I first visited Mumbai in 2012, four years after the horrendous 26/11 attacks in Mumbai that altered the dynamics of relationship between India and Pakistan for good.
The attack sanctioned the image of Pakistan as a terrorist country, and all Pakistanis as versions of Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman caught alive after the attacks and later executed, and Laskhar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed in the popular Indian imagination.
My wife Anam Zakaria, the author of Footprints of Partition, visited Mumbai a couple of months after I did and had a peculiar incident which she narrates in her book. At a high-end school in the city, she was surrounded by a group of children aged six to seven, who were drawn towards her by her visitor tag. A little boy came running to her and asked her where she was from.
She asked him to guess and he took the name of every country that he knew – except Pakistan. When Anam told him she was from Pakistan he screamed and ran away from her. She called him back and asked him what happened. “I am afraid of Ajmal Kasab,” he said to her.
I too encountered similar incidents in Delhi, where declaring my nationality immediately evoked questions on Saeed, gangster Dawood Ibrahim, or the so-called terrorist nature of Muslims.
I noticed this even more so in Mumbai, and therefore, when asked where I was from, I usually avoiding saying Pakistan to taxi drivers or vendors, choosing instead to claim I am from Punjab.
Back then, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray was still alive and as a Muslim Pakistani, it was hard to feel comfortable in a city that was once ruled by the rightwing party (which is in power in the coalition government again) known for its anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and where Balasaheb was still revered.
Where the past is present
It was under these circumstances that one of my friends from the city took me to Mani Bhawan, the residence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the 1917 to 1934.
It was from this two-storey structure in the Gamdevi area of south Mumbai that Gandhi launched his Satyagraha movement in 1919 and the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930. To an Indian reader, a product of the Indian education system, these are terms and political movements that one internalises as a child, but for a Pakistani these are alien concepts wiped clean of the Pakistan Studies curriculum, a compulsory subject.
In our education system, Gandhi is always described as a cunning Hindu – a worthy opponent of Muhammad Ali Jinnah – who oversaw the Hinduisation of Indian politics that were secular in nature before Gandhi’s return from South Africa.
I first came across Gandhi in an elective course at my university, following which I devoured literature written by and on him. For the first time, I was able to see the character of Gandhi untinged by a nationalistic fervor. I walked around Mani Bhawan, delighted to be sharing space with a person I had begun to admire immensely.
His library, quotes, and pictures spoke to me as I soaked each moment, hypersensitive to the time and space around me.
On the second floor, while exploring a museum that contained miniature dolls of Gandhi depicting various incidents from his life, I was overwhelmed with emotion and tears rolled down my cheeks. Here, I saw a doll of Gandhi lying on his bed while Ghaffar Khan, the great Pathan from Charsadda, sat next to him.
For years, Khan, also known as Sarhadi Gandhi or Frontier Gandhi, stood next to the Indian National Congress, opposing plans to partition India and damaging Muslim League’s assertion that it was the sole representative of Indian Muslims.
Close to 1947, as communal violence spiraled out of control and it was clear that Pakistan would become a reality, he is believed to have uttered his last words to Gandhi, his mentor and close friend: “You have thrown us to the wolves.”
In the new state, Khan had to face the consequences of being on the wrong side of history. The political workers of his organization, Khudai Khidmatgar, were harassed by the new state machinery and robbed of their dignity.
For his initial support to the Congress and his continued support to Pasthun nationalism (he had pressed for the creation of an autonomous region for the Pashtun ethnic minority) following the creation of Pakistan, Khan was labeled a traitor – a title that continues to haunt his legacy.
In a state created on the basis of a uniform religion, there was no space for ethnic nationalism. While vanguards of the independence struggle rose to prominent positions in both countries, Khan was thrown into jail on numerous occasions. He was perceived a threat to the unity of this new state.
However, it is owing to the efforts of this great man that while Punjab, Sindh and Bengal suffered fires of communal violence, the Frontier Province (now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) remained peaceful, as Hindus and Sikhs continue to stay in their ancestral homes. They still live here in large numbers.
But the land that once saw Khan’s non-violent political struggle is now wrought with violence. The Islamic nationalism that was being promoted at the time and used against Khan has started burning its own home, with every Islamic militant organisation in Pakistan claiming to fight for a true Islamic state. Thousands have lost their lives to this militancy and many more have been displaced.
Sixty-nine years ago on August 14 and 15, as Pakistan and India celebrated their respective independence and birth, millions were displaced in the Punjab and Bengal and lost their homes and family members in the name of a new state.
As Indian National Congress celebrated its victory, Gandhi stayed alone at his ashram mourning the loss of millions of lives. Even though Pakistani nationalist narrative has othered Gandhi, for him, both were his countries. T
owards the end of his life, he had decided to travel to Pakistan and serve the remaining of his life on this side of the border. However, before that could happen, he was assassinated by the rising force of Hindu nationalism that now seems to be strengthening its grip over India. How would Pakistan have interpreted Gandhi had he moved to Pakistan and died here, as a Pakistani?
Every year, on August 14, as millions of Pakistanis celebrate Independence Day, my mind goes back to the millions of lives lost on both sides of the border and those who became a victim to this nationalistic fervor.
Each year, I am reminded of how Gandhi marked the creation of these two countries and wonder how we too should commemorate this day somberly, mourning the loss of lives, instead of singing and dancing to jingoistic songs.
Standing in front of these dolls at Gandhi’s house, I knew that if I was not welcome in Thackeray’s Mumbai, I was surely welcome in Gandhi’s Bombay.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities