PAKISTANI ICONOCLAST - An unconventional take on the Partition
He is the world’s most prolific novelist. As of last count, he had written between 163 and 177 novels. The difference arises from the fact that he has created three detectives. Most of his novels have only one detective; but he has written some with two, and some with three. Whether these should be treated as one, two or three novels is a question I have not been able to resolve, because I cannot read Urdu. But it is likely that Bollywood, the inimitable imitator, stole the name of Big Boss from one of his novels. He wears an eight-inch beard. Have you got his name? Ishtiaq Ahmed.
But there is another Ishtiaq Ahmed. He was born Indian, in Lahore in February 1947. He is a graduate of Forman Christian College, Lahore, but early in life, he settled down in Sweden where he went to do a PhD in political science. Now that he has retired, he commutes between Singapore and Lahore. He is currently writing a series in The Friday Times, Pakistan’s most interesting weekly. He has some very unconventional views; some self-appointed patriots may choose to call them unPakistani.
He begins by saying that Partition was unnecessary: a democratic structure could have been worked out to avoid it. This should be anathema to most Pakistanis, for whom the creation of Pakistan is liberation from the yoke of the Hindu majority and attainment of self-rule. He points to the cost of Partition: one or two million people butchered by Hindus and Muslims in frenzy, 14-18 million forced to flee their homes and go and make a home in areas where they had never been before. While some 3 per cent of the Muslims had to leave, all the Hindus and Sikhs in West Pakistan were killed or forced to leave, except for stray Hindus in the villages of Sindh. That was just the beginning; after that India and Pakistan fought three declared and two undeclared wars, and continue to squabble over Kashmir.
His next assertion was news to me: he says that Lord Linlithgow was the originator of Pakistan. In 1940, he called Zafrullah Khan and suggested that the Muslim League should ask for separate Muslim provinces — not quite Pakistan, which came into political discourse only after the end of the war, but the first step towards it.
Then he says that the dire prophecy that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad made was fulfilled. In an interview to Covert magazine in April 1946 — 16 months before Partition — Maulana Azad predicted that the incompetent political leadership of Pakistan would be replaced by a military dictatorship, that it would become heavily indebted and victim of foreign powers’ conspiracies, that it would have conflicts and wars with neighbours, that it would face internal unrest and regional conflicts, that its rich would loot the country and pave the way for a class war, and that its youth would become disenchanted and alienated from religion. He also said that Indian Muslims faced three options: a small minority would migrate to Pakistan, some would be victims of riots, and a good many would give up Islam after facing poverty, political wilderness and regional depredation. He was not right on all points, but many of his prophecies came to pass.
Ishtiaq Ahmed says that Muslim sects are discriminated against in Pakistan, while Hindutwits demonize Muslims as traitors in India, although India’s secular Constitution and laws treat all equally.
He contests the view that the Hindus were a majority and would have crushed the Muslim minority in a united India. The Hindus themselves could not unite; they were divided into upper castes (15-20 per cent), untouchables (22.5 per cent) and middle castes. Muslims were a quarter of the population; then there were Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and so on. The distribution was such that Indians had no alternative to working together.
He conceded that there were class problems — that in the north, landlords were often Hindu, and serfs were Muslim. The latter could borrow from moneylenders who were Muslim, but that was no help. In the 1930s, Sir Chhotu Ram got legislation to write off agricultural debts passed in the Punjab assembly. Partition was justified in Punjab as the triumph of the working class against landlords. But confiscation was the wrong solution to the problem. After the revolt of 1857, Hindus and Sikhs had taken to Western education, while Muslims had shunned it as the handiwork of the British enemy; that is what made a difference to their relative economic condition.
Once World War II began in 1939, India became indispensable to the British, who were determined to put down any opposition. The Congress played into their hands by resigning from all the provincial ministries it controlled in 1939, and launching the Quit India campaign in 1942. The Muslim League continued to administer Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and Northwest Frontier Province and consolidated its hold over them; the wiping out of the Congress there created the preconditions for Partition.
Many Pakistanis argue that Partition was the right solution because Muslims have been discriminated against in India: they are amongst the poorest communities in India, as the Sachar commission showed. But that only proves that Pakistan was no solution for Muslims’ problems. Only 3 per cent of them migrated to Pakistan; the rest were left to their fate in India. Gandhi made the Indian government protect them as best as it could; so did Nehru as long as he lived. But informal discrimination reared its head from the time of Indira Gandhi; only Manmohan Singh has tried to some extent to reverse it.
Ishtiaq Ahmed then asks Pakistanis why, if they are so concerned about the state of their fellow Muslims in India, they do not do something about it. They should open their borders and let in all Muslims who want to go across. Most would not take up the offer because they prefer India’s secular lifestyle to the conformism of Pakistan. But many may go in the belief that a better life awaits them over there. Sindhis would oppose their coming after their experience with Mohajirs (mainly Bihari Muslims who escaped to East Pakistan after Partition and then to Karachi after the creation of Bangladesh).
So — where can Indian Muslims turn? The best they can do is to stay in India; there is no refuge for them in Pakistan. Their best hope would be that “enlightened Indian rulers would protect the Indian Muslims just as Mahatma Gandhi wanted and Nehru tried. I see no other option to this sad legacy of a partitioned India”.
For us in India, Partition is history; no one gives it a second thought. Our Muslims are Indian; while Hindutwits may have some reservations about them, that is all right as long as Hindutwits are a small minority. As long as India is a democracy, religion is not going to become a political problem, although the backwardness of Muslims is an economic problem. That too will fade if India continues to grow fast. It is a shame to grow at 4.2 per cent; I hope the next government will relent on expensive vote buying, and find a key to growth.