What if Pakistanis land at our border?
By M J Akbar
A good friend from Lahore, an activist deeply committed to people's rights and the integrity of Pakistan's legal structures, asked me a question so startling that it took a while to sink in. What would India do if a million Pakistanis reached the Wagah border, demanding safety in India from the Taliban and its ancilliary ideological warriors?
The prospect is only as unthinkable as an analyst suggesting, over coffee on College Street in Calcutta in 1969, that three million refugees from East Pakistan would descend on the city's maidan within two years, forcing a war that would lead to an independent Bangladesh. Pakistan lost the trust of half its population within a quarter century of its birth. Within another four decades, half of what was left is in mortal fear of the other half.
Just as 1971 could not be contained within the geography of Pakistan, a second existential upheaval will also spill over into India. It cannot seep westwards into Afghanistan, because this is, in a sense, another east-west confrontation: the east is under siege from the frontier west, and the east can only move further east for asylum.
How would India, and, more important, Indians, react? In various ways, surely: shock, smugness, gloating, concern — both for those trying to stream in and for the volatile consequences of their arrival. But at some point, sooner rather than later, this range would have to coalesce into one broad sentiment that could then be translated into official policy. Would that be sympathy or cynicism? Would the human heart prevail as children, women and the young sought the comfort of India, or would antipathy make us dismiss them with a sneer: "You made your bed in 1947, now sleep on its thorns."
Punjab would have the decisive voice. I believe that most of Punjab, though not all, would speak from its heart, perhaps with tears in its eyes, even if a colder Delhi thought it a good idea to consign the refugees to thorns. Is this being sentimental? Perhaps, but it would be a cold life without sentiment. In 1971, West Bengal did not check the religion of refugees. Most of them were Muslims, but that was less important than the fact they were three million frightened and hungry Bengalis.
But there are also significant differences, both in time and space. India had never felt threatened by East Pakistan. Bengali Muslims did not forsake their language or script although there was pressure from Karachi "nationalists", in the early years, to write Bengali in the Urdu alphabet (just as, for instance, Kemal Ataturk made Turks abandon the Arabic script and switch to Roman). The reaction was so severe that such ideas were quickly forgotten. There were riots in Bengal, as bitter if not as widespread as those in Punjab, but links were more firmly maintained. There were riots, and there was discrimination against Bengali Hindus; but East Pakistan was not emptied of Hindus, as happened to Hindus in Pakistani Punjab and Sind. Any anger against Indian "repression" was soon overtaken by the reality of West Pakistani oppression against Bengalis for reasons that can only be described as racist.
Time offers its own angularities. In 1971 Indians were angry at the aggression of 1965. War is a tragedy, but one which is acceptable as part of human experience; there is no lifetime in history that can claim it has not undergone the tension and cleavage of war. The dominant experience of the last four decades has been of terrorism. Terrorism is a sly, surreptitious, contemptible evil that makes no distinction between innocent and enemy. How much will the horror of remembered terrorism faze eyes and ice up veins if, God forbid, there is clamour at the gates of Wagah? War will inevitably follow refugees into India; it is possible that a fifth column might camouflage itself in the misery of a human exodus. When citizens have made borders irrelevant why should armies, state or non-state, uniformed or shadowy, respect lines drawn on water? Who will be where in that war? Will the Pakistani armed forces be as divided as the country, split by ideology? Will half the Pakistanis fight alongside Indian forces? The imponderables chase the unthinkable.
One of the defining images of Pakistan's sense of itself is etched on the walls of its side of Wagah: a depiction of wrecked refugees streaming into the new country after Partition. The calamity was not one-sided; there were traumatized millions entering India as well. But India has not frozen that moment in stone, to remind everyone that this was once the brutal battlefield of a civil war. Perhaps Lahoris will erase that image, wherever it is, before they reach the gates of Wagah.
Appeared in Times of India - December 17, 2010