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SOUTH ASIA: Of Nationalism and Love

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By Shivam Vij *

Conflict resolution in South Asia is hostage to our inability to see that we are trapped in a nationalist hall of mirrors.

The predominant emotion with which jingoistic Indians and Pakistanis view each others’ misfortunes is schadenfreude. They count each other’s conflicts and rebellions to keep score. The Indian will talk about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and the Pakistani will ask about the treatment of Dalits in India. The Pakistani will complain against Indian atrocities in Kashmir  and the Indian will point fingers at Balochistan.

When I see such Indo-Pakistani interactions online, I am reminded of these words:

Dushman mare te khushi na karey
Sajna vi mar jaana

(Rejoice not the death of the enemy
The beloved may also die)

Those stark words are from Mian Muhammad Bakhsh’s most famous book of poems, Saiful Maluk. Bakhsh (1830-1907) was a Sufi pir and poet from Mirpur in modern-day Azad Kashmir, though his ancestors hailed from the Gujrat district in Pakistani Punjab. Known in Pakistan as Rumi-e-Kashmir, I learnt about Bakhsh from a friend Saqib Mumtaz who hails from Poonch on the Indian side of the Line of Control. A student in Delhi, Mumtaz grew up literally on the border which is not a border, watching Doordarshan and PTV alike, making him a bit of an Indian and a bit of a Pakistani. 

Culturally, my friend feels close to Kashmir but also to Punjab. Bakhsh’s poetry sounds very Punjabi, but my friend tells me there’s a dispute over Bakhsh’s language. He wrote in Potwari (or Pothohari), Pahari and Punjabi, using words from different dialects so that everyone in his land could understand him, as they still do.

The dispute over which language Bakhsh wrote in should perhaps not be resolved. It is proof that the defining feature of the culture of his land is the intermingling of cultures. That, indeed, is also my culture. That is Southasia – our tongues and stories and folklores speak to each other, allowing a second-generation Punjabi ‘refugee’ like me to feel at home in north India. 

I think about this, and then I think about the Indians and the Pakistanis, bearers of artificial identities barely 65 years old, who score points against each other on Twitter, and I wonder if the absurdity of their war ever strikes them? Do they wonder if the legacy of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh is Indian or Pakistani? When the Indian points to the plight of Pakistani Hindus does he realise, for even a moment, the pain of Indian Muslims? What do they think nationalism means for an Amritsari Sikh whose holiest shrines are in Pakistan? What does warmongering mean for a man in Karachi who has family across north-India? Do they not see the absurdity in taking hawkish positions regarding their own country while embracing the left-liberals and rebels of the ‘enemy’ country?

Hall of mirrors

The people have had enough of repression and political manipulation. They want freedom. They assert their right to self-determination. They say they were never a part of your map. They want to make their own map. They take up arms against the state. The state responds with brutal repression. Men in uniform march down, take over the streets, bazaars and dreams. They make people disappear. Catch and kill. Kill and dump. They even get rewarded for doing so.

That could well be the story of Indian-administered Kashmir, except it is the story of Pakistan’s Balochistan region. As an Indian, the events in Balochistan pain me, not least because they remind me of everything that my government has been doing in Kashmir in my name.

One would have thought the Pakistani state would have learnt lessons not only from East Pakistan but also from the many insurgencies in neighbouring India, some of which it has helped foment. Reading the news from Balochistan is surreal, because it seems to be a carbon copy of Kashmir in the 1990s: missing persons, impunity, rebel-held territories. Even the discourse around the violence is familiar. Just as Kashmiris insist Kashmir was never a part of India, the Baloch insist Balochistan was never a part of Pakistan. Both conflicts stem from the messy history of Partition and the princely states, with post-colonial India and Pakistan both treating their provinces even more heavy-handedly than the British Raj did. Just as Indians blame Pakistan for the Kashmir rebellion, Pakistanis blame India for Balochistan. Just as Indians blame a few ‘separatist’ leaders to suggest that the Kashmiri rebellion is not a popular one, Pakistanis insist the problem in Balochistan only has to do with three tribal sardars. Just as Indian point to the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits as an argument against azadi for Kashmir, the Pakistanis point to the killings by Baloch rebels of non-Baloch settlers in Balochistan.

There are of course many differences between Balochistan and Kashmir – to begin with, the territory of Balochistan is claimed only by one state, while Kashmir is claimed by two. Yet the Baloch will tell you how a part of Balochistan is occupied by Iran as well. The root cause of Baloch grievances is economic, where in Kashmir it is political. Yet, both nationalists will tell you it’s all really about identity.  The Kashmiris assert that they are different from ‘Indians’ and the Baloch assert that they are different from ‘Pakistanis’. Kashmiris assert that their Central Asia-influenced culture, of which their Islam is an element, sets them apart from north India. The Baloch insist on their secularism and do not subscribe to the notion that Islam binds them to the Pakistanis. But in the way the two peoples articulate their struggles, and how the Pakistani and Indian states have decided that their only option is to militarily crush the rebellions, the similarities between the two conflicts outweigh the differences.

My Kashmiri friends don’t like Kashmir being compared to Balochistan. They point out that the status of Balochistan has never been disputed at the United Nations. For Kashmiris, Pakistan’s actions in Balochistan present a moral problem that is best avoided: how can we be counting on support from Pakistan while it does in Balochistan what India is doing in Kashmir? Looking at Southasia from Kashmir, this is not the first occasion that such questions have arisen: take, for instance, East Pakistan’s blood-soaked transformation into Bangladesh. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the only credible and respected Kashmiri nationalist leader left, is said to have made it clear to Pakistan (albeit privately) on more than one occasion that it must put its own house in order in Balochistan. That, however, does not translate into supporting the Baloch people’s right to self-determination.

The Kashmiri feels that if he criticises Pakistan on the Balochistan repression, then Kashmiri would lose a friend in Pakistan. More importantly, this will be used by Indian nationalists to say that if Kashmir’s friend Pakistan can crush a “separatist” movement what was so wrong about what India did in Kashmir? This idea of tactical silence is not practised by Kashmiris alone: Indians practice it too, on the question of human rights violations in Kashmir, lest it be used by those who want Kashmir to not be part of India. And so, in nationalism’s hall of mirrors, our silences scream at each other. 

For a variety of reasons, the people of Indian-administered Kashmir today overwhelmingly demand azadi – independence – rather than a merger with Pakistan. This change in aspiration has become so widespread that even S A S Geelani has replaced praise for Pakistan with demands for ‘azadi’ in his speeches. Yet there are still those in Kashmir who dream of joining Pakistan, and some of them say there is no problem in Balochistan, and that the crisis is all Indian propaganda. Within Pakistan, meanwhile, there are those on whom the parallels between Balochistan and Kashmir are not lost.


* Shivam Vij is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. He is @DilliDurAst on Twitter. This essay is dedicated to Ilmana Fasih, an ‘Indian Pakistani. This was first published in Himal Southasian on 19 June 2012.

Image Shivam Vij |Courtesy: Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting

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