Absurd, It is...

Monday 28 February 2005, by Feroz Mehdi

“Two or three years after the partition of India and Pakistan, the two governments remembered that inmates of mental asylums should also be switched. Meaning, all mentally retarded Muslims languishing in Indian asylums should be sent to Pakistan and those Hindu Sikhs in the mental asylums of Pakistan should be sent to India. Several high level intellectual conferences were held and finally a date was fixed for switching the mentally disabled”. Thus begins a famous short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ written by a renowned writer of his times, Saadat Hasan Manto.

The background of his story is a mental asylum in Lahore, a city which found itself to be in Pakistan after partition. All his characters are confused about how could they, one fine morning, be in a place called Pakistan while they have not moved at all. “By the way what is this thing called Pakistan”, asked one. Another one who was there for being in profound depression over a faltering love affair, became even further depressed when he was told that the city of Amritsar, where his girlfriend lives, is now in India while Sialkot, his hometown, is in Pakistan. Then there is this main character, a Hindu Sikh, whom all inmates called Toba Tek Singh. Nobody had ever seen him sit or lie down since all the years he had been in the asylum. He was once in a while seen to lean against a wall. His swollen legs resembled those of an elephant. He was never heard of saying anything coherent, just a repetitive gibberish. When he found out that he will be transferred to India, his concerns were a question ‘where is Toba Tek Singh’? That being his native village. On the day when the inmates of this mental asylum were taken to the border and assembled in the No-Man’s Land, Toba Tek Singh refused to budge for he wanted to know where his village is. In the midst of the rush of transfers, there was a loud scream and for the first time people saw Toba Tek Singh lying on the ground where he fell. So there lay Toba Tek Singh, on the No-Man’s Land, dead.

All this sounds absurd, and at times hilarious. The choice of the author, Manto, was no accident. That is exactly what he wanted to show, the absurdity of separating people who have shared centuries of history, culture and languages. The people who started their journey of civilization in the ancient Indus Valley were being told that they are two different people, made to live separately.

Maybe it is no more relevant or necessary to talk of separation as an absurdity, but in its aftermath, absurdity continues. The two governments of India and Pakistan, since the partition in 1947, have fought four wars, made rules to discourage and stop interactions between the people, declared billions of dollars of cross border trade as illegal. Families separated on both sides of the border are harassed by refusal of visas which gets further accentuated by police highhandedness once they do obtain visa. Poor fisherfolks are arrested on the accusation of crossing marine international borders. There are hundreds of these poor folks languishing in the prisons of the two countries at any given time.

My uncle spent eight years in Indian jail for being a militant in the Communist Party in mid 1940s. On release in 1947 and unable to get a job he finally migrated to Pakistan in !955. Since then he had not been cleared by the Indian intelligence service and thus refused visa. He wrote in anger to the Indian Foreign Secretary “Instead of being treated as a freedom fighter, you are treating me as a criminal”. The message made some ripples in the press and found audience on the ears of a sympathetic bureaucrat. He got the visa to visit his family and comrades 50 years later! Such are the ongoing absurdities.

Of course people cannot afford to be at the mercy of sympathetic bureaucrats and thawing of tensions initiated by whims of the two governments when their internal politics and balance of power dictates. We have seen many government initiatives go down the drain over all the years since independence. There is no doubt a need for the governments to take up the issue again and again till the issues are resolved between the two countries. After all it is the governments who will finally settle the issue. But there is a definite need for a people intervention, and as the saying goes ‘politics is too serious to be left in the hands of politicians’.

Behind the smoke screen of official propaganda there exist millions of ordinary citizens on both sides of the border, who think differently from their respective governments. Just as in India there is a plurality of views and movements outside the framework of government policies, in Pakistan, too, there is a wide diversity of opinions and activities that do not necessarily conform to Islamabad’s official policies - either domestic or foreign.

It is precisely to give teeth to peoples aspirations for peace, a group of human rights activists from Pakistan and India got together in 1994 in Delhi and started the process of a people’s to people’s dialogue. Thus was formed the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, PIPFPD. Since its inception the Forum has held six conferences. A people’s delegation from one country goes to the other as each year the venue alternates from a city in India to that in Pakistan. Its strength is growing constantly. Human rights activists, trade unionists, students, women’s groups, all sorts of social movements, intellectuals, retired military generals, lawyers, artists have joined this caravan for peace. Eminent politicians from both sides of the border, including an ex-Prime Minister of India are part of the Forum.

Over a period of years the governments of both the countries have sensed the growing influence of the Forum and thus have even become cautious of indulging in attacking it for fear of repercussions especially from the media. Its importance in the overall peace process is well recognized. As an eminent columnist, Praful Bidwai from India wrote in the Frontline “The `detente from below’ launched exactly 10 years ago through an India-Pakistan people-to-people dialogue has been a critical, if unacknowledged, input into the peace process now under way... Today’s thaw could hardly have come about without the people-to-people dialogue launched exactly 10 years ago by citizens’ groups.”

Alternatives has supported all such peoples initiatives in Pakistan and India. We were with the PIPFPD at its foundation and we extend our solidarity and greetings on their 10th anniversary when they hold their 7th convention in New Delhi in this month of February.

À propos de Feroz Mehdi

General Secretary, Alternatives International *

Feroz Mehdi is one of the founder member of Alternatives. He has been working on projects related to the countries in South Asia. He has also been working in education programs in Quebec and Canada organizing conferences and contributing to publication of newsletters and other documents of analysis and information.

Since 2007 he has taken the job as General Secretary of Alternatives International. The federation of AlterInter has 9 member organizations from Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Niger, India and Morocco and its Secretariat is in Montreal.

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