Pakistan : The home to South Asia’s Muslims

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Richard Harris |

“Ismaila, nass jaa (save your life)” the elderly Sikh watchmaker calls out to an 18-year-old Ismail, as he hears the distant din of the dreaded mob approaching the locality’s main bazaar.

Ismail had been living the past year pretending to be Om Prakash, just to get a roof over his head while being one of the few Muslim students in Jallandar Khalsa College.  Refused a place in the ‘Hindu’ hostel or with private tenants, this was the only way to continue his studies.

It was 1947 and he escaped in the nick of time, as a blood thirsty, baying mob of hatred pushed into his “Muhalla” looking for Ismail.  He got back to his village just in time to join his family, who were ready to leave for Pakistan, with whatever meager belongings they could carry.

Now in the city of Faisalabad, surrounded by three generations of his children, he recounts his dreaded journey.

Mumtaz begum has tears in her eyes, as she tells of how she was lucky to have survived the partition, having married her Post Master husband Maqbool Elahi and moved to Lahore, a few months before Partition.

Asked if he feels any nostalgia about his place of birth, or wishes to see it again, his refusal is instant and emphatic, “Onaa ne keda sanu Band Baajeyan naal rukhsat kita si (We weren’t exactly bid adieu with fanfare)”

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Mumtaz begum has tears in her eyes, as she tells of how she was lucky to have survived the partition, having married her Post Master husband Maqbool Elahi and moved to Lahore, a few months before Partition.Five of her siblings weren’t so lucky.

Maqbool undertook to rescue his wife’s village, donning an army uniform, clutching an old rifle whilst commandeering an army truck.  He managed to somehow get there and scared the mobs away by flashing his rifle.Maqbool was unable to save any of the girls and women, who had been abducted by their own village men in Phillaur, Jalandhar.

One brave girl managed to save her honor by jumping from the roof of her captors’ house, breaking her legs in the process.  To avoid being raped, some women committed suicide by jumping into the village well.  Only men, boys and older women of no carnal use were allowed to leave with the clothes on their backs.  Resistance was futile, usually ending in rape, death, and mutilation.

Mumtaz does not dwell much on her past in Indian Punjab either, but her eyes well up at the memory of her abducted female friends and relatives. She does, however, share a funny anecdote, which actually illustrates the mindset of the people at the time.

Her village was segregated between Muslim, and Hindu and Sikh areas.  She recalls how as a young child she would sometimes approach Hindu women and touch their clothes, and watch them get flustered and agitated, as they kicked the “Maleech” (impure) Muslim kids away, crying defilement and resolving to bathe and wash their clothes before going home!  She talks about how even untouchable Hindus would consider the Muslims to be lowlier than them.

It is a defining feature of the Indian caste system that there is always a caste or community even lower down, to project the hatred and untouchability  while suffering the same from castes above them.”Onaa chhadde Mehl Maarian, Assi chadde kooche kaarian, (They forsook palaces and riches, while we left back streets and poverty)” says Mumtaz, while reminiscing on the state of Indian Muslims at the time.

Change in fortunes

Since the late 18th century, the Sikh rule in Punjab and the Frontier, and Maratha rule in other parts of India had drastically changed the economic and social landscape for the Muslims.  With the administration changing hands, lands confiscated, and trade dominated by the Khatris, Auroras, Jains among others, the decline and degradation of Muslim society was acute.

The British reprisals in the 1857 war precipitated something similar within Muslims of Awadh, UP, Bihar, Bengal, and the Deccan.Land titles abolished, and thousands of the Muslim ‘elite’ sentenced to death by canon in Delhi.  Those few lettered people left, suddenly found themselves illiterate overnight, with the introduction of English and banishment of Persian.

Many Muslims saw this as the destruction of the centuries old composite North Indian social structure and culture, the veritable “Ganga Jamni Tehzeeb.”

The dawn of the 20th century saw the estimated 60 million Mussalmans in an abject state of poverty, illiteracy, and disenfranchisement. Hindu revivalists like the Arya Samajis, Shudh Hindi campaign, and the inevitable Muslim reaction vitiated the atmosphere and portended of something worse to come.The Hindi movement wanted to cleanse Hindustani/Urdu of ‘foreign’ words (read Islamic) and replace them with arcane Sanskrit ones.

Read more:Iqbal tereay daes ka kya haal sunaon

The Urdu script hitherto used by almost all North Indian communities in secular and religious literature was to be scrapped, its place taken by the Devanagari.Many Muslims saw this as the destruction of the centuries old composite North Indian social structure and culture, the veritable “Ganga Jamni Tehzeeb.”

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan suspected a communal intent, with hatred for Muslims the driving force behind the campaign, and he may have been right.  The Muslim defense of the use of Urdu also strengthened, leading to greater polarization in the late 1800s.  Muslims wondered that if the Hindus were not even tolerable to the Perso-Arabic words in the vernacular, how would they live with the Muslims themselves in the future.

The effect of the Urdu Hindi controversy on the Muslim mind can be gauged by the following two statements of Sir Syed.”I look to both Hindus and Muslims with the same eyes & consider them as two eyes of a bride. By the word nation, I only mean Hindus and Muslims and nothing else. We Hindus and Muslims live together on the same soil under the same government. Our interest and problems are common and therefore I consider the two factions as one nation”

Speaking after the language controversy, he said “I am now convinced that the Hindus and Muslims could never become one nation as their religion and way of life was quite distinct from one and other…now I am convinced that both these communities will not join whole heartedly in anything. At present, there is no open hostility between the two communities but it will increase immensely in the future.”

The religious polemics of the time, exacerbated by Christian missionary activities and open air religious debates, led itself to communal hatred and attitudes exemplified with the publication of books like Rangeela Rasul and the inevitable violent reactions to them.

The drastic increase in the Muslim population through proselytism, from 16 percent in 1850 to 20 percent in 1900 and 25 percent in 1947, was an added dynamic in so much as the Hindu/Sikh fear of conversions to Islam.

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It is worth noting that the two most instrumental personalities in the creation of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were grandsons of Hindu converts to Islam.  Obaidullah Sindhi was a convert from Sikhism.

One must consider what drove the aforementioned personalities, from affluent, educated, convert families to abandon their staunch support for Indian nationalism and embrace the two-nation theory and demand a separate Muslim State.  To pin the blame on some inherent communal extremism would be unfair, since both lived outwardly nonreligious lives, and ironically enough, almost all Islamic scholars were vehemently opposed to partition.

The inevitable divide

The reasons must be found elsewhere. In the creeping majority-ism that the Muslims witnessed, communal and caste prejudice, social ostracism, demonization of Muslims in literature and media, the Hindi movement and above all, stark educational and economic disparity.

Muslim demands on redistribution of land, outlawing social inhibitions and discrimination, access to educational institutions and government jobs, ending the hate campaign against Urdu, separate electorates to ensure protection of their franchise were rebuffed by the Indian National Congress.

Muslims feared that if this is the state of affairs under the nose of the British, what would be in store for them under a Hindu majority democratic dispensation, with a first past the post system, and the growing tendency towards communal politics.

After a century of the British Raj, Muslim society had digressed further, and the Muslim League held no hope of improvement under the future Congress regime in India.

At best, Hindu hegemony would have to be accepted, at worst the slights of history that the Hindus and Sikhs felt would mean vengeance.

The Muslim populace and its political leadership came to the realization that their economic, social and political well-being lay in the creation of a separate home for the Muslims of India, and whether by will or design, their aspirations could not be met otherwise.

As for the Muslims, they envisaged a home where the curious social inhibitions of the majority Hindus would cease to exist.

The Indian National Congress’ Nehru was relieved that the bickering with the Muslim League would stop, and saw partition a justifiable price to pay for his vision of a strong centralized state, with power held by himself. Some religious Hindus were glad to be rid of the Muslim ‘cancer’, which was deemed to be eating away at their population base with conversions and the soft power of Muslim culture, poetry, architecture, music, and mysticism.

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As for the Muslims, they envisaged a home where the curious social inhibitions of the majority Hindus would cease to exist. There would be no need for a separate Muslim/Hindu part of the village, a Muslim/Hindu tea stall, a Muslim/Hindu hostel or kitchen.  They would not need to fear a communal riot whenever they ate beef or touched a Hindu or his crockery.  Somewhere they could live their lives and grow as a society, without being third class citizens.

A country that will allow them access to educational institutions such as Gordon, FC, Government, Kinnaird, and KEMC.  Places where Muslims, even though in a majority, were notable for their absence.  Where they can aspire to become doctors, lawyers, factory owners, merchants, engineers, scientists, farmers, civil servants, and statesmen.

In that sense, Pakistan has been a success.  Even with its myriad of problems, both internal and geopolitical, it has gone a long way to giving a landless, illiterate, poor community a whole country to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

Having outpaced Indian economic growth in the first 45 years of its existence, Pakistan has managed to bring millions of its citizens out of poverty, built a state with working institutions, a powerful if perennially underfunded army, and a dynamic and ambitious young population held back from its potential by a self-serving and corrupt political and bureaucratic elite.  Pakistan is the only country which runs not because of its leaders, but despite them.

“They were living in a one room apartment in Karnaal,” says Syeda Shahida Fatima of Karachi, recounting the visit to Mamu Jumman, her uncle who decided to stay in India in 1947.

“A flimsy curtain divided the ‘apartment’ with the kitchen, which was also used as a place for us to bathe.  Mamu, Mumani, their two sons and daughters resided in those living quarters, accessible only by crossing a “Tabela” reeking of buffalo dung.”

“And he was one of our more well-to-do relatives, who would visit us in Karachi every year, to sell polyester sarees, take dry fruit and lawn suits back to India.  We would buy the sarees more out of pity than need.”

The Rajinder Sachhar Committee report in 2005 concluded that the economic, political and social “backwardness” and conditions faced by the Indian Muslim was below that of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.  Its recommendations, such as increasing Muslim recruitment (15% of the population) in the army (from 3%-half in JKLI) and the bureaucracy (from 2%), have been vehemently opposed and remain unimplemented.  Higher education enrolment stands at 4%.

There is no effort to reverse this trend of continual degradation, with much of society blaming the Muslim community for its own woes and no meaningful intervention from the state on behalf of their well-being.

“The contrast was stark when we looked at ourselves, who had underwent the displacement of partition, with my father becoming a civil engineer, and our extended family comprising of lawyers, doctors, building contractors, transporters and the odd lay about,” says Fatima Shahida.

“Mamu Jumman would often complain about his sons not being able to get into college, or find good jobs, and were scraping a living as taylors.
“We met an assortment of darzis, cycle rickshaw wallas, puncture fixers, beedhi makers as our relatives, leading miserable, poverty stricken lives, suffering from the health and social problems.

“The visits to India made me appreciate what we have in Pakistan and that every Pakistani should visit India to see for themselves.

“Understanding Pakistan through the prism of its regional rivalry with India, geopolitical concerns, or terrorist incidences would be a mistake.

Pakistan is not a monolithic society, nor does her people espouse a monolithic ideology.  It is a diverse, vibrant nation, with diverse opinions ranging from angry right wingers to bitter leftists, vying for pre-eminence in shaping the narrative on their 70 year journey as a nation. Whether it becomes a secular or Islamic entity is beside the point. It is just the home of South Asia’s Muslims.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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