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August 15, 2017

Let them come home


August 15, 2017

Every Independence Day, we are told stories of horror and terror, of how friend turned on friend and how neighbour slaughtered neighbour. We hear stories of loss, of how people fled just steps ahead of slavering mobs, sometimes with a suitcase, sometimes with nothing. And every year we hear the odd story of redemption and rediscovery, of how someone old and frail has retraced the steps back to their old house and been welcomed with open arms.

Everybody who was alive at the time of Partition is at least seventy years today. Seventy years is a long time to live. It is long enough to forgive and forget. But for those who miss their homes, it is seventy years of pain.

And so I say, let them come home. Let them all come home. Let us throw our borders open to every person who left a home behind on Partition. Let us tell them that even if they have migrated, that even if they have moved and put down new roots in strange places, that they will always have a home here.  Let us tell them that we know the pain of losing a home and that while we cannot make the past whole, we can try to heal the wounds which remain.

Perhaps you find the above to be idealistic nonsense of the kind that gets people slammed as RAW agents by the usual assortment of slavering anchors, just another utopian scheme destined to fail. If so, let me ask why? Why the scepticism? What do we have to lose?

People who are seventy plus now enjoy much healthier lives than they did in the past. More of them are now more active than they have ever been before in human history.  But even with all that modern science has to offer, there are precious few seventy year olds who are capable of posing a physical threat to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

But what about retired military officers, you might say? Well, what about them? Retired military officers are no less immune to the pain of a lost home than others. And those who are won’t be lining up at Wagah anyway.

What’s in it for us, you might ask? Ah, now that is a better question.

In 1994, the small nation of Rwanda went literally insane. That country is divided between two different ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. And for some strange reason, the majority Hutus decided that they simply could not live with Tutsis any more. Between April and July of 1994, Hutu militias killed around a million people, including almost three-quarters of the Tutsi population.

Six years later, the civil war wracking the country came to an end with the victory of Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front. As noted by Jonathan Tepperman in his recent book, ‘The Fix’, Kagame faced an impossible task. The country had no running water and almost no electricity. The destruction of civil society was so complete that out of the 800 judges who had been in office before the war, only 50 survived.

But beyond the physical destruction, there was a larger problem. Rwanda was still divided between Hutus and and Tutsis. And memories were both sharp and extremely bitter. How was a country to be united when so many of them had been involved in murdering each other?

Kagame’s attempt to put the past behind relied in large part on an indigenous Rwandan mechanism for dispute resolution called ‘gacaca’. From what I can figure out, these are the rough equivalent of our panchayats and jirgas. In any event, more than 12,000 village level tribunals were set up with limited powers of punishment. The tribunals were staffed not by lawyers and judges but by respected locals given a few days of training.

Since 2002, the ‘gacaca’ courts have heard more than two million cases. And while there have been numerous criticisms of them, the fact remains that the conversations they initiated and formalised between victims and victimisers have been incredibly beneficial in making Rwanda the success story that it is today.

I’m not suggesting that Pakistan should set up village level panchayats to deal with Partition. But the fact remains that trying to brush our traumas under the rug of history hasn’t worked that well either. There doesn’t need to be a reckoning: it is too late for that now. But the ghosts of Partition still need to be exorcised. There needs to be a catharsis of some sort, some national conversation with the past and with the others who either fled or were driven away.

I cannot forgive the past. Because while I have inherited it, it is not mine to forgive. I am also lucky to be the son of a father who worked out his demons many years ago.

When I was a child, the stories my father told me were the usual ones, of loved ones killed, of treasures lost, of homes abandoned. But later my father worked as an expatriate in Singapore. Over there, he started playing bridge with an Indian diplomat. That diplomat later became one of my father’s closest friends. And somewhere in between the golf and the bridge, the anger melted. My father still told me stories about Partition. But they were no longer angry stories.

A decade further and my father managed to get a visa to visit Patiala. Our haveli was still there, if considerably battered. But what touched him the most was that the graves of our ancestors had been turned into a shrine with regular Thursday night qawwalis.

Obviously, not every visitor from across the border will be as lucky. But let them at least come. People in India still talk about the reception they got when they visited Lahore in 2004 to watch India and Pakistan play cricket. Lahoris are still the same as they were back then and neither is the rest of the country.

And so I repeat, let them all come home. Let us open our borders to every person who was resident in Pakistan 70 years ago. Let us welcome them back. Let us show them their old homes. Let us help them find what peace they can.

There is another aspect as well worth considering. We have spent much of the last 70 years in a defensive crouch. Yes, that posture was justified. Pakistan was given very little chance of survival at birth and that fact that we are now still together 70 years later is a hell of a thing. But that time has passed. We need not be afraid. Certainly not of 70 year old Indians.

Opening our borders to all people born here before Partition sends a message to the world that we have moved on as a country. It tells them that we are confident enough to deal with our past, that we are open enough to talk about. Above all, it tells them that we are ready to welcome everybody who has ever called this place home.


The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah