Speaking at a recent online event, eminent scholar and physicist Dr. Vinod Mubayi calls for more dialogue and people-to-people contact between the countries of the region, particularly India and Pakistan, seeing hope in collaborative and forward-looking initiatives like Sapan
By Urvashi Butalia
28 November 2022: It is 1947. A six-year-old boy born in Lahore is about to enter the first grade when the city erupts in violence. Riots in July and August shut down schools. Children are forced to stay home.
Living with his maternal grandparents, the boy, now over 80, still carries vivid memories of that time.
One memory is standing with his grandfather, hearing their Muslim neighbour implore them to leave their home. “Yahan ke naujawanon ka kuch bharosa nahin hai, kuch galat kar baithe toh hum pachtayenge (we can’t tell trust the youth here, if they do something wrong we’ll regret it),” says the neighbour.
“Raje maharaje badalte hain par praja toh nahin badalti (kings and princes come and go but people don’t change),” replies the boy’s grandfather, Rai Saheb Manohar Nath Razdan.
This phrase will be oft repeated in his family and elsewhere. Rai Saheb can’t understand what’s happening – the term ethnic cleansing today has much meaning but was unknown then.
A passionate plea
The grandson Vinod Mubayi, now an eminent retired scientist and scholar based in New York, recalls that the neighbour belonged to the Tiwana clan. People of his grandfather’s generation found their uprooting and displacement incomprehensible. For many, it led to bitterness.
“Partition divided us: Can we be friends?” Dr Mubayi asks, speaking at a recent online talk on this theme, the twentieth lecture of the Dialogues Series, organised by New Socialist Initiative. Drawing upon history and personal stories, he makes a passionate plea for friendship and open communication between the two countries, particularly at the people-to-people level.
While not wishing to delve into the two-nation theory at this point, he says, it is important to reiterate that it was the Hindu nationalist Veer Savarkar who initially brought up this concept as early as 1923. This was well over a decade before Jinnah adopted the credo in the thirties and forties, leading to the 1947 Partition. Today, Savarkar is idolised by those in power in India.
Dr Mubayi draws on personal stories to illustrate what Partition meant and continues to mean to those who experienced it. Violence, killing, brutality happened on both sides, he says. Some who were displaced, like his grandfather, were partially compensated in material terms. However, the uprooting and displacement brought other losses which could not so easily be recouped – dispossession, the loss of homes, neighbourhoods, ways of life.
This engendered a kind of bitterness which lives alongside nostalgia for lost homes. It is not surprising that people continue to carry both in their hearts and minds, notes Dr Mubayi – dialectics teaches us that contradictory emotions can co-exist.
Another example of such paradoxical emotions emerges in a story involving Dr Mubayi’s late mother. She had been longing to revisit the home in Lahore where she grew up and gave birth to her three children before Partition took her away.
The wedding of a friend’s daughter in Lahore in March 2006 provided an opportunity. Dr Mubayi knew the bride’s mother, filmmaker Shireen Pasha, and father, architect Anwer Pasha, through a network of progressive-minded Southasians in Canada. He and his mother, then 87 years old, went to Pakistan for the wedding.
The visit to Dr Mubayi’s childhood home in the walled city emerged spontaneously one day while they were at the hosts’ home in Lahore. Since not much had changed in the old city, they found the house easily. Shireen Pasha captured some moments of that visit with her video camera, including the warm welcome from the current residents who turned out to be descendants of tenants to whom Dr Mubayi’s grandfather had once rented the house.
The current occupants had retained many of the old papers, rent receipts, and tenancy papers. When the guests took their leave, the residents stopped them saying, it has taken you 60 years to come here, now at least stay 60 days with us.
But when Dr Mubayi’s mother later visited her elder brother in Delhi and shared her excitement, he dismissively retorted, “Everything has been taken from us, why are you telling me these tales now?”
Contradictory feelings thus live on, even among siblings in the same family, and it probably happens in society at large too, comments Dr Mubayi. It is unfortunate that the two states created in the aftermath of Partition have remained hostile to each other, he added. It is even more tragic that the hostility seems to have become stronger in recent years, with no signs of receding.
Without getting into theories about the role of the state and civil society, he notes that the interests of the state and civil society groups can often diverge, particularly depending on which group is in power. One example is when majoritarian fascism expresses state power in a way that does not meet the interests of all citizens.
Given this, Dr Mubayi does not hold out much hope that the hostility between the two countries will end anytime soon. They have already fought four wars since their creation. The entrance of nuclear weapons into both countries in 1998 added a terrifying dimension to this hostility.
But while the past is commonly understood to be a prologue to the future, it also behoves us to imagine a future without the baggage of the past and to focus on what is possible, says Dr Mubayi.
And what are the possibilities for the future? Experience over the past 75 years has shown that despite the fraught and tense relationship, the common people of Southasia and in the diaspora easily establish friendships and bonds with each other whenever they get an opportunity, comments Dr Mubayi. The longstanding linguistic and cultural bonds between India and Pakistan still bind peoples together. As geologist Dr Arun Ahulwalia says, stones have no borders. So it can be with people.
This point cannot be emphasised enough, says Dr Mubayi. If we are to truly work towards establishing peace in the region, we need to work with what we have and build relationships at all levels.
An organisation that has done precisely this, generating some hope through its dedicated work for peace in the region is Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network, launched in March 2021. Dr Mubayi is a member of Sapan, as is this writer.
Dr Mubayi appreciates Sapan’s work calling for soft borders and visas on arrival, as well as its groundbreaking monthly discussions on a range of subjects and themes — sport, road safety, the environment, youth, healthcare, Covid-19, the rights of the incarcerated, music and mystics, labour rights, art and activism, and more. Sapan has established itself, Dr Mubayi says, as a group that holds promise and believes in a future of peace.
It is important to set up more such groups of citizens to discuss common issues. Even if we don’t have the resources of the state, at least we will be talking and not trying to score political points, he adds.
Journalist and Sapan founder-curator Beena Sarwar who joined the discussion briefly between other engagements spoke of the importance of “moving beyond the binary of India and Pakistan” and looking at the region as a whole. She also stressed the importance of recognising the differences between and within our own countries – not everything is “the same” as some people say.
So what role can citizens play, asked an audience member. Is there even a point in speaking of people-to-people contact, given that our governments continue to make enemies of each other, and that any change we are able to make is so micro that it hardly touches the macro picture?
We need to begin with ourselves and work towards the change we want to see, responded Dr Mubayi, a view seconded by Beena Sarwar.
Our efforts may be small, but they are not insignificant, added Dr Mubayi. The ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra being led by Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent opposition leader in India, may not make a dent at a political level but at least it provides people with the feeling that some of the toxic legacies that we are dealing with can be countered, at some level.
This, in the end, is the message of hope that Dr Mubayi wishes to deliver: We have had a long history of division, and it is time we begin to heal and repair relationships.
Working together to address our common issues is a crucial step towards that goal.
Video of Dr Vinod Mubayi’s talk is online on Facebook at this link.
Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher and writer based in Delhi. Among her publications is the groundbreaking award-winning oral history The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Penguin, India, 1998; Duke University Press, 2000.
This is a Sapan News syndicated feature available to use with credit to Sapan News Network.
Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’.