In August 1947, my Aunt Nusrat Akhtar was five years old and lived with her parents in village Mianwal in Jalandhar. Her father’s family was based in India and her maternal family lived in Toba Tek Singh. Her father’s brother was the village Zaildar.
At the time of Partition, as communal hatred grew, her family received news one evening that Sikhs from a nearby village were on the way to kill the Zaildar and his family. The Zaildar’s extended family (which included my aunt, her parents and two sisters) fled for Pakistan immediately.
As a five year old she has her memories from the time with details filled in by her mother. She recalls that, on their way to Lahore on foot, out of fear of being captured, they would hide in fields during the day and walk at night. The practice at the time was that when vigilante mobs found escapees, men were slaughtered and women and children were taken away. At one point when the families were hiding next to River Sutlej she recalls that there was some commotion.
The elders thought that they had been spotted. In preparation, the men told their wives that before being captured they would throw the kids in the river and the women should jump after them. While the men would die fighting, they didn’t wish for the women and children to be captured and dishonoured. And they would throw in the children themselves (one wasn’t even a toddler then) because they feared their wives, overcome by love, might not be able to do so. It, however, didn’t come to that. The families made it to a makeshift camp for refugees, took a bus to the border and finally walked over.
My aunt had nightmares and would wake up fearing that she was being attacked. As everyone slept in the open during summer months in the village, she had to be tied to the bed to make sure she didn’t try and hide if she woke up scared, and got lost in the process. The physiological effects of the trauma lasted years. But asked if she hates Sikhs due to it, she said never. She recalled that two Sikh brothers in the village in India were her mother’s claimed (‘munh bolay’) brothers. She spent so much time in their home that she would swear as ‘saun guru di’ as a child.
My aunt says she never thought Sikhs in her village could cause any harm. They were like family. How did it, then, become possible for such brutalities to be inflicted on the victims? Essentially, by taking away the sense of human identification with the victims, they became the ‘other’. A recognition of the victims’ humanity makes it painful to imagine their suffering, much less cause it to them.
That is why it is essential to dehumanise those we wish to brutalise. The story of Hindus and Sikhs who fled Pakistan during Partition are no different. Today Kashmiris in India are the ‘other’. We feel for the Kashmiris being hounded around India since we identify with them. Human rights abuses in East Pakistan became possible because of the Bengalis’ ‘otherness’. Because there was little done to stop the dehumanisation at work in that case. But we must know from our own experience, and of others’, that speaking truth to power or standing up to a frenzied mob for the ‘other’ is easier said than done. In fact, we have – as a society – degenerated even in the way we dehumanise the ‘other’ or whom we dehumanise as the ‘other’.
The war mongering and proliferation of hate in India against Indian Kashmiris and Pakistan is worrisome but not unexpected. The ability of human beings to be cruel when angry is limitless. Being at the receiving end of terror (where in some years it was hard to keep score of human losses) and our knee-jerk reaction for the most part of blaming everyone but ourselves, we should know. For now, we are relishing the bigotry and idiocy on display in India. It is easy to spot savagery and jingoism from a distance when you aren’t involved directly.
India is not unique in refusing to see state repression as the cause of anger and unrest in Kashmir. We too blame terrorism within Pakistan on foreign enemies. The TTP, we told ourselves, was a global conspiracy against us, even though those in the know knew full well how the TTP was nurtured. Eventually, when cost of our home-grown non-state actors became prohibitory, we acknowledged the problem and began liquidating ‘assets’ fighting the state.
Just as a majority here believed the state-driven narrative that terror in Pakistan is not a consequence of misconceived national interest but is a foreign conspiracy, a majority in India believes the state-driven narrative that Kashmir is a Pakistan-sponsored problem. Just as those attempting to speak truth to power in Pakistan are labelled traitors and enemy agents, those poking holes in the Indian state’s narrative regarding the Pulwama attack are being pounced upon by vigilantes nurtured and backed by the Indian state.
But here’s a story for those Pakistanis indulging in excessive pity for Indian Muslims. Back in 1996, I was part of a student-to-student Track-II event that took us to Delhi and Neemrana. When you sit in a taxi in Delhi you can almost immediately guess the religion of the driver by their dashboard decoration. Our cab driver in Delhi was Muslim. The conversation started with cricket and the matter of which team he supported if an India-Pakistan game came up. I had frankly expected him to tell me that he secretly supports the Greenshirts in the field.
He said he supported India – with an air of disbelief at the question’s stupidity. But went on to say that had Pakistan emerged as a strong state that wielded much influence in the world, it might have been of some help to Indian Muslims in negotiating equal rights from themselves in a Hindu-majority India, much like Israel does for Jewish people living in other countries. But Pakistan as a weak state is a liability for Indian Muslims: they have to live and die in India but continue to be suspected of being pro-Pakistan. I didn’t speak for the rest of the trip.
In many ways, India and Pakistan are more alike than different. We are obsessed with and consumed by each other. Home to over one-fifth of the world’s population, we can’t school our kids or clothe them or give our citizens lives of dignity, but we’ve fed them enough on bigotry, xenophobia and notions of national honour to be able to hate the ‘other’. Isn’t it incredible that these two countries, where the human condition is so pitiable, are nuclear weapon states that can sustain such large infrastructures for deadly conflict?
Predatory states create predatory societies. It makes no logical sense for India and its intelligentsia to be unable to see the inhumanity and injustice being meted out to Kashmiris that has brought anger in the valley to a boil. It makes no logical sense for Pakistan and its intelligentsia to be unable to recognise that our strategies in relation to non-state actors have been a disaster. And it makes no logical sense for both states to wipe out critical voices capable of calling out their states’ missteps, without which mistakes get compounded.
But this is not a logical world. Seventy-two years since Partition and we are still stuck in 1947, ready to hate and kill the other in the name of honour and country. Our nationalism trumps our humanism. Having drowned out critics and dissenters, state power finds it safe to practise madness of power. Because there is no one left to threaten with truth the abuse of state power.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.