In August 2018, on my way back to India from Madagascar, I was off-loaded in Nairobi by Kenya Airways on two consecutive nights. On the second night, at the facilitation counter, I bumped into Ravi Kumar, a pleasant-looking and smartly attired man in his late twenties. After an hour of arguing with grim-faced, insensitive airline staff, I looked forward to engaging him in a refreshing conversation as we waited for the transport to drive us to our hotel.
As soon as we had exchanged pleasantries in Hindustani, he said, smiling wryly: “Let me clarify that I am not an Indian. I am a Pakistani.”
“A Hindu, no doubt,” exclaimed I.
“That's right,” he said, boldly.
‘It Must be Difficult for Your Family to Live in Pakistan?’
I looked him up and down, searching for scars on his face, grime in his hair, sadness in his eyes that revealed the fret in his heart. My mind was instantly filled with sorrow for my ‘long-suffering’ fellow Hindu who, surely, must be leading an ‘undignified’, ‘baleful’ existence in Pakistan. Weren't Hindus in Pakistan ‘thrown to the wolves’ by state tyranny? I wanted Ravi Kumar to share his agonies, and that of other helpless victims, with me.
“It must be difficult for your family to live in Pakistan?” I asked a leading question.
“On the contrary, we are extremely happy there,” he retorted, astonishing me.
“Are you not discriminated against?”
“Not at all! We feel like equal citizens. My family lives in Karachi and nobody has ever bothered us. We are a successful business family trading in rice.”
“But isn't the Hindu community in Pakistan generally impoverished?”
“Not in Karachi. We are probably the most prosperous community. The entire rice trade — milling, retail and wholesale — is controlled by Hindus. They all live in great comfort. I have relocated to Benin — from where I supply rice to West Africa.”
‘I’m a Pakistani at Heart. India is the Last Place I Want to Migrate to’
“Haven't you ever thought about relocating to India? Do you not want to free yourself of a dismal, perilous existence in Pakistan and migrate to India to seek succour of freedom and a liberal democracy?” I asked.
He looked at me with a hard stare but replied politely: “You are trying to put words into my mouth. Firstly, our life in Pakistan is not miserable. We are very much a part of the mainstream. I am a Pakistani at heart. Secondly, India is the last place I would like to migrate to. I have been to Bombay thrice — to source rice for West Africa — as Pakistan did not have enough surplus for export. All three times it has been a dreadful experience. Right from the time you land, you are questioned and hounded as if you are a terrorist. I had to report to the police station every day. And all that the authorities did was to pick my pockets. I spent most of my time waiting at police stations than at business meetings. I don't like the undignified way I am treated in India. Now I am on my way to source rice from Thailand — over-flying India.”
‘Pakistani Hindus Didn’t Find Kinship or Compassion in India’
“However, many Pakistani Hindus do want to migrate to India — to enjoy some measure of freedom that is proffered in my country,” I interjected.
“Perhaps. But those who went to India did not find any trace of kinship or compassion. The government provided no assistance to resettle. The lower caste Hindus were not allowed to pray in the temples. They can’t drink from the same well as the upper castes. Before you call Pakistan intolerant and petty, you should think about the bigotry in your own country.”
“I am told all Hindu temples have been vandalised...”
“A few were, some years ago, as a reaction to the demolition of some big mosque in India.”
“Maybe. I don’t follow Indian news.”
Not a ‘Genuine’ Representative of Pakistani Hindus?
Despite my interventions to ‘poison’ his mind, he stood firm. I was disappointed. He was not saying the words I wanted to hear. I concluded that he was not a ‘genuine’ representative of Pakistani Hindus, and that his business interests did not allow him to bow too much against his government.
It did not cross my mind that he could have been sincerely faithful to his country.
As I write, I am reminded of my visit to Pakistan in 1997. Fifty years after Partition, I had taken my mother to Dalwal, her parental village in District Jhelum. (Call of Dalwal, a YouTube video, has had over 61,000 hits with hundreds of Pakistanis posting sentimental comments).
From there we went to Karyala, the village of her paternal grandparents. In torch light we saw their expansive house, now a ruin and located close to the samadhi of Baba Praga, a notable figure of my paternal Chibber clan, a disciple of Guru Nanak, a mentor to the next five Gurus, and was killed in 1638 fighting against the forces of Paindah Khan, the governor of Lahore. Three old Muslim villagers who were guiding us insisted that we visit the house of the sarpanch, the village headman. “He is a Hindu,” they said, “and not a leaf moves in this village without his permission.”
BJP Govt Should Help Pakistan Evolve Rather Than Making India ‘Medieval’
Regardless of my positive experience or what Ravi Kumar said, it is true that religious minorities are persecuted in Pakistan, just as minorities are persecuted in many other parts of the world.
The BJP-led government of India, instead of influencing Pakistan to evolve into a more liberal society, is bent on making India as ‘medieval’ as its neighbour.
Under the guise of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the government’s intent seems to be to ‘spite’ Muslims, to take away their citizenship and rights, including voting rights. Traditionally, Muslims have voted en masse and en bloc for the party best placed to defeat the BJP. With the voting rights of millions of Muslims taken away, it will be ‘ADVANTAGE BJP’ all the way to the state assemblies and the parliament.
Pakistani Hindus, Indian Muslims, Civil Society Must be Allowed to Breathe Freely
In the absence of an effective political opposition, the youth of the country — intelligent, thoughtful, conscious of the peril — have come out on the streets to protest against the cold, malicious law, and to remind the government that a parliamentary majority does not give any political party the right to trample over the constitution or seize and hold the State as their personal property. By guarding the liberties and rights of their Muslim brothers and sisters, the youth is also countering the attempts to reinterpret history, use democracy to establish an authoritarian state, clamp down on freedom of press and speech, and to blister civil society.
Throughout history, India has welcomed and provided free, unfettered refuge to the persecuted of all nations – regardless of their class or creed.
Our humanist values of love, compassion and tolerance allowed all religious communities to live in harmony and made noble our glorious civilisation. People across the world respected India’s spiritual might and considered it the conscience-keeper of our planet. In one fell swoop the CAA and NRC would reduce our nation to the level of intolerant, insensitive, uncivilised states. To safeguard the progressive ideals of secularism and liberalism it is important that peaceful protests continue until the government affirms and reaffirms its commitment towards maintaining an inclusive society. Pakistani Hindus, Indian Muslims, and civil society must breathe freely.
(Akhil Bakshi, an author and explorer, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club USA, and Editor of ‘Indian Mountaineer’. His latest book is Arctic to Antarctic: A Journey Across the Americas. He tweets @AkhilBakshi1. This is a personal blog. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)