Indian and Pakistanis cannot forget common roots

5th October 1997
Hindustan Times
By: Shyamala Shiveshwarkar

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan may spar at international forums. Guns amy boom across the border, but among the people of the two nations, there is quiet movement to reach out and understand each other. They are doing it through poetry, music, art, film festivals and the sort of dialogue that was organised last week by the Indian International Centre and a city gallery. It brought together academicians, artists, students and the curious from both countries to think awhile and talk about their shared histories. Each experience was personal, each concern different.

What rankles in Ram Gandhi's mind still is that the British chose the word partition and not division, "which was what they were doing".

Shahid Amin recalled how it was their Muslim ablution vessel with a peculiar spout that revealed his family's identity to their neighbours when they moved to Delhi in 1957. Even now when he is asked to name his caste he says that he is a Muslim. The reply more often than not is 'aap laghte tho nehi'!

Contradictions are of course, inevitable when people who were of one nation, one culture and one heritage till the turn of the century, start to see their history through different coloured glasses. "If there was no partition, would we think differently?" wondered Karamat Ali, a Pakistani citizen. He suggested that the people of the sub continent put this terrible experience behind them and develop a new identity on the basis of shared histories. Karamat remembers while growing up of being repeatedly told that India was the enemy. "By 1971 and the Bangladesh war, I realised there were other enemies, and when the fissures surfaced in Sind and Baluchistan, I realised that the State was the enemy of the people." Karamat is now married to an Indian, and his son is an Indian citizen who, in state parlance, "are my enemies".

Iftikar Dadi, a Pakistani artist however felt that it would be unfair to balme the State. "Stereotypes are created once you encounter the other. But there is no black and white. All Indians are not liberal, all mullahs are not fundamentalists, nor for that matter is there any state in the world that is completely secular."

Sudhir Kakkar explained that while "visual culture was important in the construction of identity, a community's identity was really a twisted story of its ironies, tragedies, and traumas. Whether a Hindu or Muslim story, they are inter-twined and in fact need the other story as part of their ongoing story. Of course, all stories are not good stories. But then is there not a need for enemies as for friends?" he asked while suggesting that our shared history should now prompt us to work towards a common future.

So how do we inherit this shared history, one that is marked by fear and hatred, one that we can't seem to get rid off, asked Veena Das. To her mind it takes courage to inherit a history that is not sanitised. Perhaps, as Sudhir Kakkar pointed out, "much mattered on how each generation saw it. For those who were witness and participants, the experience is bound to be more internalised, but with the passing of time a certain indifference creeps in which, in this case, may be a good thing."

For Naila, a young Pakistani, growing up in the Sixties in Pakistan meant common tastes and fancies. "Amitabh Bachchan was also our hero, but the government and the media projected an India that was our enemy. It was part of the subconscience of my generation which developed, not from personal contact, but from peripheral experiences like TV, films, the media and what the State wanted us to believe. Now in Delhi on a visit, I find that our conceptions are so different from relaity. Delhi is no different from Lahore. The weather is the same and so is the foliage. Even the body language is the same and I don't feel I am in a foreign country. But there is a difference, one I cannot pinpoint."

So, where do we go from here? Earlier in the evening, an Indian artiste Sheeba Chhachi, using the analogy of the Siamese twins, had reflected on the nature of all that which separates; borders, lines of control, fences, the walls of cells, and on the tangible and intangible exchanges that takes place across separators, between nations and religions divided by a political hsitory. The "two-ness", she felt, "was as inescapable as the one-ness. So what was the answer? Is it surgery which entails the sacrifice of connectedness, or the incorporation of one into another, an integrated whole which would require the sacrifice of separated-ness?

Border lines in the minds disappeared that evening.

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