historian | journalist | peacebuilder

'Unopened Books and Books of Fire: History and the Subcontinent'

Remarks given at Yale University

Despite restrictions on the movement of books and periodicals across the India-Pakistan border, several studies on the history and politics of Pakistan, or studies of the movement against British rule written from a Pakistani perspective, are available on the bookshelves of Indian libraries and reading rooms; and the opposite is also true. In some rare instances, such studies composed in the neighboring country are even published in India and Pakistan, and more are imported from third country publishers.

But you would be surprised at the neglect such studies receive. An invisible curtain between scholars and bookshelves seems to prevent the picking out and viewing of perspectives held across the border. We dislike the authors or their subjects and want to have nothing to do with them; or we don't want our feelings hurt, or our opinions questioned; or we fear the crumbling of our intellectual sandcastles. So we put away the books soon after we have touched them. They become untouchable, sort of.

I speak from personal experience. In the early seventies, when after years of activism and journalism I began some serious studying in New Delhi's Nehru Memorial Library that I am sure many here are familiar with, I had to overcome layers of resistance inside of me before I opened some books of Pakistani origin, or books that I knew were expressing some Pakistani points of view. From the scarcity of rubber-stamp impressions on the books, I could see that the resistance was not confined to me it was quite widespread. In the subsequent three decades or so, I have observed that the resistance has persisted -- the stampings remain scarce. And I am pretty certain of a corresponding resistance across the border. We don't want to touch, we don't want to know, we don't want our thinking to change.

Similarly, there are the unvisited websites. For one thing, despite South Asia's supposed IT boom, many of us who live there do not have access to websites. Some of us lag behind for technological or economic reasons. Yet several Pakistani and Indian websites, whether created on the subcontinent or here in the USA, provide a wealth of material and the basis for honest conversations, if we want such things.

We also of course have the hate books and the hate websites. Perhaps it is better that the rage nursed is spent in writing rather than in bullets or bombs; yet such writing can warp the thinking of young Indians or Pakistanis who come fresh to the disputes. Much of this hate material is labeled historical, and some of it is indeed replete with references and quotes. So we can witness web wars or book wars over the Harappan sites, the origin of the Aryans, the destruction and desecration wrought in the subcontinent by Central Asians who claimed they were Muslims, and who sometimes destroyed and desecrated in the name of Islam, over the creation of Pakistan and the division of India, over Kashmir, over fundamentalism, over the treatment of minorities and of women, and over cricket matches.

That some love high temperatures was sadly and shockingly confirmed in the recent past when the great destruction took place in the Bamiyan and a comparable destruction was unveiled in the Kabul Museum. For me the most memorable reaction to this horror was the one ascribed to a young Afghan living in the USA who seems to have said: "If they want to destroy a really big idol, how about bringing down the sun and the moon?

To return, however, to the influence on young minds in South Asia, I would like to acknowledge the role played by the Pakistani historian Khursheed Kamal Aziz through his 1993 critique of the way in which school and college textbooks in Pakistan teach, suppress or distort history. Many are concerned about distortions in the history that Indian schools pass on, and efforts to have these distortions recognized and removed have been made, but so far we lack in India an overall scrutiny of the kind that Aziz provided.

Let me refer to another curious and disappointing South Asian characteristic. Despite the opportunities thrown up by the Internet and television, South Asian commentators, journalists and scholars tend to speak, exceptions apart, to our own countries rather than to South Asia as a whole, and within our countries, rather like politicians, to our own constituencies, and not to all within range. Very few journals or websites try to reach out to South Asia as a whole the Kathmandu-based monthly Himal is a conspicuous and I should imagine struggling exception. Our conversations take place within our own circles. However, the walls around these circles are no longer real walls. The Internet and TV travel freely across them. If these circles remain segregated, it is habit that we should blame, not governments or geography.

I may refer to a few positive developments. Though violence in Kashmir is rarely off the front pages in Kashmir, India, and Pakistan, a cease fire of sorts is being observed by the Indian and Pakistani forces and by some though not all Kashmiri militant groups. The Indian media, both print and electronic and private as well as state-run, has given space as hardly ever before to pronouncements by Kashmiris opposed to the Indian government. Yesterday's terrorists or hostiles or misguided youth, viewed as deserving no voice, have been interviewed at length and without censorship on TV and in the mainline media. More Indians now know of the thinking of the average Kashmiri than was the case a year or so ago.

The freedom and vigor with which sections of the Pakistani media are able to criticize the rule of General Pervez Musharraf is another encouraging development, as is the widespread condemnation in Pakistan and the whole Islamic world of the Taliban outrage against the world's heritage of Buddhist art, belief, and history.

We can take some heart too from the continuing and in fact growing keenness in both India and Pakistan for crossing the border between them. High school students, college students, doctors, former diplomats, former military officers, Rotarians, women's groups -- there seems to be a competition in getting across and obtaining a feel of the other side. Most return to their country with stories of warm hospitality in the supposedly enemy country, and with a recognition of numerous similarities. It is legitimate, I think, to link this increase in traffic to the bus trip that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made to Lahore in February 1999, a street-level exercise that suggested that it was normal for Indians and Pakistanis to meet and befriend one another, and that aloofness and rejection was abnormal.

We should not forget, of course, the continuing missile tests and the refinement and deployment of the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan, and occasional inflammatory rhetoric.

I will conclude with two suggestions. The first is for conversations among Indians and Pakistanis on South Asian websites and on South Asian TV programs, facilitated by persons working for conflict reduction. Here is a practical role for some businessmen and for enterprising elements in the media.

The second suggestion is primarily for South Asians in the USA. Recently I attended a conference on the issue of Palestine held on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The conference was organized by members of Amnesty International, the Muslim Student Association, Jews on Campus, Students for Palestine, and Hillel Student Board. The campus community was asked: 'You know one side of the story; would you like to hear about another point of view?'

It is a lot easier for Indians and Pakistanis, or for Americans of Indian and Pakistani origin, to meet in the USA than for them to do so on the subcontinent. In fact they often meet, over food, songs, and the movies. But cultural togetherness is not allowed to disturb the sacred platform of political hostility, and we do not hear of initiatives of the kind that Israeli Americans and Arab Americans took the other day in Illinois.

What some students of South Asian origin that I have met here say is this: 'Social get-togethers between Indians and Pakistanis are easy and even normal. But joint political action, that's hard. The older generation would not like it, and we do not want to offend them.'

This learned assembly is of course familiar with the finding of the political scientists and sociologists, the conventional scholarly wisdom that holds that ethnic loyalties, passions and hates become stronger not weaker with modernity, with wealth, with westernization, with migration to the West.

Migrants seek their kind in a new and strange atmosphere; amidst their ethnic group, they seek escape from anonymity and weakness; seeing the flags, parades, and rockets of the USA, they are keener to have their own flags, parades and rockets. Their nationalism or their ethnic nationalism is heightened; and guilt too plays its part. Feeling that they have abandoned a cause, they want to work the harder for it. This is the argument, and there seems some basis for it. And governments back home encourage the US-based Indians and Pakistanis, and ask them to use their increased economic strength and their political potential to advance the cause of New Delhi or Islamabad, as the case might be.

Yet I wonder if increased hostility between nations and peoples in South Asia is meant to be the eventual consequence of South Asian migration to the USA. I rather suspect that an experience in the USA, a view of the multiracial nation that has emerged on this continent, would at some point reinforce some reconciling tendencies in the immigrant. But the would-be reconcilers are more passive and less vocal than those whose rages haven't been expended, and they are moreover focused on their careers.

I make a plea for some South Asians residing in the USA and Canada to take a lead, with inputs of time and money, in encouraging and supporting dialogue on the related issues of Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations.

The dialogues aimed at should include (1) conversations among Indians, Pakistanis, and Kashmiris of all kinds living in the USA, (2) dialogues between divided groups within Pakistan and within India and among divided Kashmiris, and (3) a political dialogue between India and Pakistan, including over Kashmir. Whether in Kashmir, Pakistan or India, or among South Asians residing in the USA, we have carried enmities for too long, we have carried them too far, and we have carried these enmities everywhere. It's time for a change.