Excerpts from this essay were read at an event organized by the Partition Archives project in Berkeley earlier this year.
Abbu’s (father) family, like many other Muslims in India was torn between staying in their ancestral land and going to the new country founded for Muslims. The call for Pakistan and the Muslim League movement was more prominent in the elite or educated classes. For Abbu’s family it was a distant idea and life outside Dilli (Delhi) was inconceivable. But the partition wave didn’t leave them untouched and a few family members including Abbu migrated to Lahore. Lahore was chosen because they had heard it was similar to Dilli. A year in Lahore was enough for them to realize their heart was still in Dilli. Ghalib ki galiyan(alley in which famous poet Ghalib lived), echoes of azaans(call for prayer) from Jama Masjid, pigeons flying above their roofs and the aroma of korma brought them back to the home their father had built.
The conflict of choosing between the newly founded nation states of India and Pakistan divided many families. Some of Abbu’s relatives shuffled between the two for many years till they were forced to make a choice by the governments in the 1960s. His elder sister’s family and a few other nieces and nephews decided to become Pakistani citizens.
For Muslims that stayed in India, the next few decades were years of fear and subjugation. Communal violence, often organized and manufactured by political parties or the right wing Hindu organization, RSS throughout the 60s in cities where Muslims were in large numbers was a threatening message to the Muslims that if they choose to stay here they would have to live as a silenced minority with a constant reminder they were guilty of dividing India.
Discrimination in jobs and bloody riots led many Muslims to change their mind and migrate to Pakistan in the 50s and 60s. Ammi’s (mother) family was one of them. Her two brothers and mother migrated in the 60s leaving her and her sister, both of who were married, behind. Due to visa restrictions and wars between the two countries Ammi wasn’t able to meet her mother (my nanni) for 15 years. Memories of Nanni’s (grandmother) first visit to India in the mid 70s are still vivid in my mind.
Due to frequent riots, Muslims often traveled in trains with changed names. Ammi recalls an incidence when she was traveling from Aligarh to Bombay in the 60s for her new job. A Punjabi lady in her compartment was very affectionate, sharing food and stories. After a few hours she asked Ammi her name. She didn’t speak for the rest of the journey. The lady’s family had been uprooted from their home in Gujranwala during partition. My mother’s Muslim name had brought back memories of the brutal violence she had witnessed in her hometown, now part of Pakistan.
When Ammi woke up in the morning she noticed the lady had covered her with a blanket.
Migration of many intellectuals and educated Muslims left a vacuum in Muslim leadership in India. Over the next few decades, the community became more marginalized and weak. It was safer to live in a Muslim ghetto than a mixed society. Education was poor and few could rise to prominent positions.
Abbu was the first person in his muhallah (neighborhood) to go oversees for higher education and his galli neighbors still remember the decorations and celebrations to welcome him on his return from the US in the mid 60s. He was amongst some of the most prominent geophysicists of his times. He contributed significantly to the field of science and technology but an incidence created a deep wound in his heart never to be healed. He was leading an expedition of scientists in the Himalaya. After a point in the high mountains near the Pakistan border, everyone from this team except him was allowed to go further. On questioning why he was stopped but not any of his students, cook or driver, he was informed it was because he was a Muslim.
Throughout his life Abbu struggled with his Indian nationality and Muslim identity. He often recalled with great fervor how he along with his family and friends heard Nehru’s ‘Freedom at Midnight’ speech sitting on his elder brother’s shoulders. Maulana Azad too was an inspiration for him, both from a religious and educational perspective. His speech at Jama Masjid in 1948 addressed to the Indian Muslims predicting the challenges the new state of Pakistan would face in coming years due to regional identities, emphasizing that the new state would not solve the problems facing Indian Muslim left a lasting impression on Abbu and played a key role in deciding to stay in India.
An admirer of Allama Iqbal, Abbu was against the feudal and aristocratic foundation of Pakistan but in the next few decades he would often show disappointment at the continuation of the elite class rule in India and the privileges Nawabs and Rajas(who in his opinion participated little to nothing in the freedom movement) enjoyed.
Although India was established as a secular country, Hindu culture’s dominance was evident with Bhoomi Pooja and Aarti(Hindu religious ceremonies) being performed at government functions. Abbu raised an objection to the organizers in his office a few times, only to be questioned about his nationalism. Muslim faith to Abbu meant being part of the Umma (global Muslim community) irrespective of national boundaries and bowing only to Allah. But Indian nationalism often demanded submission to ‘Mother India’.
He loved the land he was born and chose to live in but his religion was just as important to him. Sadly the country he envisioned in his youth with socialistic ideals of communal harmony, equality and justice for all continued to be an unfulfilled dream.
We were glad during his last years the massive stroke he had suffered didn't allow him to comprehend the horrors unleashed by the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 or the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq post 911. His mind had become like a child, devoid of absorbing or understanding such human atrocities that would have disturbed him tremendously.
Yasmin Qureshi is a social justice activist and writer based in the bay area, California. Her work includes US wars in the Middle East, impact of global militarization and drone warfare, people’s resistance movements in places like Palestine and Kashmir. Her essay, The Militarization of India was published in Counter Punch in May 2011. She also has publications on ZCommunications.