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India, Pakistan and the ghosts of leaders past

April 12, 2013

-Illustration by Abro.
-Illustration by Abro.

Last week I wrote for this blog, a short piece that I titled “If Jinnah had lived”. Using the example of Nelson Mandela, who led a bitterly divided South Africa into a post-Apartheid era, without allowing it to plunge into an orgy of vengeful violence, I posed the question of what Pakistan’s present may have looked like, if its own visionary Mohammad Ali Jinnah had lived longer. The idea, was to provoke Pakistanis, who stand today at the cusp of choosing new leaders, to consider the importance of leadership in trying circumstances. Particularly important to me, was the ambiguity of grand historical moments, Partition for Pakistan and the end of Apartheid for South Africans and the ability of exemplary men to translate their uncertainty into iconic change.

No sooner had the blog been published on the Dawn website, that it was barraged by comments, some posted publicly and some making their way into my email account. A healthy majority seemed to originate from across the border, and a majority were virulent, angry and even hateful in their content. Jinnah must never be compared to Mandela, one said; ranting on about how one man united a country and another divided a subcontinent. Others fixated to a typo in the body of the article (no I did not mean white majority it was obviously a mistake).

The letters themselves were not entirely surprising, Indians and Pakistanis nourished as they both are on hefty spoonfuls of hatred and variously weighed accounts of revised history are never hesitant to pounce on one and another. What did perturb was not their rhetoric, but the concerted verve with which they chose to avoid the point of the article. The sum total of attacks directed all their invective energy at insisting that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was not worthy of being compared to the Nobel Peace Prize winning, 27 year prison surviving Mandela. (Yes, I also know that Jinnah did not go to prison) In insisting on whether I could or could not compare the two as if such permissions must be procured by op-ed writers beforehand, nearly all of the responses missed the question as it was posed and which must be reiterated here: How important are leaders in leading countries through arduous and emotionally painful transitions?

In their passion and anger of these retorts, however, lay a single truth that I had not expected to find.  Nearly 66 years, a whole lifetime and at least two generations after Partition, the sting and aches of its wounds seems to lie still unhealed and still festering. In South Africa, in the immediate aftermath after Apartheid, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to provide a venue for moving from fury to friendship or at least some minimal fellowship. Underneath the creation of the Commission, was the realisation that unless some institutionalised venue was formed for the task of creating a version of history that could be embraced by all South Africans, the country could not move on as one country.

Pakistan and India were not one country, and so no such overture was deemed necessary. Indeed, the militaries and Governments on either side, eager to build loyal vote banks on the backbones of nationalism, emphasised difference, and hatred, intent on keeping populations polarised. In this calculation, the truths of Partition were largely lost, deployed in the service of proving that one and not both countries could ever be right. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the architect of Pakistan in the Indian version of Partition, is thus an eternal bogeyman, Pakistan, the forever rogue and runaway state. This perception, it seems from the remarks of Indian readers, continues to persist today, and so Indians cannot bear the comparison of Jinnah’s life with that of Nelson Mandela. In this equation, no chance can be lost for vilifying him who envisioned Pakistan, no voices spared in insisting that the country that lives next door should never have been created at all.

Jinnah did not live, and Pakistan continues to battle the conundrums of unanswered questions left by the untimely departure of the first man with the plan. The Indian readers, who wrote some of the most caustic of the 140 comments on the blog, seem to be relishing Pakistan’s agony, reveling in its pain, unwilling even to allow an author to consider the meaning of the loss of leadership. All of it goes to ask another question and pose another possibility; perhaps Commissions of Truth and Reconciliation are required not only by countries like South Africa that choose to be one, but also by those that are divided into two. Without them it seems, the sores of old will continue to fester, pouring their pus into even the most incidental of public forums, into considerations directed not at the rightness or wrongness of the historical fact of Partition, but at what exists today and how it can be made better tomorrow.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.