South Asia neighbours are older but no wiser

Pakistan and India celebrate their independence days on 14 and 15 August, respectively. But neither country has ever been free from the toxicity of regional and religious conflict.

On 14 August 1967, I was born in Calcutta, India, on Pakistan’s Independence Day, 20 years after India and Pakistan were formed (India’s Independence Day is on 15 August). Four years later, a civil war inside East Pakistan, with the intervention of India’s military, resulted in the partition of Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

My sister was married during the war, which had an impact on us in Calcutta, only 70km from the India-Pakistan border. My memories of the two are inextricably linked: wedding finery with military uniforms, the sound of the shehnai playing to welcome the bridegroom and the imagined sounds of the tanks exiting the Eastern Command headquarters of the Indian Army not far from our home. 

Black chart paper went over our windows as we heard reports that the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet might sail up the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. Meanwhile, a tram exploded outside our home; it was said that it was carrying a Maoist rebel whose bomb went off by accident.

Eat the map

It was impossible to walk anywhere in Calcutta in this period without being confronted with the hideousness of hunger and poverty, the numbers of those hungry and poor increased by the refugees from East Pakistan. New maps had been created, first in 1947 with the creation of India and Pakistan and now, in 1971, with the creation of Bangladesh. 

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In 1972, Bengal’s great filmmaker Mrinal Sen released the second of his Calcutta trilogy, Calcutta 1971. Over four discrete stories, the film ranges across classes – from bourgeoisie to proletariat, from town to country – and depicts the aspirations of ordinary people and the hypocrisy of the elite, the structural violence of capitalism, and the resilience of survival and hope. The film ends when a young idealistic communist is shot by the police; he returns from death in the final moment of the film to lecture the audience about the stark realities of our society.

A few years later, the Bangladeshi poet Rafiq Azad put the matter of new nations and poverty squarely, “give me food, bastard, or else I will eat the map (bhaat de haramjada, ta na hole manchitro khabo)”.

The seeds of future conflict

The biggest celebration in India is on Republic Day, 26 January, when the Constitution of 1950 came into effect and when – in 1930 – the nationalists declared Purna Swaraj, the complete independence of India. 

Independence Day – on 15 August – is important in India, but it was not so important for me; I was engulfed in the aftermath of my birthday. But even Republic Day, by the 1970s, had taken on a tone that was alien to the spirit of the freedom struggle. There were floats down Rajpath in Delhi that represented the diversity of India, but they seemed to be gradually suffocated by the military aspect of the parade. None of this pomp impressed Mahatma Gandhi when he was alive.

 10 February 2004: Constables with India’s Border Security Force do drills at a centre in Jodhpur where they train camels that can survive the harsh desert conditions in Rajasthan along the Pakistan border. (Photograph by Ami Vitale/ Getty Images)
10 February 2004: Constables with India’s Border Security Force do drills at a centre in Jodhpur where they train camels that can survive the harsh desert conditions in Rajasthan along the Pakistan border. (Photograph by Ami Vitale/ Getty Images)

Gandhi did not stand at Red Fort in Delhi on 15 August 1947 when the Union Jack came down and the tricolour took its place. He was then in Calcutta, where he had gone to bring peace to a city wracked by religious-based violence (what in India are called “communal riots”). In July, in New Delhi, Gandhi had addressed a prayer meeting where he spoke of the upcoming independence celebrations. “I cannot rejoice on August 15,” he said. “I did not wish India to be partitioned but it has been partitioned. What good can come of crying over it?” 

When he went to Noakhali in Bengal (which would become part of Pakistan and is now in Bangladesh), he was there to bring peace to those who were fighting along religious lines. Gandhi worried that “the kind of freedom we have got today contains also the seeds of future conflict between India and Pakistan. How can we therefore light the lamps? I shall consider freedom to have been secured only on the day Hindus and Muslims have cleansed their hearts.”

On 15 August, he fasted, prayed and spun yarn in Beliaghata. That evening, he wrote to his Quaker friend Agatha Harrison: “My way of celebrating great events, such as today’s, is to thank God for it and, therefore, to pray.”

The poets’ ambivalence

As the Union Jack came down in Pakistan and India, new flags went up the posts. Around them, the people celebrated and imagined that this independence would mean the end not only of British rule, but of social oppression and exploitation. In Calcutta, the smouldering riots had not left the city as the poet Bishnu Dey sang of the desolation and the hope. First the desolation:

“Everywhere we see homeless men gasp in the shadows
In parks, camps, roadways, mansion porches, beds on hard floors.
What do they think? Have they left their homes to look for their country?”

And then the hope, the mildest of hope:

“We are the people of this deathless earth:
We build the future on the tide of our own past
In our own present, on that bank and on this…
Give water –
Give water to my roots.”

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On the other side of the subcontinent, in Srinagar, Kashmir, the communist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz sang a more dismal song of how this was “not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom, we had set out in sheer longing”. He had started writing this poem in Lahore, which would become part of Pakistan, in June 1947 and finished it in Srinagar in August 1947, a few days after Pakistan was born. The poem was called Subh-e Azaadi (Dawn of Independence).

“In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must
search for that promised Dawn.”

Dey and Faiz were ambivalent about the new nations.

Beyond independence, the social revolution

The peasantry and the workers had other ideas: not bewilderment at the limitation of independence, but insistence on driving a deeper agenda. It was not enough to change the flag; what was needed was an end to landlordism and caste prejudice, the dictatorship of capital in the factories and the fierceness of patriarchy in the homes. They wanted to end the rule of property and poverty.

Around the time of independence – from 1946 to 1948 – a series of struggles led by the communists took place across India, making the words Tebhaga, Telangana and Punnapra-Vayalar into iconic references. They faced the guns of the new government, which was happy to claim independence but not willing to allow the social revolution to deepen.

The departure of the British Raj was certainly something to be celebrated, but it came at a weighty cost that these poets could count: there was the partition of the land into India and Pakistan, a partition that continues to haunt the people of the region, and there was the inflammation of tensions across religious lines, between Hindus and Muslims, a tension that continues to whip up fury across South Asia and deforms life into its opposite, namely blind hatred.

13 March 2004: Cricket fans celebrate India’s first one-day international against Pakistan at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photograph by Scott Barbour/ Getty Images)
13 March 2004: Cricket fans celebrate India’s first one-day international against Pakistan at the National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photograph by Scott Barbour/ Getty Images)

In India, it is not Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone who has brought the iron into the nation’s soul; he merely bent down and lifted what was already there. Evidence for it was available to Gandhi in his final months, and it was a member of Modi’s political family – Hindu nationalists – who shot him to death on 30 January 1948.

Across the border, in Pakistan, Habib Jalib asked for all the right things:

“Provide me with medicine, clothing, bread;
a smallish house in which to live.
Grant me free education, Lord,
for I am a Muslim, too.
What is the meaning of ‘Pakistan’?”

These are the right things, but they could not be asked. Or, more precisely, these words did not make sense to the newly empowered elites. In 1951, the Pakistani state charged the communists with sedition, arrested the leadership and put them through the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, which effectively set back the people’s movement for decades. 

In India, the government banned the Communist Party in 1948, then allowed it to function and then, when the communists won the election to govern in Kerala in 1957, it was overthrown undemocratically in 1959. The crackdown on the Left would leave the field open to the harshest social forces – toxic forces that took their strength from fissures of religion and region. Riots would tear into the workers’ worlds on religious lines and regional lines, such as in Narayanganj (East Pakistan) between “Bengali” and “Bihari” workers, which left 400 people dead. This was the ugliness of the blocked social revolution. It has a long life in our time.

The Dawn came, Faiz sang crisply, with “tarnished rays” shining into the eyes.

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