Talks between India and Pakistan are periodically resumed and abandoned, with both sides fixated in their positions and little hope for reconciliation. Rather than throw one´s hands up in despair, it is educative to look into the underpinnings of the Indo-Pakistani conflict and the deeper causes for the locked positions. And indeed, a closer look reveals that this ceaseless South Asian conflict is an outgrowth of inter-communal contradictions of northern India in general and Punjab in particular. It serves to be reminded that an average South Indian, Pathan, Baluch or Sindhi is, at the most, apathetic towards seemingly never-ending Indo-Pak conflict.
North Indians and Pak-Punjabis constitute the majority of the population in both countries and, directly or indirectly, they are the ones who set the foreign policy parameters on each side. To stay in power, the leaders coming from the other ´nationalities´ within India and Pakistan, if they make it to the top slot, have to play the game. As a matter of fact, the leaders coming from minority nationalities, such as in the case of Benazir Bhutto, have to go an extra mile to prove their loyalty to the majority group.
Historically, a long-standing contradiction had existed between Punjab (mostly in Pakistan now) and Hind (northern India): Punjabi literature is replete with references to this fact. In a way, the Indo-Pak conflict is a continuation of this historical trend. However, the matter was further complicated, after 1930s, when both Muslim and Hindu Punjabis started following the leadership of the Uttar Pradesh elite. While Muslim Punjabis – quite underdeveloped then – went along with the Muslim League (led by the UP elite), the Hindus started identifying themselves with the sensitivities of the Hindi belt (and its language). The Sikhs, the third largest group, were put into an odd situation of choosing between the lesser of the two evils (as they perceived).
Ironically, Punjabi Muslims, the main Pakistani protagonists in the Indo-Pak conflict today, were only marginally involved in the creation of Pakistan. The seeds of anti-India ideology were sown by the elite that migrated from UP and the non-Muslim Punjabi migrant to North India exacerbated the centuries-old contradiction between these two regions by becoming the basin of anti-Pakistan sentiments in various ways. The causes of inter-communal conflict among Punjabis, however, had its roots in the socio-economic make-up of pre-Partition Punjab. And it was these socio-economic conditions of Muslim Punjabis, before and after Partition, that played a pivotal role in determining the overall Pakistani attitude towards India.
The communal make-up of the Punjab was quite odd before Partition. An overwhelming majority of the business and other elites were comprised of Hindus and Sikhs. While the Muslim feudals occupied the highest positions in the political spectrum, common Muslims served either as labourers or artisans in the urban centres. For example, Muslims constituted two thirds of the population of Lahore, the main city of Punjab, yet there were only a few Muslim shopkeepers at the Mall or in Anarkali Bazaar. In the city, Muslims were mostly known as hawkers (sabzifroosh) and menial workers. Census figures and fictional descriptions (as in Yashpal´s novel Jhoota Such) confirm such a view.
In retrospect, one can argue that the lack of Punjabi Muslim participation in the movement for a separate (Pakistani) homeland was more due to an absence of a meaningful urban middle class and less because of their brotherly feelings for non-Muslim Punjabis – the mutual massacre of each other in 1947 proves this point beyond a doubt. It is understandable that the Muslims, due to economic disparities and the effective control of the state and commercial institutions by non-Muslims, harboured an immensely repressed animosity. The operational caste system in day-to-day life, also rankled. Many interviews conducted by this writer reveal that even those Muslims who had deep friendships with Hindus and Sikhs – and who are quite nostalgic about the long past period – were resentful of being treated as untouchables.
After the partition of Punjab, a vacuum was created in the urban centres due to the migration of the non-Muslim elite. The local Muslim artisan and working classes, and migrants from East Punjab and other parts of India (appropriately portrayed in Sathya´s film Garm Hawa starring Balraj Sahni) grabbed entire cities overnight. Having no background in business, commerce or matters of governance, a Punjabi Muslim middle class came into being that had no choice but to follow the intellectual leadership of the migrant UP elite, a group that was extremely hostile to India. Again, this played well into the repressed hostility of Punjabi Muslims.
While a thorough sociological study of this phenomenon is in order, this much is evident, that the new urban elite of Muslim Punjabis provided the groundswell of conservatism and anti-India chauvinism in Pakistan.
It will also be appropriate to try and grasp the feelings of Hindu and Sikh urban classes who, due to forced migration, were deprived of their homeland and everything they owned. Their expertise, education and entrepreneurship had helped them dominate urban life in United Punjab, and this experience helped them to quickly assume a similarly prominent role in the state and commercial institutions of post-Partition India. Their grief and resentment against the newly created state of Pakistan must have been intense. Therefore, it is understandable that the non-Muslim Punjabi migrants, being a vocal and influential group, would have created an anti-Pakistan environment in India.
On both sides of the border, the Punjabis used every method – through media, religious institutions, educational curricula and much else – to demonise each other. Such sustained propaganda proved to be morally stunting, including for those who were born after Partition. Muslim Punjabis of Pakistan, born after 1947, know little of a Hindu or a Sikh, and the reverse is true of Sikhs and Hindus living in the East Punjab. The almost total lack of interaction has only deepened the dehumanisation of the other side for the post-Partition generations of Punjabis.
In Pakistan, to differentiate themselves from Hindus and Sikhs, the Punjabi Muslim ruling elites not only tried to eradicate vestiges of common Punjabi culture and heritage, but also abandoned their mother tongue, Punjabi. Conscious efforts were made to burn all the bridges that connected them with non-Muslim Punjabis across the border. Again, this process was initiated by the migrant elites of Uttar Pradesh but was continued as part of state ideology by the Punjabi Muslims as they began to dominate the state of Pakistan. It suited them, as the new rulers of Pakistan.
Institutions were built on the basis of ideology that would enhance uniformity, rather than unity. In practical terms, the uniformity was supposed to be achieved through imposition of religion and a common language, Urdu. The linguistic policy, supported by the Urdu-speaking Punjabi ruling elites, created great conflicts, first with East Bengalis and later with Sindhis. However, these Pakistani elites, in their zeal to develop a unique Muslim identity devoid of Hindu-Sikh cultural elements, would not let go of such policies. Anti-India passion so blinded the ruling elites that they did not see that this policy was detrimental to the interests of the state of Pakistan.
Over on the other side, Hindu Punjabis too identified themselves with Hindi and promoted uniformity of the state at the expense of their indigenous culture and language. The ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party is but a reflection of this phenomenon.
A whole generation of Pakistani Punjabis was raised to define its existence in anti-India terms. An element of insecurity and uncertainty played a critical role in shaping up their psyche, with the constant reminder that "Muslims could not have prospered in the presence of Hindus and Sikhs." Eventually, this psyche garnered institutional interests, particularly, in Islamabad´s foreign policy establishment and in the military.
Against the backdrop of forced migration that resulted in loss of lives and property, the antagonistic mentality must have coloured the management of key state institutions in India as well. And now, these attitudes have assumed a life of their own in such institutions of both countries. There have been drastic changes in objective circumstances, but these institutions are unwilling to abandon the besieged mentality.
Today, a third generation of Punjabis after Partition is coming of age in India and Pakistan. This generation is not prisoner to past experiences, specifically the bloody communal carnage of 1947. While, on both sides, they certainly are fed the same poisonous propaganda as the preceding generation, the desire to communicate with the Punjabi brethren across the border is very much there today compared to yesterday.
The movement for the rehabilitation of Punjabi language and culture – and of exploring the common heritage of all
Punjabis – has steadily gained momentum in Pakistani Punjab. In short, the grounds for mutual understanding are being laid in both countries and, with accelerated interaction between the communities, this region can come to terms with itself. This, in turn, will help India and Pakistan to come to terms with themselves.