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A foreign past

YOU know you belong to the past when a generation of Indians you remember are now dead. “The past is a foreign country,” the novelist L.P. Hartley once observed, “they do things differently there.” I and many rational Indians recall an India that has become another country, where once they thought and did things differently.

I first visited India in September 1978. It was already a foreign country. Visas were next to impossible to get. Foreign, certainly, but not strange. I was familiar with its history, culture, politics, literature, music, and religious diversity while I was a student in London in the 1960s.

In that liberal apolitical atmosphere, I began a study of Indian history through its miniature paintings and of Indian religions and philosophy. Interest in the first took me to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum and the then India Office Library and Records. And interest in the second introduced me to Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s work on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra; to Vinobha Bhave’s Talks on the Gita, to M.K. Gandhi’s self-centred experiments with truth; and to Khushwant Singh’s Sacred Writings of the Sikhs.

I saw Dr Radhakrishnan rise to become president of India, heard him speak at a function in India House in London (Indians and Pakistanis were overtly indistinguishable in those days), and I witnessed his fall from grace after he criticised prime minister Indira Gandhi’s governance and was denied a second term by her.

They lived in our shared past. They will never see our divided future.

I met Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1981, a decade after her midwifery of Bangladesh. She made time to receive an insignificant Pakis­tani like me in her Lok Sabha office, where she introduced me to her son Rajiv Gandhi.

Inder K. Gujral remained a friend from his time as an MP, then minister for external affairs, later as prime minister, and finally as statesman emeritus. I heard at first-hand prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s now famous speeches at the Lahore Fort and at Governor’s House in 1999, and a few years later shared a stage with him in New Delhi, where, taking a cue from my reference to Lahore, he embroidered on it with recollections of his bus yatra to Lahore with almost needlepoint finesse.

The doyen of Indian writers Mulk Raj Anand welcomed me, both of us sheltering under a creased plastic awning from Mumbai’s monsoons. The lawyer Karl Khandalavala hosted me in his breezy house on Worli Sea Face in Mumbai. He had conducted the prosecution case against Mrs Indira Gandhi for abuse of power. His more memorable investigations were in the field of miniature painting and Chola bronzes, of which he had a superb collection. Dr M.S. Randhawa, ICS, as chief commissioner created, and as a qualified botanist beautified, Chandigarh. He became my long-distance mentor, tutoring me through letters that ricocheted between Chandigarh, London and Lahore.

I have heard musical maestros play celestial harmonies — Ustad Ravi Shankar on the sitar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on his sarod, accompanied by Ustad Allah Rakha on the tabla. I have watched Balasaraswati imitate the divine with her Bharat Natyam performances. I have heard Oxonian Dom Moraes (a Hawthornden prize winner at the green age of 19) recite his poems before a tsunami of alcohol swept his talent away. I have been the ears to the outpourings (interrupted only by death) of the two most pro-Pakistani Indians — Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar.

They have gone, all of them. They lived in our shared past. They will never see our divided future.

Political relations between India and Pakistan have the bittersweet aftertaste of an oxymoron. Authors and analysts never tire of using it as a literary device: Distant Neighbours’ (Kuldip Nayar); Estranged Democracies (Dennis Kux); and Nikhil Chakravartty’s Armed Peace. Prime Minister Modi’s government though has taken it to a different pitch. The description ‘Indian Muslims’ is no longer a description: it has become a poisonous accusation. In the eyes of his BJP, the two are antithetical. One cannot be an Indian and a Muslim. Therefore, the BJP argues, if an Indian Muslim is not an Indian, he must ipso facto be a Pakistani.

It is as fallacious an argument that as dogs and cats are both quadrupeds, a dog must be a cat. Indian Muslims are as much Indians as Pakistani Hindus are Pakistanis. No political machinations — however insidious or invidious — can re-engineer that reality.

Why then should Mr Modi’s BJP government maintain its raucous decibels of hysteria against Muslims in India and in Pakistan? Does it expect Indian Muslims to be cowed into submission? And does it really believe that the only good Pakistani is a dead Pakistani?

History’s unlearned lesson tells us lies may write the prologue to war; truth pens its postscript.

The writer is an author.

F.S. Aijazuddin, "A foreign past," Dawn. 2019-04-11.
Keywords: Liberal political atmosphere , Indian culture , Religious diversity , Miniature paintings , British museum , Literature , music