“I will go to hell now,” wailed a young sixth grader, seated in an upper middle class school in Lahore. I had just distributed a stack of postcards, which had arrived from India as part of an exchange project I was running for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. Indian students had sent pictures of religious festivals, weddings and other cultural highlights. One postcard depicted a Hindu deity and had landed with this particular child. She looked up at me with her innocent wide eyes and whispered, “My eyes have committed sin, my mother said if I see something like this on TV or otherwise I will go to hell.”

A few months later when I took a handful of Pakistani students with me to Delhi as part of this project, a school principal received us with garlands and reached forward to place a tikka on our foreheads. Three of the children had begun to cry; they asked me if this meant they had become Hindu. They had heard numerous tales of their ancestors being converted by force they said. Was this their fate too?

The imaginary monster

Gallup Pakistan recently conducted a study on Partition and revealed that 76% of Pakistanis surveyed have never met an Indian. In a country with just 3% minorities, it is unlikely that most of them have come across a Hindu or Sikh either. But in the absence of this “other,” Pakistanis have found it necessary to construct the “other.”

The Two-Nation Theory – which is overtly or tacitly endorsed by all mainstream political parties, and is entrenched in history textbooks and media debates, especially in Punjab – demands the existence of this “other,” to define ourselves against. The “other” then becomes a figment of our imagination; an imaginary monster looming on the other side of the border, a monster fed on state jingoism, biased educational curriculum and media propaganda. An essential part of our identity is based on the premise that Pakistan is the pure neighbour of an infidel nation, one that it must protect itself against.

History in Pakistani textbooks only begins with the introduction of Muhammad Bin Qasim, who rid the land of all infidel practices. History textbooks openly call Hindus enemies, labelling the entire religious community as mischievous and treacherous. As part of this, certain versions of the past are highlighted, versions which reiterate the enmity between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and which accentuate Hindu and Sikh atrocities at the time of Partition, portraying Muslims as innocent bystanders and victims.

One of the children I had taken across with me to India as part of the delegation had later told me:

“There was a passage in my Class 5 Urdu book. It said Sikhs used to butcher little children with their swords and cut them up into little pieces. When we crossed Wagah border and you told me that a few Sikhs were receiving us, I expected them to be holding those daggers. When I saw them holding the garlands instead, that image shattered in front of me.” 

Unfortunately, for 76% of Pakistanis, who never come across Indians, this image continues to resonate with them.

No grey, just black and white

The Gallup Pakistan study further reveals that 48% of Pakistanis believe that Muslims did not carry out any violence against people of other religions at the time of Partition. Conversely, 56% Pakistanis state that Hindus were most responsible for causing chaos and clashes during Partition. Furthermore, 57% of the respondents stated that neither they nor their forefathers had any Hindu or Sikh friends before 1947. The phrase, “Hindus can never become the true friends of Muslims,” from the Punjab Textbook Board Islamiyat textbook resonates loudly with this line of thought.

It is perhaps no wonder that only 24% of the respondents stated that they are not satisfied with the syllabi in history textbooks. For the rest, the textbooks and their tall claims are the only truth they know, and want to know. 92% respondents stated that they would have voted for Pakistan had they been mature adults at Partition, 80% stating that they would have agreed with the Two-Nation Theory, and 71% shared that they felt Muslims had benefitted from the creation of Pakistan.

Renowned political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s study on Partition a few years ago had revealed that 40% of his sample had recalled stories of themselves being rescued by someone from the other side. According to the Gallup Pakistan study, however, 61% of Pakistanis have never come across an incident of someone being saved by a Hindu or Sikh at Partition.

This is not surprising. Sitting in the heart of Punjab throughout my childhood, I heard stories about blood-strewn trains, massacres and mutilated bodies. These versions were told and retold through textbooks and Independence Day special programmes every August 14. They were also reiterated in story-telling sessions with my maternal grandmother, who had served at the Walton Camp in Lahore, one of the largest refugee camps set up for the millions that were crossing over the newly-formed border. When I would express the desire to visit India, my grandmother – one of the kindest people I know – would say, “Tobah tobah, udhar tou sirf saanp rehte hain, (God forbid, only snakes live on that side).”

My grandmother had fortunately not lost a single family member at Partition. Yet over time, I learnt that many Partition survivors like her had personalised general stories of carnage and bloodshed, and felt and shared them as personal tragedies. For my grandmother, India was synonymous with the Hindus and Sikhs who had butchered women, men and children at Partition, and whose bodies she had to bury during her time at the camp. For most children and grandchildren of Partition, these are the only versions they have heard, the only truth they know. Many of them, even the most educated lot, find it difficult to decipher between religion and national identity. A student once emphatically stated, “Of course Shah Rukh is Pakistani, after all he’s Muslim!” The same logic is used by many in Pakistan and India to question the loyalties of religious minorities in their respective countries. The minorities have to time and again prove their Pakistani- or Indian-ness.

The case for dialogue

But in the midst of all this, are other narratives and stories waiting to be explored. During the course of my research on Partition, 25 years after hearing stories of the Walton Camp repeatedly at family gatherings, I went back to my grandmother and began to ask a different set of questions. I was struck by how many other stories she had held within, stories which had been engulfed by the trauma of Partition, by the state narratives that reinforce the bloodshed and violence at the hands of non-Muslims, by the histories that emphasise otherisation.

I learnt for the first time of her sister being saved by a Sikh family in Amritsar at Partition. I learnt about her friends Uma and Rajeshwari, who a few years ago had brought her saris from India and for whom she had bought gifts. I heard about her baby sister being named after her father’s Sikh friend’s daughter. Grandparents and great grandparents on both sides of the border hold many such tales deeply seated in their hearts. Some utter them; others speak through their silences. But for many children and grandchildren of the Partition generation, these stories are never heard, never explored.

Though Partition survivors have lived through the violence and trauma of Partition first hand, they have also lived in a community where the “other” was not really the “other” but an essential part of their daily lives. There was a mutual co-dependence of sorts. Their children however have only inherited a linear version of history, a history most often gone unchallenged.

Though one must be vary of generalisations, many Indians suffer from the same biases and prejudices. It is perhaps no wonder then that a child of no more than six years of age ran away from me in Mumbai after hearing I was from Pakistan. When I asked him why, he said he was scared of Ajmal Kasab. Other children were in awe that I was not clad in a burqa. They asked me if I had ever tasted pizza, been to an ATM, and of course, whether I had met Hafiz Saeed.

Through the parochial lens that we use to see the “other,” such stereotypes become easy to form. The only hope lies in the fact that with more access to each other, some of these stereotypes can be thwarted.

The Gallup Pakistan study found that 73% of Pakistanis felt that their opinion about Indians changed for the positive after meeting them. In January 2016, I held a Skype session with 7th graders in a school in Mumbai. Though we started the discussion with an air of suspicion, with children openly telling me that when they thought of Pakistan, they automatically thought of terrorism, at the end of the one hour session, one child commented:

“Now I know not all Pakistanis are murderers, I can think of going across too.”

That’s what dialogue, what one hour of conversation between Indians and Pakistanis, can achieve. The longer we wait, however, the more we are at risk of being absorbed by the rigid and myopic versions of the “other,” versions which will become the only truth that we will ever encounter. For those who recall the nuances of that time, the varied experiences, the co-existence, would no longer be amongst us.

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.