For Partition migrants, ugly nationalism in India and Pakistan is stealing their histories

I first traveled to India shortly after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Having grown up on stories of how Pakistani travellers in India were given free goods by shopkeepers and rides by rickshaw-wallahs at no charge, I received a rather rude awakening when shopkeepers, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers became passive-aggressive with me when I told them I was from Pakistan. It felt as if the words “Pakistan” and “terrorist” had become synonymous for many people in India.

My wife, author Anam Zakaria, in her book Footprints of Partition, recalls a similar incident at a private school in Mumbai that she had visited in 2012. A six-year-old student ran away from her, scared, when he heard that she was from Pakistan. For him, Pakistan was the country of Ajmal Kasab.

My experience, however, was starkly different when instead of “Pakistan”, I began saying I was from Lahore whenever people asked me where I was from. Particularly in Delhi, with its large population of Punjabis, displaced at the time of Partition, the mention of Lahore elicited quite a warm response. I began hearing stories about how their ancestors had come from places such as Sialkot, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad, which are now in Pakistan. People wanted me to talk to them in Punjabi. Every Punjabi, it seemed, had heard stories about Lahore: of Government College, the Mall Road and Laxmi Chowk. While there was resentment against Pakistan, Lahore represented something else.

Nostalgia rules

Lahore is not the only city to evoke such a response in India. Karachi too has a similar association with Delhi. In Karachi, stories of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi and Humayun’s Tomb on the banks of the Yamuna river are passed from one generation to another. Without ever physically visiting India’s capital, several children have grown up in Karachi with Delhi’s geography etched in their minds. There is a certain pride these exiled Delhi-wallahs take in their culture, their sophistication, language and food.

Then there are the Bombay-wallahs in Pakistan. Neither Lahore nor Karachi with its metropolitan character can compare with their nostalgic association with Bombay. The most prominent proponent of this thought was the playwright and author Saadat Hasan Manto, who never really recovered after he left his beloved city to start anew in Lahore.

The associations of people in India and Pakistan with their ancestral cities and towns on both sides of the border continue to survive in several forms even 70 years after Partition. The Delhi Colony in Karachi, Amritsari Sweets in Lahore, Madras Jewelers in Islamabad, Bombay Bakery in Karachi are few of several examples of how these associations are maintained. They represent a sense of loss – a desperate attempt by people to hold onto the remnants of their past. This has, however, become increasingly difficult to do over the years, as relations between India and Pakistan soured.

What was remarkable, however, is that even though India became the enemy in Pakistan, and Pakistan the enemy in India, somehow it was completely acceptable to embrace identities that were now part of the “other”. There was and still is, at some level, a collective understanding and acknowledgement that cities like Delhi, Bombay, Karachi and Lahore might be part of the enemy state now, but they also are our cities collectively. There is something eternal about these cities, which go beyond their nationalistic identities. Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh, perfectly captures the essence of this complicated relationship.

Alarming change

But things seem to be changing now.

On February 22, a mob forced a Karachi Bakery outlet in Bengaluru to mask the word “Karachi” from their main sign board. This demand, made because of the name’s association with Pakistan, came days after a suicide car bomb attack in Pulwama in South Kashmir, on February 14, killed at least 40 security personnel. The demand stripped Karachi of all its other identities, and ignored the fact that the bakery’s owner was a Sindhi man from Karachi who migrated to India after Partition. It was yet another example of the nationalisation of our sensibilities, which forces cities, histories, religion, communities, and languages to only be either Indian or Pakistani.

Similar forces in Pakistan have argued for decades that Hinduism is an Indian religion and did not belong in the country, conveniently ignoring its rich history in the land that is modern-day Pakistan. The same narrative is used against the use of Urdu in India, even though the history of Delhi and Urdu are deeply intertwined. Using the same framework, the history of South Asia is divided into Hindu and Muslim sections, compromising of each country’s heroes and villains.

While Pakistan successfully internalised this narrative after Partition, slowly distancing itself from all the things it perceived to be “Indian”, the narrative is increasingly gaining momentum in Narendra Modi’s India. It can be seen, for instance, in the renaming of roads and cities: Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road in 2015 and Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj last year. The incident in Bengaluru, therefore, cannot be seen simply as a reaction to the Pulwama attack, but as a part of the process of “otherisation” between India and Pakistan that has been going on for years.

What is different now is that even as India and Pakistan claimed their portions of the subcontinent’s shared religions, languages, and history, there was always a tacit understanding that identities of cities were beyond this nationalist framework. That is no longer the case. A new standard has been set. There seems to be no end to this process of otherisation, of this perpetual partitioning that has continued between the two countries since 1947.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.