Development professional Anam Zakaria led the Oral History Project of the non-profit Citizens Archive of Pakistan. Her book, The Footprints of Partition, explores attitudes across four generations of Pakistanis and Indians since Partition. The Islamabad-based writer tells Harish C. Menon why we need to tap into wellsprings of amity before they run dry
Your book seems to carry an implicit warning that India and Pakistan are running out of time.
It was the disconnect between the Partition generation and young children that troubled me. While many Partition survivors were often very bitter, children born decades later were at times even more hostile towards the ‘other’. Ashis Nandy finds something similar — that sometimes the first generation of victims had fewer prejudices than their children and grandchildren. Because they had lived in communities where the ‘other’ formed the majority. My fear is that as we lose this first generation, we may also lose the more nuanced narratives from that time. Ordinary Pakistanis do not come across many Hindus and Sikhs today.
How can the warmth subsumed by the meta-narratives of Partition’s violence be rekindled?
Pakistan is fortunate that we still have our first generation alive, as living sources of history. For most of my life, my own understanding of Partition was very limited and extremely biased. For this book, I began asking a different set of questions. My grandmother served at Lahore’s largest refugee camp and often shared stories of bloodshed. But when I probed, I heard about her Hindu and Sikh friends, about her sister being rescued by a Sikh family. I believe exploring our own family histories to recover some of those lost narratives is the first step. At the risk of sounding cliched, I cannot emphasize enough on how much people-to-people contact can help.
Is the pain being kept alive by politics?
News is filled with India and Pakistan pointing fingers at each other. Often both countries use hostility for the other to build their own people’s sense of identity and nationhood. (But) I think there is a lot of love and warmth and there are many people sharing it across the border. My husband and I once met a man who had come all the way to Pakistan from India to collect a brick from his mother’s pre-Partition home to be buried next to her.
The book refers to one difference — Indian Muslims who migrated, largely chose to; Hindu Punjabis were mostly forced to. How has this shaped mindsets?
There were countless Muslim families who were forced to move to Pakistan. I have recorded many such narratives myself. Regardless of whether one was forced to move or chose to, migrants faced difficult times. One gentleman I spoke to was a Muslim League supporter despite his family favouring the Congress. He chose to move alone to Pakistan but suffered just like those who had been forced to. ‘I didn’t know Partition meant this,’ he said, referring to his inability to attend his parents’ funerals in India.
From the self-image of being Pakistan’s ‘chosen ones’, has it been downhill for Mohajirs?
One can’t make a generalized statement. There have been Mohajirs who benefited from the new state and currently form a part of our political, cultural and intellectual elite. Yet, there are Mohajirs who have struggled. It could be argued that had they stayed back, there would still have been a struggle — of a different kind.
Why can’t Pakistanis see through the anti-India vitriol in their textbooks?
That depends on how much exposure students have outside school, how their teachers teach the subject, personal family histories, whether or not they have had the luxury of meeting Indians. There are also those for whom history textbooks and media propaganda become the only source of understanding the ‘other’. The same can be said about India. I have had a six-year-old run away from me in Mumbai because he thought all Pakistanis have something to do with Ajmal Kasab.
The status of the Two-Nation Theory now?
As it is taught across schools and colleges in Pakistan, many of the educated classes endorse it. Others who haven’t been ‘schooled’ in the theory, often find no relevance of it in their lives. There are many syncretic religious practices in rural areas that in fact defy it. Geographically speaking, it holds far more relevance in Punjab than in Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Among intelligentsia, the theory has come into question often and continues to be debated upon.