August 14 and 15

August 21, 2016

Emphasising differences has perpetuated violence

August 14 and 15

Yet another 14th and 15th of August have passed us by. Next year India, Pakistan and the partition of the subcontinent will be 70. If anyone had asked Jinnah or Nehru what their expectations were of the post-partition sub-continent, I doubt they would have wanted the Indo-Pak relationship to be as bitter as it is today. Gandhi would have felt immense pain.

Oddly enough, even though the two states achieved independence from the British there has been little focus to break away from vestiges of colonialism. Instead, the real focus of state policy has been to ensure that they do not become the other -- and continue to be seen as the anti-thesis of the other. Hence, partition of the subcontinent and not necessarily independence governs the minds when policies are made. Independence is only a slogan -- and is celebrated only to the extent that it makes these countries ‘not’ India/Pakistan.

Nationalism and religion -- both in India and Pakistan -- continue to be manipulated by powerful quarters to create a discourse that keeps minds and hearts often closed. Of course India has not seen the problem of reductionist discourse on religion hijacking people’s lives to the extent that Pakistan has. But India’s issues are no less serious.

Maybe, nationalism is to India what religion is to Pakistan -- a passion that inculcates in people to create divides where those inside a circle are superior and the rest are constantly deemed suspicious or undesirable. Decades of conditioning has brought us to a point that when people finally meet with and make friends on the ‘other’ side it becomes something of a news. It should not be that way but it is a sad reality that our newspapers, books and leaders often take great happiness in announcing to others how ‘normal’ the people on the other side were. Of course they are normal. They are human beings who often have the same worries and sources of happiness that you do. What is abnormal is that we have to talk about how ‘normal’ and ‘nice they are’.

Imagine being in Lahore in August 1947. If you crossed the border, or whatever of it was known, you were Indian and if you stayed you were Pakistani. That decision, which in its essence should not dictate relationships between generations, has had a massive impact on the lives of those who left -- and those who stayed.

But let’s stay in the present. Should that decision continue to shape our present landscape? Why did we come to those on the other side as fundamentally different? Why do we have to constantly put pressure on ourselves to not be like someone else. And as many have commented, we have never really searched for our own identities -- be it in India or Pakistan. We have been obsessed with first putting down the ‘other’ and then embarked on a path that leads in the opposite direction. We may not know where we are headed. All we care about, and are told to care about, is that we must emphasise difference. And irreconcilable difference.

The next time our government or leaders talk to us about ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’, let us resolve to first ask them if Jinnah wanted his Pakistan to be at daggers drawn with India. And whether Nehru wanted his India, or Gandhi’s India, to perpetrate an ideology of violence?

It matters little to policy makers in India or Pakistan today how Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah or other regional leaders wanted the post-partition subcontinent to look like. Those voices have been shut down for the greater good.

Just note the violence and lack of nuance in our language. We often say India is like this or that or Indians do this or that. Not only do we confuse the state with people, failing to make an all-important distinction between the two, we also forget the diversity of viewpoint in that country.

The same happens when Pakistan is discussed: take Modi’s speech on 15th August where he accused Pakistan of rejoicing when terrorism hits India. Was he referring to the state or the people? And which elements within these? Do they represent the entire state or the entire people? Men, women, children, people from different religions, sects, ethnicities? He doesn’t care because he doesn’t have to -- all he needs to do is attack ‘Pakistan’ (whatever that term as a collective means) and people applaud. The same happens on this side of the border.

These monoliths which are perpetuated are the real source of violence. There is of course no such thing as one Pakistan or one India. State policy may be what it is but these countries are made up of people with names, with families, with children -- each of them have diverse interests and a multiple identities that help them negotiate the world. When the violent or nationalist rhetoric calls upon us to think in terms of monoliths we must reject that. No one will help us in this process. But we have to imagine a different world. Indeed it is by imagining the world differently that those who spread hate and division between these two countries have become so successful. They realised the power of words and how they can be used to make an entire country’s people faceless, nameless and indeed heartless. It works.

Leaders, from left and right, in both countries invoke leaders who were alive at the time of partition. But they do not care to listen to their visions of what a post-partition subcontinent could have been. Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru all died while wondering if they had done enough to bridge hatred’s ugly divides.

So the next time our government or leaders talk to us about ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’, let us resolve to first ask them if Jinnah wanted his Pakistan to be at daggers drawn with India. And whether Nehru wanted his India, or Gandhi’s India, to perpetrate an ideology of violence. Did these founding fathers want us to become nameless and faceless? You will not see faces of people who live across the border on the Indian flag. But talk to people from India and maybe you will find something of yourself. Something has long been missing. A part of a home divided -- but still accessible. If only we reach for it.

August 14 and 15