Letter from Pakistan on #IndependenceDayIndia: A thought for Partition survivors

Our Independence Day should require moments of silence and subtle tributes, not fireworks and military parades.

WrittenBy:Ammara Ahmad
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Nearly 20 years ago, my parents and I were returning to Lahore from Islamabad, on the glorious M-2 Motorway. A long night of travelling was ahead of us and Pakistan was about to turn 50 the next day. My father had bought an audiocassette of “qaumi taraane” (patriotic songs) for us to listen to in the car, many of these songs were sung by Noor Jehan during the 1965 War.


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Ironically, we were returning from Islamabad after spending that rainy day in a queue outside the Canadian Embassy for an immigration interview. The interview had not materialised for some reason, and my parents were tense. They had invested everything they could to move to Canada; so had my father’s youngest brother. My father’s middle brother had moved to the United States in the 1980s, to join the ever-expanding community of “Pakistani doctors”.

Every week letters from Sun Agency would drop in with a big yellow sun on them as a logo. This was the immigration firm that my family had bet its future on.

My father would paint Canada as a dreamland – a place of security, good health, fun and equality. He often said that my twin, who died of cancer, would have been alive if we were abroad. As it turned out, we did get the immigration clearance, but some of us could not move abroad. But that’s a story for another time.

Meanwhile, I continued to stay back in Pakistan and grew up at my grandparents’ house in Lahore.

Partition’s children

My grandparents brought my twin and I up because my parents were overwhelmed by the unexpected, simultaneous arrival of two girls. My grandfather was born in a village in Tehsil Batala called Fatehgarh Churian, which is in the Gurdaspur district of Indian Punjab. His life was pivoted on the memory of Partition: the exact number of days he spent in Lahore’s Walton refugee camp before his brother-in-law’s father discovered him, the number of annas he had in his pocket the day he escaped for his life alone, and the name of that Sikh neighbour who saved his family.

What hurt most was not the loss of wealth per se, but the loss of dignity — becoming a refugee in one’s own country and living off charity in the camps. Most people along with him weren’t expecting to move to the other side and those who did move, thought it was temporary. Gurdaspur was a Muslim-majority district and expected to join Pakistan, but that wasn’t to be (perhaps because it was a land connection to Kashmir). Today the Amritsar-Jammu highway passes through the district.

Some Sikhs had set my grandfather’s village on fire. His family ran for his life, but his blind grandmother was left behind and burnt alive. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been perceived as atrocious, but that day she was a mere casualty.

For me, the story of Pakistan’s Independence is my grandfather’s story of survival.

The betrayal

Today, Pakistan is not inclusive of all its citizens. We are Pakistani by birth but conditions apply. Certain sects, women, religious and sexual minorities, artistes, entertainers and of course the poor are constantly let down. Only a particular ideology and mindset is accepted as Pakistani — by the state and even by the people at large.

If a Pakistani woman posts provocative photos on Facebook or makes out with an actor in an Indian reality show or doesn’t conform to set notions of modesty — she isn’t forgiven.

Those seen as a threat to the deep state, as too “liberal”, or as “anti-Islam” are unwelcome — just like Hussain Haqqani, Raza Rumi and Rimsha Masih.

If a young liberal woman like me stays in Pakistan, what price might she have to pay? And why am I even forced to make this difficult decision to leave or stay?

Just last week there was a bomb blast in Quetta. Did the families of those who died celebrate “independence”? Pakistan’s flawed state policies that promote militancy and extremism make us ordinary Pakistanis a pawn in their strategic “great games”.

Can people remain genuinely patriotic when a narrow narrative of nationalism is enforced on them, a narrative that either does not include them as individuals or reduces them to mere casualties? Especially for those whose parents or grandparents risked their lives for a dream — a dream very different from what Pakistan is today.

Some of us are forced into exile and can never return. Some escape to Germany pretending to be Syrians or drown in the Mediterranean. And others who are educated enough, like my parents, invest in immigrating.

I wonder today that when my grandparents made Pakistan their home, did they know what Pakistan would become? Did they know that their children would not want to stay back and instead leave for another ‘safe’ haven just like they had left their village in India?

Of course, Pakistan appears to be far less safe than it actually is if you follow the Western media alone. But it is nowhere close to that magical piece of land that was supposed to protect us Muslims, that land where my grandparents arrived in 1947.

First came the Objectives Resolution, then the delayed constitution, then the coups and eventually the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. As if that was not bad enough, the Islamisation of Zia-ul-Haq followed along with more foreign policy adventures — all this spelled disappointment to those who had left everything for the “Pakistan dream”.

Pakistan as an identity

Many of us, who came of age after 9/11, started identifying more intensely with Pakistan and Islam. But as a woman, there is no doubt in my mind that both the Pakistan and Islam of today have little room for women as free individuals. Pakistan is often listed as one of the top five worst countries for women. As a state, Pakistan does little to protect and a lot to oppress women through sexist family and criminal laws. The conditions of modesty apply on me, not to my fellow male citizens. If I was a Christian or Hindu girl, I could have been abducted. If I had run away with a lover, I could be killed for honour. If I were raped, I would be expected to stay silent while the perpetrators would have impunity.

And we are in bed with regimes like Saudi Arabia, which persecute women even more.

Most Pakistanis celebrate the “creation of Pakistan”, but forget the loss of united India and our historical connection with it. I fail to understand what the “Jashan-e-Azadi” (festival of freedom) is for because we have none. If you want to test it, just embrace Christianity in Lahore and you will find out.

On a personal level, I lost my family to immigration. Those who moved to the West either broke all ties to their culture to ease the transition or tried to form an indefatigable bond with Islam to evade Western influence, particularly on their daughters.

This meant they had to remove the last remnants of Hindu culture from their lives – the music, the wedding celebrations, the literature and arts. To meld with the foreigners, almost everyone dropped Urdu — just like we Punjabis had initially dumped Punjabi for Urdu in order to blend in with an “idea of Pakistan” that had no room for anything remotely non-Muslim.

My grandmother

My grandmother is also a Partition survivor, but dementia has disarranged her memory. She reminds me of the female protagonist, Ursula, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who outlives and outstays most of the Buendia family. My grandmother and her lost memory seem to be symbolic of all the women of Partition. Some forgot what happened, some had to forget to live on, and others were themselves forgotten.

Urvashi Butalia’s seminal work on Partition accounts dedicates an entire chapter to memory because that is all that is left of the survivors, coupled with immense grief of course. I wish the accounts had been collected in the 1950s instead of the 1980s. I wish we had more of them — diaries, letters, videos, books and scholarly researches. And above all, I wish we had consolidated an honest history of what preceded and followed Partition, much like the Germans and the Japanese did after the Second World War, and duly progressed in light of these lessons.

But if we did that, we would remember our shared past with India. If that happened, then framing India as the “enemy” and going to war with them would become impossible for the establishment. So we’re presented a factually inaccurate picture of the past — so much so that many Pakistanis today don’t even realise that most of them were once Indians and indeed Hindus. Some even think they are Muslims – and Pakistani no less – since the arrival of Muhammad Bin Qasim in Sindh, 1,300 years ago.

The Partition is the story of the subcontinent’s collective backwardness, of our affinity with our own community instead of larger humanity, our perception of other communities as a threat, and our inability to educate ourselves. All of which caused us to lose our history during the initial years after Partition.

Our Independence Day should require moments of silence and subtle tributes, not fireworks and military parades. Our grandparents probably spent their nights and days in camps, not knowing who had survived, where their homes or families were.

As young Pakistani men came out on the streets with flags, eve-teasing women, shouting slogans, flouting traffic rules, playing loud songs, thronging the parks and zoos, few would have remembered the similarly disorganised and uncertain, but much larger crowd of 1947. That crowd had arrived in these very cities to attain a nebulous “Pakistani dream” with the prosperity of this very future generation in mind.


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