Partition of the subcontinent is an uneasy theme in India. Despite a growing literature on the topic, there is little public debate or discussion on the issue. Nor is there a single public monument to what Sunil Khilnani described as the “unspeakable sadness” that produced the world’s largest migration and a death toll estimated at between one to two million. Indeed, Kashmir’s tragedy is an outcome of the larger wrong and human tragedy of Partition. But this isn’t an essay about the politics or horrors of Partition, nor of its outcome for Kashmir. Rather it is an account of my divided family in India and Pakistan; it is the story of people who lived their lives with grace, dignity and humour despite being scarred by, and shackled to Partition’s sadness, cruelty and memory. By way of conclusion, I offer a brief albeit alternate analysis of the deepening darkness over Uttar Pradesh and mainland India.
My maternal grandfather left his ancestral home in Bhitri, eastern Uttar Pradesh, for Aligarh in the early 20th century never to return. After an education in Aligarh he joined Aligarh Muslim University’s Botany department as a teacher. His six children including Ammi, my mother, were educated in Aligarh. Ammi’s two sisters married men who opted for Pakistan; their exodus from India to Pakistan was followed by a brother, Asim Mamu. Khala Ammi, my eldest aunt lived in Lahore. Aziz Khalujan, her husband, belonged to a family of engineers from Lucknow, all of whom migrated to Pakistan; Khalujan was a colonel in the Pakistan Army; he was among those who built Pakistan’s Tarbela dam. Bunni Khala, Ammi’s younger sister’s married Tassaduq Khan or Tassan Khalujan, an Aligarh-trained engineer, who joined the Pakistan Army; they too came to live in Lahore. My grandmother lamented that Partition had partitioned her children equally between India and Pakistan: Ammi and two sons in India; two daughters and a son in Pakistan. Other branches of Ammi’s family, cousins and uncles, also migrated to Pakistan; almost all were Aligarh alumni who went on to serve their new country with distinction.
My grandparents, Aligarh
My maternal grandfather’s elder brother, a civil servant, lived in Aligarh. His children too were educated in Aligarh; most became distinguished academics at AMU; several achieved public distinction in their own fields. Many among my mother’s family identified with the Left. Their political cosmology and commitment however, was far removed from the narrow and distorted equation drawn between the Left and atheism; on the contrary, theirs was a cosmopolitan internationalism based on solidarity and sympathy with the economically underprivileged in India and elsewhere, and an abiding respect for, and rootedness in their own north-Indian Urdu speaking Muslim cultural ethos and traditions. Thus, Ashraf Khalujan, who knew several Indian languages apart from Persian and Russian, left his native village in Bihar after 1947 never to return; he relinquished ancestral property because of a lived commitment to, and faith in the promise of a new egalitarian order in independent India; Khalujan subsequently went underground with some others in the family, in the wake of Nehru’s offensive against the Left in the 1950s.
Maimoona Khala, his wife, was a doyen of Urdu literature and a teacher at AMU’s Urdu department; throughout her life Khalajan would chide us gently for our huge loss in remaining divorced from Urdu literature and poetry. Both Khalajan and Khalujan would intersperse conversation with Urdu and Persian couplets laced with wit and laughter during family gatherings in Aligarh and Delhi. There was and is Irfan Khalujan (Irfan Habiba), among India’s most distinguished medieval historians at AMU and an eminent public intellectual. Then there was Zia Khalujan, who lived his Left commitment by rejecting the idea of private property; he died brewing coffee while taking notes on Gramsci in Delhi. Tahera Khala, his wife and Ammi’s cousin, was an Urdu newsreader at All India Radio; Khala Ammi said they could sometimes catch her signature “ab aap Tahera Hasan se khabrein suniye” beamed from Delhi at Lahore: air waves breached the partitioned distance between the two cousin sisters. Zia Khalujan encouraged Tahera Khala to face the world on her own terms. “We were in Moscow,” reminisced Tahera Khala after Zia Khalu passed away, “Zia Saheb consistently encouraged me to go out by myself see Moscow, visit art galleries, the theatre, Bolshoi…I was unsure and hesitant, but he always encouraged me and urged me to discover the world.” Then there were my two mamus: Mohsin or Chhote Mamujan as we affectionately called him and his elder brother Muslim Mamujan; the former a gentle, soft-spoken mathematician who joined AMU as an academic upon completion of a PhD from Paris. “Mohsin returned from Paris speaking French; he was a brilliant student,” recalled Ammi in a conversation about Chhote Mamujan after he passed away in Aligarh recently. Among other fine and beautiful things of life, Chhote Mamujan liked literature, poetry, roses, gardening, classical music, good food and family around him. For me personally, he was a treasure trove of knowledge and information; people mistook Chhote Mamujan to be a professor of history because of his prodigious knowledge of world history. His elder brother Muslim, or Mamujan, taught at AMU’s engineering polytechnic; his favourite pastime was shooting quail and duck in the UP marshlands and hunting neelgai (black buck) in forests with his shikari friends. Mamujan would display his catch in the family courtyard and then cook ‘teetar’ (partridge) for us; like all my family Mamujan loved good food.
There was also Ghazala and Anwar Ansari, Ammi’s cousins and my khala and khalu – both pioneering academics. Like others, they returned to Aligarh after higher education in the UK to join AMU. Anwar Khalu was from Firangi Mahal – an eminent seminary in Lucknow committed to a humanist pedagogy; Ghazala Khala was among the first women graduates of AMU; she subsequently went on to head AMU’s Department of Education. And there was Obaid Mamu, a much awarded, pioneering geneticist upon whom the United States conferred its highest and most coveted scientific honour by way of membership of the US National Academy of Sciences, as did the United Kingdom in the form of membership of the Royal Society. Obaid Mamu showed up occasionally in Aligarh from Bombay where he had founded the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research to meet and chat with family and siblings in Aligarh and Delhi; he would relish all the traditional UP dishes he had been deprived of in Bombay; at times we heard him playing the sitar. Paying tribute to Obaid Mamu on his untimely death, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a distinguished academic himself, described my larger family to which Obaid Mamu belonged:
Obaid Siddiqi belonged to this family. All the traits that characterised the family, the generosity, the brilliance, the gentleness, the self-effacing commitment to work, the contempt for careerism, and the disdain for fame and status, were concentrated, as it were, in him. And he also shared the family’s social commitment and passion for effecting a revolutionary transformation in the country.
All these people were but a small part of my mother’s family in Aligarh that stayed on in India after 1947. They ingrained in us, their children, the values of truth, justice, courage of conviction and conscience, and critical debate, as much as they taught us appreciation of art, literature, beauty, culture.
Kandla, Partition, Pakistan
My father’s family came from the western Uttar Pradesh hamlet of Kandla. Traditionally, my father’s family were qazis or judges; Mohalla Qaziana was part of Kandla’s geography. My father’s basic degree was from DJ Sindh College Karachi, where my eldest uncle, Kazi Mohammed Mujtaba worked as a civil servant in pre-partition India; my paternal grandmother, Dadi Amma lived with him. Abba subsequently shifted to Aligarh for post-graduate studies at AMU’s Economics department; among his teachers was Dr Zakir Husain – an educationist and one of the most extraordinary personalities of the time, later President of India. Much like my mother’s family, Abba was an Aligarh alumni and product; like them he was shaped by Aligarh’s rich cosmopolitan Muslim culture. My second paternal uncle, my chacha, Kazi Mohammed Murtaza was associated with the group of Muslims who established Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. Prior to Partition, he too had moved to Hyderabad, Sindh where lived and taught Urdu. Abba’s only sister, Phuphijan and her entire family together with all other relatives migrated to Pakistan from Kandla in 1947.
Upon completion of his post-graduation at AMU, Abba joined the economics department as a teacher. It was a time of political and intellectual ferment; nationalist Muslims jousted with supporters of the Muslim League. But Aligarh was also much more than just politics; it was a social, cultural and intellectual hub of academics, scholars, poets, writers, friends, fellow teachers, students with a galaxy of distinguished personalities such as Sir Ziauddin Ahmad, Dr Zakir Hussain and Badruddin Tyabji. In effect, the Aligarh of that period epitomised what poet Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz so eloquently captured in the lines of the immortal tarana he penned for the University:
Yeh dasht-e-junoon diwanon ka; ye bazme-wafa parvanon ki;
Yeh shehar tarab ruumanon ka; ye khuld-e-barin armanon ki.
har shaam hai shaam-e-Misr yahaan; har shab hai shab-e-Shiraz yahaan
hai saare jahaan kaa soz yahaan aur saare jahaan kaa saaz yahaan
zarraat kaa bosaa lene ko, sau baar jhukaa aakaash yahaan
Khud aankh se ham ne dekhi hai, baatil kii shikast-e-faash yahaan
Abba had studied and worked in Aligarh; his friendships, associations and his heart lay in Aligarh; it would be hard to exaggerate his love for Aligarh and AMU. A first generation learner, he knew the value of education, and the hope and promise Aligarh held out for Muslims in India. There is an old black-and-white shot of him with fellow students at AMU’s Aftab Hall dated 1937, young men in black sherwanis – Aligarh’s signature attire (standing, last right). After his teaching stint at AMU, he joined the Government of India as economist at the Planning Commission, New Delhi.
The Kazis, especially my father and his elder brothers in Pakistan, were widely respected for their honesty and integrity. I remember one afternoon in my father’s room at the Planning Commission, New Delhi, where a visitor made an outstation call from Abba’s official telephone without his knowledge sending my father into a state of incandescent rage at what in his view was an unforgivable transgression. One of Chacha Abba’s daughters, Yasmin apa, my cousin, whom I had never met until she attended my nephew’s marriage in 2015, talked about her father, my chacha Kazi Mohammed Mujtaba, who also served as minister of labour in the Jinnah cabinet. “Unlike his contemporaries, we continued living in our shabby accommodation; he was a minister and we didn’t even have a decent house,” she laughed.
Partition came with blood and carnage. It was risky to be Muslim in Delhi in 1947. Both his elder brothers, my chachas, requested Abba to join them and the rest of the family in what was now the new country of Pakistan where they happened to live together with Dadi Amma, my grandmother. Plum jobs were there for his taking in a Pakistani state yet to be formed. But Abba couldn’t find a convincing reason to migrate; the emergence of Pakistan, he said, wasn’t a persuasive reason to make him want to migrate there. I heard him narrate a story about his boss Mr. B.N. Kaul, probably a Kashmiri Pandit. One night Mr. Kaul rushed to Abba’s room urging him to leave immediately; “your life is in danger,” he had exclaimed. “There is a truck laden with aloos (potatoes) headed for Kashmir,” said Mr. Kaul giving Abba the name of the place where he would be picked up. “Get on that truck,” instructed Mr. Kaul. “It will be stopped and checked,” he added, “here is a Bible, take this, hold it in your hands; when they stop the truck and ask who you are, say you are a padre, a priest.” Abba clutched the Bible and boarded the truck that night in August 1947. It was stopped by a group of men. Silently, Abba held out the Bible… there was a silence as the crowd sized him up and his somewhat Central Asian features; they let the truck pass. He didn’t travel to Kashmir but disembarked from the truck to take a train back to his beloved Aligarh. Disembarking at Aligarh railway station, holding on to the arches of the station building, he wept. His entire family had left India; so had most of his friends. But he wasn’t joining them. Aligarh was still there. He stayed.
Due to India-Pakistan hostilities after independence, links between both countries were tenuous. Abba’s elder brother, Kazi Mohammed Mujtaba or Chacha Abba as we called him, was appointed Chief Parliamentary Secretary, government of Sindh, in Jinnah’s first cabinet in 1947; he was worried as there no news of his brother in Delhi. When an Indian parliamentary delegation visited Pakistan, Chacha Abba sent word to Nehru, through a delegation member, requesting him to ascertain the fate of his brother in Delhi. The message was duly delivered; Abba sent word to Chacha Abba through the same channel confirming he was alive. A doctor advised Abba to leave India for a while in order to overcome the psychological trauma of witnessing too much blood and slaughter; he left for London to pursue a PhD.
Upon return from London, Abba married Ammi in Aligarh whom he met at Zia Khalu’s place in New Delhi where he was a frequent visitor. Mr. Kaul and the Bible had helped Abba survive Partition. He rarely spoke of it. The times he did, it was a struggle to retain a measure of equanimity. I do however recall him talking of the great sea of humanity at New Delhi’s Purana Qila, crammed with refugees and the destitute within its ramparts amidst the fearful bloodletting all around. And I remember a story he narrated with much emotion about a friend whose daughter was abducted during the Partition riots; she was never recovered.
Abba’s lived experience of Partition had made him understand and anticipate the future in prescient ways.
I remember an evening in Delhi in the 1970s when a family friend informed Abba about a proposed housing colony in New Delhi with a large number of Muslim residents. Against deepening fears of riots and pogroms in modern India, Muslims were attempting to hang together. “Kazi sahib, this is a good colony; there are friends you may know; you should try to get a flat there,” suggested the visitor. “No,” said Abba, “I am not going to live in a colony peopled by Muslims. On the contrary, I will choose a colony where I am the only Muslim; there is less likelihood of being targeted in a pogrom if one is isolated; far more probability of being targeted where Muslims are in an identifiable group.”
In the early 1980s, in the twilight of his life, Abba made his first and last visit to Kandla, the small hamlet where he came from. It was a few hours’ drive from Delhi. He sat on a charpai under the shade of neem trees. Shepherds and villagers crowded around; they handed Abba a bunch of keys, the keys of the houses of Mohalla Qaziana, the departing Kazis left in their custody in 1947. “These are yours,” said the shepherds, marveling that one among the Kazis had returned. Abba wept. He refused the keys. “I am a visitor here, he said. I am just here to visit my home.” Kandla’s Mohalla Qaziana was a ghostly space with silent and abandoned houses on hinges creaking in the hot afternoon wind. Almost two decades later, Kandla transformed into a refugee camp for Muslims fleeing the Muzaffarnagar carnage. Abba was no more, nor were any of his siblings or family. Perhaps Mohalla Qaziana sheltered the homeless and destitute Muslims of Muzaffarnagar; that is indeed what the Kazis would have wanted and wished for.
Ammi once told me Abba had no possessions when they married except for a bed and one chipped mug; most of his earnings went to charitable causes; the rest to the Communist Party. After Abba passed away, Ammi received a letter from his friend Mr. Shastri recalling Abba’s extraordinary courage of conviction and association with the Left (to part with it forever after learning about the truth regarding Stalin and the positions adopted by the Communist Party on Partition and other issues).
Much before I knew, read about, or realised the legacy of 1947, I recall standing with my sister adjacent no man’s land at the Wagah border during a visit in 1970 sipping a bottle of Fanta which Khala Ammi and Khalujan in their unbounded affection bought us as a parting indulgence. Ammi and Khala Ammi wept silently; I didn’t know why until I grew up and understood that memory as the pain, anguish and sorrow at Partition’s legacy: the knowledge of not knowing if or when they would meet again. We returned to Delhi from Lahore with memories of Khala Ammi’s rambling and elegant home at Elgin Road amidst family and cousins; a cosmopolitan, urbane and cultured crowd of family and relatives who flocked there each day, many Aligarh alumni among them, family gatherings over rich, languorous meals, the buzz of conversation, the clink of crockery, my father’s booming voice and laughter echoing across the room buzzing with conversation;the love and affection we received from family in Pakistan, visits to Karachi and Islamabad, excitement at climbing into Khalujan’s ‘thandi gadi’in Lahore – the unbelievable luxury of an air-conditioned car in which he would take us kids out for ice-creams in the evening. Memories of Delhi and Aligarh blended into memories of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Partition didn’t matter when the family was together.
For us children, it was more complex. Unlike my parents and their siblings who had lived a collective, shared past in united India and for whom competing nationalisms or national identities were of no consequence whatsoever, we children had, inevitably, internalized ideas of national ‘othering’ so assiduously cultivated by our respective nation-states. We were ‘Indians’ for our Pakistani cousins. ‘Your country is so poor’, jeered my cousin. “But your country has no history before 1947,” shot back my sister. Such childish sparring was trivial, yet it contained within it seeds of division. Until we achieved independence of thought, such ascribed differences created amongst us, the children of Partition’s victims, partitioned minds. Instead of questioning Partition’s moral and political wrongs, we got shackled to its doomed political outcome in the form of competing nationalisms our nation-states ingrained in us. In this binary, Indian Muslims stood discredited by virtue of their remaining within the fold of a ‘Hindu’ India. For Muslims in India, on the other hand, Pakistan was by default, an artificial entity peopled by ‘Zionist’ Muslims who abandoned their homeland for richer pastures. This schism translated into a tragic repudiation of a rich, shared and distinctive north-Indian, Urdu-speaking, Muslim cultural and linguistic heritage from which part of my Pakistani cousins and sections of the Pakistani diaspora were divorced. India-Pakistan tensions reinforced the divide. Thus Adaab-arz, the traditional form of greeting we had grown up hearing and using, was disparaged and ridiculed; so was Khuda-hafiz. They were replaced by the unfamiliar and strange As-Salam Alaikum and Allah Hafiz. Mohsena Khala, Ammi’s eldest cousin, who recently passed away at the age of 94 in the United States, had once narrated to me her anguish and sorrow at the denigration and contempt these cultural expressions evoked among sections of the Pakistani diaspora in the United States on account of their being perceived as ‘Indian.’ Expressing pleasure to hear the traditional greeting from me, she confessed she had discarded such expressions in order not to evoke hostility, and to blend in with the crowd. In these small albeit significant ways, Partition became a source of division and hostility between the already divided Muslims of India and Pakistan.
While most of us no longer subscribe to such binaries, the secular vs religious nationalism binary is nevertheless firmly ensconced in the intellectual imagination of liberals in India. Some years ago, at a public seminar, my suggestion to an audience of critical women scholars that it would be a good idea for us women to re-look and reinterpret Partition as the failure of the Congress to share power with Muslims in 1947, and, likewise, re-interpret Bangladesh as the failure of Bhutto to share power with the Bengalis, evoked uneasy silence. It was, after all, far easier and expedient to abide by the two-nation theory, obfuscate Congress’ tyranny in 1947, and, by extension, forever postpone an intellectually honest appraisal of a catastrophic Partition that, as an increasing body of historical evidence suggests, lies squarely with the Congress Party. Indeed, if India was truly democratic and secular there would have been no partition.
1970 was the last time I visited Pakistan with both my parents to attend my cousin Anjum Apa’s wedding in Lahore. War clouds approached. In 1971 we took part in trench drills in New Delhi; when the siren sounded all of us would rush to the freshly dug trenches with planes screaming above. There were blackouts over Delhi at night: we pasted black paper over the windows; lights were switched off as we sat still in darkness. Khala Ammi’s letters ceased; Ammi and Abba tried to enquire about family in Pakistan through people who were in a position to offer some news. Grandmother in Aligarh did the same.
Immediately after the war, Dadi Amma, my paternal grandmother passed away in Karachi. Abba applied for a visa for Pakistan. Friends and colleagues advised him against going; he was a civil servant and a visit to ‘enemy’ country just after the 1971 war would certainly invite trouble, they warned. But Abba was adamant. “I need to visit and pray at my mother’s grave,” he had insisted. He applied for, and was granted a visa for Pakistan. Upon his return to Delhi we had a taste of surveillance by Indian intelligence. Two clumsy personnel were stationed at our flat entrance 24/7. If we went out, they followed. If Abba drove, they followed in their own car. Abba was infuriated. He wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi requesting her to examine his record and stop the surveillance. It stopped. Much later, in a conversation with friends, Abba had laughingly remarked what the Prime Minister had noted on his official Planning Commission file: “Too independent.”
We returned to Aligarh after my father’s retirement. From Delhi’s staid, regimented life I lived and experienced a rich, albeit vanishing culture of grace, beauty and elegance in an Aligarh radically different from the days when my father was a student. Student intake had increased; the politicisation of staff and students had crept in; anti-Muslim pogroms during the 1980’s had heightened Muslim insecurity and produced reactive retreat across the campus; AMU Vice-Chancellors weren’t what they used to be. Yet Abba still had some of his old pre-Partition friends; he would vanish in the evening to meet and converse with them. And there was grandmother and my large collection of khalas, mamus and cousins with whom we met frequently at family gatherings. Among a host of other remarkable personalities, there was Begum Rashid Ahmad Siddiqi who would drop by to see grandmother who would serve her a paan (betel leaf) from her beautiful, ornate paandaan; there was poet Jazbi who frequently visited my father; there was poet Shahryar of Umrao Jaan fame whose wife would drop by to meet my family; there were the famous and extraordinarily witty Chughtais, many of whom had stayed on in Aligarh, and there was Nawab Saheb, an old feudal character, with mounted heads of lions in his living room – a source of fascination for us kids. All were good friends of my family; we grew up amidst their conversation, poetry, wit, wisdom and humour.
We spent Eids in Aligarh with the smell of attar wafting in the air, men in sherwanis going together for the traditional Eid prayers at the university mosque after which they would visit the university graveyard to pray for those no more, before returning to grandmother’s old rambling house to greet her and all of us women and children awaiting their arrival; we would then tuck into the traditional sweetmeats and meat dishes. From cultureless New Delhi where Eid was just a holiday at home, we rejoined a cultural community; I saw Abba, my mamus, and khalus greeting and embracing each other and the poor and working-class men who came to wish us, some part of the household, in the traditional three-sided embrace; they were given Eidi and they ate with us. With the demise of many in the family, their friends, colleagues and acquaintances, all of whom were part of an older Aligarh community, also ended the grace and beauty of a rich, cultured, elegant and self-confident community.
Partition came up in conversations. There was general agreement among family elders regarding the unfortunate fate of Indian migrants still being called mohajirs, and of the degeneration of the idea of Pakistan with rising sectarianism among Pakistan’s Muslims. There was sadness at the multiple massacres of poor, working-class Mohajirs on the streets of Karachi during the 1980s, and concern at the emergence of the combative MQM. Grandmother paid a visit to Lahore and Karachi to be with her children. She had fallen ill there and we were worried; I cycled the short distance to meet her the evening Chote Mamujan drove her back to Aligarh from Delhi after a three month stay in Pakistan. She had hugged me and said: “Thank goodness I am back; I didn’t want to die in Pakistan.” Thereafter, Khala Ammi, her eldest daughter, visited Aligarh to be with grandmother and the family. Upon falling ill, Khala Ammi became exceedingly anxious. “I don’t want to die here,” she had said, before Mamujan drove her to Delhi to take the flight back to Lahore. Partition had crafted different belongings.
There were also humorous and witty critiques of Pakistani elite society by my family. My maternal grandfather’s brother or Badde Abba as all called him, a retired civil servant and teacher, visited Pakistan in 1970 to meet with partitioned family. Upon his return to Delhi, someone in the room asked him what he thought of Pakistan. “Arree behnee,” remarked Badde Abba in his delightful eastern UP accent, “bahut badde, badde makaan dekhe Pakistan mein, magar kisi makaan mein kitaab nahin dekhi!” – generating uproarious laughter in a room full of relatives.
There was also concern at the heightened anti-Muslim mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh during the 1980s to which Aligarh wasn’t immune. We lived through riots and pogroms. We heard the constant refrain from working-class Muslims in Aligarh and UP regarding impunity for the notoriously anti-Muslim Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and local police. Moradabad 1980 is particularly etched in my mind; scores of Muslims had been killed by firing at an unarmed crowd; the perpetrators weren’t punished. Muslim outrage culminated in a collective decision not to celebrate the following Eid as a mark of protest against the killings. Doors of mosques across northern India remained shut on Eid. “Abki akhbaron ne koi photo nahin chhapi Eid namaz ki,” remarked Mamujan, “Ab inka secularism kahan hai?” he had exclaimed laconically.
Aligarh was under curfew. I spent a curfewed night with Ammi without a telephone, and no means of communication with inebriated security personnel banging on the door and windows. Abba was away in Delhi to buy food rations for us. We survived. We returned to Delhi because Abba was allotted a flat under a government housing scheme he had registered for. I was naïve enough to suggest we put a name plate at our new home. “No”, said Abba, firmly. “We can’t do that; we are Muslims.” In 1984, in the wake of the widespread slaughter of Sikhs after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, Abba dispatched us with basic provisions to a Sikh family across the road in our housing colony. They peered at us fearfully through the keyhole before proceeding to remove the furniture piled against the door to let us in. A Sikh acquaintance summed up the tragedy and memory of minorities, especially Muslims, in contemporary India: “Hamare saath ek baar hua aur ham kabhi nahin bhoolenge; Aapke saath to har saal hota hai.”
Khala Ammi, Khalujan, Chacha Abba and many others are no more. News of their passing away was conveyed by phone. We suddenly received a call saying Khala Ammi was no more. Khala Ammi had once narrated the story of a day more than two decades ago when an elderly Sikh gentleman rang her doorbell. “I am Natha Singh from Amritsar” he had said. “This was once my house. Can I see it?” Khala Ammi invited him for tea and showed him around his house on Elgin Road. It was the only remaining original house on that road; its teak doors, fireplaces, large rooms, verandah, paneled interiors, garden and mango trees were intact. “He felt very happy to see his home was unchanged,” she recalled. She continued to live there until her death after which the house at Elgin Road (renamed Sarwar Road) was sold by her sons, my cousins. The new owner is to demolish the pre-partition building to build flats. Our happiest memories with Khala Ammi are of erasing Partition’s divide that my divided family did each time it united at Elgin Road.
We continue to feel Partition’s division denying us the opportunity to meet, celebrate or mourn together, or visit the graves of family we lost. Asim Mamu passed away. So did Tassan Khalujan who wished to visit Aligarh, his hometown and alma-mater, one last time before he died; his wish remained unfulfilled. Chacha Abba migrated to the United States to live with his son and my cousin Asif Bhai. I met Chacha Abba for the first and last time during a visit to Atlanta in 2000 when he was old, unwell and unable to speak; he died soon after. His last wish was to be cremated and his ashes scattered over his native Kandla. Asif Bhai was willing but Chachijan insisted on Islamic rites; his father’s wish to be reunited with his homeland in death was unfulfilled. I never met Kazi Mohammed Murtaza, my chacha, who lived in Hyderabad, Sindh; we were granted city-specific visas for Lahore and Karachi only. Ammi last met with her elder sister Khala Ammi in Lahore in 2006; they would never meet again, Khala Ammi passed away in 2014. Now, Bunni Khala remains in Lahore; she heard her brother Chote Mamujan was no more over the phone; she couldn’t meet Ammi – her sister and only surviving sibling; nor could she join us to grieve together. As Partition’s generation leaves us one by one, the human, moral and cultural refuge it so generously afforded its children dwindles. We sense a shrinking of family, community, culture and ultimately, a distinct cultural identity.
The UP election result brings with it the certainty of violence, murder and dispossession of Muslims on a grand scale in a region with a distinctive Muslim history and presence. For many, including people in Kashmir, developments in UP validate the two-nation theory and by extension, Partition itself. Yet, as the above social history illuminates, the quiet cruelties, divisions, sorrows and injustices of Partition are far removed from grand abstract constructs like the two-nation theory. It is also debatable whether the Muslims of India, geographically scattered, and linguistically and historically diverse – constitute a nation in the classic sense of the term. Unlike the Kashmiri Muslims, the Muslims of India don’t share a common history, language or territory – among the essential markers of a people’s claim to nationhood. Nor was it ever likely or possible for India’s Muslims to migrate en-masse to Pakistan in 1947. The Muslims of India belong to India where they are accorded the formal rights of life, liberty and the expression of cultural identity. That they have been denied these rights in practice by successive ‘secular’ regimes as well as by the current Hindu right-wing dispensation doesn’t validate Partition, the two-nation theory, or the uprooting and migration of millions that partition entailed.
Rather, the condition of Muslims in India validates Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s accurate premonition and legitimate fear of Hindu domination over Muslims of India. It also validates Jinnah’s perfectly legitimate and eminently democratic demand for constitutional provisions ensuring Muslim representation in the political architecture of post-colonial India that the Congress Party opposed tooth and nail. Had the Congress accepted this fair and just demand, the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh would today have a measure of political representation and power in proportion to their presence, and not be left to the wolves as is presently the case. Having repudiated Jinnah’s just demand for shared political power, and having opted for a formal parliamentary system without any de jure safeguards against majoritarian tyranny, the democracy installed by Jawaharlal Nehru to uncritical domestic and international acclaim in 1947 is now commandeered with ruthless effect to further disenfranchise, dispossess and marginalise a largely poor, fragmented, politically weak and besieged Muslim minority.
Finally, and this may be misread as prejudice but it is an essentially political and philosophical point: the anti-Muslim climate across UP and large parts of mainland India today is best summed up by Ernest Gellner who, in his classic book Nations and Nationalism, reflected: “Hindus speak the same language even when they don’t speak the same language.” There can be no better summation of a context where with relatively few exceptions, Hindus across caste, class, sect and region repeatedly and progressively endorse in large numbers, a manifesto of exclusion, discrimination, dispossession and violence against Muslims in India, and extraordinary repression against Muslims of the Kashmir Valley. Tapping into the only common denominator of religion that MK Gandhi once used to unite Indians, the Hindu right-wing exploits the same fault line to foster fear and hatred against what is now very decisively the Muslim ‘other’ of Indian nationalism, and to reap rich electoral dividends thereafter for the placation and, dare I say, appeasement, mainland India’s hitherto dormant, but now visibly malignant Hindu majoritarian sentiment.
Gandhi’s pragmatic use of Hindu religious metaphor in politics that Jinnah rightly condemned, and the Hindu right-wing’s mendacious cocktail of religion and politics today couldn’t have mutated to its present form without willing acquiescence and support from the Congress party – many of whose members subscribed to the same ideology and policy. What the initially incipient, but now ever-deepening anti-Muslim bigotry in mainland India reveals is the default ethnic character of the Indian state, of mainland Indian society, and of Indian nationalism. This was camouflaged for decades by Congress and allied ‘socialist’ regimes through their self-crafted, self-serving and deceitful veil of ‘secularism’ now contemptuously shoved aside-by the Hindu right-wing and mainland India voters to reveal the vague and meaningless void sarva dharma sambhava always was. If the Hindu right-wing isn’t representative of Hindus in mainland India as many liberals would argue, they do need to explain the repeated (Gujarat) and progressive (Uttar Pradesh) endorsement by mainland India’s Hindus of a patently anti-Muslim politics.
A Muslim response, if any, to a crisis that has little to do with India’s Muslims themselves, even though they are its explicit victims, is neither the two-nation theory nor Partition. Rather, any such response must be informed by the writings of critical Hindus themselves. In his ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’, Nirad C Chaudhuri (1951) noted that “Hinduism has a canny sense of what threatens it.” In a comment on developments in UP and Hindu right-wing led mobilisation, Prof. D.N. Jha, former Delhi University historian remarked: “They will like to change everything rational and modern that has been created in the last 65 years” (Hindustan Times, 25 March 2017). In his article entitled ‘The Crisis of Hinduism,’ A.K. Saran–a scholar of comparative religions – takes Chaudhuri’s and Jha’s point further to explain: “Hinduism’s institutional forms (caste, untouchability etc.) were outworn and in need of reform…the Hindu political parties sense that the real challenge to tradition is constituted by secularism and the technological society. But unwilling to accept this, they project, instead, Islam and Pakistan as the threat to contemporary Hinduism. This is a form of our false consciousness. Its dangers can’t be emphasised…Loyalty to Hinduism is expressed in fanatical forms (anti-cow slaughter, anti-Muslimism, anti-Pakistanism…The future is dark…our vision is obscured by a false light.”
The wheel has turned full circle since 1947. Today there is no demand for political (1947) or socio-economic (2015, Sachar Committee) rights for Muslims that have justified, respectively, the shrill charge of Muslim fundamentalism and Muslim appeasement. Sensing the ever-tightening noose, UP’s worst-affected working-class Muslims are in retreat, seeking refuge from a predatory State bent upon targeting them and their livelihoods in order to express loyalty to Hinduism and, by extension, Indian nationalism. Indeed, it does seem as if the Muslims of India whom Amnesty International’s Aakar Patel termed “the worst represented major community not just on the subcontinent but anywhere in the democratic world” (Mint, 16 October 2015) may, yet again, pay a price in blood, exclusion and dispossession due to what A.K Saran reflectively summed up as contemporary Hinduism’s continuing failure to develop institutional forms to confront modernity and secularism with confidence and fortitude.
As India’s polity and democracy forsake India’s Muslims, Muslim anguish in UP is followed by flames of death and dispossession in Gujarat. With little or no protection from the State, the only refuge of India’s Muslims is courage and forbearance amidst a deepening darkness: “O you who believe, have endurance in suffering, and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful.” (The Qu’ran: Al-Imran 3: 200).