Bristling on the Subcontinent

Bristling on the Subcontinent


The 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.

A 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 aggressively.'”

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.

In 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 liars.”

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 there.”

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.

About 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 years.

“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 Kashmir.

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 Empire. 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.

I 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 Pakistan.”

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 militancy.”

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 people.”

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