Gurshamshir Singh Waraich

Tariq Ali discusses the place of Punjab — its partition, its politicians and activists, and its poetry and languages — in the history of the subcontinent.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Punjab’s partition, Chandigarh-based journalist Gurshamshir Singh Waraich conducted a video interview with British-Pakistani activist and writer Tariq Ali.

The conversation was wide-ranging. The acclaimed activist and author discussed the reasons for partition, the politicians who were responsible, and its enduring consequences across India and Pakistan. He also talked about the prospects of bringing the two Punjabs together, for regional peace more widely, and how a shared canon — and a shared love — of Punjabi poets already bridges the divide.

Intertwined with this political history is his own personal one. Ali discussed his upbringing in various Punjabi dialects and close affiliation with the Punjabi identity, his grandfather Sikandar Hayat Khan’s central role in debates around partition in the 30s and 40s, and his own activism —including against Punjabi language prohibitions — on Pakistan’s campuses in the 60s.

Below is an edited transcript of that interview. The interview was translated and transcribed into English by Veerdeep Kaur Sandhu, Jasdeep Singh and Gursahiba Gill.

Gurshamshir Singh Waraich (GSW): 75 years have passed since the partition of Punjab. Why did it happen and what are its enduring legacies? To discuss the partition and its afterlives, we are joined by Tariq Ali. Tariq Ali is a public intellectual, journalist, writer and political activist. He lives in Britain, and is the author of several books. He was also a key student leader, both in Britain and in Pakistani Punjab. Thank you Tariq Ali for speaking with me.

Tariq Ali (TA): Greetings. Delighted.

GSW: You were born in (British) Punjab. What is the place of Punjab in your life?

TA: I was born and raised in Lahore. I did my schooling from Lahore and also studied at Government College in Lahore. At the age of 20, I came to Britain to study at Oxford University. At that time, my plan was to go back and practise law after I finished my studies, and it was certainly important to go back to Lahore. But then certain things took place – we had one military dictator after another – and my return back home became difficult. To be frank, for a long time I was not allowed back. They made it clear that it was better if I didn’t come back.

I still have a lot of contacts in Punjab, and the Punjabi language is my mother tongue. The first language I learnt was Punjabi – and that too, different dialects of Punjabi. My family background was between Pindi and Peshawar, and we used to speak the Pothwari dialect of Punjabi. “Kidhar ja reha vein?” (Where are you going?) will be asked in Lahori or Amritsari Punjabi. And in Pothwari, we ask: “Kithe vehne paye o?” There are also many Sanskrit words in Pothwari compared to Lahori Punjabi. Pahadi Punjabi, another dialect I spoke, also has a slight difference. I grew up listening and being influenced by three dialects of Punjabi. So of course, I very much think of myself as a Punjabi.

GSW: What do you think is the image of Punjab in this globalized world?

TA: After partition, the position and lustre of Punjab did not remain the same as it was, both in the world and in India. The division of Punjab meant that the Sikh and Hindu Punjabis went to India and most of the Muslim Punjabis remained in Pakistan. Now you ask: was it valid to break Punjab on the basis of religion? After all, everyone speaks the Punjabi language. And the Gurus of Sikhs, like Guru Nanak, belonged to undivided Punjab, and Sikhism was born in the same undivided Punjab. Everyone is aware of our Sufi poets and these Punjabi Sufis were good friends with Guru Nanak. You know better than me that the writings of Guru Granth Sahib Ji are equally beautiful for all Punjabis, regardless of their religion.

“To some extent, the old united Punjab is still alive in the diaspora”

This unity that existed has now ended, except perhaps in the diaspora. In Britain, America and Australia, there are so many Punjabis who are Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu. And there is one good thing about the diaspora: when there are any mushairas (poetry symposiums) or singing shows, all Punjabis come together. All Punjabis will get together despite the partition. I have personally witnessed that, in Canada and Britain for instance, Punjabis from both sides of the border will attend Sikh festivals. To some extent, the old united Punjab is still alive in the diaspora.

GSW: Yes, it’s certainly alive there. As you have said, Punjab is not the same after the partition. Why did a bloody and gruesome partition fall upon Punjab?

“ The plan of my maternal grandfather Sikandar Hayat Khan was for a zonal federation, where there would be no division of Punjab and Bengal. ”

TA: This was because of politics. I mostly put the blame for this on the leaders of the Congress Party. Although they were mostly Hindus, Congress leaders represented all of India, or so they claimed, and were in a national position. Muslim leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah were asking them to sit and discuss further plans after the British left the country. Big plans were being made. The plan of my maternal grandfather Sikandar Hayat Khan [a Punjab Unionist Party leader who served as Premier of the Punjab] was for a zonal federation, where there would be no division of Punjab and Bengal. He said India should remain a big federation in which there would be different zones. This proposition got rejected by Congress, less so by the Muslim League. Then there were plans by Jinnah and even the Cabinet Mission. Jinnah once believed that we could keep the nation together, but he saw that Sardar Patel and other Congress leaders didn’t want any form of Muslim representation after the British left. It was then that Jinnah leveled the Pakistan demand. But he didn’t think, and others didn’t think, that dividing India on the basis of religion meant splitting Punjab and Bengal.

Once the hot wind of 1947 started blowing, beatings and fighting started. The atrocities were in Punjab and Bengal. After that, it was difficult to keep them together. There was a lack of vision in our leaders. Many accepted later that they did not anticipate that partition would lead to the death of so many. But these people wouldn’t have been killed if the leaders hadn’t ultimately decided to split. Once the partition of the nation had been decided, the gruesome consequences faced by Punjab and Bengal were destined.

Today, many people say that Sikhs should have stayed with us (in Pakistan). But I always question why they would stay with us. They were not foolish. They had their reasons and perhaps they knew that, in the long run, it would benefit them to stay with India because not only was India a bigger country but its prevalent ideology at that time was rooted in secularity. Thus, they could, they believed, get better rights and facilities in India.

But now let’s assume that the Sikh community chose to stay in Pakistan. Even then, there would have been similar fights. The same story that happened in India would have transpired on the other side too. After all, Muslims have been killing each other for centuries, so why would Sikhs have been treated differently? Or the opposite would have happened – Sikhs would have fought and killed them. This religious strife was a disease and its outbreak took place in 1947. But this violence didn’t spread to other parts of India. South India remained unaffected by any of this. The outbreak was limited to North and Eastern India.

After the partition of Punjab, how did the province fare in Pakistan compared to India? Firstly, in my view, there has been more economic development in Indian Punjab. The agricultural sector grew and the Green Revolution did have somewhat of a positive impact. But this sort of development did not take place in Pakistani Punjab. For a long time, there was the prevalence of the ijaradari and zamindari system.

Also, in Pakistani Punjab, the government tried to eliminate the Punjabi language, but they were unsuccessful, at least on the oral front. The majority of people in Pakistan continue to speak Punjabi, even though the teaching of the Punjabi language has been denied. In India, this did not happen. The Punjabi language was recognised and taught; books and newspapers are printed in it.

“We then held the first ever debate in Punjabi on campus…”

Punjabi was banned in Pakistan for a long time. When I was in Government College Lahore during the 60s, our dear principal, Dr. Nazim Ahmed, was an expert in Punjabi poetry and translated Sufi poets such as Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah into Urdu and English. Once some of us students went to meet him in his office and I said, “Doctor, you write in Punjabi, you read Punjabi, even if it’s in the Persian script, and you also read and translate the language. But why haven’t we conducted even one meeting in a government college of Punjab in the Punjabi language? No debate has been held in Punjabi. It’s either in English and Urdu. What is this?” He started laughing and said these were orders from the government. I said those compulsions are for elections, but we can do a debate in Punjabi within the closed walls of the college. He sanctioned this, as long as we did not make the debate political in nature — it was the era of military rule. He requested that the theme of the debate should have a cultural element so as to avoid any suspicions. We then held the first ever debate in Punjabi on campus on the topic “Nai reesan shehar Lahore diyan [there is no match for the city of Lahore].” That topic was interpreted by people in different ways – some brought a political perspective and others went in a different direction. There was a huge turnout.

GSW: You mentioned your maternal grandfather, Sikandar Hayat Khan. With respect to that, I want to ask about the type of leadership Punjab should have had. Given that Punjab was a large and politically important province for both India and Pakistan, why was there no united leadership front in the province? Why did Punjab not have a leader who could have represented Punjab and its case? Because the leaders who were accused of causing the partition – like Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah – neither of them had any connection with Punjab.

TA: You are absolutely correct. See, from this point of view, it was unfortunate that my grandfather died too early. He had not even reached 50 yet. He died in 1942. Following him, the leaders of the Unionist Party were not in the position to represent and defend Punjab. And the Hindu unionists joined the Congress, the Sikh unionists joined the Akali Dal, and the Muslim unionists joined the Muslim League ultimately. Thus, the Unionist Party dissolved.

But we should not forget what the Unionist Party was all about. The Unionist Party was made by the British. The British created and supported parties in Punjab, Bengal, the South, and UP (United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh) who would ally with the British in India. It was a sharp plan. In other parts of the world, the British did the same. They made alliances with landlords and, from these alliances, pro-British politicians emerged. These politicians went to English schools from childhood – schools were made for them – and they were also sent abroad.

GSW: Do you think partition would not have happened if the leadership of the Unionist Party, your grandfather or other people after him, had remained strong at that time, or if they had not died prematurely?

TA: Who knows? Only God knows what would have happened if they had remained alive. But my mother and my uncle always mentioned that my grandfather used to say that he would not have let them divide Punjab. It was a very important state in the subcontinent, he believed, and it would be crazy to divide it. But I don’t know if he would’ve been successful in this plan had he lived, for other pressures also existed.

GSW: If not partition, what exactly was your grandfather’s plan for Punjab – that Punjab should be absorbed into Pakistan or kept as an independent state?

“When my grandfather met Winston Churchill in August 1942 in Cairo, Churchill told him that, if needed, they would make Punjab an independent nation because they did not want to give Congress immense powers…”

TA: There was a lot of discussion about this. When my grandfather met Winston Churchill in August 1942 in Cairo, Churchill told him that, if needed, they would make Punjab an independent nation because they did not want to give Congress immense powers across the subcontinent after independence. Wherever Britain went, their way of ruling was to divide the colonized in this way. Britain hoped that an independent Punjab would side with them.

This was one of Britain’s plans, but I don’t know whether it could have been successful, given the anti-British unrest across India. In Bombay, there was a naval mutiny in 1946, which involved Sikhs and Muslims, and they said that they would not surrender to the British – they would only surrender to their own parties, and that too after independence. Then Gandhi, Nehru, Liaquat, and Jinnah went to the sailors and asked them to surrender. They put an end to this revolt. And there were also revolts among the Gorkhas, the police, and the people of Punjab. Good Lord – there was a lot of tension throughout India! And Punjab was at the centre of a lot of this. So the British were perhaps foolish for thinking an independent Punjab would automatically side with them.

GSW: Right. Earlier, you said that the atmosphere eventually became so disturbed that it was impossible to stop the tide of communal violence. But I’m reminded of an observation by the Punjabi poet Shah Mohammad (1780–1862), who noted that Muslims and Hindus had happily lived in Punjab before a third community entered. Do you believe the British sowed the seeds for this division in the province?

TA: There is no doubt that the British played a significant role. Before that, for how many years had the Mughals stayed in India? Around 300 years. The Mughals ruled many territories in India, and their military included Hindu generals, and later also Sikh generals, especially during the First War of Independence.

GSW: In 1857.

TA: Yes. I think there was also another problem: the Sikhs, after a few wars, ultimately lost the battle against the British for Punjab in 1849. After that defeat, some Sikh leaders decided that fighting against the British wasn’t strategic. Instead, some decided to work with them, while others continued to oppose the British. The Sikh community was divided. If that division had not happened and had Punjab remained in the hands of Sikhs, then the British perhaps would not have survived the First War of Independence. By default, the British were saved by Punjab, by the Sikhs and Muslims. If the British had been forced out of India at that time, things might have been different.

GSW: During this period, how did Punjab’s Muslims view the British and the previous Sikh regime?

TA: Muslim viewpoints changed according to the area where one resided and under who’s rule one lived. In my area of Kamalpur, many complained about the historic atrocities during the period of Sikh rule. That might have been the case, but there were atrocities under every regime and ruler. The Muslims of Punjab had also fought against the Mughals, so, in a way, Muslims fought against Muslims. Rulers always use their power to maximise their own benefits and certain Sikh kings did the same after ascending the throne.

But these weren’t the teachings of Guru Nanak. He never preached sitting on a throne and ruling over people. Rather, he stressed the importance of rulers helping common people. And this was why not all regions in Punjab faced tyranny under Sikh rulers. Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore was supported by everyone, whether Sikh or Muslim. He also had Muslim advisors.

“Punjab was divided and weakened, which the British took advantage of, especially during the 1857 war. I think the roots of the 1947 partition can be traced to that war.”

But this was not the story for all the Sikh kings and their kingdoms. Thus, some Muslim families came to believe that the British were better than the Sikhs, so they decided to compromise with them. And then Sikhs also started making compromises with the British. Hence, Punjab was divided and weakened, which the British took advantage of, especially during the 1857 war. I think the roots of the 1947 partition can be traced to that war.

GSW: During and after partition, there was a lot of violence. Who do you think shares the responsibility for this?

TA: The British empire bears significant responsibility, as do some of our politicians to quite an extent. As Punjab was divided, the fights started. Sikhs were killing Muslims, and Muslims were killing Sikhs and Hindus. Trains carrying dead bodies were coming in from both sides. At the time, when Indians — Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus — were killing each other in Punjab, the only people who could walk through the streets were white men. Nobody was questioning or threatening the white man – we were too busy killing each other. The British could have stopped this. After all, they had power – the army and police was under their control. But they did not stop this violence. The British had this excuse ready that the military would not obey their orders and that there would be more communal tensions if they intervened. But the British had themselves started this and only they could put an end to it. They could have delayed the partition to stop the killings. Nothing would have gone wrong had they delayed the partition by a year.

GSW: What role do you think leaders like Jinnah or Gandhi had in partition and its aftermath? As I understand it, Gandhi went to Bengal to stop the riots, and Nehru also intervened to stop the riots in Delhi (though at a very later stage). But Jinnah never visited any of the region’s plagued by violence. What accounts for his insensitivity?  

TA: In 1947, there was only one concern for Jinnah, and that was how to form Pakistan quickly. He knew that his health was deteriorating – he was suffering from tuberculosis and didn’t know how much time he had left.

After partition, Mian Iftikharuddin, the Minister for Rehabilitation of Refuges in Pakistan’s Punjab government, took Jinnah to visit Muslim refugees from India, many of whom sloganeered against Jinnah. They abused him and asked why he only came now. Jinnah was very disturbed after witnessing this and, according to Mian Iftikharuddin, claimed that he had no idea that things would get this bad. This led to Jinnah visiting the Pakistani refugee camps, albeit he did not intervene when Hindus and Sikhs were killed.

GSW: After 1947, you and your family remained in Lahore. What changes did you witness in Lahore and how do you feel about them?

TA: I remember as kids we would be sitting in the backseat of our car and our parents would point out various landmarks in Lahore. They would say: “Baldev [Singh] used to live here”; “in that street, Gupta used to live.” We got this information in our childhood but nowadays, nobody remembers or reflects on this history of the city. When people see old pictures, they’re surprised to see temples in the city.

We also got familiar with a different part of Lahore because my grandfather bought a flat in these new apartments, which he also designed. He was a modernist, and those flats had shops underneath, a style was copied from London. From there, it was easy for us to see Lahore changing before our eyes. Our apartment was near Gujjar Singh Chawk, named after Gujjar Singh, a chief during Ranjit Singh’s era and others. We would see the names of roads change over time.

Also, every time I read poetry, I felt something. I was about 10 or 11 years old when I heard a poem of Amrita Pritam at a musha’ara (poetry symposium):

Ajj akahan waris shah nu ki tu kabran vicho bol

te ajj kitabe ishq da koi agla Varka fol

ik roi see dhee Punjab di tu likh likh maare vain

ajj lakhan dheeyan rondian tainu waris shah nu kehn

I want to ask the great poet Waris Shah to speak from your grave

to write another page of the book of love

a daughter of Punjab wept and you wrote pages full of wails

millions of daughters are weeping and asking you to write

When I heard it for the first time, I started crying, and then my mother informed me that Amrita wrote this when she was merely 17 or 18 years old. When these Punjabi musha’aras were held and Bulleh Shah was remembered, we used to hear these lines, “Bulleya, ki jana mai kaun? (Bullah, what do you know of your self?).” Or his famous lines: “Chal bulleya chal othey Challiye jithey sare anney na koi sadi zaat pehchane, na koi sanu janeh (Bullah, let’s go to a place where everyone is blind. No one knows us and no one cares about identities like caste).” These words have represented the fervour and the tradition of Punjab. Be they Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh, these words carry the same meaning for all Punjabis.

GSW: Also, Ustad Daman Ji and his brilliant work.

TA: Ustad Daman was a great person. My friends and I used to playfully tease him. This was during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule. This one time he came to a Punjabi musha’ara and said, “Chidian fad fad edharr gayi’aan (sparrows flew and went that way).” We told him to leave the sparrows alone and say something else. He was silent for a while and then said, “Hunh o gaian maujan hi maujan jidar takko fauja ee faujan (Now we are celebratory, wherever you see there is military)” [laughs]. This was Ustad Daman being spontaneous. The very next day, he was jailed for two weeks, and beaten up badly there. The next time we met in the same café, he greeted us by saying, “If next time you ask me to ‘say something,’ I will ask you to stand up and say something instead.” These light hearted moments were always there.

“ One of my friends once questioned [Faiz Ahmad Faiz] as to why his poems weren’t in Punjabi, given he was born and did schooling in Punjab. He replied that whatever needed to be said in Punjabi had already been said by Baba Bulleh Shah. ”

We were also close to Faiz Ahmad Faiz. He was a family friend and often visited our house. One of my friends once questioned him as to why his poems weren’t in Punjabi, given he was born and did schooling in Punjab. He replied that whatever needed to be said in Punjabi had already been said by Baba Bulleh Shah. He felt that anything he would add would be only an imitation of Bulleh Shah.

GSW: What’s your analysis of the trajectory of India and Pakistan over the last 75 years? Can the two countries improve their relations?

TA: India and Pakistan have gone different ways. Pakistan worked very hard to maintain a friendship with both the British and the Americans, but their own identity was lost as a result. When the Americans and the British decided to end Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule by attacking Egypt, the Pakistani government supported the British. In Pakistan, there were protests against the government’s decision and in support of Nasser. Schools and colleges came out against the government. I joined such a protest – the first one I ever joined. I was 12 years old.

On the other hand, India, then under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, was non-aligned, secular and supportive of Nasser. They were pressuring the British to get out of there. A friend of mine told me that during the 1956-57 period, many people named their new-born son Jawaharlal.

So, both nations went different ways. After the independence of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s identity eroded even further. Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan – a country that was supposed to be the natural home for Muslims in the subcontinent – had ended. His two-nation theory was proven wrong.

GSW: After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, do you think ethnic and sectarian conflict within Pakistan escalated?

TA: Yes, to a large degree. If the majorities in Pakistan — the Sunnis, the Punjabis — can’t find anyone externally, if there are no Hindus or Sikhs or Bengalis, then they will scapegoat and beat the minority religious and ethnic communities. They will kill the Shias, the Baloch.

During the era of General Zia-ul-Haq, in particular, many of these problems deepened. The government supported Islamic fundamentalism, with the backing of the Americans. That was the worst time for Pakistan’s politics, where the government and its Islamist allies completely wiped away the old Pakistan, persecuting religious and ethnic minorities. To be honest, Punjab has a lot of power and strength in Pakistan. There was no need for the government and military to squabble with the Baloch, or to commit atrocities against Pashtuns in Waziristan, but they have and they do. They have a lot of fear.

GSW: You said that Punjabis are powerful in Pakistan. Does the common Punjabi benefit?

TA: What benefit? None. Poor Punjabis don’t get any benefits. This is a fact.

Also, if other ethnicities were not to reside in Pakistan, nothing would happen to Pakistan because it would survive on the basis of Punjab. But that time has gone by when people speculated that Pakistan will split. Now there is no question of this nature.

GSW: In 1983, you wrote a book titled Can Pakistan Survive? Do you think that question, 40 years later, still exists?

TA: That question no longer exists. I remember General Zia attacked that book publicly. At one press conference in India, a journalist asked him about my book, and he said, “Tariq Ali is wrong and is spreading lies.” At that time, I had just asked a question with my book. It was my thesis that, if Afghanistan and Iran’s Baluchistan were to have progressive developments, and were their progressive light to spread to Pakistan’s Baluchistan and North-West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) province, then Pakistan could break up. But of course this never happened. The regime of Iran was extremely centralist and rigid, and in Afghanistan, you know what issues had already started taking place. The possibility of any progressive government emerging from those two sides ceased to exist.

Even though the threat of secession no longer seriously existed, the Pakistan government under Zia continued to oppress minorities like the Baloch, torturing their leaders and so forth. It enraged me that they had not learnt any lesson from what transpired in Bangladesh.

GSW: Many people in India compare Modi’s era with General Zia’s. They say Modi is Hinduizing India, just as Zia Islamicized Pakistan. But to what extent did Jawaharlal Nehru and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who are considered to be liberal, sow the seeds from which General Zia and Modi sprouted?

TA: I agree with this. See, there were innumerable opportunities for the Indian Congress party to focus and work on education and health in a way that would have united the country. Only rich people should not have been allowed to study, but streamlined plans should have been laid to educate everyone — and in their native languages (Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, etc.) as well as English. This came into effect, but only for civil servants and politicians, not for ordinary people.

“It was for good reason that B. R. Ambedkar, who made significant contributions to the writing of the Indian constitution, repeatedly advised Jinnah to create Pakistan or else the Brahmins would eat them alive. ”

Congress should have also concertedly campaigned against the caste system. But the Congress leadership consisted of people with different thoughts on the caste system. Nehru was an educated person with a liberal, secular, and democratic outlook. But Gandhi had his own questionable caste politics and outlook. And people associated with Sardar Vallabhai Patel were, to varying degrees, extremist Hindus, with no distinction between them and the ideology of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Because of figures like this, Congress didn’t confront caste. They could have and should have made schools in which diverse students from Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Dalit backgrounds sat together, to be taught by diverse teachers. It could have had a lot of effects. But they didn’t go down this path. It was for good reason that B. R. Ambedkar, who made significant contributions to the writing of the Indian constitution, repeatedly advised Jinnah to create Pakistan or else the Brahmins would eat them alive.

Nehru also promised Sheikh Abdullah, the “Lion of Kashmir,” that there would be a referendum and Kashmiris would decide on their own future, but this also did not happen. Every time Abdullah asked Nehru when the referendum would take place, he was thrown in jail. Nehru had a huge hand in messing things up. And then his daughter, Indira Gandhi, brought the Emergency, which involved widespread arrests, the suspension of civil liberties, and even a forced sterilization campaign — to supposedly confront poverty, though many of its targets were Dalits and Muslims. At the time, people raised slogans like “Nasalbandi ke teen dalaal Sanjay, Indira, Bansi Lal” [the three pimps of sterilization: Sanjay, India and Bansi Lal]. Did the campaign end poverty? Of course not.

In a sense, all this set the conditions for Modi’s rise. The rise of the right is also a global phenomenon, but the difference is that the RSS has been here from the start. Even though they insist that the person who killed Gandhi, Nathuram Godse, was not a member of the RSS, Godse himself said he was a member. And his brother, Gopal Godse, gave an interview 20 or 30 years back in which he was asked, “Do you have any regret that Gandhi was killed by your brother?” He answered that they were all together in the conspiracy and there was no regret. All this was taking place in India, and everyone witnessed it.

What was Congress doing this entire while? Making money, corrupting itself, and oppressing groups like Sikhs, Muslims and Dalits. Many of their leaders were also friends and talked privately with RSS people. No doubt they put them in jail, but even then they took care of their jail arrangements. Congress was not able to make itself a secular party. After Gandhi drew on Hindu mythology to advocate for Ram Raj, and centred Hindu symbols in Congress politics, this created a problem. People who advised the party not to go down this path — and other progressive people from the Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu intelligentsia — then joined the Communist Party of India. That’s why, after 1947, the communists were the only ones in opposition to Congress.

“The communists did a lot of work for farmers and countless others — work Nehru suppressed in places like Hyderabad, where he killed lakhs of people. Nehru and Congress should not have been idealised”

We should not forget this important piece of history. The communists did a lot of work for farmers and countless others — work Nehru suppressed in places like Hyderabad, where he killed lakhs of people. Nehru and Congress should not have been idealised. Their views about the position of India in a global context were fine to some extent — that India should always be independent and non-aligned — but they didn’t have any foresightedness, except in the art of making slogans.

GSW: You mentioned earlier that the British could have delayed partition by a year so as to avoid the violence, but did not. Do you think that the British state should officially apologize for the violence of partition?

“let’s assume the British do apologize. Do we accept it? Why should an apology justify the violence, distress and poverty caused by colonialism? ”

TA: They will apologize because it is not hard to apologize. But they won’t go beyond that — they won’t give reparations or compensation for the violence, for instance. Kashmiris can ask for compensation on the basis of atrocities done to them in India but they won’t get any. India will never do such a thing. General Musharraf did apologise to Bengalis to quite some extent — but what did that do? There is no real benefit in getting an apology.

Also, let’s assume the British do apologize. Do we accept it? Why should an apology justify the violence, distress and poverty caused by colonialism?

GSW: So, what should happen? If not reparations between Britain and India/Pakistan, can there be any reconciliation between Punjabis across both sides of the divide?

TA: Both nations need to recognise that between 1 to 2 million people lost their lives and died in the partition. We don’t have the exact figures because people burnt some bodies, and their death was not documented. No one bothered about the bodies of poor people. People were traveling in buses — Sikhs to Hindustan and Muslims to Pakistan — so buses were also burnt. Nobody had a record of the number of people on those buses. But all the estimates that have taken place suggest anywhere between 1 to 2 million people died.

I must say that there should be a large monument at the Wagah border to commemorate partition. Our nation’s artists should come together to build this. And everyone should be allowed to pay their respects, offer prayers and read poetry on August 14th and 15th. They should come there to realise that this should not happen again in the future. It will have an effect.

GSW: Exactly. In east Punjab, this concern was raised many times when Navjot Singh [Indian politician from Punjab] visited Kartarpur Sahib [in Pakistan Punjab], and with that, many separated families were reunited. Do you think these sorts of initiatives are the way forward in bringing the two regions together?

TA: It is very good initiative. Everything that can be done should be done.

One other gesture along these lines is the effort to commemorate the revolutionary anti-colonialist Bhagat Singh in Lahore. It is a pity and extremely saddening that there is no statue of him in the city. And it is also a matter of shame that Gandhi did not try even remotely hard to save the lives of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. If he had wanted, he could have done something. Gandhi had power, but he barely communicated with Lord Wavell over this. As is well known, Bhagat Singh and his companions were killed in Lahore jail. That jail was at Jail Road, and it was just 10-15 minutes cycling distance away from where I lived. Now that jail has been broken down. When we were in college, students knew about Bhagat Singh, and they would go visit there.

“Many people visit Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s birthplace for religious pilgrimage and if there is a statue of Bhagat Singh, more people would come to Lahore as well.”

I was once told by someone that Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not at all progressive, also suggested installing the statue of Bhagat Singh in his memory. But then the maulvis complained. But who are they to oppose this decision? Before 1947, the maulvis of Pakistan opposed the partition. They have neither fought against the imperialists, nor did they have a hand in the creation of Pakistan. Many people visit Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s birthplace for religious pilgrimage and if there is a statue of Bhagat Singh, more people would come to Lahore as well.

GSW: Another proposal we’ve heard is that trade should be opened up across Punjab through the Wagah border, especially since this is an agrarian region. Many people say that trade is already happening through Mumbai and Karachi, but not through Wagah. What do you think should happen? Do you think governments on both sides can be convinced to open trade across Wagah?

TA: Nawaz Sharif, whom I criticise a lot, had only one good plan: that trade should be opened at Wagah on both sides. Nawaz Sharif also hoped that the airport should be opened for east Punjab too. And if anyone wants to come through the four airports in Pakistan, the inquiry, he proposed, would be on arrival. Even General Musharraf was not against this plan. But on our side, there are some — especially in the military, in the deep state — who don’t want this cross-border friendship. Why? There are many reasons, such as what happened in Kashmir or what the Modi government is now doing to Muslims in India. Now there are many reasons why they can’t be friends with that type of nation.

But it shouldn’t be a matter of friendship. Countries trade with each other, without necessarily agreeing with each other on every matter. At least start the trade so that people from both sides get united. Many Indians who originally came from Lahore say that, when they returned, they were treated warmly there and that they remembered when their grandfathers and great-grandfathers used to live there. When they go to their original homes, they are served tea and sweets by the people now living there — with no concern for their religion — and they get emotional by remembering the words of their grandparents. This happens a lot — so why should it not be institutionalised? Open the trade, and install the statue of Bhagat Singh so that things will move forward to some extent.

But Modi is also against this. He doesn’t even allow people to play cricket between India and Pakistan, so how can he sanction a trade?

GSW: We have noticed that a meeting of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has not been held since 2014. It was about to be held in Islamabad in 2016 but then the Uri attack happened. Since then, SAARC has been working as a defunct body. Some think that the Indian subcontinent’s two-nation ideology will not bring about peace in South Asia. What do you think about the prospects of peace in the region?  

TA: It has been my wish for many years to expand SAARC: anti-war peace treaties should be signed and so forth. Many things could have been done but the situation became difficult. Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai. Many then said the cricket teams of Pakistan and Sri Lanka were attacked by RAW (though I should say that, in Pakistan, jihadis rarely target the cricket team because, like in other countries, they enjoy the sport).

For regional peace, we need politicians with authority in their own country. Now Modi has a lot of authority, but he will not do it. There is a need for a coalition government against Modi, but I’m not sure one will emerge just yet. We can’t hold out hope for Congress, and the family groups of Gandhi and Nehru should be removed. In Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party has lost influence, except in Sindh. The coalition that is formed against Modi should meet people and make them understand that making peace and friendship with Pakistan, playing cricket and trading with them, is beneficial to the whole subcontinent. We need politicians in India and Pakistan who will stand up, speak the truth and say that this is the direction in which we want both countries to move forward. Let’s see who these progressive politicians will be. I don’t know how the leadership will emerge, but it will surely emerge.

GSW: Do you see any potential or growth in the Punjabi nation? You mentioned Waris Shah and Amrita Pritam earlier, who people read on both sides of the divide. Do you think that the Punjabi nationality exists beyond religion?

TA: It does — no doubt. It exists in language for instance. We are both talking in Punjabi for your program. Once I went to Delhi for an interview for a magazine and we talked in Punjabi. If you leave out Allah, there are many similarities across the border. As you have raised the question of nationality, this means Punjab can be united — but in truth, it is just a fanciful thought at this point. But we can be united informally. A lot of things can be done.

GSW: Earlier, you beautifully quoted some lines from Amrita Pritam’s poem. Is there any other old poem or song that is liked a lot in Pakistan?  

TA: That generation is passing away, but one good thing that happened is that, because of the internet, old poems are coming back. Most of the younger generation hear and read Faiz Ahmad Faiz and others as well.

GSW: As you mentioned hum dekhenge, I remembered one question. You have witnessed a lot in your life — the dreams and radical possibilities of the 60s, vanquished in the decades that followed. When you reflect on all that has passed, what hope do you see for the future?

“Many people say that the 60s was the golden era. But there was never a golden era…That golden era — that belief in transformation — should be in your heart”

TA: Many people say that the 60s was the golden era. But there was never a golden era. At that time, no one understood that era as a golden one. That golden era — that belief in transformation — should be in your heart, always. If it does not reside in our hearts, or leaves it, then there is nothing.

We have a poet Habib Jalib who writes in Punjabi also: “Aise Dastoor ko, Subah benoor ko main nahi janta main nahi manta (I deject this tradition, I reject this glomy dawn).” And these four lines should be said even now in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Those lines he wrote for Vietnam — “eh dunia k sarparasto khamosh kyu ho, bolo insaniyat ki pakah hai veitnam jal raha hai (Hey world leaders why are you silent? It is humanity calling, Vietnam is burning” — can today be rephrased as: Pakistan jal raha hai, Kashmir jal raha hai, Palestine jal raha hai, and Dunia k sarsparsto khamosh kyu ho? (Pakistan is burning, Kashmir is burning, Palestine is burning, why are you silent world leaders?). Poetry’s power is magical. It has an effect on people who don’t understand common politics nor are fond of it. Without poetry, politics cannot move forward.

Gurshamshir Singh Waraich (@gurshamshir) is a video journalist based in Punjab. Veerdeep Kaur Sandhu (@veerdeep_sandhu) is a Gender Studies research scholar at Panjab University Chandigarh. Jasdeep Singh (@jasdeep) is a translator, film writer and tech worker based in Punjab. Gursahiba Gill (@gursahibagill) is a poet and mental health professional based in Delhi and Punjab.

https://www.jamhoor.org/read/on-punjab-an-interview-with-tariq-ali has pictures

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