Khushwant in Karachi

Khushwant Singh went from Delhi to Karachi in late March to address a seminar on "Peace, Goodwill and Fellowship", organised by Rotary International.

Assalamulaikum! This is a ritual greeting between Mussalmans, and I think it is a very important greeting between the people of India and Pakistan. You will agree that at no time in the 52 years that the two nations have been independent, have we been closer to war as today. We have fought three wars and are preparing for a fourth, which I have not the slightest doubt will be the final one because there will be nothing left of either you or us.

On that low note, (let me start by saying that) I represent no one. I am a half-writer of some books, but my roots are in this soil and I have great ambition to somehow prevent the spread of hatred between our two countries. I am also a manufacturer of jokes; in fact, the main factory of jokes against my own community, the Sardarji jokes.

Speaking about the impressions my countrymen have about Pakistan, there is one point that is always harped upon—our common past and heritage, that we speak the     same language, we are the same race, our style of living is the same, we wear the same dresses, our mindsets are the same, we eat the same of kind of food. You are almost entirely Muslim, we are predominantly Hindu. But our Muslim minority of 14 percent, perhaps in numbers, equals the entire population of Pakistan itself. We have a lot in common.

Despite all this, something does not allow us to become close to each other. Today we have in common many negative aspects, which are more important to talk about than the heritage we share. Our two countries are the most corrupt, poorest, the most violent, and the most ignorant. Some international organisations report that both of us share the distinction of being amongst the top 10 in corruption and violence, civic violence. I am mighty pleased to see that in corruption you were ahead of us by two cases. But somehow I do not believe this because for every case of corruption in Pakistan, I can match that with eight cases in India.

I read about your ministers and other people being put in jail, and having large estates in England and large accounts in Swiss banks. But that is chicken-feed compared to what our politicians have done to our country. We have had one prime minister, described as Mr. Clean, and he made a neat 65 crore rupees on one deal. We had another prime minister who had to bribe only four members of Parliament out of the 540 to rule the country for five years. I can name at least two dozen chief ministers who have really done ´well´ for themselves.

We have had a lady chief minister who blew up exactly 100 crore rupees at the wedding of her foster son, and she wore a belt on her sari, studded with diamonds and jewels, worth more than a crore. She still is holding her head high, she´s still described as the amma of her state, and is a formidable force not only in her own state but also in the rest of the country.

We have the case of the Bihar chief minister who has been charged with an enormous sum of bribery. But not only did he win his way back into power, he also put his illiterate wife in the chair as chief minister. I do not think you can match this kind of thing.

We have in our Parliament and state assemblies, many who have been elected while they were still in jail, and who have come back to be sworn in as ministers. All this is a marvel. We have had one of the ablest and honest of men, Dr. Manmohan Singh, losing in the last election. While a lady called Phoolan Devi, once convicted of the murder of 22 men at one go, won.

The question to really ask ourselves amidst this abysmal state of affairs is, what has happened to us? In both our countries, we have a leadership pool of high intelligence (the worthy minister who spoke before me gave a very lucid and, if I may say, brilliant defence of the indefensible), and yet how has it happened that we are the poorest and the most illiterate people in this world?

I think the answer is very simple—we brought it on our own heads. Our successive governments, instead of going in for building more roads, railways, schools, hospitals and whatever the countries needed, have been buying arms, manufacturing guns, fighter aircraft and submarines, all that we cannot afford. If you spend all the money in weapons of destruction, how can you expect to provide the people sustenance of any kind?

Kashmir as real estate
We are being told that the problem is Kashmir. I agree. But I think it has become an excuse for both of us. I have my own solution which would not be acceptable to either India or Pakistan, but I have put it across with as much candour as I can. We have treated Kashmir as real estate, a property to be divided between India and Pakistan. Kasmir is not a problem of real estate, it is a problem of people, and they are neither Indian nor Pakistani. They are Kashmiri. And in our discussions, neither of us have talked to the Kashmiris about what they want.

You accuse us of not holding the plebiscite that we undertook to do before the UN. You are right, we did not follow the undertaking, what is more, we are not going to have a plebiscite for a simple reason. It is really clear that if the people of Kashmir are given the option of choosing either India or Pakistan, they will opt for Pakistan, for the Muslims are in majority there. If given a third choice without India or Pakistan, but as a state of their own, I have not the slightest doubt that they will opt for the third.

Now, the complication is that the Kashmiris are not one people. They are four different ethnic and linguistic groups of which one lot is with you, and they have no choice but to stay with you. Another lot is Buddhist, predominantly in Ladakh, and they will not come to you. Jammu again is slightly doubtful because apart from the one district of Dodha, it is Hindu. There is no question of them ever wanting to come to Pakistan. The crux of the problem is the Valley of Kashmir, which is over 90 percent Muslim. And without doubt, on these people´s decision about their future depend the future of India-Pakistan relations.

My suggestion has been repeated many times—that if our countries behave like civilised countries, you would accept this possibility: give the Muslims of Kashmir the right to decide their own future. Unfortunately, it is too small an area to be an independent state. It is only 70 miles long and 30 miles broad; it cannot be viable as a separate state. Its only possible existence as a fully autonomous state depends on the support by India and Pakistan. And do not think it is such a big problem, that we cannot get together and say we will give the Kashmiris total independence of you or us. They will allow anyone they want in the state. If they don´t want an Indian to come in, they will not give him permission, and if they do not want a Pakistani, they will do the same. This is the quote I use to support this point of view:

´Jo bhi aye, meri ijazat hai aye ,yeh koi jannat nahin hai, mera watan hai.´

Let the Kashmiris decide for themselves. If it is such a big problem for us to get together, then let there be a dialogue not between two, but three. If this is acceptable to the Kashmiris, we will set up a council of Kashmir with two people from the valley, one from Pakistan, one from India and with an official from the UN presiding. But with an undertaking from this autonomous state that there would be no migration of minority communities from the state.

We have already had large numbers of Kashmiri Pandits who have gone away to Jammu and also the recent incident of a massacre of a whole village of Sikhs. There can never be a one-way traffic—migration of populations are very dangerous. We learnt that lesson in 1947, 10 million people had to be changed hands across the borders and one million people were massacred. We cannot afford to have that situation repeated even on a small scale. This autonomous state I keep proposing should give a guarantee to the Kashmiri Pandits and the Sikhs that they will be rehabilitated in the state and given complete security.

I do not know if there any takers for this. We go on and on having endless talks. Pakistan is right that India is dragging its feet. I would say we are open for a dialogue, but Pakistan´s dialogue only means "you give us the Valley", and the Indians know that only too well.

The Force of Love
I would like to make one another point that may offend some, but this is my pet aversion or obsession—intolerance of other people´s opinions.

I think the main ´culprit´ is the way we interpret our religions. Instead of being a unifying force, a force of love as it was meant to be, a force to solve social problems, religion has become a divisive and backward-looking force. We hear about your problems, the predominance of the mullahs, the madrassahs and what they teach, their constant declaration of jehad against non-Muslims like me, but we too have similar problems in our country.

We have had a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism, after containing Sikh fundamentalism. We had that madcap Bhindranwale, who said kill all Hindus because he felt they were anti-Sikh. I have a recorded speech, and I´m not exaggerating, in which he spoke about the length of the beard we should have, and whether we should colour it or not. He prescribed the kind of dress you had to wear; you could not enter the Golden Temple wearing a sari because that´s a Hindu dress, you must wear a salwar kameez, but it did not occur to him that it could also be a Pakistani dress. This kind of pernicious thing caught on even amongst the educated classes and that was the amazing thing.

We could contain (Sikh fundamentalism), but Sikhs are only 2 percent of the population of the country. They can make a nuisance of themselves, but not do much more. But when it comes to the Hindus, who form 85 percent of the population, we´re suddenly reversing it and talking of Ram Rajya, the old legendary times of´ Hindu greatness. And laying down rules and laws of dress and behaviour based on anti-Muslim sentiment. Reviving memories of Muslim invasions, destruction of temples. This kind of thing has caught on.

We now have a religion-based government: the Bharatiya Janata Party represents a Hindu right-wing group. Supporting them are more fundamentalist groups. Their basis is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which calls itself a "cultural organisation"— part of its ´culture´ included the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. They take part in anti-Muslim riots, and their ´culture´ is wont to ban any expression of opinion— films, books—and the government has had to kowtow to it. We have the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is slightly more intelligent, and half a dozen other organisations which have some 300 mosques on their lists meant to be destroyed since they were built on the ruins of Hindu temples.

This is the kind of atmosphere that we are facing. It has to be fought by the Hindus and it is being fought. You have to fight it from among the people whose group throws up this kind of challenge to the community. In India, the people who are holding back this kind of fundamentalism are the Hindus themselves. Why I especially mention this is that if the Kashmir problem results in a large number of migrating Hindus and Sikhs, then the hands of the right-wing Hindus will start the same thing again. If Kashmir goes to Pakistan because of the Muslims, they will say, what are the Muslims doing here (in India), why are they not in Pakistan.

You have to stand up to that kind of talk and answer them with reason and goodwill. I will sum up what I think should be the message, on behalf of my countrymen:

Phala phoola rahe. ya rub,
Yeh gulshan phoolon ka
Mujhe is baagh kay har phool say
Khushboo-e-ya rub. ´  

(Transcribed by Amber Rahim, Karachi.)

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