Can't a Pakistani and Indian live in harmony? We used to...

Religion has always been one of the essential ingredients of our identity, but it was never the only one.

Asma Khan Lone November 29, 2013
Like most Pakistani’s, I too experienced an overload of nationalistic fervour when I left Pakistan and that too for India. India evoked a psychological barrier and conjured the dreaded feeling of being ‘the other’ even though I had spent my formative years away from the jingoistic identity formation of the Zia years and had been brought up with the tolerant outlook of my parents (although my Kashmiri father did have staunch nationalist ideals).

In hindsight, it was a sad, instinctive conditioning.

I remember our Indian neighbours in the UK, where I spent most of my childhood, and despite the exchange of formal pleasantries between our elders, the children hardly interacted together. However, both communities ganged up against the ‘gora’ supremacy, in school and otherwise. It definitely was not religion that divided us (at least not back then) and I fondly remember my cousin’s neighbourhood in Karachi that had a healthy sprinkling of Hindus, Christians and Parsis and we all played together – completely oblivious to the division of religion.

Rather than religion, the reticence towards each other was more the result of the respective national identity building and historical hang-over, both real and imaginary, that each side bore.

The first thing that struck me in Delhi was that partition had been as catastrophic for ‘them’ as it was for ‘us’. It was a mutual wound, yet both sides were unmindful of its impact on the other, each feeling that they had been violated more. It was akin to the holocaust when millions were forced to leave their homes, their livelihoods and their way of life, the only one they knew of, and migrate to an alien existence. Unlike those who migrated to Pakistan in the pursuit of a new dawn and hope, these people stepped out into the unknown along with the insecurities and instabilities that came along.

While the journey for those migrating to Pakistan had been painful and demanded huge sacrifices, it was voluntary and the result of a conscious choice, driven by a zeal for their new homeland. On the other hand, for those migrating in the opposite direction it was an ugly imposition. Without going into the ideological and historical events of the division, it was and remains an emotional tragedy for the migrants to India; a rupture that they have not quite come to terms with.

Most of the people that one comes across, in Delhi, have antecedents tracing to Lahore and hence, along with being the political capital of India, Delhi exhibits the most rigidity concerning relations with Pakistan, especially in comparison to the rest of India.

Like Pakistani’s they too are victims of a one-sided and faulty historical orientation.

The second thing that struck me was that Indian youth exuded hope, resilience and drive underlined by pride in their national existence, quite unlike the youth of Pakistan. Although most of us in Pakistan exhibit the first three characteristics – an aspect repeatedly verified by the accolades we receive on various fora internationally – we have somehow failed to associate it with our national moorings.

Not that we do not love our country enough. In fact, successive generations seem to have a heightened sense of awareness and attachment with their national identity but the failures of successive governments have eroded our hope and failed to evoke faith and inspiration in our polity.

Now, compare this to the emerging economic powerhouse that India has been dubbed as, the ‘soft power’ that it exports through its culture, the position that it is globally acquiring through its skilled human resource – be it in the Silicon Valley or the financial empires of the Mittals or Ambani’s; the literary acknowledgement through the Pulitzer and Booker awards, the academic laurels of Nobel Memorial prizes or even the titles of international beauty pageants.

There is no doubt that India flaunts a rising curve.

Although the cause of much of the euphoria in India was real, much of it was inflated too. I recall reading a commentary somewhere about how India is like the US; self -confident and with a brimming sense of self-importance, whereas, Pakistan is like Britain, self-critical and self-effacing.

Whether real or imagine, the resultant ‘middle kingdom’ syndrome had however, raised the bar for India and especially for its youth. On the other hand, we only have narratives of missed opportunities and false dawns to cling on to. Reflecting upon the exuberance of the Indian youth, I often found myself wondering if they could do it, why couldn’t we.

After all, failures only whet ones appetite for excellence.

It was these series of seemingly non-descript monologues that went a long way in re-kindling my own drive as an individual and in my hope as a Pakistani.

It was in India that I acquired insights into the complex intricacies of human bonds and identity. Despite the ideological or intellectual barriers I faced in Delhi, I did manage to develop a certain bond with the city. In spite of seemingly socio-political anomalies of my association with India, there was a certain association developing. At the core of this new intimacy lay the relationships and interaction that form the basis of human existence.

Although there were a couple of Muslim families in our neighbourhood, they mostly kept away in apprehension of the fallout of my Pakistani antecedents and my husband’s Kashmiri roots in an increasingly jittery India. My husband was based in Kashmir while my kids and I were stationed in Delhi for most of the winters. Increasingly, I found support in my non-Muslim neighbours and friends.

From facing day-to-day challenges of settling into a new place, to helping out in times of crisis like needing medical attention or being stuck in another part of the city while my child was stranded in school, these neighbours invariably came to my rescue. It was then that I started understanding that the essence of human relationships transcends compartmentalised religiosity or even geography, and is based on basic human instincts of goodness.

I was not alone in this new-found realisation.

My Hindu Indian friends also came to know of the shared humanity of people across the border in spite of the religion they professed. For many of them, I was the first Muslim and Pakistani that they had met.

Of course, the regular India-Pakistan wrangling continued, sometimes in the most basic forms with my kids and their friends not talking to each other every time Pakistan beat India or vice versa.

However, for every down I faced, it was redeemed by a high – be it the wishing of ‘Independence Day’ to my kids on August 14 in the school assembly by the principal, or a fellow Facebook activist profusely apologising to me on behalf of a Kashmiri Pandit for his untoward remarks as we slugged it out on a Facebook page ‘promoting’ Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit harmony.

Aside from these ideological confrontations, I noticed that my kids gravitated the most towards their Kashmiri Pandit classmates in school. This made me wonder about the place that culture occupied in one’s identity and especially, what we had made of it in Pakistan.

Why have we not been able to construct a more diversified understanding of our identity, rather than rushing into a homogenised religious interpretation?

Although religion was one of the essential ingredients of our identity, it was not the only one. Denying our cultural roots, we thus stood exposed to a cultural hegemony of which the Bollywood faces on our billboards are just an optic insinuation.

On a positive note, however, the Pakistani ‘lawn wars’ have arrived in India, despite all the obstacles. A manifestation of our ‘soft power’, it represents both the vigour of our indigenous culture as well as being a preview of what can be in store if only we have the determination to do so.

Asma Khan Lone A Pakistani of Kashmiri descent based in Srinagar. She holds a Post-graduate degree in International Relations from the University of Cambridge.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.