As India and Pakistan prepare to celebrate another independence anniversary, there’s plenty of introspection going on within both countries. In India, a plethora of corruption scandals have considerably dented its global image. And, if India is feeling threatened, Pakistan is in the doldrums. Not only is the latter confronted with the challenge of militancy, but its economy is also in shambles.
But there’s also plenty of space for joint introspection. Indeed, it’s worth re-examining some historical events, including the partition of 1947 and the wars of 1965 and 1971, to get a better understanding of how ties stand now. After all, all these events have had an indelible impact on ties between the two.
Just as the animosity and rancour of partition seemed to be fading as a result of interactions between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis during the 1950s and early 1960s, the 1965 war dashed hopes for a harmonious relationship. The war was a game-changer in the context of people-to-people interactions, especially because of the strict visa regime that was introduced. The 1971 war followed, which not only exacerbated tensions, but also brainwashed the minds of at least a generation of Indians and Pakistanis.
The events of 1947, 1965, and 1971 have for years been used by both countries to construct their respective national histories. But there are certain questions that still need to be answered. While 1947 resulted in immense bloodshed, there were cases of individual compassion in which Muslims rescued Hindus and Sikhs, and vice versa. Such cases weren’t just isolated examples of goodwill, but were actually quite common, as documented in Humanity Amidst Insanity, a book that I co-authored with two Pakistanis. Similarly, in recent years, there have been numerous cases of individuals who are ready to apologize for atrocities committed during the partition, something I found more and more as I spoke to people during the course of the book project.
More recently, Qais Hussain, the Pakistani fighter pilot who shot down a Beechcraft during the 1965 war that was carrying the Gujarat Chief Minister Balwant Rai Mehta and seven others, has written to the daughter of the chief pilot that day, expressing regret over the incident. ‘If an opportunity ever arises that I could meet you face to face to condole the death of your father 46 years back, I would grab it with both hands.’
It’s very easy to dismiss such examples as one-off cases that have no bearing in improving the strained relationship between both countries. But they are important because they underscore how political borders haven’t completely destroyed the human conscience and, more importantly, how many Indians and Pakistanis want to rectify past mistakes.
It’s important, then, that we find ways to ensure some of these individuals’ voices are heard – especially the voices of those who committed atrocities during partition or killed during the two wars. These views need to be heard more widely because so far it has only mostly been sections of civil society and academia that have shown the importance of giving a voice to victims and perpetrators of atrocities.
Sadly, the establishments of both countries haven’t shown much interest in this process. Whenever the governments of India and Pakistan meet, they never fail to dish out some platitudes about how they will liberalize the visa regime. But no progress has been made, and there’s little prospect in the foreseeable future. The private sector, too, could play a role by promoting group tours consisting of individuals who want to see their erstwhile homes, although it’s admittedly tough with the current visa regime.
In the meantime, we need more books based around the survivors of the events of 1947, 1965, and 1971, such as The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, or projects like the one undertaken by Rajmohan Gandhi, who documented positive examples of Muslims rescuing non-Muslims, and vice versa, during partition.
Aman Ki Asha, an innovative collaboration between The Times of India and The Jang Group in Pakistan, can play a crucial role in reconciliation by giving space to individuals who want to narrate interesting experiences from 1947 or the two wars. If there are those who want to apologize for their actions in the past, they, too, should be given an opportunity.
While 1947 may have liberated India and Pakistan from the colonial yolk, the two countries have become slaves to the historical baggage they carry. It’s therefore important for both sides to unburden themselves in whatever ways possible – and that they be given the means for doing so.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.