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Refugees, boundaries and histories

by Jawed Naqvi, 9 April 2010

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(From: Dawn, 8 April 2010)

This person — an Indian Muslim, to use an unfortunately clichéd description — was too close to me for me to name.

It was quite late in life that I came to know he was rusticated from Lucknow’s Christian College for pulling down the Union Jack during a vice-regal visit. Later, he sold a coarse variety of khaddar, called gaarha, for a living as a Congress party partisan. But this man was nutty and prone to being misunderstood.

He became a member of the tribunal to supervise the redistribution of evacuee properties in India and Pakistan. During numerous visits to Lahore with Justice Anand Narain Mulla his job was to verify that those crossing into Pakistan received fair compensation approximately equal to what they had left behind. ‘Compensation’ was of course a gross word given the enormity and trauma of 1947. He then switched to an opposite role and, as a leading lawyer in Lucknow, began defending people who returned from Pakistan, against their forced deportation or imprisonment.

In his view men and women who returned to India from Pakistan were coming back to their homes, which they had left in a hurry, in most cases to evade an arriving communal maelstrom. They had a right to be accorded a fair hearing. While such concessions were given by the Indian government to the Muslim elite, their poorer cousins who had migrated but did not wish to live in Pakistan were treated with suspicion and disrespect.

Babu Mistry, a karakuli cap-wearing returnee from Pakistan had started a garage off Kutchehry Road in Lucknow thanks to a stay order this strange lawyer had procured for him. He was not charged a paisa. In return the mechanic would keep the lawyer’s aging Ford Prefect in working order. Babu Mistry eventually died in Lucknow just as he had desired.

The lawyer had to often endure barbs from presiding judges and colleagues about his alleged loyalty to Pakistan, which actually was just the opposite of what he was doing. One day he ticked off an errant judge thus: ‘in that country which you call mine, I hear that over-zealous judges like you are dragged down from their chairs by the ear.’ Prescient words though the angry lawyer had no sympathy for Ayub Khan’s military rule. As I said he was nutty, and misunderstood.

A fascinating book by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, who teaches history at Brown University in the United States, fleshes out so many characters as if they belong to the lawyer’s court cases that her work may be seen as a tribute to those who worked selflessly in those difficult days to ease the trauma of millions who turned refugees overnight amid new and arbitrary boundaries and newer arbitrary histories that continue to define their sudden, improbable new identities.

Ghulam Ali’s story as Ms Zamindar recounts in The Long Partition, evokes a character straight out of a Saadat Hasan Manto story. Ali was a subaltern officer in the British Indian Army who was trained in artificial limb-making in Britain in the closing years of the Second World War. Upon his return he was posted at Chaklala near Rawalpindi.

In June 1947, the partition of India was announced and the Partition Council was required to divide the resources, including bureaucrats and soldiers together with tables and chairs and weather instruments. Ali had to choose too and he opted for the Indian army since his familial home was in Lucknow. Just then the Kashmir war broke out and Ali could not leave. But in 1950 the Pakistani army discharged him on the grounds that he had opted for the Indian army.

He was taken to the border at Khokrapar and forcibly removed into Indian territory. At the Indian checkpoint he was not recognised as an Indian and the border police arrested him as a Pakistani citizen without a travel permit. Ali served a sentence in prison after which he was deported to Pakistan. He applied to the courts to be declared a Pakistani citizen but was declared an Indian national in 1956. He bought himself a Pakistani passport in order to cross the border and to return to his home in Lucknow.

His pleas were turned down in the courts and the government in Uttar Pradesh ordered him to leave the country in 1957. When he was deported by an Indian police escort to the Wagah border crossing, the Pakistani officials in turn arrested him again and, considering him an Indian national, placed him in the Hindu camp in Lahore.

A chapter on the exodus of Hindus, particularly from Sindh, is heartrending but it also reveals the Machiavellian nature of the state on both sides of the fence. While Acharya Kripalani the secular Sindhi publicly encouraged Sindhi Hindus not to migrate to India, Ms Zamindar quotes some who interacted with him as saying he privately advised them to migrate to India. An Urdu newspaper (which has taken up the lofty cause of India-Pakistan peace of late) rabidly targeted Sindhi Hindus. But the virus was widespread.

In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, expressed alarm at newspaper reports of crowds of Muslims applying for permits to return to India, and calculated that at the rate of 350 permits a day, about 30,000 or 40,000 Muslims could potentially be returning every month. They would demand to be treated on his return to India as a national of India and in the same way as any other national.

To my mind, in the ideological battle between India and Pakistan, there could not have been better proof of victory, from Delhi’s perspective, than more and more prodigal families returning to their familial homes. But the bureaucrats, who treated Ghulam Ali with disdain, are still ruling the roost on both sides. That is the living reality of Ms Zamindar’s heavily documented account of a searing tragedy.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.