Pre-Partition pluralism

December 22, 2019

The new state of Pakistan swiftly replaced the pluralism of United India with the myopia inherent to a mono-religious society

An excerpt from his forthcoming book From Heaven to Hell and the Causes of Pakistan’s Troubles.

Prior to Partition, what is now present-day Pakistan was home to a religiously and culturally diverse society. Nowhere was this perhaps truer than in the United Punjab; where Muslims comprised 55 percent of the population, Hindus 25 percent and Sikhs 20 percent. Here, each distinct group enjoyed their own way of life, including worship; largely without interference from others. Friction, if there was any, was confined to days where religious processions took place. Additionally, communities had more insight into the practices of other faiths, which led to increased tolerance.

The monotheistic religions fostered a sense of unity with their belief in one God and children learned from a young age that there were different ways of showing devotion. At school, my friends and I were more or less equally divided between Muslims and Hindus. We did not think about these divisions.

Multicultural societies tend to be liberal and, in some cases, veer towards the secular, because no faith is competing with another. Thus there is no room for religious extremism Yet all that changed with Partition and the flight of every Hindu and Sikh from the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, KP) in 1947. Local populations suddenly became overwhelmingly Muslim. Pluralism was replaced with the myopia inherent to a mono-religious society.

Before Partition, restaurants remained open during Ramzan. This was because half the population at that time had been non-Muslim and needed to nourish themselves during the day. After 1947, however, only Muslims were left. Given that they were all meant to observe Ramzan – eateries closed during fasting hours. Moreover, contravention of the rules surrounding eating, drinking and smoking in public became liable to jail time and a hefty fine in accordance with the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, 1981.

In Sindh, the situation was a little different. Hindus constituted a small minority and, as there were no riots, decided to stay put in 1947. Belonging to the upper-classes, particularly in interior Sindh, they were so influential that in some areas not a single cow was slaughtered. Similarly, there were no killings or population exchanges in East Bengal; which acted as a buffer against religious extremism. The difference in fortunes of Sindhi Hindus and their co-religionists in the Punjab and NWFP could not be more pronounced; with the latter facing forced expulsion or death. In short, Sindh, which is still home to Hindu and Parsee communities, may be described as a multi-religious society.

In mono-religious societies, by contrast, people tend to compete with each other to prove who is the most pious. Such excess extends beyond the personal realm. Consider the young medical student who, during her First Professional (oral) physiology exam, was asked six questions pertaining to Islamic Studies and only one on her chosen field. She happened to pass and is now working as a consulting physician. Or else, ponder what happened to my family and I when we were looking to rent a house in Lahore some time back. We must have viewed more than a dozen houses before settling on one. In each instance, I looked in the waste paper basket to ascertain what the upper middle-class landlords had been reading. Imagine my dismay when I did not find a single newspaper, either in English or Urdu. There were no magazines or discarded children’s books. Just reams and reams of Islamic literature; of the type distributed for free by religious organisations.

Most of the violence in the world today is carried out in the name of religion; at the hands of Islamist terror groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. Each time these outfits send a suicide bomber to indiscriminately kill dozens of innocent people – they offer the contemptible justification that the victims will be fast-tracked to Heaven. In addition, the larger sects take advantage of their strength in numbers; knowing full well that those following other creeds will not retaliate due to the fear of annihilation.

It was not always this way. Before Partition, Muslim sects displayed a great deal of respect for one another. To the extent that a former principal of Lahore’s de’ Montmorency College of Dentistry was scolded as a young lad for asking his father if they were Sunni or Shia. Accompanied by the reply that “we are all Muslims, and there is no difference between us”. Thus the late Rasool Bakhsh Paljo, a Marxist intellectual and human rights lawyer, was right to advocate a Universal Declaration of Tolerance between All Religions and All Sects.

Had there been no riots, the Hindus and Sikhs would have stayed on; providing benefits on three fronts. First, multiculturalism would have continued to flourish with Ganga Ram and Janki Devi Hospitals, for instance, still run by Hindus. Indeed, different religious communities would likely have vied with each other as they engaged in charitable work. Second, Muslims, encountering the more hardworking Hindus, would have strived to be more productive. Third, the presence of Hindus and Sikhs would have strengthened Muslim unity, as was seen in the pre-Partition era.

The creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has seen sects fight among themselves, with the majority spilling the blood of smaller sects as well as religious minorities. This has prompted an exodus of another kind. Like my old classmate, Dr Zulfiqar Haider, who was the most popular family physician in our hometown of Gujrat. Having served the local community all this life – he had no choice but to eventually flee the country. Pakistan’s loss and mine, too, is America’s gain. Each departure leaves the landscape more barren and the people more intolerant while convincing the bloodthirsty of their power to force people to literally run for their lives. Had even one government been worth its salt, those practising bigotry and hate would have been held accountable while vulnerable groups would not have had to migrate.

In fact, if the Hindus had not fled this country, Indo-Pak relations would look very different today. Not least because a sizeable Hindu minority here would have compelled India to treat its Muslim minority better. Also, the presence of substantial Hindu and Sikh populations would likely have acted as a safeguard against martial law. For an Army predominantly made up of those belonging to a single religion makes it easier to impose its rule; which is bad for good governance and the sanctity of the law. All of which flies in the fact of Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan where people were supposed to be free to go to their temples, their mosques or to any other place of worship. Yet by expelling Hindus and Sikhs from the Punjab, we have, in a manner of speaking, tackled the minority question; at least in the country’s most populous province. For as long as religious minorities are not living here, either openly or otherwise, there can be no outward discrimination against them. That being said, never in his worst nightmares could Quaid-e-Azam have ever imagined this ‘final solution’ for minorities.

By way of conclusion, allow me to recall my visit to Amritsar in the spring of 1982. In one particular city square stood a statue of Indian nationalist, Subhas Chander Bose. This had apparently replaced one of Gandhi, which the government removed after Sikh boys would, every now and then, behead. I cannot help but feel that if Muslims had not been driven out of Indian Punjab, there would have been no direct confrontation between the Hindus and Sikhs. But as history testifies, this was not the case. The Indian Army did storm the Golden Temple in 1984, provoking the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi as well as the anti-Sikh riots that left some 3,000 Sikhs dead.

It is worth remembering that, if in 1947, Hindus and Muslims had managed to arrive at an agreement under which they would peacefully coexist in United India – there would have been no East Punjab, no Khalistan movement, no Kashmir dispute and no Indus Water Treaty. Yet achieving this would have required tolerance of ‘the other’. Present-day India could not be further from the pluralist dream. For under Narendra Modi’s premiership, the country is no place for anyone but Hindus. The Muslims are therefore vindicated in their calls for a separate homeland.

The writer is a former principal of King Edward Medical College and president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan

New state of Pakistan and pre-Partition pluralism