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January 31, 2013

My name is not Khan

Opinion

January 31, 2013

Side-effect
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.
The ardent peaceniks, the bleeding-heart liberals, the hopeful poets, the sanguine historians and a segment of religious scholars tilted towards mysticism belonging to the Subcontinent tell us with so much fervour that ours is a land of sages and saints, women and men who believed in eternal peace and spiritual liberation, yogis and sufis who were altruistic to the hilt and compassionate to the core. This is the land of Gautam Buddha, Mahavira, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Bhagat Kabir, Mirabai, Lalla Arifa (Lalleshwari), Guru Nanak, Nizamuddin Auliya, Bulleh Shah, Swami Vivekanand, Rahman Baba, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, etc.
We are told that the lives and teachings of these people are a source of inspiration for the rich and the poor, the ignorant and the knowledgeable, and for majority and minority communities following any faith or sect. All that happened contrary to the real nature of South Asia, in terms of battles, riots, loot and plunder, was either an aberration or a conspiracy of an outside force – an invading army or a colonial power that came to stay for a couple of centuries. There is a sense of pride, hidden or obvious, in being South Asian.
But is that really the case today? Can we take pride in belonging to a region and civilisation that harbours peace and tolerance for each other? Can we claim to have accepted any kind of difference found within or outside with magnanimity? Do we really believe in the basic humanistic tenet of ‘live and let live’? There may have been certain interludes in South Asian history when peace or relative peace prevailed in all or some parts of the region. But what is happening today within South Asian societies and among South Asian countries contradicts what the claimants of a superior, peaceful, divine and spiritual South Asia profess.
Barring ghettos within the elite circles of South Asian metropolises, there is no tolerance, let alone

acceptance, for any differences across the societies in which we live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It seems that people get tired of maligning, hurting, looting and killing each other for some years. After catching their breath, they once again resort to the same methods of perpetrating violence and imposing their will over the other by coercion.
After what happened in 1947, when millions had to emigrate, hundreds of thousands were killed and thousands of young girls and women kidnapped and raped, did West Pakistanis not repeat it in 1971 and unleash terror on our own countrymen and -women in East Pakistan? Muslims who lived in India for hundreds of years and chose to stay in their homeland at the time of the Partition of British India, most of them locals who had converted to Islam at some point in history anyway, were seen as fifth columnists by many Hindus.
At the same time, in Pakistan – a country created on the basis of Muslim nationalism in the Subcontinent – we saw ethnic and provincial divides surfacing and taking a violent turn from day one.
In the larger Pakistani society, is there any tolerance whatsoever for people who think differently or look different, leave alone those who have a separate set of beliefs, speak a different language (or even a dialect) and come from a region in the country that is different from one’s own?
In a country founded on the basis of demands for maximum provincial autonomy and equal rights for those belonging to minority faiths, at least if you go by the vision of the founding father, smaller provinces and marginalised communities within the provinces continue to struggle for their due share in opportunities and resources to this day while minorities are demeaned and deprived increasingly as time goes by.
The state’s military action and its attempts to curb political movements by force in provinces other than Punjab happens to this day. Non-Muslim or Muslim women and men are charged with blasphemy while Shia Muslims are killed brutally in the length and breadth of the country. Proving right the prophetic academic of yesteryear, William Cantwell Smith, the Pakistani state has become a confused theocracy to a large extent. Pakistan’s society is becoming more and more orthodox and the Pakistani individual is becoming more and more conservative – culturally and politically. There is some kind of legitimacy among a part of the population with regard to oppression and violence against the weak, women, minorities and poor.
It must be acknowledged that the Indian state has a somewhat different character in many ways due to the secular nature of its constitution. There have been no dictatorships there either. However, some significant and influential parts of the Indian society demonstrate their parochial nature from time to time.
In Pakistan, religion is used blatantly even by the supposedly enlightened and mainstream political parties for short-term gains. In India, this is not the case with all mainstream parties, but the ones who use religion and are mainstream do it no less blatantly than those in Pakistan to whip up public emotions. While I maintain my support for the court decision on Babri Mosque to resolve the crisis, the horrible act of bringing a mosque down, even if it was claimed by some that it was built over a temple, should not have happened in the first place.
The Muslim minority in India has seen massive riots and faced loot and murder, from Muradabad to Ahmedabad to Mumbai, many times over the past decades. The Christian minority has been persecuted. What happened to the Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination is known to all. Sikhs had sided with Hindus all over Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947 and took part in horrible acts of brutality and violence.
Bangladesh is catching up with India and Pakistan in some ways here. While it was important to establish responsibility and identify and try those who they see as having been collaborators of the Pakistan Army in the 1971 liberation war, being South Asians they could not find the courage to have a process of truth and reconciliation like the one in South Africa or Ireland. They could not move on.
After more than 41 years, they have started sentencing old people to death. At the same time, there is no recognition of the atrocities Bihari or West Pakistani civilians were subjected to by Bangladeshi freedom fighters. Even if the atrocities were much smaller in magnitude than those the West Pakistani army carried out, the truth has to be established. The Bangladeshi state also wishes to subsume small ethnic or political identities in the name of nationalism, like the Pakistani state wishes to subsume all different identities in the name of Islam. The Indian state tries to act universal but there is a certain mindset of the Indian middle class where someone called Vijay Kumar is Indian in no uncertain terms while those called Abbas and George are ‘also’ Indians.
Recently when Shahrukh Khan, the Bollywood icon, complained about the attitude of some bigoted Indian politicians who ask him to go to Pakistan, their twisted counterpart on this side of the border – Hafiz Saeed of Jamaat-ud-Dawa – invited Shahrukh to Pakistan and offered him protection. Goodness! Shahrukh has gained a special place in people’s imagination, particularly in India. He should now contribute to making his society more civilised. Hafiz Sahib should think about the poor minorities in his own country, including Shia Muslims, while he is allowed to roam around freely.
Our societies need a lot of soul searching and our states need to set the course right by taking tangible steps. Dreaming for peace and romanticising inherent humanity among South Asians will not suffice.
Email: [email protected]