'No One is to Blame for Their DNA'


1 October, 2005

Acts of terrorism engender a sense of us-versus-them which is in some ways reminiscent of perceptions during the Cold War. Yet there is a troubling contrast.

During the Cold War the West tended to assume that the people of the Soviet bloc were innocent victims of tyrannical rulers with a callous ideology. It was the rulers, not the people, who were seen as the problem.

Today many in the West believe (or are being urged to believe) that the problem in Muslim nations is not the rulers—with whom business can be done—but the populations, who subscribe to a supposedly violent religion. And many in Muslim nations see (or are exhorted to see) people in Western lands as embracing either a religion with an aggressive past or a decadent present-day ideology of materialism.

Mistrust between whole populations may turn out to be more serious than the autocracy of Soviet bloc rulers. In countries where Muslims and non-Muslims live cheekby- jowl, this mistrust is an internal affair as well. If corrective steps are not taken on both sides of today’s divide, we could—God forbid—see manifestations in different parts of the globe of the sort of suspicion-fuelled ethnic strife that disfigured Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, and the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

One is thankful, therefore, for all efforts to restore trust between Muslims and non-Muslims, including those made by Initiatives of Change (IofC) at the Caux conferences and elsewhere.

Last July my wife, Usha, and I visited Lahore, the capital of the Punjab down the ages, which became part of Pakistan following the division of the subcontinent in 1947. We interviewed 28 people who had memories or stories from that tragic year, when half a million or more were killed and about 12 million moved eastward or westward across a new border.

Most killings and migrations occurred in the large Punjab province—the western, Muslim-majority half of which went to Pakistan, while the eastern half (where Sikhs and Hindus outnumbered Muslims) went to India. One of our interviewees, Chaudhry Muhammad Hayat, a 77-year-old former squadron leader in the Pakistani Air Force, said that in 1947 a zahreeli hawaa, a poisonous wind, blew across the Punjab. That wind turned ‘normal’ and ‘decent’ human beings into pitiless killers.

Many of the killings took place when armed attackers from outside a locality targeted minority groups, often forcing neighbours to identify those with the ‘wrong’ religion and to join in the killing. Other deaths occurred when trains carrying Hindus and Sikhs fleeing east, or Muslims escaping west, were forced to stop and most if not all passengers killed.

However, there were many instances when protection was bravely, ingeniously, or clandestinely extended to individuals. An important aim of our interviews was to record such instances. We learnt of how Sikhs and Hindus in East Punjab had sent relatives of our Muslim interviewees to safety in West Punjab, and how some of our interviewees or their relatives had successfully protected Hindus and Sikhs.

Thus Mumtaz Qadir told us of how his father, who was a railway guard, had saved two sons of his Hindu neighbour in Bahawalpur in West Punjab. ‘The boys were quietly put in the toilet on a train across the border, and ordered not to talk. The handlelock outside the toilet was turned to lock the door from the outside and the handle was removed, making it impossible for anyone to open the door. They made it!’ Almost all of our interviewees spoke of how Lahore was the poorer for the flight of its Hindus and Sikhs. The poisonous wind injured everyone.

Hayat, the former air force officer, broke down when he recalled watching the dead bodies of Hindus and Sikhs around a refugee train that attackers had stopped outside the town of Gujrat, north of Lahore. He was 19 at the time. His hero, he said, is a Sikh schoolteacher called Bhagat Singh who helped him and other Muslim village boys with their schooling, but disappeared in the 1947 riots.

‘I have not seen a better human being,’ said Hayat. He added: ‘One day Bhagat Singh talked about religion with five or six boys including me. “Does anyone control his birth?” he asked. “Does anyone give an application that he should be born in a particular home, caste, religion, or country? If he cannot choose his parents, how can we hate him for the religion he gets from them?” I remember Bhagat’s words to this day and believe he spoke the truth.’

Hayat’s recollection of Bhagat Singh’s words reminds me of the Biblical story of the blind man in Bethsaida who, aided by Jesus’s touch, first saw ‘men as trees, walking’ and only later ‘saw every man clearly’. It seems to me that when we think of persons as Muslims or Christians or Jews or Hindus (or Americans or Africans or Iranians) we are only seeing them ‘as trees, walking’. To see them clearly as men or women we have to recognize their humanness and the fact that a great majority of them came to their religion, race or nationality by ‘accident’. They did not choose their parents or race, and most did not choose their religion.

If we blame Muslims for being Muslim, or Jews for being Jews, or Americans for being American, we are condemning them for their birth, for their blood, for their DNA. Condemning people for being born to their parents is not a new thought for human beings. The world knows that it led to the horrors of the Holocaust, the shame of slavery, and the crime of untouchability. Even so we seem willing, once again, to target a section of human beings for being who they are, for being Muslims or Brits or Americans or Jews or whatever.

All humans are flawed and many are vulnerable before poisonous winds. When such winds blow, the wise fortify the structures around them and allow an inflow of healthy air.

And the courageous speak out. I have recently been studying the life of a powerful teacher of tolerance: Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), a devout Muslim and a Pashtun (or Pakhtun, as his people pronounced the word) raised in the Muhammadzai tribe that occupied fertile lands to the northeast of the Khyber Pass, not far from the city of Peshawar, now in Pakistan, and close also to the border with Afghanistan. More popularly known as Badshah (‘king’) Khan, Ghaffar Khan spent 27 years in prison, 12 under the British and 15 under Pakistani rulers.

In May 1947, after violence had started on the subcontinent, Ghaffar Khan spoke frankly to fellow Muslims in Shabqadar, in the heart of his Pakhtun country: ‘We are passing through critical times.... Some people mislead you in the name of Islam. I feel it is my duty to warn you against future dangers so that I may justify myself before man and God on the Day of Judgement.

‘What gains will Islam and the Muslims reap from these riots and the slaughter of children, women and the aged?... The other day an old Sikh peddler was murdered on the road. Is it done for the sake of Islam? I warn the [extremists] that the fire they kindle will spread in wild blaze and consume everything in its way.’

Very human despite the Mahatma (‘great soul’) prefix that Indians gave him, Gandhi, a Hindu, was wise as well as courageous. Though he failed to prevent the 1947 bloodshed, he helped contain it. He also ensured that India would be a nation for all communities, not for Hindus above all. Champions of Hindu hegemony continue to resent Gandhi’s intervention. Pravin Togadia, a leader of the so-called Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), said in August this year that Gandhi should have committed suicide in August 1947. Hadn’t he declared that India would be partitioned over his dead body? Not to commit suicide was cowardly on Gandhi’s part, Togadia thundered.

Considering that Gandhi was assassinated only 30 days after 1947 ended, we should ask why a man like Togadia is so angry that Gandhi did not quit the scene in the August before. The answer is not hard to find. In the five-and-a-half months between 14 August 1947, when India was divided, and his death on 30 January 1948, Gandhi managed to make certain that India would be a state for all its citizens, including Muslims.

In particular he saw to it that Delhi, India’s ancient as well as modern capital, would not be emptied of its Muslims. An extremist plan to expel all Muslims from Delhi was foiled because of Gandhi’s firmness, the support he mobilized from Delhi’s Hindus, who were a majority, and the backing he secured from India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel.

Gandhi wanted Lahore, too, to regain its composite character, and had planned a visit in February 1948 to that city as well as to Karachi, Pakistan’s capital at the time. But before he could leave for Pakistan, Gandhi was killed.

That Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Sikhs worshipped the same God was a key belief for Gandhi, and one he repeatedly underlined. The thought may be relevant to all today. The clash or choice the world faces is not between ‘our’ God and ‘their’ God, for God is one. The choice is between a wind carrying poison and the whisper of the one God, intimating his sane counsel to us.

This article was published in 'For A Change' magazine - link below