Never encountered people as gracious as in Pakistan

In this extract from Harsh Mander’s book, <i>Partitions of the Heart</i>, the former bureaucrat and activist points out the absurdity of having to show one’s love for India by hating Pakistan

Never encountered people as gracious as in Pakistan

Harsh Mander

The ‘nationalist’ duty to demonstrate your love for your nation, in the Hindutva doctrine, requires the ultimate litmus test of hating. This obligation to hate in order to establish that you love is part of a recurring binary.

I can be a proud Hindu only if I hate Muslims. I can love the cow only if I am willing to pulverise all those who I believe do not. I can love India only if I noisily hate Pakistan.

Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply devout practising Hindu, refused to accept the binary that he must hate Muslims. On the contrary, he said that Hindus and Muslims were like his two eyes. He lived for many convictions, but died in the end for Hindu–Muslim unity.

I was speaking in a literature festival in Dehradun on a panel on nationalism with writer Nayantara Sahgal. She said at one point, ‘But I am half-Muslim.’ We were surprised, because we knew that her father was a freedom fighter Ranjit Sitaram Pandit who died in 1944 in Lucknow prison; and her mother Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was Motilal Nehru’s daughter and sister of Jawaharlal Nehru.

She went on to explain. ‘I was raised in Awadh. Half the food we ate, our music, poetry, dance,literature, all had Islamic origins. In that sense, I am half-Muslim.’

On the same panel, human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar recalled that when she was around nine, her younger sister asked her mother, ‘Am I Hindu or Muslim?’ Her mother’s spontaneous reply was: ‘Aisa vahiyat sawaal kyon pooch rahi ho? (Why are you asking such a worthless question?)’

In the Hindutva nationalist world view, the good Muslim is loyal to India and respects Hindu values. But such Muslims, they are convinced, constitute a small minority. The bad Muslim lives in India, is contemptuous of Hindu scriptures and sentiments, and his (or her) heart beats for Pakistan.

Pakistan unsurprisingly surfaces in every election campaign that the BJP runs, which always has communal overtones. In Modi’s Gujarat, posters of Pakistan president were pasted on walls, and election speeches charged that a victory for the Congress would be celebrated in Pakistan (presumably because the Congress is partial to the state’s Muslims, and the Muslims are loyal to Pakistan).

In the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017, hoardings appeared lauding India’s military action called ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist enclaves on Pakistani soil.

The obligation to hate Pakistan to prove your love for India sometimes assumes almost comical proportions. As India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar claimed that going to Pakistan and going to hell are the same thing, Kannada actor Divya Spandana tweeted in response, ‘I respectfully disagree. Pakistan is not hell, people there are just like us.’ She was booked for the crime of sedition, no less!

This arraignment of sedition against the actor spurred me to write an article. It was titled #Sedition: This Why I Believe Pakistanis are the Most Gracious People in the World’.

I wrote: My mother was forced to leave behind the city of her birth, Rawalpindi, when she was just 18 years, because of the tumultuous ruptures of Partition. She had never returned.

When she was to turn 75 years, I thought the best gift I could give her was to take her, if it was at all possible, to the city, and if possible to the home, in which she was born.

I emailed my friends in Pakistan tentatively with my plan. They were immediately very welcoming. ‘Just get her visa, leave the rest to us’, they said. I applied for visas for my parents and the rest of my family. It seemed then a small miracle that we got these easily. I booked our flight tickets, and before long we were on our way.

Our flight landed at Lahore, and our friends drove us from the airport to their home in Islamabad. I noticed that my mother was initially a little tense. Maybe it was memories of the violence of her exile; maybe it was just the idea that this was now a foreign land, and for many in India the enemy land.

I watched my mother gradually relax even on the road journey to Islamabad, as she delighted in hearing my friends and the car driver speak the Punjabi of her childhood and she watched the altered landscape of her journey. Islamabad of course did not exist when she lived in the Punjab of her days.

In Islamabad, my friends invited to their homes many of their associates with their parents. They organised evenings of Punjabi poetry and music, which my parents relished. Our friends drove us to Marri, the hill-station in which my mother had spent many pleasant summers as a child. My mother had just one more request. Could she go to see the colony where she was born and spent her childhood in Rawalpindi? My father wanted to also visit his college, the famous Gordon College in Rawalpindi.

She recalled the name of the residential colony in which they lived was called Gawal Mandi. My friends knew it well; it was now an upmarket upper middle-class enclave. When we reached there, my mother tried to locate the house of her childhood. It seemed impossible. Everything was new: most of the old houses had been rebuilt and opulent new structures had come up in their place. She located the building that had housed their gurudwara. It had now been converted into a health-centre.

But we had almost despaired of actually finding her childhood house. We doubted if it was even standing all these years later. We were leaving when suddenly my mother pointed to the filigree or jafri work on the balconies of one of the old houses.

‘I remember it because my father was very proud of the designs. He said there was none like it in the neighbourhood.’

Taking a chance, we knocked tentatively at the door of the house. A middle-aged man opened the latch, and asked us who we wanted to meet. My mother said apologetically, ‘We are so sorry to trouble you, and intrude suddenly in this way. But I lived as a child in Gawal Mandi, before Partition, when we had to leave for India. I think this maybe was our home.’

The house-owner’s response was spontaneous and immediate. ‘Mataji, why do you say that this was your home? It continues to be your home even today. You are most welcome’. And he led us all in. Before long, my mother confirmed that this was indeed her childhood home. She went from room to room, and then to the terrace, almost in a trance, recalling all the while fragments of her childhood memories in various corners of this house.

For months after we returned to Delhi, she would tell me that recollections of the house returned to her in her dreams.

Half an hour later, we thanked the house-owners and said that we would be on our way. But they would not hear of it. ‘You have come to your childhood home, then how can we let you go without you having a meal with us here?’ They overruled all our protestations, and lunch was prepared for around eight members of our party, including not just my family but also our Pakistani hosts. Only when they were sure that we had eaten our fill, and more, did they allow us to leave.

After we returned to India, news of our adventure spread quickly among family and friends. The next year, my mother-in-law, a wheel-chair user, requested that we take her also to Pakistan to visit her childhood home, this time in Gujranwala.

Given the joys of my parents’ successful visit, I was more confident. But then many elderly aunts and an elderly uncle joined the trip, and in the end my wife and I were accompanying six older people to Pakistan.

Our experience this time was very similar to a year earlier. The owner of their old ancestral haveli in their Gujranwala village took my mother-in-law around the sprawling property on her wheel-chair, and after we had eaten with them asked her, ‘Would you not like to check out your farmlands?’

On both visits, wherever my wife visited shops, for clothes, footwear or handicrafts, if the shopkeepers recognised her to be Indian, they would invariably insist on a hefty concession on the price. ‘You are our guests’, they would say. ‘How can we make a profit from our guests?’

As news of these visits travelled further, my associates from an NGO Ashagram for the care and rights of persons living with leprosy in a small town Barwani in Madhya Pradesh—with which I had a long association since its founding—demanded that I organise a visit for them also to Pakistan.

Once again, the Pakistani High Commission granted to them visas and they were on their way. There was only one catch, and this was that all of them were vegetarian. They enjoyed greatly the week they spent in Pakistan, except for the food.

Every night they would set out looking for a wayside shop to buy fruit juice. Each night they found a new shop, and each night without exception, the shopkeeper refused to accept any money for the fruit juice.

‘We will not charge money from our guests from India,’ they would say each time. This happened for a full seven days.

I have travelled to many countries in the world in the sixty years of my life. I have never encountered a people as gracious as those in Pakistan.

This declaration is my latest act of sedition.

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