Opinion Op Ed 08 Feb 2017 Ground rules for a t ...
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi

Ground rules for a true referendum

Published Feb 8, 2017, 1:16 am IST
Updated Feb 8, 2017, 7:07 am IST
Rajnath Singh should free the borders. Be lavish with visas.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh. (Photo: PTI)
 Home Minister Rajnath Singh. (Photo: PTI)

A former Indian diplomat, the rare service where you can still find a few liberal souls, once served in Indonesia. What the diplomat told me left me aghast. It seems that a clutch of soldiers from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s defeated Indian National Army had retreated to safer territories in Indonesia after the British won the decisive Southeast Asian war against Japan. When India and Pakistan gained independence in August 1947, the soldiers who had waged a valiant anti-colonial battle went to the new Indian embassy to process their passage back home. They were asked their religion. Muslims were asked to apply to the Pakistan embassy. Things haven’t changed much, have they? Babu Khan “mistri” ran a garage for old crocs in Lucknow where my father’s Ford Prefect was cared for like a pet. Babu wore a fur cap in all seasons somewhat like Firaq Gorakhpuri and loved to pepper his conversation with Urdu couplets. He had returned from Karachi in the 1950s where he failed to find a promised job. He was in this way an economic migrant as migrants often are. Babu soon returned home as people do. He was missing Lucknow and he believed he could still find a life in his old hometown.

Indian law had no room for his mushy expressions of homesickness and the police arrived to repatriate Babu to Pakistan. My lawyer father was a staunch supporter of Jawaharlal Nehru. He carried a bullet wound in his arm from his student days. As a young freedom fighter he climbed the roof of Lucknow’s Christian College where a senior British official was due to visit. His job was to tear down the Union Jack and put up the Indian flag in its place. The deed done, the young man was rusticated but not before being shot through the arm during the melee. Father got Babu a stay order from the courts and he lived a happy life in Lucknow till his death. Being connected helps. Being a non-Muslim is all the advantage one needs as an Indian visa-seeker from Pakistan. One of my father’s routine pro bono jobs was to procure stay orders, which may be no more possible, for Pakistanis returning to Lucknow. I think Shyam Benegal’s film Mammo captured a similar quandary about a simple Muslim woman who kept dodging the police because she had to stay on in her old Mumbai home with her sister and nephew.

 

An uncle, the late professor S.M. Naseer, was beaten and jailed in Kanpur during the freedom struggle. He was a Communist. For reasons that took many liberal Muslims to Pakistan, Naseer migrated and became a much-loved economics professor in Karachi. He was baffled that he could never get a visa to India. Then national security advisor J.N. Dixit had dug out the files and found an intriguing facts in Naseer’s dossier. Dixit solved the mystery. The Indian CID knowingly blacklisted Naseer because their British predecessors had marked him as a Communist threat. Naseer got his visa finally, and broke down at the ancestral graveyard in Mustafabad near Rae Bareli where many of his cousins and elders lie interred. That’s all that he came to do. There are so many Pakistanis who would get Indian visas because they were one way or the other linked with progressive activism.

Faiz was a leading example. But Sajjad Zaheer returned home from Pakistan and he didn’t have to take a stay order to get his Indian citizenship back. It’s all a bit of a lottery. Being connected helps. Being a non-Muslim is all the advantage one needs as an Indian visa-seeker from Pakistan. The prejudice didn’t spare soldiers of the INA. It is with this perspective that I saw Indian home minister Rajnath Singh’s mocking address to Pakistanis the other day. The speech reminded me of an unambiguous couplet. “Lagey moonh bhi chidhaney dete dete galiyan saahab/Zubaan bigdi to bigdi thi, khabar leeje dahan bigda.” (Hissing curses was not enough that you’ve started making faces at me. Your tongue was truly dreadful but now, pay heed, your visage looks poised to lose its shape.) Everyone knows that Pakistanis are harassed and terrified by religious extremism that they had directly or indirectly helped to create. Twisting the knife instead of offering helpful advice, Mr Singh had asked Pakistanis to hold a referendum if they would like to migrate to India.

Or perhaps he said the referendum should be about joining India. A similar public survey or plebiscite would continue to be denied to Kashmiris, he clarified, because Kashmir was in any case an integral part of India. So what was Mr Singh’s point? The question flows from a less mocking quest — in fact, a heartfelt petition — pursued previously by Indian leaders of stature. People like Ram Manohar Lohia, a leftist, who had many pitched battles in Parliament on behalf of secularism, died dreaming of a confederation between India and Pakistan. Pandit Nehru, one or two years before his death, said he too favoured a confederation but did not raise the idea because it frightened Pakistan. You could find this treasure hidden away in the footnotes of Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama. So let’s not make a mockery of an idea that was embraced and may have never been discarded by very well-meaning men and women on both sides of the border. As referendums go, here is a real poser without rancour or malice. Mr Singh should free the borders. Be lavish with visas. And then only both sides could jointly ask: do both people want to live in peace with each other? Do they want to jointly fight terrorism of all forms? Should they be allowed to visit each other freely? Should their countries divert their humungous defence budgets to building schools and hospitals? These are some of the ideals that Subhas Bose and his INA soldiers had fought for. The answers are all too well known. Mr Singh would be scared of them.

By arrangement with Dawn

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi

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