The message of Saim Saeed’s op-ed in The New York Times can be summed up thus: Oh, why can’t we just get along! Describing his experience as a Pakistani sitting on the Indian side of the Wagah border ceremony at sundown, Saeed sounds all the familiar notes. It begins by expressing revulsion at the vocal expressions of mutual hatred and ends with a rousing affirmation of our essential one-ness.
“So what is it that divides us so? Why do we hate each other so much that we’ve fought three declared wars, a fourth that was undeclared, and might even fight another?” asks Saeed.
His answer: nothing. “The fact is that we don’t have any distinguishing characteristic on which to hang separate national identities. There is nothing to distinguish us from one another, save our passports, and those were given to us,” he declares.
According to his bio, Saeed is “one of the very few Pakistani high school students to have studied in India” and now is a senior at an American college. His idealistic and well-intentioned appeal is likely driven by his own personal experiences both in India, and undoubtedly on his US campus, where Indians and Pakistanis inevitably forge close friendships.
Besides, his claim – that all will be well when we recognise our shared heritage – has been echoed in loftier quarters. Almost every reputed writer who has spent extensive time on the other side of the border waxes eloquent on the affinity and affection that binds us together. And great number of civilian peace initiatives – including The Times of India‘s Aman ki Aasha – is driven by the conviction that greater personal contact between ordinary citizens will lead to this very ‘A-ha moment.’
As a sentiment, it is honourable and praiseworthy, but also wilfully naïve. It refuses to acknowledge a basic truth: what draws us together is also what drives us apart. It is precisely our shared history, our cultural proximity that make our relationship so fraught with emotion – unlike say the bitter US-Soviet rivalry, which was based on ideology and superpower politics.
“The people that were chanting “Pakistan Zindabad! Hindustan murdabad!” (Long live Pakistan! Death to India!) shared the same physical characteristics, language and clothing as the ones hurling their own imprecations on the other side of the line. They even insulted each other’s mothers and sisters using the same expletives. It seemed like they were shouting in a mirror,” despairs Saeed. (The op-ed itself is titled “Shouting in a mirror”)
Yet it is this very mirroring, the blurring of borders that becomes a barrier to peace. ”In some sense, we’re the same, which is why we can’t communicate with each other. It’s sort of like talking to yourself in the mirror,” observes Pakistani psychologist Dr Ahmed.
We are siblings, yes, but of Cain and Abel variety. Family feuds are toxic and enduring because they tend not to be just about the usual issues of contention: resources, borders, or geopolitical power. This is the reason why China never inspires a visceral reaction, be it of love or hate. And why we can more easily make realpolitik decisions vis-a-vis the Chinese – good or bad – without being clouded by emotion.
This isn’t news to any of us. We’ve been routinely described as ‘midnight twins,’ accused of ‘sibling rivalry.’ What we often fail to acknowledge is that ‘sibling rivalry’ is a euphemism for a far more toxic, complicated love-hate relationship hardwired by our shared history into our cultural psyches.
The hawks on either side of the border have opted for outright denial. In Pakistan, ruling conservatives have taken pains to erase all evidence of our shared history, in their textbooks, music, language. A sweeping gesture that – ironically – in its necessity underlines the very presence of what it denies.
“In the absence of a true national identity, Pakistan defined itself by its opposition to India… The new country set itself the task of erasing its association with the subcontinent, an association that many came to view as a contamination,” writes Aatish Taseer of “the rage of being forced to reject a culture of which you feel effortlessly a part—a culture that Pakistanis, via Bollywood, experience daily in their homes. This rage is what makes it impossible to reduce Pakistan’s obsession with India to matters of security or a land dispute in Kashmir. It can heal only when the wounds of 1947 are healed.”
On this side of the border, we too have long been driven to “prove” that Partition – which we view not just as an imposition against our will, but also a slur on our character (India is not safe for Muslims) – was the wrong decision. Hence our rage at Jaswant Singh for daring to suggest that Jinnah may indeed have his saving graces. And our constant affirmation that we are bigger and better, be it in economic or moral terms.
And yet the anti-Pak brigade sneers at any claim of cultural affinity as a North Indian affectation. (As in: Hey, Mr Saeed, shut up already about your Punjabi love for naans and lassi.) No self-respecting hawk will admit that a big part of our nationalistic fury springs from an uncomfortable emotional proximity to the other. That our mutual animosity runs a lot deeper because of this shared, inescapable bond.
This denial is more pronounced now that new India is eager to just ‘move on’, to refute any connection between our shining, rising nation and what we now view as a tinpot nation on the brink of ruin. Pakistan is the poor relative we all want to just go away – more so since we’ve won this particular sibling competition, or so we think.
Offensive and patronising as this attitude is, it may not be such a bad thing if (and only if) it leads to greater emotional detachment, and therefore less knee-jerk jingoism on our part. There are also signs that a new generation of Pakistanis is weary of tired old debates about Partition and the past. “For us ’47 isn’t the big date. Neither is ’71,” Pakistani author Kamil Shamsie told India Real Time, “We’re the Zia generation, so for us it’s Afghanistan, the Soviets and the start of jihad mentality… If you look at my generation of Pakistani writers that defines much more the nation that we grew up in.”
Perhaps, it is time then to stop belabouring our one-ness, and acknowledge instead the long passage of time. To fully embrace our long-separated selves and diverging paths. To see that older ties of unhappy history are being slowly replaced by more mundane – and less fraught — bonds of cricket, ghazals and Bollywood. A common love for SRK is, after all, far easier to negotiate than a shared memory of Partition. A thicker scab of indifference may well heal the wounds of 1947, where the balm of nostalgic love could not.