Pakistan and India- Can peace break out? A question that seems to be on everyone’s minds. Let me tell you about my experiences with this. What happens when a Hindu girl, an Indian, and a Muslim boy, a Pakistani, fall in love and marry just when the daughter’s father is due to be promoted Chief of the Naval Staff? Love knows no boundaries and barriers… But 30 years later our son in law Zuli, a US citizen, cannot get a visa to come and meet his octogenarian parents in law unless he renounces his Pakistani citizenship! This is my story:
Merely repeating that ‘the World needs Peace’, has become an almost meaningless cliché today. Given our current situation with an authoritarian state that leads the discourse of bigotry, xenophobia and hate– we instead need to search for and find creative and uniquely original examples and different narratives. That the xenophobia is directed especially to one community, with the constant identification of Muslims with Pakistan, and the repeated refrain of “Pakistan Chale Jao” [Go to Pakistan] makes any talk of peace with that country especially challenging.
There are many of us who have worked for dialogue and people to people interaction between our two nations for several decades and it has been a saga of hopes raised only to be dashed to the ground depending on who is in power and whose domestic agenda demands a more aggressive or conciliatory stance. The fact that there are still so many initiatives for Peace pegging away against all odds, certainly is cause for optimism, however cautious.
So how do we pitch our narrative in a manner that will touch hearts and minds? The challenge before us is to be able, somehow, to cut through the majoritarian, prejudiced propaganda which is being spewed out from macro levels, i.e. National and State level leadership, right down to the village, mohalla [neighbourhood] and family levels where it is nurtured and shaped.
In my experience, while there might be any number of compelling grounds– historical, economic, cultural and strategic– for building good, civil relations between the countries in South Asia. The internecine conflicts and bitter hostilities, made worse thanks to the ideological mindsets of the present regime, make it difficult to persuade and convince our public. The sheer seductive power of appealing to the narrowest forms of nationalism and linking it with a religion xenophobia is often the most difficult argument to overcome for the masses of our people.
I have wrestled with this question for nearly five decades– almost from the time that India decided to fight Pakistan and play a role in creating the independent Nation of Bangladesh.
More and more I have been convinced that we need to be creative and imaginative in the strategies we deploy to convince people that human beings are the same regardless of their religion, their caste or their nationality.
Telling personal stories still remains one of the most powerful ways of communicating a message. Somehow, personalising an often difficult political issue makes it easier to accept. So let me share one such special “Personal is Political” tale:
It has taken several incidents to prepare us as a family to be able to face with conviction the challenges we faced at various points in our lives as we have progressed through the years.
And the first major incident takes us all the way back to 1947, when there was a mob frenzy in the capital after Partition was announced. My husband as a young 14 year old saw his father confront an angry mob who came to their home in Delhi and demanded that their Muslim colleague be sent out of their home in Bengali Market. His father told them that they would have to kill him first. And the mob, cowardly like all mobs, turned tail and ran away. This was a defining moment in his life and served as a building block in our commitment to a secular, just and tolerant India.
Many years down the line, now I was married to the Naval guy whom I met when he came as my father’s ADC [Flag Lieutenant in Navy Lingo]. My father happened to be the first Indian to head free India’s Navy and we had grown up under the influence of Western progressive and cosmopolitan thinking. Or at least so I thought– until in 1970, my brother brought us the news that his choice of life partner was a beautiful and talented Muslim girl. What we thought was a cause of celebration turned into a long period of stress and tension in the family because my mother refused point blank to accept her son’s decision to marry a Muslim. Imagine our shock and surprise at this reaction. We began to seriously ask ourselves how well did we as family really know each other and some of our deepest values, our mindsets and positions on so many issues that we had taken for granted. Eventually we resolved the issue thanks to an intervention by my ‘orthodox’ mother-in-law who was quite clear that if the two young people were happy and had made up their minds– then religion and community should not be a factor!
The chain of communally charged riots in different parts of the country were all signalling the growing fault lines and a seeming inability (or was it a lack of will?) to address this at many levels.
And while we made noises and went on peace marches and held candlelight vigils– none of these really addressed the core issue of an existing problem; deep rooted and deliberately kept alive and burning by powerful actors looking only for means to capture power.
Ultimately, there comes a time when one is left with no choice but to take a clear political position– there is in fact no such thing as neutrality– and the fence does not exist; so can one not therefore sit on it! That is the moment when that central philosophy held so dear to us women and the womens’ movement truly comes alive– namely the reality that the ‘Personal is indeed the Political.’
Such a moment came into our lives in a seemingly innocuous and undramatic manner when I met a young man named Zulfiqar Ahmad on a bright and gloriously sunny fall afternoon sitting near the goal post of the college football field at a college campus in Massachusetts, in 1984. Our daughter, Kavita, had just joined Mount Holyoke College and had met Zuli at a class by Professor Eqbal Ahmad where they found themselves sitting next to each other. That chance encounter turned into a deep and abiding relationship– which in today’s India would invite the wrath of the Right wing ‘fundoos’ and probably be termed “Love Jehad”.
‘Communalism Combat’ – a fledgling journal and a great initiative started by two young and idealistic people who believed deeply in the constitutional values of secularism and the liberal framework of Justice and Egalitarianism articulated by Baba Saheb Ambedkar, dedicated their entire issue of August 1996 to the Fifty years of the Partition of India. Their evocative cover page, which I have tried to capture here, asked in bold letters if this was not:
“A TIME TO TALK PEACE ?
A SPECIAL ISSUE – FIFTY YEARS OF LIVING WITH THE DIVIDE”
And the Communalism Combat dedicated their back page to the love story of Kavita and Zuli– written and narrated by their parents. Those were still heady days; when provocative headlining did not invite a sedition charge or accusations of being anti-national and UAPA was not quite on the drawing boards.
With a photograph of myself and Zuli and Kavita along with a former son in law, the box boldly announced the subject with this audacious caption.
Initially, for Ramu it was tough to accept this situation as he wryly asked me when I broke the news to him on my return from my first trip to the USA: “There are over 100 odd countries in the United Nations– did your daughter have to choose a Pakistani?!” I tried to calm him down by saying that they would most likely outgrow this so he shouldn’t worry. In this event the relationship later led to marriage, it was clearly a match made in heaven. They kept waiting for her Papa to retire; and Papa meanwhile kept being pushed up the ladder. Eventually, we told them that they had our blessings to go ahead and get married and they should not wait. If this was going to affect Ramu’s selection for the highest post, well, so be it.
He informed his Minister of Defence– the musician cum [nuclear] physicist Dr Raja Ramanna– who jovially said that Kavita, an independent adult woman, could marry Zulfikar Bhutto for all he cared– as long as she was not a dependent. And he in turn informed the then Prime Minister, Shri V P Singh, who said “Ramdas, please attend your daughter’s marriage. You have my good wishes”. This was April 1990. In October the same year, Ramu was selected to be the next Chief.
Today this story and outcome would be unthinkable. That was a time when we still could boast of mature, liberal and open minded leadership.
An interesting aside with which to close.
After retirement we both have been active members of the Pakistan-India peace movement, the movement for a nuclear free world and for bringing retired soldiers to work for peace on both sides of the border. During a visit to Karachi, we were invited to have a tea meeting with nearly 100 retired Pakistani Naval officers. At the end of the formal interaction, one of our hosts stood up and asked hesitatingly, “Admiral Sir, is it true that your daughter is married to a Pakistani?” “Yes,” he answered and there was a ripple of disbelief around the room. I was promptly invited to tell the story of this romance– everyone loves a love story –especially this kind of a sub-continental drama. When I finished telling the story, everyone present stood up and gave us a standing ovation.
And the senior Pakistani officer present said this could only happen in India– which we took as the biggest compliment to our secular democracy.
Alas, that was another time–another place– it could never happen in today’s India.
But change is possible, examples like these pave the way to it. If stories like these rekindle the spark for inclusions and dialogue, then I hope mine inspired you. So join us in this exciting project to work for peace; tell our stories, share the good news, counter the fundamentalists and one day Inshallah [God willing] the tide will turn and we shall overcome.
Hum Dekhenge! Lazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge– voh din jiska vaadaa hai!
[Translation: We will see! It’s compulsory that we shall see– that day which was promised!]
Writer: Lalita Ramdas
Illustrated by: Ruchita