Pakistan, A Diasporic History-X

Muhammad Najm Akbar

For refugees of all areas and ethnicities, settlement in Pakistan was far from a spiritual journey. Religion was the public face of a struggle for hard-core political and economic rights. It also triggered ruthless killing and barbarity on both sides of the new frontier line. Religion did not help the Muhajirin as they moved, unanticipated and unannounced, into a newly renamed part of the Indian Subcontinent that they would know as their new motherland. In this new home, they confronted another and, in many cases, the first-ever conflict over social and economic rights with their co-religionists who had lived there for decades and centuries. They searched for new homes in these settled lands. The locals had inhabited these lands the new immigrants had barged into, unannounced and unanticipated. A subtle tension between the locals and the Muhajirin persists to date in Pakistan.

The unanticipated transfer of populations in the Indian subcontinent was not only abrupt but also massive.  According to different estimates, up to fifteen million people crossed the border, on one side or the other. About one million would have paid the price of the failure of the Raj and the governments to provide protection to the millions of people on the move.  Punjabis were the most affected part of the population on both sides of the frontier, constituting over seventy-five percent of the population that moved.  Transfer from India into West Pakistan had a net excess of over ten percent. On the Eastern border, more Bengalis moved into the Indian side than vice versa, almost with the same excess that Pakistan absorbed on the Western side. Atrocities accompanied these unplanned transfers on both sides of the border with widely divergent claims of casualties. Figures may vary but leave no doubt about the calamity that struck the movement of refugees on both sides of the border.

Within Pakistan, the settlement of Muhajirin followed different paths for Punjabi and other, mainly Urdu-speaking, communities. The immediate divide was settlement into urban and rural areas. Punjabi Muhajirin who moved to either side of the border formed the agricultural backbone of British India. They moved to assume the same role in their new homeland. The nation-states of India and Pakistan created a mechanism gradually to deal with the problems of abandoned properties this enormous movement of people had triggered.  Urdu-speaking Muhajirin settled in urban areas, beginning with Pakistan’s commercial metropolis and the first federal capital, Karachi. Punjabi Muhajirin had to wait for the transfer of land records from the other side of the border. Transferred land records were hardly perfect. Allocation of land to the Punjabi Muhajirin did not follow the village patterns that existed in East Punjab. These settlements dispersed migrant Punjabi farmers all over the country in small concentrations.  The new homeland of the Punjabi Muhajirin thus fragmented the social fabric and family networks that had been the essence of their life in what they called, dais, or the country of their origin. The local-Muhajir issue will continue to wreck their lives wherever they went. Individual landholdings, moreover, continued to grow smaller with the birth of each child as Pakistan experienced exponential growth in population. The state officials applied Sunni Sharia provisions on property distribution indicating the notional share of the property for each new heir. Different and more egalitarian rules applied to the followers of the Shia sect.

Moving out of the rural economies for Punjabi migrants was an uphill task. My father, like many others, made this onerous passage possible. After primary education, this move enabled me to go to a college and continue to a University. The graduate education for a degree in English literature qualified me to get my first teaching job and move to a new location. A part of my life ended. Another began. I loved literature but had only a marginal understanding of English literature. I had a definite idea about why I should study it.  All of my classmates knew that English was Pakistan’s official language. A degree in English literature opened several doors to government jobs. I confess nonetheless that lots of what we studied did not relate to the job we coveted.

Apparently, in a country like Pakistan, the objective of teaching literature in the official language was to enable more graduates to communicate in that language. My classes, several of which I enjoyed enormously because of my brilliant teachers, did not seem to go in that direction. Chaucer, for example, had great stories to tell and had an eminent place in English literature but I fail to figure out to this date why my classmates and I had to study him. He belonged to a course on the history of English literature where students could also see some excerpts from his poetry to track the evolution of the English language over centuries. There was no correlation, however, between a Pakistani student’s learning needs and what Chaucer offered. The University had no idea about the job market and the skills students needed to get there. Like most of my classmates, teaching English as a foreign language became my first job. I painfully realized over some nine months of my career as a lecturer in English that my university education had failed to prepare me and my classmates for the task that learners expected all of us to perform. The government institutions and parents all complained about falling standards of education. English remained a major source of students’ failure in examinations at all levels. Chaucer or whosoever hardly helped to address that situation. Too few students of English literature had a background in the ideas they explored.  John Donne, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Dryden, Shakespeare, and Marlow made some sense but I felt that ultimately all great literature has something local to it. You have to get that context first to unpack the universal it seeks to convey. British history then was alien to me and probably to most of my classmates as much as the history of western civilization and the role that Christianity played in it. Equally alien to me were the landscape and seasons that inspired English literature. Ode to Autumn spoke to me for the first time after graduation while teaching at Wapda College, Tarbela Dam Project. Tarbela had more clearly delineated seasons and had autumnal colors as distinct as I later discovered in Europe.

My classmates and I enjoyed English literature in many other ways. English literature classes did not give us the tools to transform the lives of failing students but the University transformed all of us, individually and collectively.  Late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto marked our lives. He opened the University in Multan during the period we became eligible to pursue graduate education. Few of us would have had the means to attend a University away from our hometown or the areas adjoining it.  I would have faced a serious dilemma. I could continue my studies because of my job. If I were to move, I might have lost the job and with it the prospects of continuing my studies.  Opening the University in Multan was one more reason Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made deep inroads into my mind as much as he did into the lives of many of my generation.  The university Bhutto opened in Multan cracked the conservative façade that distinguished its geographic and demographic base.  One of my fellow students endeared himself to many in the University making a point to tell repeatedly some of his female classmates not to leave the premises without a life partner.  Many wished that a miracle like that should happen to them. For the overwhelming majority, this was the first time in a co-ed institution where they could communicate with each other without social inhibitions. Students would study together, sit beside each other, line up for services, appear in the examinations, research in the library for long hours, show up there during vacations as well discuss what they read, and agree or disagree over what it meant to them. It was a unique experience.  They entered into a dream world where they were fairies and princes. Literature classes refined the ways they expressed their views to each other. Literature educated them emotionally as well.  They could relate to a Hamlet, a King Lear, or Cordelia. T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost offered ways to articulate complex situations. Life and coffee spoons had a relationship so did life and the road that diverged amid a forest, the road not taken, the miles they had to go before they slept, and of course an omniscient debate about “To be, or not to be.” 

I found American literature more intimately related to life. A Farewell to Arms was one novel in the course that I must have read cover to cover, not just to take the tests. Hemingway’s heroine suffering birth pangs in the Italian Alps was an image of human pain and suffering that would become a part of my life. Arthur Miller’s Wiley answered many questions and Frost always whispered to life. Good fences made good neighbors or the miles on the road not taken, Frost had a hold on my imagination. English literature classes were, however, not relevant to my role as an English teacher, or other job situations that my education helped me achieve. Teaching English in Pakistan then and probably now as well meant giving students the capability to express themselves clearly. I had no such skills. Many students at Tarbela apparently liked me but I always wonder if I offered them what they needed.  

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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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