By Kulmeet Singh
(Friday Times, Lahore - February 1-7, 2002)
The partition of British India was really the partition of the Punjab. No wonder a poet from Jhang, in the heart of Pakistani Punjab, bemoans the loss of beauty. In exchange for vultures, he says, which could be a metaphor for death, uniformity and ugliness, Punjab had to part with much of its culture, and so many of its people, including so many graceful maidens. A Punjabi Muslim woman, also from Jhang, shared this couplet with me, as she lamented the loss of diversity in partitioned Punjab.
Even from my limited personal experience, I can claim to appreciate diversity. I was born in Connecticut, grew up in Cambridge, Delhi, and Rochester, where I went to a Catholic school, and then studied at universities in the south side of Chicago and Harlem in New York. I betray all sorts of influences, including Puritan, Catholic, Sikh, American, Punjabi and probably many others that I don’t even know about, or wish to acknowledge. All these diverse influences have shaped me and enriched my life, and I’d like to think made me less likely to hate and more likely to appreciate Guru Nanak’s sentiment: “He created the world, in its various colours, and watches over it with pleasure.”
Hate and terror in this world cannot be combated with armies alone. For terror, including state terror, breeds terror. Each one of us must contribute to breaking down barriers of ignorance. Following September 11, I found myself in Pakistan trying to do just that, as I sought to understand and connect with a people who I am supposed to dislike and fear.
have always wanted to visit Pakistan because it is a treasure house of historical sites that range from the prehistoric Mohenjodaro to the Sikh kingdom in the nineteenth century. Archaeological sites, artefacts, monuments, and even old trees offer me a deeper and more intuitive, almost poetic, sense of history that I can’t find in history books. At monuments that commemorate the Sikh Gurus or Sufi saints, especially if they preserve their historicity, I often feel a mystical connection to my past. When the British divided India in 1947, most of Punjab became a part of Pakistan, leaving only a small part under India’s control. My interest in history therefore, was bound to take me, in a homecoming of sorts, to Pakistan.
My travel plans evoked reactions ranging from genuine concern to indignant criticism. My mother, anxious about the war in Afghanistan, asked me, “Is this the best time to visit Pakistan?” A Sikh in Chicago suggested that I had a death wish and coldly remarked with sarcasm, “Why don’t you just go to Kabul?” A close friend and partner at work couched his disapproval in jest, “I guess we are going to have to look for a new CEO.” An uncle from India turned to me wide-eyed with shock, “Pakistan! Pakistan! Are you nuts? Why would you ever go to Pakistan?”
This attitude towards Pakistan among my friends in America did not completely surprise me, based as it is on misinformation from a less than benevolent media.
My Indian friends however, reveal an even more irrational animosity. The roots of this dilemma lie in British-India’s partition. India’s politicians and educationists have created tension, which an unabashedly jingoistic media has nurtured into outright hatred. Even India’s children have not been spared this deluge. On previous visits to India, I have heard bizarre comments from young Sikh children, in upper-middle-class families in New Delhi and in villages in backward parts of Punjab, telling me how “Muslims are bad people” and “Pakistan is a bad country.” And so, I went to meet the “enemy.” I flew to India, and after a couple of days in the Punjab, I crossed into Pakistan by road at the Wagah-border-crossing near Amritsar (this was before the December attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi).
I could not have imagined what I found in Pakistan. As I drove to Lahore from the border, I noticed how similar the journey was to my drive from Amritsar to Wagah. I saw the same people, wearing similar clothes. Street-hawkers in Lahore yelled out the same rhythmic calls that I have heard in Patiala. At intersections, beggars pathetically importune cars just as they do in Amritsar. The stare, inquisitive, defiant, and almost rude, is just as prevalent among Punjabi villagers in Pakistan, as among Punjabis in India. I noticed more in common between the people of Amritsar and Lahore, than the people of Amritsar and Delhi. Clearly the river Jamna that flows near Delhi would make a much more natural and sensible line, if at all a line on a map is needed to divide people.
My interactions with a whole range of Pakistanis over the next seven days only reinforced this initial impression. I sought out journalists, politicians, academics, artists, writers, anyone who could give me a sense of what it means to be Pakistani, Punjabi and Muslim. My host, whom I would characterise as a visionary and a Renaissance man, aside from running a range of manufacturing businesses, is involved in environmental protection, patronage of the arts, training teachers, running clinics, building a university, and a whole host of other endeavours that I did not get a chance to learn about. His fondest memories are of a united Punjab, and one of his closest friends is a Sikh, who he has kept in touch with despite the partition.
Among the others who contributed to my experience and education were an architect, a leading playwright, a physician, editors of newspapers, an author and art collector, a museum curator, a bureaucrat-turned-political scientist, university professors and their students, land owners, politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and my constant companions: a newspaper columnist who is also a Punjabi academic, and my chauffeur. Not all, but several of these people were secure enough in their identity—Pakistani, Punjabi or Muslim—so that they were able to look at themselves, their faith and their country, critically.
From my perusal of the press in Lahore, I got the distinct impression that there is more courageous self-evaluation in Pakistan than in India. Despite being a military state, I read pieces criticising the regime in a way that one rarely sees in “democratic” India’s mainstream press. (South Indian newspapers such as The Hindu are a noteworthy exception). I would therefore bet that Pakistan is more likely to go against the grain to find meaningful solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of peace in the subcontinent.
That peace should be so important to so many people in Pakistan should be surprising to many in the West and in India. For an Islamic country, a term that has unfortunately come to mean intolerant, brutal and belligerent, I met many people who were liberal in their faith, irreverent towards authority, cynical about unhealthy political institutions and sceptical about the media. One columnist whom I lunched with, was so spirited about reconciliation in the sub-continent that his courage and idealism almost made him naive to the influence that neo-fascist organisations like the RSS wield in India. One of the RSS’s founding principles, the restoration of Akhand Bharat, a ‘complete’ India that stretches from the Indus to Ceylon, would obliterate Pakistan. But if there are narrow-minded religious fanatics out there, I suppose this world can do with a few blinkered champions of peace and tolerance.
I could not chronicle my trip without noting my impressions about Islam, which in Pakistan has many faces. The most noteworthy of these faces were those of the women. On the streets of Lahore, I was surprised to see few women were wearing the hijab . They were all over the place, driving cars, in schools and colleges, on the streets, and in the stores. However, I did not see as many in the offices I visited, compared to India.
Even though I could discern the influence of a literalist Islam, for the most part, the Muslims I met seemed no different from the Christians I meet in Chicago. I am sure many of them are observant Christians, and perhaps even fundamentalist, but it did not affect their interaction with me. However, I did see many more people praying in public than I do in America. They were mostly from the lower economic classes. This was true when it came to Ramadan fasting too. The chauffeurs and the help all seemed to fast, while this was not as true amongst the more affluent middle and upper-middle classes.
Most people in Pakistan, irrespective of their interpretation of Islam and whether they themselves fasted, acknowledged or participated in Ramadan. This seemed to be an extraordinarily unifying moment of abstinence. The cycle of life in the city revolved around the time when the fast began, and when it was broken in the evening. I fasted on a couple of days to be a part of this experience. It clearly breeds a sense of discipline, and if the ritual contributes to abstinence from indulgence, especially in anger, greed, intolerance and hate, then the practice makes a lot of sense. The first Sikh Master, Guru Nanak, exhorts, “A true Muslim’s fast is represented in good conduct.” Ramadan also became a convenient way for me to evade the excessive element of local hospitality. Given the number of people I met, I could potentially have overdosed on tea, sweets and all the trimmings of a Punjabi welcome.
A strong progressive interpretation of Islam is alive and well in Pakistan. This interpretation is best exemplified by the Sufi tradition, which embraces poetry, music and art. It is no wonder that some of the greatest poets, classical musicians and artisans in the sub-continent have been Muslim. Much of the art work in Sikh gurdwaras was done by Muslim artisans. Until partition, some of the best exponents of the Sikh classical tradition of music, who sang in the sanctum sanctorum at Amritsar, were Muslim rababees . Since partition, some of the vitality of the Sufi tradition has eroded partly because Sufism thrived by interacting with other faiths, and partly because some Pakistani regimes have encouraged more orthodox traditions of Islam.
Still, partition has not compelled Pakistan to root out all Hindu and Sikh influences, as India seems obsessed with erasing its entire Islamic and “foreign” history. From momentously fearful acts such as tearing down mosques, to the petty xenophobia of renaming streets, cities and buildings that bear “foreign” names, India, especially after right-wing Hindus have taken the reigns of power, shows signs of neo-fascist paranoia. Bombay has become Mumbai, Calcutta Kolkatta, and Madras Chennai. Street names all over the country that have Muslim or British names are being replaced with Aryan or Sanskrit names. I was pleasantly surprised to find Krishan Nagar, Tagore Park, and several other Hindu names still intact in Pakistan.
I also met several Pakistani Punjabis who became almost melancholy about the partition of the Punjab. One lady, who reflected the attitude of the pre-partition generation, felt that Punjab lost out, especially since so many died and that Punjabi culture suffered a tremendous loss as a result of old friendships being severed, an ecumenical environment being ruined, and the Punjabi language being lost to Hindi and Urdu. Interestingly, she defined herself as a Punjabi first, a Pakistani second and a Muslim third. I think that because of partition, Punjab has become more Muslim in Pakistan, and more Sikh in India. A unified Punjab would probably have been more liberal as far as religion was concerned. The language would have flourished, and art and music would have thrived.
I left Pakistan with the realisation that for generations Sikhs and Muslims had lived together, and now they are less than a few miles away. Yet, after partition the distance between the Sikhs and Muslims of the Punjab has become a yawning chasm. Many young Pakistanis I met were clueless not only about partition, but also about the Sikhs. I was disappointed at their lack of inquisitiveness, a lack I have seen among young Indians too. This might be because education in South Asia relies more heavily on rote memorisation than on cultivating conceptual understanding and a passion for knowledge. Even though Pakistan is dotted with Sikh monuments, and a major part of Lahore and Punjab’s history is deeply entwined with the Sikhs, Pakistani students are largely ignorant about this part of their Punjabi heritage. I was also dismayed at my Pakistani hosts who lit up cigarettes in front of me or graciously offered me halal meat unmindful of the Sikh anathema for tobacco and sacrificial meat. I hope a Sikh would never present his Muslim guest with a pork chop.
One young Pakistani, refreshing in her honesty, admitted that aside from a fleeting mention of Guru Nanak in her high school text book, the only other time Sikhs are ever mentioned in her circle is to mock someone. “ Sikha(n) vali gal na kar ,” which means “Don’t be [foolish] like a Sikh.” I was puzzled by this derision, and a Pakistani scholar offered a plausible explanation. Most young Pakistanis form their opinions about Sikhs not from the Sikhs who live in Pakistan but from Indian television and movies. And the Indian media deliberately and purposefully portrays Sikhs primarily as clowns or fools.
That India has quietly conquered Pakistan through its media was probably the most disappointing realisation I had on my trip. I was horrified to see the tasteless and uncreative productions from Bollywood, representing the worst of Indian media dominating Pakistan’s televisions. The Arthshastra , a Hindu text that is in the vein of Machiavelli’s “Prince”, discusses the use of entertainment by a ruler to keep the masses in line. India certainly seems to be numbing Pakistanis through its movies and television.
Sikhs from the Diaspora and Pakistani Muslims, especially those from the Punjab, have a unique opportunity to draw upon their shared cultural and spiritual heritage to rebuild their historic relationship. At present, there is a high degree of mistrust between Pakistan and India. It is not likely that things are going to change any time soon, especially with the right-wing Hindu parties exercising so much influence on Indian politics. Pakistan is naturally quite suspicious of India, and consequently of Indian Sikhs, who India cleverly uses in all its military campaigns against Pakistan. Three million Sikhs in the Diaspora, however, retain a connection with India only to the extent they have family or property in Punjab. Many of them are estranged from India because of India’s brutal oppression of the Sikhs in the eighties and nineties. Sikhs who are American or Canadian find it deeply offensive that the Indian constitution should legislate that Sikhs are Hindus. The Pakistani security establishment, therefore, might not view Sikhs from the Diaspora askance, allowing them to interact more freely with Pakistanis.
Diaspora Sikhs and Pakistani Punjabis can take the first steps towards what might be a road to peace in the sub-continent. Any such relationship, however, should not be based on any common aversion of India. Sikhs and Muslims have a heritage to draw upon to build a healthy nexus. Punjabi literature and the Sufi tradition are strong common pillars for both communities. This should be the foundation for any Sikh-Muslim nexus in Punjab. Arnold Toynbee in his landmark work, “A History of the World”, discusses the role “creative minorities” can play in altering the course of history. A small group of Pakistani and Sikh Punjabis may be such a creative minority that alters the course of South Asian history, and brings the smile back to the dejected poet from Jhang.