the freedom fighters)?
In addition to the recognizing massive human rights abuses in East Pakistan, many people had ceased seeing India in black and white. It was no more the psychotic bully of the region who was out to get Pakistan. Few believed the jingoistic messages Yahya Khan’s regime spewed on the radio and television about the Bangladesh crisis being a ploy of India to break up Pakistan. The people saw it as a political crisis, which was the manifestation of the rueful failure of our democracy. West Pakistan, which dominated the Army and the political Establishment, not only had failed to devise a power sharing arrangement with East Pakistan, which had a majority of the population but declined to cede the political control which should rightly have been Dhaka’s. True, India did not remain a passive and disinterested onlooker in 1971 either. It cleverly exploited the situation, which it did not create, to its own advantage.
With 93,000 prisoners-of-war penned in Indian camps, Pakistanis began to reconsider their often cartoon-ish views about India. There was hardly a family that was not affected in some way. Even when the prisoners came home to tearful reunions in 1973-1974 and Bangladesh and Pakistan recognized each other, our relations with India continued to be quite tense because the governments remained locked in their dispute on Kashmir. The people were weary of war, but there was nothing much they could do about it apart from expressing support for peace in very personal ways such as when any of them visited India or met an Indian. The more this happened the more the word got around, and the clearer it became that the two countries had much in common culturally and socially to build on. In spite of the artificial barriers erected by leaders on both sides, the cultural affinities were not destroyed – language, customs, dress, and many other subtle bonds became potential areas of cohesion.
What are members of an officially discouraged peace movement to do? We recognized and identified many gray areas in India-Pakistan relations. We knew there were some major problems but they were not irresolvable ones. We also started with the knowledge that the Indians were not the bad guys they had been made out to be. We could do business with them. We could play cricket with them. We could watch their movies and enjoy sifting out their cultural nuances. We could talk to one another in our own subcontinent language(s) – as the editor of the Indian Express, Mr. Mulgaokar, and I would do, and tell our Western friends who scratched their heads and wanted to know which language we were speaking that it was Hindi (according to him) and Urdu (according to me).
These contacts were all at the people-to-people level from the mid 1980s onwards and the governments were surprisingly unconcerned as to the slowly changing sentiments of a large section of the population. This was a crucial period when it finally began to dawn on many Indians and Pakistanis that our countries could come to terms. Over the years a significant emergence of a peace lobby on both sides of the border took place. Meanwhile, given the two governments’ reluctance to negotiate a durable peace accord, the initiative passed informally to cross -border non-governmental groups which began to meet periodically to explore options. Termed the track-2 diplomacy, this option encompassed peace activists, human rights champions, retired diplomats, retired generals and others, illustrious and not so illustrious, but all intelligent and courageous. Although these groups did not represent the opinion of the governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, they won implicit official backing without which they could not have obtained visas. All the track-2 meetings were held in India or Pakistan, and not in a third country. In due course more working groups were formed comprising professionals, such as lawyers, writers, journalists and so on who interact quite frequently with each other to dispel noxious images and prejudices, promote peace initiatives, and establish friendly networks.
It was plain that a growing body of opinion in both countries did not want another war. This public stance was further strengthened when the two countries exploded nuclear devices and proclaimed their nuclear weapons status in 1998. While there was some Uncomprehending celebration of the technical achievement, as the possibility of a nuclear war in South Asia became a reality, its potential horrors began to hit people who had some understanding of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The momentum of the anti-war movement rapidly picked up as activists joined hands across the border. Today they light candles on the Wagah border on the night of August 14/15 every year – the anniversary of Pakistan’s and India’s independence respectively. Their voices are louder than bombs, to borrow the title of a book of interviews by David Barsamian, since they are people of repute on both sides who wield great influence. Arundhati Roy, Asma Jahangir, I.A. Rahman, Vandana Shiva, Admiral Ramdas, Mubashir Hasan and many more are doggedly pursuing the difficult path of peace. Two years ago writer Arundhati Roy proclaimed in Karachi that were she to learn that India was planning to fire a nuclear missile at Pakistan she would be the first one to fly to this country to act as a human shield. After that declaration, how can anyone feel that we can’t live as friends with the Indians?
The feeling, I believe, is widespread that the people of India and Pakistan want to live in peace with each other, but governments think differently. They have had their own interest in perpetuating a state of conflict in the region. In the absence of political will, the disputes lingered on as hairsplitting arguments are cleverly advanced to make every issue ever more complex and beyond resolution. In all this the media’s role has been a very mixed one. The English language press tends to be progressive and liberal in its outlook, and has generally supported peace overtures. But the right-wing Urdu papers, especially from the Punjab, have adopted a hard line vis-à-vis India, questioning the wisdom of dialogue so long as the Kashmir dispute goes on. A contradiction, but there they are.
The groundswell of public opinion in favor of peace in both countries has been a major factor, apart from the international environment, that induced governments to rethink their approach to one another. Paradoxically, what elected leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif found themselves unable to do has been undertaken by another army leader, General Pervez Musharraf. He sincerely, so far as we can tell, has called for a public debate on options on Kashmir so as to provide the two countries the opportunity to move away from the deadly fixed positions they have kept for over 50 years. Given the power structure, no civilian government in Islamabad could have effected so radical a change in its India policy because it was the Army that was always calling the shots. It was the Army which was spearheading a hard line policy on Kashmir. Now that a military leader has taken the initiative, one has legitimate hope that some formal progress will take place.
The so-called composite dialogue which began in early 2004 has given rise to hopes that the two governments mean business this time. Even Kashmir is on the agenda, which signifies a remarkable change in the Indian position. But no one expects a solution to all the vexatious disputes between India and Pakistan in a flash. Even if the talks drag on, does it matter? Wasn’t it Churchill who said, “It is better to jaw jaw than war war”? But in this case a lot depends on the political drama being enacted in Islamabad. Governments in Islamabad and New Delhi have displayed a strong propensity to use their foreign policy to pull their domestic chestnuts out of the fire. Irrespective of his past adventures, Musharraf is constrained to pursue the policy of dialogue. There is no turning back for him now.
What is the lesson one should draw from this experience of changing images of India, and ourselves? Communication at the popular level is just as much a key to stable international relations as is formal diplomacy. When walls are built around human minds and they are not exposed to new ideas, thoughts, and approaches, how will we emerge out of the rut in which we have fallen over the decades? This emergence will inevitably happen – a bit later if the governments continue to be obstructive, and sooner if they act as facilitators of the process. With new means of communication and transmission of information available to large sections of populations, they are able to access each other without government interference. They can create, and test, their own images of each other. Television channels, the Internet, emails, websites have allowed the people of the two countries to exchange views and understand one another’s viewpoints. They can read one another’s newspapers on the Web and even interact with them. Small wonder then, many young people who saw India as ‘enemy territory’ changed their mind when they met young visitors from across the border or went on a voyage of discovery. The generation which is coming of age in South Asia, if given the chance, would break fresh ground. It has no sad emotional hangups. There is no horrific historical baggage which it has to carry. When it meets its contemporaries on the other side of the Wagah, things will change. They cannot remain the same.