In a few days both Pakistan and India will be ‘celebrating’, jointly and with equal sobriety, their 68th Independence Days.
Sixty-eight years ago when the subcontinent was to attain its political freedom a middle-class Muslim family were huddled together in their New Delhi house in thrilled anticipation of the declaration. What does freedom look like, they wondered? Does it look like a voter’s ballot box or political prisoners walking out of prison? Did it mean the freedom to go anywhere one pleases or buy anything one fancies? To continue to profess one’s faith and express one’s opinion openly?
Each member of the family, including the youngest children and the elderly on whom public affairs and political events had impinged during the period leading up to actual freedom, was feeling thrilled at the prospect of the country’s freedom and imagined that it would quickly alter the shape of things and herald a new era of peace and prosperity.
But there is a difference between what it means for us to be free from something and free to do something. These are different from one another. In respect of India and Pakistan, the decades have proved that it is not easy to retain freedom to the fullest. We were under political subjugation for long not because the British had conquered us, but because we had lost the qualities that really make men and women free.
The decades have proved that it is not easy to retain freedom
These qualities will not suddenly spring up full-fledged like switching on the electric bulb, but will have to be gradually and laboriously fostered. This had to be done by each one of the several hundred million people living in both India and Pakistan.
What were the qualities that were needed in all citizens who were attaining freedom? Five were identified and crystallised: moral courage that would defy fear and resist temptations in the interest of what one considers right; tolerance, to live and let live and welcome honest differences and not make them a cause for fratricidal conflict; efficiency and integrity in work; a desire for service which implied a greater preoccupation with what one can put into life than what one can get out of it; and a good temper.
But within three months, as the colours of the landscape ripened into autumn tints, tragedy stepped close on the heels of tragedy.
Punjab went up in flames. Delhi had its gruesome bloodbath while Calcutta had flared up twice before Gandhi’s magic had brought about a semblance of sanity to the Hindus and Muslims in volatile Bengal.
In many parts of India and Pakistan life and peace and decency trembled on the verge of a breakdown. The rosy glow of freedom had turned blood-red. Communal rioting and civil war had taken the place of law and order and millions of men, women and children had, for the first time in their life, come in contact with organised and armed ‘goonda’ raj.
Thousands of families both in India and Pakistan were grief-stricken. Some were bitter while most were stunned. They had spent all their lives in small villages and towns to which they were deeply attached and in which their ancestors had settled for many hundred years, lived and worked, married and multiplied, enjoyed and suffered, died and found their eternal rest.
Here is where they built their modest homes, places of worship, educational and cultural institutions, ploughed their land and carried on business, at peace with their neighbours of all communities. Some of them had carried the message of culture and religion, poetry and literature to the far corners of the subcontinent. Indeed, to the entire world.
And now, all of a sudden, the bottom had been pulled out of their secure life, adrift in an unfamiliar world without any moorings. They felt bewildered and unable to assess the forces which had pitched them into the centre of this cruel storm.
But the extent of suffering which ‘freedom’ and the exchange of populations brought about in their train were not the worst to happen.
The bitter experiences did not induce feelings of pity and charity. The danger was by no means confined to adults but slowly and steadily seeped into the minds of children like poison.
Fifty years later, a modest effort was made by a Karachi school in collaboration with schools, colleges and sports bodies in India to arrange goodwill tours to India which had considerable impact on the minds of young students on both sides of the border. ‘Aao dosti karen’ was the theme. The objective was simply to hold fast to faith in shared human values and disallow madness to affect young minds and hearts to make freedom truly joyful for all.
We need similar efforts to free the mind of bias.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2014