Published in Daily Star Bangladesh on May 23, 2020
The Other Side of the Divide by Sameer Arshad Khatlani journeys through the precarious landscape of people who live on both sides of the divide — the divide caused by the line drawn by Radcliffe in 1947 to split the subcontinent into Pakistan and India. The angst, the wounds linger on through even pandemics like COVID 19.
Was this divide a need of the Muslims or was it a result of politics beyond the comprehension of a common citizen of the Indian subcontinent, irrespective of the religion?
Sameer Arshad Khatlani, a journalist who had been with The Times of India during his trip, and then in Indian Express and now in Hindustan Times, journeyed to Lahore for a Peace Conference in December 2013 and in the process uncovered a story beyond the one given out. Though his book is compacted within that time period, it took years of research to write the book and it was finally published in 2020, just post the riots in Delhi and a little before COVID 19 disrupted our way of life. The book was something he wanted to do. In an earlier interview, he tells us, “I have always been very curious about Pakistan and wanted to write the book because I thought I have a unique, layered perspective that will make it compelling given the straight jacketed approach towards that country in India. The focus in India on issues that reinforce the same old view of Pakistan has left many compelling stories untold. I wanted to narrate those. Pakistan is a complex country and I thought its complexities were worth exploring in the form of a book.”
His book starts with the dilemma of Muslims who continued in India. They were not in favour of such a divide as it would upend their lives. And it did. They ended up in refugee camp. The reason given for the divide was politics per se: “Pakistan’s idea as a separate Muslim homeland—which was dismissed as ‘chimerical and impractical’ in the 1930s—now suddenly gathered steam. a tacit British support was at play—the payback Muhammad ali Jinnah received for backing the British war effort.”
Khatlani gives a first-person account. His family itself opposed his trip. He clarifies, their reactions or that of many Indian Muslims “can be traced to a latent legacy of wounds the subcontinent’s division inflicted on them and millions of other ordinary people.” They felt visiting Pakistan would be “rash.” Khatlani elaborates, “Like any average Indian, they hear, see and watch nothing that might humanize Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the country comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its portrayal in the news media, the cinema, as well as the terror attacks that emanate from that country.” When he does journey across, he finds a world where “India’s ‘soft power’, the reach and impact of Bollywood, helps offset anti-India sentiments in Pakistan. it humanizes India among the Pakistani masses; many shared problems besetting the two countries thus appear to be lopsided.”
He takes us through Pakistan weaving in how Partition created ruptures where none had been. The Radcliffe line split communities and villages. His telling is reminiscent of the fallacy described in Larry Collins’ Dominique La Pierre’s book Freedom at Midnight (1975). “Sometimes the line ran down the heart of a village, leaving a dozen huts in India, a dozen more in Pakistan. Occasionally it even bisected a home, leaving a front door opening onto India and a rear window looking into Pakistan.”
Khatlani factors in the human suffering sustained over the years by the community, the aftermath. He explains how “almost all Bhanu Chak residents have roots in Alwar and Bharatpur. However, none of them had been able to travel to meet their relatives in decades.”