When Uri happened on September 18, I recalled a remark that Gandhi made almost 70 years ago. He was in the middle of what would turn out to be his last fast for amity on the Subcontinent. Learning that an attack on a refugee train at West Punjab’s Gujarat station had killed or maimed hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs travelling from Bannu in the Frontier Province, he said on January 14, 1948: “[If] this kind of thing continues in Pakistan, how long will the people in India tolerate it? Even if 100 men like me fasted, they would not be able to stop the tragedy that may follow” (Collected Works, 98: 234-35).
Eleven days after Uri came the Indian army’s surgical strikes, followed in Pakistan by denial and in India by chest-thumping as well as demands for precise information. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have cautioned cabinet colleagues against creating a hysteria over the strikes.
Although the expression “surgical strike” implies an intention, as far as possible, to confine destruction to a legitimate target and avoid collateral damage, the word “surgery” may to some also suggest that there is a patient somewhere. Or perhaps a great many patients.
The people of India and Pakistan are the patients. But they had better also become their own doctors and surgeons, for the medical teams supposed to take care of them, the men and women who shape policies and those who steer public opinion, are susceptible, as the prime minister seems to have warned, to hysteria.
Hysteria is not a sickness emanating from nowhere. Long-nursed grudges and fears and unfulfilled wishes to exhibit power contribute to it. These psychological weaknesses exist on both sides of the Indo-Pak border and, potentially, if we are honest, in each of us.
Perhaps we have approached hysteria when a minister of the Delhi government demands from a public all-party platform, created for fostering tourism, that before he can proceed any further the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir sharing that stage with him must first declare that A and B are terrorists.
“Calm down!” is what any doctor or surgeon would today prescribe to fellow-citizens on the Subcontinent, and it is what we the people should prescribe to one another. Calm down, and think coolly.
Here, for the sake of genuine healing, I must direct a thought or two to the people of Pakistan for their individual and private consideration, not to invite risky public statements from them. Was the two-nation theory really such a good idea? Shouldn’t all of us on the Subcontinent, whatever our religion, sect, gender or caste, learn to live peacefully with one another and respect one another as humans, while remaining in our separate political entities? Within each country, for both of us have profound internal divides, and also between our countries.
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We should be asking questions in India too. Should the world’s largest democracy be recording the world’s highest decibel levels on TV? What are we teaching our children when we interrupt, shout down or speak over someone we disagree with, not in a rare unavoidable moment, but all the time and as a habit?
Then there is the hostility towards dissent. A natural disaster or national tragedy may indeed call for closing ranks — for a period. After a time, frankness, debate and questioning must follow. Clicking heels and obeying a boss, or following a standard “line”, will never be a long-term part of the Indian character, even if hysteria demands it for a while.
And on both sides we should realise that radioactive fumes, hysteria’s possible culmination on our nuclearised Subcontinent, will not halt at the border or seek permission to cross it.
After saying what he did on January 14, 1948 Gandhi proceeded to challenge Pakistanis and Indians by recalling a verse that everyone knew: The poet says, “If there is paradise, it is here, it is here.” He had said it about a garden. I read it ages ago when I was a child. But paradise is not so easily secured. If Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs became decent, became brothers, then that verse could be inscribed on every door. But that will be only when Pakistan has become pure. If that happens in Pakistan, we in India shall not be behind them.
The sentence that followed is perhaps even more relevant.
Society is made up of individuals. It is we that make society. If one man takes the initiative others will follow and one can become many; if there is not even one there is nothing (98: 234-35).
Whether or not we approve of fasting as a weapon for change, Gandhi, a private citizen, took an initiative all those decades ago. As a result of the fast, as everyone knows, the Indian government released Pakistan’s share of the Subcontinent’s balances left by the departing British.
But that was not why he was killed, propaganda on the killers’ behalf notwithstanding; the assassination had been planned months earlier. And the withholding of that money was not the sole reason for the fast, which continued after January 14, when the decision to release it was announced.
The old man also wanted an assurance from the people of Delhi that “the annual fair at Khwaja Qutbuddin Mazar — near the Qutb Minar — would be held this year as in the previous years”, for there had been a threat to ban the fair. He also wanted Delhi’s Muslims “to be able to move about in Subzimandi, Karol Bagh, Paharganj and other localities just as they could in the past”.
And he wanted the people of Delhi to promise that “these things will be done by our personal effort and not with the help of the police or military” (98: 253). When, on January 18, a large group of citizens and leaders provided those assurances, Gandhi broke his fast.
When ordinary people in all parts of Pakistan and India are able to do ordinary things without fear or hindrance, when, thanks to the goodwill of neighbours and not because of the army or police, they can take part in a traditional fair, move about freely in their streets, and return in safety to their homes, that is when we can feel glad. Even in times of hysteria, this is a goal we can quietly nurse.
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