Pakistan, A Diasporic History-IX

Muhammad Najm Akbar

Diaspora individuals are unique because they live two lives. In their adopted homeland, they begin life II.  In their life II, first-generation immigrants are new citizens of an adopted homeland, and by that count also members of the growing worldwide body of diaspora citizens.  As diaspora citizens, they look at life differently, hardly ever having a single perspective They seek to compare answers to crucial life questions with whatever they had as challenges and solutions in their Life I.  They engage in this reflection to see where the answers to these questions within the spectrum of their Life I and Life II intersect or diverge and how could they create a synergy that would be bigger than the total of their lives lived before now.    

First-generation migrants have a life II but they are born only once.  They are born in their life I. The most remarkable thing in their lives is to chronicle them, as ordinarily and objectively as possible. This means that someone in the present or a distant era would have another perspective into a few moments of human life that yet another individual with a life I and II would have lived. It might be of interest, as it would offer another experience of two lives lived in one, another intercultural perspective spanned over a few decades spent in different places, spread over multiple streets of the planet earth. It might not be as interesting as the classical mythology or lives spent perilously on discovering new oceans and lands but it would offer a nice cut of the moving flow of time that diaspora citizens navigate with skills acquired over different phases of intercultural learning. It would make no discoveries but certainly offer evidence and insight to clarify trends and enhance understanding of the most common human historical experience, the eight billion different types of life we live on this planet. Diaspora citizens are historic persons, with several ages and years and moments of life that they might not personally live or know or endure and yet imagine and visualize in all their richness as well as hopelessness. 

My parents had moved to Pakistan like several other Muslim Punjabi Muhajirin, i.e., immigrants.  They relocated across a new line of demarcation that separated their ancestral homes from a newborn entity. They moved there knowing little about the reasons that led to that unplanned and unanticipated transfer of populations across both sides of the new frontier.  I can look back and try to understand the circumstances that drove them across the frontier but they had little idea of what had happened.  My parents were born Muslims in British India.  Historic movement of populations over land and the Indian Ocean, invasions, and mystic missionaries introduced Islam as a religion to the Indian subcontinent.  This was not a unique change.  Such innovations included practices that now we know as Jainism, Buddhism, or Hinduism.  The Vedic era opened up a deep reflection on human life. Looking back at history, the Vedic era was an import to the region. Unlike Christianity first and Islam later, nonetheless, Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Sikhism were viewed as indigenous to the subcontinent. The place where my parents were born was the birthplace of Sikhism, an endogenous, syncretic movement. Sikhism used my parents’ mother tongue, Punjabi, as a medium of communion and the language of scripture. 

Over one thousand years of interaction, both through coastal areas and the Northern and Northwestern mountain passes, Islam interacted at length with the indigenous social and religious beliefs of the Indian subcontinent.  Simultaneously, nonetheless, Islam did not have an across-the-board transformational impact it had had on several other demographically homogenous and smaller groups whose life it touched on the route of expansion.  Either directly in geographically contiguous areas over land or more indirectly over waters of the Indian Ocean, Islam reached millions of individuals in the areas within its geographic range.  Entrenched Indian belief systems and Indian social institutions, however, only marginally yielded to this new way of life. When Christianity succeeded Islam as the religion of rulers though, for a proportionately smaller length of historic time, it faced a similar situation.

Followers of Islam remained clustered in the geographic areas of the Middle East, Central, South, and Southeast Asia. As the Europeans and particularly the British enhanced their mercantilist and later on imperial role in the Indian Subcontinent and finally the British won over other European intruders and removed the last of the Muslim rulers, Islam lost the prestige that had accompanied 1000 years of Muslim governance of different sections of the territory of the Indian subcontinent. For millennia, the Indian subcontinent had experienced irascible divisions of an evolved caste structure.  These separations had spilled over into inter-faith equations as well but if they were consistently fatal factors of social disharmony remained open to question. Followers of Islam had perceived differentiated degrees of real or imaginary challenge from the majority religions in different areas of the Indian subcontinent.  These perceptions, however, did not equally distribute over the entire expanse of the Indian subcontinent.  Muslims living as minorities in the British Indian provinces or the Princely States experienced a higher degree of anxiety and unease than others did.  These minorities in the Hindu-majority states of British India had therefore been at the forefront of a movement to protect their political and economic rights.  Conversely, Muslims like my parents who lived in the British Indian provinces where they were in majority had a different situation.  They did not experience the pressures that drove the choices of Muslim minorities.  Differentiated perceptions of the apocalypse defined the political dynamics of that era in the Indian subcontinent.  Minorities in the Muslim- or non-Muslim majority provinces would also seek arrangements that would ensure their rights. Communal tensions existed, but in the period removed from the communal tension of the partition era, the social ecology might have allowed the Indian demographics to either ignore the strife-laden surroundings or feel secure amid their peers.  Non-Muslim political groups in the Muslim-majority provinces as part of unionist politics in Punjab or the Bengali nationalists might have been happier with arrangements that were not as radical as they turned out to be in the partition of these majority provinces. The multi-faith communities of Eastern India vainly strove for an independent existence that would be different from the political organizational form that the successor states of British India took.

The possibility of partition and utter ambiguity about the borders and future of minorities ripped apart the degrees of communal equations the Indian subcontinent had experienced over centuries.  The leadership of the Indian subcontinent failed to take steps that would deal with the rising level of tensions.  Common persons in British India and the Princely States faced the consequences of political leadership’s decisions on both sides of the new frontiers.  Migrants lost their ancestral lands and properties in addition to irretrievable losses of life, honor, and dignity.  The Independence Act of India June 1947 stipulated no transfer of populations and the Imperial power made no arrangements to deal with such an option which millions of individuals had to exercise spontaneously. 

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Najm Akbar

I have remained focused on the interface of history and policymaking while pursuing graduate studies in history at Fresno State, developing on three years of my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (MA 1995, MALD 2011). While teaching Urdu between 2005-2018, or holding diplomatic assignments between 1981-2002, the intersection between these two processes has been the mainspring of my personal, professional and intellectual pursuits. This platform would continue that endeavor.

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