Let us first look at certain ironies: Pakistan has a Muslim population of 178,097,000, with a small minority of Sikhs, Christians and Hindus; India has a minority population of 18 per cent in its total population of 1.2 billion. And among these, Muslims are the largest minority, of 177,286,000, or 10.9 per cent of the world’s Muslims.
That makes India home to the one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan (by some estimates). By 2050, we are most likely to be the largest Muslim population in the world. We have strenuously striven to preserve ourselves as a secular society but find that Pakistan feels more comfortable thinking of us as a Hindu country.
The Partition of 1947 divided land and families but did not, and could not, obliterate blood relationships. I am myself part of a family, members of which have served the two countries with unwavering fidelity and distinction.
One brother served as President of India while the other served as education minister. A cousin of mine was the speechwriter for the then president of Pakistan, while I was writing speeches for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
I believe family members might well have fought wars against each other. Could there be a greater demand that society can make upon its members? But if that seems unusual, let me share with you a story that I was told by a friend, Maroof Raza, who was a sword of honour at the Indian Military Academy and has since gone on to civilian life.
The story he told me left me speechless and wondering if the intensity of feeling it evokes will ever be fully realized by people on either side of the border. Here I’d like to borrow Mr Raza’s own words to tell you the story that he narrated to me:
At a dinner party in New Delhi, an elegant gentleman walked up to me and asked if I was serving in the Indian Army. My haircut perhaps gave this away, as I answered in the affirmative (he was then an instructor at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun).
When I enquired if he had any military connections, he replied “yes” (his two elder brothers had both been officers). To this, my natural response was, “What were their regiments?” He then said with a sad smile, “Let me tell you a story.”
Several years earlier, he had run into the Pakistani military attaché, one Brigadier Beg, in India at a circuit house (Dak Bungalow) on the Delhi-Ahmedabad highway. During the course of their conversation, and on learning that he was an Indian Muslim, the Pakistani Brigadier said that it was only in the 1965 war that he learnt that Muslim officers also served in the Indian Army.
The Indian Army’s armoured (tank) units had made substantial gains in fierce battles in the Sialkot sector of Pakistan’s Punjab. Many well-known armoured regiments were part of India’s 1st Armoured Division’s thrust lines, such as Poona and Hodgeson’s Horse, 2nd Lancers, 3rd, 16 and 18 Cavalry. Pakistan’s Armoured Division, despite its apparently superior tank units, was in retreat and the commanders desperately needed a tactical break.
It was at this stage of the war – around 8 September 1965 – that the Pakistani Brigadier, then a young Lieutenant, was summoned by his then Brigade Commander. He was asked to undertake a commando raid into Indian frontline positions around Sialkot tasked to eliminate one or more Indian tank commanders.
The young Pakistani officer (then a Lieutenant) set out on 8/9 September before dawn and sneaked into his target area as Indian tanks were preparing for another day’s battle around Sialkot. (In those days, in the absence of night vision devices, tank battles were largely fought during daylight). He identified a Squadron Commander’s tank, and climbed atop unnoticed in the loud roar of tank engines.
Inside the open cupola, he spotted a Major poring over maps, planning for another day’s battle. With no time to lose, Lieutenant Beg shot the Indian Major through the head, but before leaving the wounded Indian officer he decided to take along some proof of having accomplished his mission. He unbuttoned the shoulder flaps of the Indian Major, and pulled out the cloth epaulets of his ranks from his shoulders.
On this was also embroidered “16 CAV”, the title of his regiment. In the breast pocket of the Major, he also found a holy pendant. His job done, this young Lieutenant with his raid party quickly crossed back over into the territory Pakistani troops were still holding onto.
Lt Beg immediately went to report to his Brigade Commander that he had accomplished his mission pulling out the epaulettes of the rank badges and the holy pendent of the Indian Army Major he had shot. The Brigadier became inexplicably tense. Lt Beg wondered whether the Brigadier was upset at his having killed an Indian Muslim officer, the latter’s hands began to shake and his emotions swelled. His voice became heavy and his eyes filled with tears as he slumped into a chair.
Lt Beg again asked the Brigadier what the problem was. In a voice choked with emotion, the latter replied: “Young man, I hadn’t the foggiest idea that the 16 Cavalry was pitted against us. Major MAR Sheikh, whom you have killed, was my younger brother.”
When Lt Beg finished telling the story, the attentive listener told the Pakistani officer, “Brigadier, it may surprise you to know that the two brothers you have spoken about were both older to me... I am the youngest of the three.”
And as the Brigadier stared at him in disbelief, the narrator of this tale requested Brigadier Beg to visit his family home – which was only a few hours’ drive from where they were – to meet his aged mother, who had always wanted to meet someone who had fought against her son. When the Pakistani Brigadier met the old begum the next day (who didn’t know that her son had died of wounds inflicted by the Brigadier) she seemed pleased that the enemy thought well of him.
Records show that Major Sheikh died of wounds in his head sustained in battle near Sialkot on 10 September 1965. He was posthumously awarded the gallantry award of a Vir Chakra. His brother, the Brigadier, rose on to become a General in Pakistan.
There are undoubtedly innumerable stories of personal loss and tragedy in the landscape of two hostile neighbours who share a past, an invaluable heritage, language and civilisational bonds, but remain uncomfortable in the present and unable to share the future.
If entire nations can ever be described as being bipolar, it is us. We yearn for each other, celebrate our meetings on the cricket and hockey pitches, applaud each other’s artistes and yet remain strangers with deep suspicion. We snipe at each other in all international forums and pour scarce resources into military preparedness, the nuclear arsenals of our two countries an additional worry for the whole world.
Excerpted with permission from Visible Muslim, Invisible Citizen: Understanding Islam in Indian Democracy, Salman Khurshid, Rupa.