Book Excerpt: The Other Side of the Divide by Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The other side of the divide cover

Published by Penguin Ebury Press, 2020

Pegged on journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani‘s visit to Pakistan, The Other Side of the Divide provides insights into the country beyond what we already know about it. These include details on the impact of India’s soft power, thanks to Bollywood, and the remnants of Pakistan’s multireligious past, and how it frittered away advantages of impressive growth in the first three decades of its existence by embracing religious conservatism.

The book profiles extraordinary people-lawyers, poets, musicians and even a former military chief-who stood up to an oppressive state. It has historical anecdotes, like the story of an ordinary woman who became the ‘muse and mistress‘, and often the ‘brains behind the regime of a swinging general’ who led Pakistan to ignominy in the 1971 war, that of a Sikh family which dared to swim against the tide to stay back in Pakistan after Partition, and a prostitute’s son who uses his art to humanize commercial sex workers in defiance of a conservative society.

The book attempts to present a contemporary portrait of Pakistan-where prohibition remains only on paper and one of the biggest taxpayers is a Parsee-owned brewery-as a complicated and conflicted country suspended between tradition and modernity.


Separated Twins

A blinding haze enveloped much of Delhi and its surrounding areas as it usually does in December and January. The sun was nowhere to be seen; traffic pile-ups were claiming lives. The air, rail and road traffic were all but paralysed. Around 3000 km away, I spent the last hours of my holiday at a resort in Kerala perched on top of rolling green hills in Munnar, fretting about the gloomy weather. I had put in the hard yards, managed the clearances and even the most important but restricted visa. The haze threatened to rain on my parade though. Uncertainty loomed large over the trip as poor visibility had grounded most flights for two days. Then, lo and behold, the skies opened up on the third day to wash away the haze blinding the air traffic. My return flight from Kerala landed smoothly in Delhi. I had my fingers crossed; near-perfect visibility was forecasted for the next few days.

For once, the forecast was not wide off the mark. The haze let up but the faces at home kept getting longer. I sidestepped all attempts to talk me into abandoning the trip. How could I? At stake was the rare chance of writing reports for the Times of India, where I worked, datelined Lahore. only the weather could have put a spanner in the works. the haze held out hope for a few days for the family; but much to their disappointment, the visa had come through earlier than expected. For my wife, Qudsiya, and my in-laws, the idea of visiting Pakistan was rash. Like any average Indian, they hear, see and watch nothing that might humanize Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the country comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its portrayal in the news media, the cinema, as well as the terror attacks that emanate from that country. Pakistan conjures up images of a paranoid, insecure, humourless and dangerous place in the minds of ordinary people. There is no other side to Pakistan. It is different the other way around. India’s ‘soft power’, the reach and impact of Bollywood, helps offset anti-India sentiments in Pakistan. It humanizes India among the Pakistani masses; many shared problems besetting the two countries thus appear to be lopsided.

The reason for my in-laws’ aversion to Pakistan ran deeper. It can be traced to a latent legacy of wounds the subcontinent’s division inflicted on them and millions of other ordinary people. The rupture hit close to home, upended their lives for years and permanently called into question their allegiance to their beloved land: India. It opened a Pandora’s box, made them vulnerable to reprisals for real and imagined crimes even of medieval empire builders who happened to be Muslims.

My grandfather-in-law, Muhammad Sadiq’s predicament mirrored those of millions of Muslims suddenly caught on the wrong side of the India–Pakistan division. He had little in common with the minuscule Urdu-speaking elite, who dreaded the majoritarian domination of the kind that found echoes, for instance, in far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar’s writings. the RSS, which is the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was founded in the 1920s. Its founding fathers, like Golwalkar, were particularly antagonistic to the Muslims. Golwalkar considered them ‘the real enemy’ and ‘despoilers’.1 He wanted Muslims to stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, not even citizen’s rights.2 This spectre of majoritarianism stoked elitist Muslim anxieties in the final years of the British rule. Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, tapped into these anxieties and even called an avowedly secular Congress ‘a Hindu body’.3

Sadiq’s concerns were basic. He was bothered more about a square meal than the fate of the Urdu language or equal representation. By mid-1940s, he had landed a job at the British Civil services academy in Delhi as a tailor. The job was no mean feat. Sadiq had overcome the trauma of being orphaned as a child and the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the relatives who were forced to raise him. He equipped himself with the skill of tailoring to find the job. Things were looking up; Sadiq was living happily with his family at a quarter the academy offered him in Delhi’s posh Metcalfe House neighbourhood.

The upturn in Sadiq’s life was cut short with the end of the British empire, hastened by the second World War. The war sapped the empire’s vitality, robbed it of the will and the resources to govern the jewel in its crown. Pakistan’s idea as a separate Muslim homeland—which was dismissed as ‘chimerical and impractical’4 in the 1930s—now suddenly gathered steam. a tacit British support was at play—the payback Muhammad Ali Jinnah received for backing the British war effort. Jinnah revived a moribund Muslim League to rally support for Pakistan’s creation. His opponent Jawaharlal Nehru and other major proponents of a united India were hamstrung and behind bars until  the  end  of  the  war  in  1945.  The  empire  was bankrupt. It quit India two years later, but not before having Indians at each other’s throats. Discord had sustained British rule in India. It manifested as genocidal violence when it ended with the haphazard division of India.

The ham-handed division first triggered violence in Punjab. It sent tens of thousands of refugees scurrying for their lives across the newly drawn border. Brutalized Hindus and Sikhs began pouring into  Delhi.

The brutalities  they  faced  triggered  violence  against Delhi’s Muslims. As many as 20,000 are estimated to have been killed while ‘more than a quarter’5 of Delhi’s population—over 3.3 lakh Muslims—was forced to leave as the violence escalated in the city. Muslims accounted for 32.22 per cent of Delhi’s population as per the 1941 censusand were spread across the city. The violence confined  them  to  the  Humayun’s  tomb  area,  Jama  Masjid  and Mehrauli.  The  intervening  areas—Connaught  Circus,  new  Delhi and Karol Bagh—‘were completely emptied of Muslims’.7 Even hospitals and children were not spared. At least two of the hospitals were attacked and ‘even seriously ill patients, drawing their last few breaths, were consigned to death’.8

Precious little was done to control the situation. At an emergency cabinet committee meeting, Vallabhbhai Patel, who was in charge of law and order as the home minister, insisted ‘There was bound to be trouble if as a result of these Muslims not moving out, it proved impossible to accommodate non-Muslim refugees coming from the West’.9 On 2 September 1947, he claimed people were ‘openly clamouring as to why Muslims are allowed to go about in peace openly in the streets of Delhi and other towns’.10 In a speech at Lucknow, Patel told his audience to let the Muslims, who had stayed back, to stay on, before sounding a chilling warning: ‘Why do you bother to kill them? The heat from the ground will eventually become unbearable and they will choose to leave on their own accord.11 Patel’s colleague, rehabilitation Minister Mohanlal Saxena, made matters worse by ordering the sealing of Muslim shops in cities like Delhi.12 Rajendra Prasad, who was another key minister and went on to become India’s first president, wrote to Nehru saying there was ‘no use in bringing in the army to protect the Muslim citizens of Delhi if the Hindus and Sikhs were expelled from the cities of Pakistan’.13

The  situation  totally  went  out  of  control  by  October  1947,when Governor General Mountbatten’s chief of staff, Lord Ismay, reported Muslims being ‘systematically hunted down and butchered’ while thousands of them ‘were herded into camps’.14 ‘The  dead  lay  rotting  in  the  streets  because  there  was  no  one  to collect and bury them,’ he wrote.15

Sadiq, his wife, Bano, and their children were among those herded into the old Fort camp—one of the two camps established for Muslim survivors of the post-Partition Delhi massacre. As if that were not enough, a large number of the internally displaced people were put on trains and sent—against their will in many cases—across the  border  following  the  closure  of  the  camps.  The  cross-border journey was the longest most of them had ever undertaken. For many, it also proved to be the last. Mobs on either side waylaid cross-border trains to slaughter desperate refugees fleeing their homes to safety.

Sadiq had little idea about the world beyond Delhi and Meerut, around 50 km away, where his ancestors had settled sometime in the nineteenth century after apparently participating in the 1857 revolt against the British. Pakistan may have been offering great opportunities to well-connected and highly educated refugees needed to man the new state, but the country had little to offer to the likes of Sadiq, a virtually unlettered man who knew and loved India as his only home. An uncertain future for him at home was far better than an undignified existence in a refugee camp thousands of kilometres away in an alien land. Sadiq chose India. It, however, took him and his family years to overcome the trauma of displacement and to get on with their normal lives. For them, Pakistan remains a nutty idea, a so-called homeland for the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims where a significant proportion of them could never have been accommodated. the bitterness of having been uprooted and traumatized due to the ‘whims and fancies of one man’—Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah—passed from Sadiq to my father-in-law, Qadir Ahmed, and then my wife, Qudsiya. They blame Jinnah for sacrificing the future of millions like them on the altar of protecting feudal entitlements of a minuscule landed elites, who were the mainstay of his Muslim League. The bitterness grew every time the family survived communal riots in Meerut, where the family settled in the 1950s. Meerut has been among the worst-hit places in terms of the bouts of anti-Muslim violence that have taken place in India after 1947.

Pakistan has remained a constant thorn in the Indian Muslim side. The RSS has typically portrayed Muslims as the ‘fifth column sympathetic to the state of Pakistan’.16 In his book Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar wrote:

It would be suicidal to delude ourselves into believing that they [Muslims] have turned patriots overnight after the creation of Pakistan. on the contrary, the Muslim menace has increased a hundred-fold by the creation of Pakistan which has become a springboard for all their future     aggressive designs on our country.17

At a meeting in Delhi on 8 December 1947, Golwalkar warned no power on earth could keep Muslims in India and added they should have to quit this country:

If they [Muslims] were made to stay here the responsibility would be the Government’s and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby [our] opponents could be immediately silenced.18

Golwalkar’s followers now rule India and have, of late, been using their legislative powers to incrementally reshape the country as per his vision. Jinnah, however, continues to remain a convenient punching bag; the main villain. His vilification helps my in-laws and many Indian Muslims paper over deeper complexities that may explain the Partition. Jinnah helps them make sense of their marginalization, find easy answers to the violence they face without compromising their loyalty  to  their  country.  This  often  translates  into  sterner aversion to Pakistan than that among other Indians and is driven perhaps by their constant search for acceptance.

The  loathing  is  so  intense  that  my  father-in-law  hit  the  roof when I asked him to fetch my travel documents from Pakistan’s high commission in Delhi. He put his foot down. Nothing doing, he declared. It took a lot of cajoling and my wife’s good offices to have him relent. It may not be a good idea to go, but I must for professional reasons, she reasoned. We were holidaying in Kerala when my Lahore visa was approved. I was scheduled to travel a day after our return from Kerala. The weather was uncertain; there was every chance of smog spoiling my plans. I needed someone to fetch my passport to ensure I made it to Lahore even if I reached Delhi at the last minute.

Credits: Excerpted with permission from The Other side of the divide by Sameer Arshad Khatlani, from Penguin India.

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About the author: Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist with Hindustan Times. He was a senior assistant editor with the Indian Express until June 2018. Born and raised in Kashmir, Khatlani began his career with the now-defunct Bengaluru-based Vijay Times in 2005 as its national affairs correspondent. He joined the Times of India in 2007. Over the next nine years, he was part of the newspaper’s national and international news-gathering team. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan, and covered elections and national disasters. He has a master’s degree in history from Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and is a fellow with the Hawaii-based American East-West Center, which was established by the United States Congress in 1960 to promote better relations with Asian and Pacific countries.

You can also read the author’s interview with Team Kitaab HERE.

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