Politics and politicians herd us like sheep into a protective ‘national’ net that restricts and exploits us rather than allow us to utilise our strengths.
It has now been nearly three months since my naani (maternal grandmother) reunited with her brother and sister. They were separated in October 1947. Witnessing the two sisters meet for the first time after that, yards forward of the family home in Mendhar (District Poonch in Indian-administered Kashmir), was nothing short of an epiphany for me.
I spent the last 22 of my 37 years trying to make this happen, and for the most part, it seemed an unattainable dream. Since April 2005, staying put in Pakistan-administered Kashmir — I came down from the United Kingdom — was my only means to ensure my dream was attained.
In these four years, two months and 11 days of my adamant insistence that this reunion must take place, it was just good fortune that old age and chronic health issues did not take any of the three siblings beyond return and India and Pakistan did not embark on a nuclear holocaust despite Mumbai.
Week after week, I watched divided families benefit from the cross-LOC bus service, except mine. The phenomenon of Chinese goods moving easier across the LOC than divided families, even the societal disgrace of not pursuing a living — nothing — absolutely nothing, tempted me to forego my project.
It was an angst-ridden period, but it gave me ample opportunity to examine human relationships and analyse the way politics and politicians herd us like sheep into a protective ‘national’ net that restricts and exploits us rather than allow us to utilise our strengths. I still find it difficult to believe that the impossible has occurred.
It is a bizarre coincidence that I am writing from an inner suburb of Rawalpindi, namely Arjun Nagar. Adjoining this is Mohalla Mohan Pura. As the names suggest, these localities have strong Hindu origins where, prior to the bloody partition of 1947, most of the residents here would have been of the Hindu faith, their heritage perhaps dating back thousands of years. Yet, just like my naani’s family in what is now Pakistani-administered Kashmir (Nikyal), they were all hounded out and those that survived, would now be living in various parts of India.
These mohallas of Rawalpindi or Nikyal for that matter have long ceased to be what they were. You would need to strain your eyes to notice any remnant of an old mandir and this is why I would contend that the whole sub-continent has become agonisingly indigent without coexistence. Our time with naani’s family gave me a refreshing tenor of how the region might have been.
Meeting her siblings almost instantaneously wiped out my naani’s misery and marginalisation of the past sixty-two years. Mourning face to face over their deceased parents and younger brother could almost be described as a luxury they had been deprived of for decades. The happiness and joy of reunion overwhelmed that sorrow like a balm. Naani seemed young again — after all, the three siblings could only visualise each other in the shape and form of when they were last together in their late childhood-early teens. Her voice got inflection, she no longer appeared to be the chronic heart patient that she was. In the time we spent with her family, even her diet and consequently her body frame changed as she finally began to enjoy food. From my childhood, I had always wondered why she ate so little — the reason now became so abundantly obvious.
Accompanying my naani and me on this trip was of course my naana (maternal grandfather), without whose involvement this 22-year-old dream of mine would have remained forlornly unattainable. For him this trip was into ‘traditional enemy territory.’ Thus the Jinnah cap was an essential item of attire. It came as quite a shock to him that Hindus and Muslims coexisted peacefully on the other side and that Muslims had no restrictions on worship. In a matter of days, it dawned on him that when you look beyond religious-cum-national identity, we were all homo-sapiens after all. He was pleasantly surprised that “they eat, laugh and swear like us.” Indeed, the Pahari (the region of Kashmir that lies to the South and West of the Kashmir vale, traverses the LOC and is made up of Hindus and Muslims) cultural affinity was what he could readily relate to. By the end of our stay he was even waxing lyrical about Mahatma Gandhi’s attempts to keep the nation intact.
Which brings me to a dream that has been taking shape in my head these past few years. Is there scope for a Pahari inspiration for reunion of the subcontinent? They didn’t cause the division of the sub-continent but suffered much because of it (my naani’s family being a case in point), and could possibly play a key role in reunion.
Alas, reality is much harsher than it should be. South of us in Kashmir, getting Punjabis on either side of the divide to forgive and forget is a mammoth task. Furthermore, India and Pakistan still have difficulty sitting across a table. Negative elements on either side are intent on sustaining separation. In our Pahari region, if the constraining demands of Indian and Pakistani identity are loosened and crucially, if the legitimate security concerns of our Hindu minority are appropriately addressed, our people would be willing to listen, learn and revise. Evaluating history in a balanced manner and exploring opportunity in a globalised world requires that we embrace, not constrict our diversity.
Even this is asking for a lot. It is not just the tedious cross-LOC application process. Many Hindus on the Indian-administered side are apprehensive about visiting their ancestral homes and relatives, if any, on the Pakistani-administered side, not least because of security concerns. They are also aware that for many people on our side of the divide, being Pakistani necessitates being anti-Hindu (synonymous with anti-India). Unfortunately, no amount of entente between India and Pakistan in the past few years has changed that pernicious perception. For activists such as myself, there is a non-existent institutional framework for developing cross-LOC initiatives, zero space for civil society and on top of that, an endemically corrupt administration whose sustenance lies in maintaining the status quo. That should provide the reader with a reasonable idea of how far we are from the road to progress and reconciliation.
The final morning of our visit across the LOC was extremely painful. Naani’s sister fainted and collapsed as she watched her sister depart. Her nieces wailed and nephews wept incessantly.
Sensa (our home tehsil in district Kotli of Pakistan-administered Kashmir) was only about 70 kilometres away, yet we all knew for reasons more than obvious that this reunion may never happen again.
Nevertheless, Vedic chants and exclamations of Masha-allah and Subhan-allah did, do and will coexist in this region.