Poisoned chalice

December 1, 2019

Soon after the Partition, while many were honest in declaring properties left behind – others were not

A building from the pre-independence days.

The flight of Muslims from East Punjab and Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab led to ethnic cleansing on both sides. This is defined as: “the systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial and/or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, often with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.” The expulsions were of a similar volume largely because the population size was more or less the same in each part of the Punjab; including minorities.

These exoduses profoundly impacted the new nation of Pakistan. Not least because of the lure of evacuee property.

During the summer of 1947, some five million Hindus and Sikhs fled East Punjab. Leaving behind homes ranging from the modest to ostentatious mansions belonging to business magnates. Suddenly, these were all up for grabs. Many front doors were not even locked – such was the backdrop of panic against which the owners had left. The residences were subsequently allotted to incoming refugees while some locals managed to have holdings transferred into their names. Applicants began competing for the best houses, as they filled in forms stating the details of the ones they had left behind as a first step towards compensation. A little ‘cooperation’ with the relevant government department ensured that claims were approved. While many were honest – others were not. Thus the message was clear: telling the truth meant rotting in poverty while lies were a gateway to a life of luxury.

Having learned this lesson, the country never looked back. From cheating in exams to procuring fake degrees and passports to producing and selling counterfeit medicine to embezzlement. Presently, it seems as if a new financial scandal involving billions of rupees is uncovered every week. That many of our prominent politicians have cases filed against them harms Pakistan’s reputation on the international stage. Not to mention the untold damage done to the national exchequer.

While I may not be among them, there are those who argue that the ones fleeing this land left a veritable curse in their wake – retribution for their expulsion and the looting of property – that would see the very foundations of this country built on lies and fraud. Indeed, it may be said that before Partition the majority of people were not unscrupulous.

Indeed, this carried over for the first few decades of Pakistan’s existence; where our leaders demonstrated a principled approach to running the country. Including former prime ministers living in rented accommodation post-tenure. This was before the promise of easy money — by fair means or foul — took hold. The current situation is vastly different, as numerous palatial mansions bear testament to. Civil servants, too, are not immune to amassing wealth. Such as the finance secretary of Balochistan who had Rs670 million in ready cash stashed at his house. No wonder, then, that the machines meant to count the money overheated. Or the law enforcers who boost their income with handsome bribes.

The situation since Partition has deteriorated to such an extent that anyone who is anyone is now being hounded by the National Accountability Bureau; boasting the rather appropriate anacronym of NAB. In fact, in the Panama Papers era, politicians across the board have been summoned by the body. Many, including thrice-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari, are under scrutiny.

This is, some might say, the legacy of Partition — and the poisoned chalice of evacuee property. What a paradox!

The writer is a former principal of King Edward Medical College and president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan. He is currently working on a book, titled From Heaven to Hell.

India-Pakistan partition in 1947: Poisoned chalice