Bristling on the Subcontinent | The Nation


Bristling on the Subcontinent

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conflict in Kargil took place in the summer of 1999. It was the
fourth war between India and Pakistan since their emergence as
independent nations in 1947, but this was the first that the two had
fought as nuclear powers. A few months after the cease-fire, Bill
Clinton made a trip, the last official visit of his
presidency to the Indian subcontinent. Before leaving the United
States, he described the region he was about to visit as "the most
dangerous place in the world today."

Around the time of
Clinton's visit to India, a small incident took place in a town
called Marcel, near Goa. An Indian schoolteacher named Dharmanand
Kholkar was assaulted because of a question he had posed on a test.
Kholkar had asked his students to imagine a fictional scenario. An
Indian soldier, injured during the Kargil war, finds himself in a
Pakistani hospital. The soldier is surprised to be alive and asks why
he has been shown such consideration. A Pakistani soldier replies
that they are both soldiers and human beings. Kholkar asked his
students to state the moral of the story.

Angered by this
presentation of the Pakistani soldier in a good light, a mob attacked
Kholkar and blackened his face. The attackers were members of the
Sangh Parivar, the fundamentalist Hindu group close to India's ruling
right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP. This brand of
ultranationalism and sectarian politics has taken root in both India
and Pakistan, a phenomenon explained thusly by the late Eqbal Ahmad
in a book of collected interviews, Confronting Empire: "We are
so-and-so because we are not the Other. We are what we are because we
are different from the West, or from the Muslims, or from the Hindus,
or from the Jews, or from the Christians. It necessarily leads to
extreme distortions."

The distortions that Ahmad is
speaking of are actually part of the official, sanctioned histories.
They claim as casualties not only truth but also the education of
youth in the rival nations when they are taught in schools to hate--a
theme implicit not just in Ahmad's final work but in books by Indian
journalists Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, and the academic Urvashi
Butalia as well, albeit from very different approaches.

Pakistani newspaper reported last year that the objectives enshrined
in the federal curriculum for the education of a 12-year-old child
include the "ability to: 1. understand the Hinduand Muslim
differences and the resultant need for Pakistan; 2. know all about
India's evil designs against Pakistan; 3. acknowledge and identify
forces that may be working against Pakistan; 4. demonstrate by
actions a belief in the fear of Allah; 5. demonstrate the desire to
preserve the ideology, integrity and security of Pakistan; 6. make
speeches on jihad and shahadat; 7. guard against rumor mongers who
spread false news and to stage dramas signifying the evils of rumors;
8. understand the Kashmir problem; 9. collect pictures of policemen,
soldiers and National Guards."

Conversely, in Delhi, a BJP
minister responsible for education declared that history textbooks in
India should be "enthused with national spirit." The minister would
no doubt approve of a text on conversation given to students in
Rajasthan. Its example: "Student: 'Master, what has India achieved by
doing the nuclear tests? Was it a right step?' Teacher: 'Undoubtedly
it was correct, India has achieved a huge success.' Student: 'What
success? Economic sanctions have been slapped on.' Teacher: 'Economic
sanctions do not matter. The country should first become powerful.
Only the powerful are listened to. Now we can talk about world peace

The case of Dharmanand Kholkar and his
crowd-blackened face was on my mind when I went to talk to Indian and
Pakistani schoolchildren recently. I first went to a school in Bihar,
in India, where I had been a student many years ago; then I traveled
to Karachi, where my wife, a Pakistani citizen, had gone to school. I
asked the students in the schools I visited to write letters to those
that they were being taught to think of as enemies.

Patna, a student wrote, "Please be peaceful and love us." Another
student asked, "Why don't you all change the attitude of your mind?
Why don't you all think in a positive way?" In this letter, the
demand for peace was actually an accusation. It found the Pakistanis
solely responsible for war--and for peace. A similar impulse, in
reverse, was at work in a letter written some days later by a student
in Pakistan. That letter began: "Dear Indians, First of all hello!! I
am a Pakistani Muslim and I want to inform you that you are

I laughed when I read some of the letters--in the
absence of any opportunities for dialogue, it would seem that Indians
and Pakistanis haven't even had a chance to abuse each other
properly. There is some official trade between the two countries, as
well as illicit trafficking in music and videocassettes. But the
common people on both sides have been starved of contact. The result
has been ignorance and suspicion as much as hostility. A boy in
Karachi Grammar School raised his hand and asked me, "How did you
convince your wife that you were not the enemy?" And yet, there is a
shared desire for peace. One of the students in Pakistan wrote in her
letter: "Once I went to the Lahore border, where I saw so many Sikhs
on the other side. I waved to them and they also waved back. They
were so friendly."

The border at Wagah, near Lahore, is the
only entry point by road for the whole of approximately 1,250 miles
that make up the length of the India-Pakistan frontier. What the name
Wagah conjures in the minds of many people in the subcontinent is the
memory of the partition, arguably the largest migration in human
history and certainly the bloodiest. The trains, laden with corpses,
crossed the border at Wagah in 1947. It was also past places like
Wagah that the sinuous human columns had passed on foot: The longest
of these bedraggled columns is said to have consisted of 400,000
people. That procession of the displaced took as many as eight days
to cross a given spot.

The partition is the bloody
underside of independence. It is the name for the division of British
India into two independent nations, one Muslim and the other secular
but predominantly Hindu. It is also the name of the riots and rape
and slaughter that accompanied that division. It is the story of the
people who, just as they were told they were free, also learned that
they had lost their homes. They were now living in a country where,
on account of their religion, they did not belong. The partition was
marked by many tragic ironies. One of them was that the new borders
were lines drawn by a hastily summoned British official, Cyril
Radcliffe, who, writes one contemporary writer, "knew nothing about
India other than the five perspiring weeks he spent

The horror of the partition and even its dark
ironies have long been the concern of writers in the subcontinent,
beginning with names like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai,
Qurratulain Hyder, Khushwant Singh and others. Despite the currency
of contemporary Indian writing in the West--fueled by a migration of
Indians to cities like London and New York--it is the earlier
migration of writers, from India to Pakistan and vice versa, that
gave birth to independent India's first wave of vital writing. At
their best, the writers of the partition threw into crisis the claims
of the nation-state; they raised questions about the relation to the
broader world of the men and women living inside the new nations'
boundaries. Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence seeks
a place in that older, somewhat forgotten, canon.

50,000 Muslim women and an estimated 35,000 Hindu and Sikh women are
believed to have been abducted during the partition. Where are their
voices in the annals of nationalist historiography? Butalia is a
pioneer in feminist publishing in India. She is especially alert to
the presence--and absence--of marginal voices. Her book, a collection
of oral narratives of the survivors of partition, is supplemented by
meditations on the limits of conventional history. Although its more
academic sections lack the raw power of many of the oral narratives,
and sometimes seem a bit repetitive, the study of popular
interpretations of violence as well as the persistence of memory
makes this book a critical, self-reflective work. It may seem
paradoxical, but the book's freshness comes also from the fact that
it examines wounds that have festered for more than fifty

"To understand what happened in Kargil you have to
go back half a century, to the colossal and premature sundering of
the subcontinent known as Partition," writes Suketu Mehta in his
essay "A Fatal Love." He adds: "The men who killed each other over
Tiger Hill and Drass and Batalik were dealing with the unfinished
business of Partition."

The unresolved issues of the past
in India are locked in the pain of the partition. In Pakistan,
however, the division doesn't loom quite so large. There, despite the
upheaval, there was also the creation of a new identity and a new
nation. Nevertheless, the past as "unfinished business" in Pakistan
can be swiftly conjured with another name. That name is

In one of the letters I brought back with me from
Karachi, a student wrote: "Kashmir is a Muslim majority province and
India promised that they will occupy Kashmir for some period...but
they betrayed. Can't they see the Kashmiri mothers bitterly crying
before their children's dead bodies?" There were similar passages in
other letters, written in a language borrowed from Pakistani news
reports. One letter, although it didn't take into account the wishes
of the Kashmiri people themselves, took a creative step toward peace:
"I wrote a poem sometime before in which I put forth the idea that
just as our parents and teachers have told us that sharing is a very
good habit, why can't India and Pakistan share Kashmir and make it a
place to visit for everyone?"

One is never far away from
the possibility of sharing, and more important, from the struggle for
peace, when reading the words of Eqbal Ahmad in Confronting
Like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Ahmad was a great
teacher and a luminary of the academic left in the United States. The
collected interviews range over all the passions that filled his
politics--his voice moves effortlessly from the demands of peace in
the Middle East to revolutionary poetry, and from the politics of
Islam to offering career advice to V.S. Naipaul.

As a
child, Ahmad met Gandhi. In the 1960s, he joined the National
Liberation Front and worked with Frantz Fanon in Algeria; later, in
America, he opposed the Vietnam War and was indicted with the
Berrigan brothers on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger.
(The charges were dismissed.) Ahmad was also engaged in conversations
with Yasir Arafat and other members of the PLO; Edward Said, who was
responsible for this alliance, describes Ahmad as a "genius at
sympathy." When he died in Islamabad in 1999, just days before the
Kargil war broke out, he was working to establish an independent,
alternative university in Pakistan.

Ahmad was still a boy
during the partition in 1947. His family had been living in their
ancestral village in Bihar, India, and Ahmad was witness to his
father's murder as he lay beside him in bed. In the company of his
elder brothers, Ahmad then migrated to Pakistan. Their mother,
however, stayed behind in India; Ahmad would not see her again until
1972, when she was on her deathbed, too ill to speak.

often thought of Ahmad while reading the letters of the Indian and
Pakistani schoolchildren. In Confronting Empire, Ahmad, in
conversation with well-known radio activist David Barsamian, returns
again and again to the divisions erected by nationalism. His critique
is against the embrace of Western-style nationalism--often by those
who fought so hard against Western imperialism. It is his readiness
to distance himself from the nationalist desire for possessing
disputed territories that allows him to recommend that Kashmir serve
"as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and

Ahmad's proposal is that the part of Kashmir
under Pakistani control should be left as it is; Jammu and Ladakh,
which do not share the premises of Kashmiri nationalism, should
remain a part of India; the valley of Kashmir, where a ten-year-old
uprising continues today, should be given independence. More
radically, Ahmad envisioned a unified Kashmir with divided
sovereignty. There would be no more lines of control and border
patrols, and the ruling entities would be jointly responsible for
defense. Ahmad concludes by saying, "In fact, the longer we delay
normalization of relations between India and Pakistan and the
resolution of the Kashmir conflict, the more we are creating an
environment for the spread of Islamic and Hindu

The nuclearization of the subcontinent earns
Ahmad's denunciation as well: "We are living in modern times
throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds," as he
put it. At the same time, he was also able to see very clearly that
this is not happening without protest. He pointed out, "In Calcutta,
250,000 people came out against nuclear weapons. In Delhi, 30,000."
It is precisely this critical stance--what Gramsci called "the
pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"--that animates
the pages of Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik's New Nukes, a
public account of the real costs of nuclearization. In their powerful
book, the authors note that the Kargil conflict cost India $2.5
billion in direct economic expenses. Hundreds of soldiers on both
sides came back in body bags. If patrolling is now increased around
Kargil, that region will become another Siachen--the Himalayan
glacier where India and Pakistan have lost more than 10,000 troops
since 1984 and spend more than $10 million on patrolling each day.
(All of this, as Bidwai and Vanaik rightly point out, in two of the
world's poorest societies.)

Both Bidwai and Vanaik are
respected Indian journalists and veteran peace activists; they
perceive very clearly the systemic implications of nuclearism,
including the growth of religious fundamentalism in both countries.
Other heavy social costs include revivified militarism and male
supremacy; the growth of media manipulation and intolerance; the
suppression of debate and dissent. But while charting in historical
detail India's and Pakistan's descent into the nuclear club, Bidwai
and Vanaik also note the growth of movements for peace since the
mid-1990s. These have been in the main people's movements, with
particular contribution by South Asian feminists who have "a strong
awareness of the connections between nuclearism and patriarchy, and
between militarism and suppression of women's rights." According to
Bidwai and Vanaik, only two months after the May 1998 nuclear tests
in India, 72.8 percent of the people polled there opposed the
manufacture and use of nuclear weapons.

New Nukes is
a comprehensive handbook on nuclear deterrence. Using India and
Pakistan as its immediate context, it maps a global history of
nuclearization. The book is very distinctively a view from the South,
with a stringent critique of the cold war era as well as of the role
of the United States and Western imperialism. It should also be added
that Bidwai and Vanaik represent a departure from the Indian,
specifically Gandhian, strains of pacificism. That earlier form of
appeal for nonviolence was content to call for peace in the abstract;
the programmatic, interconnected plans that are at the heart of the
analyses in New Nukes make peace a part of a process that is
less spiritual and more political. After all, the authors stress,
"Indian and Pakistani leaders exchanged direct or indirect nuclear
threats no less than thirteen times in just five weeks during the
Kargil crisis." In fact--and this is their crucial assertion--Kargil
"dramatically highlighted South Asia as the most likely place in the
world for a nuclear exchange to take place."

Once again I
return to the students, from across all classes, whom I met in India
and Pakistan. How many of them can remain in school in a nuclearized
subcontinent? What is the future into which they will grow? According
to Bidwai and Vanaik, after the nuclear tests, "India's education
ministry quietly decided to slow down the program to universalize
primary education, even as the government raised the military
spending allocation by fourteen percent." Which make the voices of
Ahmad and the writers of the partition collected by Butalia all the
more important--and, sadly, plaintive.

As Arundhati Roy
writes in her introduction to New Nukes (an essay that
appeared in The Nation on September 28, 1998): "Making bombs
will only destroy us. It doesn't matter whether we use them or
not.... India's nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling
class that has failed its people. However many garlands we heap on
our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth
is that it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million

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