August 14: Pakistan’s independence day. August 15: India’s independence day. Technically, the moment of freedom is supposed to have arrived at the stroke of midnight, and so the choice of these dates was largely arbitrary. What was probably a more important consideration on both sides of the border was to avoid the embarrassing situation of having to celebrate the independence day on the same date.
Sixty years later, we have two rival nation-states with massive military expenditures, nuclear weapons, a history of violent conflicts, widespread poverty, internal political repression, and an inability to solve regional problems in the spirit of cooperation and justice.
This scenario is probably “normal” for most of the world’s postcolonial nations. Regrettable, but not entirely unusual. What is puzzling, however, is the wide gulf that separates this state of affairs from the imperatives of the intellectual and spiritual legacy that is proudly claimed by Indians and Pakistanis. The puzzle is not that poverty, violence, repression, and mutual hatred exists in this region; the puzzle is that these evils exists while Mohandas K. Gandhi is celebrated as a national hero by the Indians and Muhammad Iqbal is revered with a similar devotion by Pakistanis. Even though these two rarely agreed with each other on political issues, both were acutely aware of the dangers of dividing human beings along the lines of caste, creed, race, color, and ethnicity; both saw very clearly that narrow forms of nationalism were as bad for South Asia as they had been for Europe; both recognized that human beings had more in common with each other than what seems to divide them; and both envisioned a future where all human beings could realize their full spiritual potential unfettered by the obstacles created by ignorance, prejudice, selfishness, hatred, anger, and greed.
Pakistanis rightly claim Iqbal as the spiritual father or ideologue of their nation, as well as a major thinker in modern Islam; across the border, Indians are equally correct in recognizing Gandhi as one of the most important spiritual and political figures of the twentieth-century. What seems to have been forgotten, however, is that both Iqbal and Gandhi were utterly dedicated to the pursuit of truth, that neither of them would have hesitated from taking his own community to task for its misdeeds, that both of them would have immediately recognized positive and desirable traits in the other’s community, and that neither of them would have ever cared about what he might lose by speaking the truth. Today, if they were to return to visit the nations that revere and celebrate them as almost super-human figures, neither Iqbal nor Gandhi is likely to find too many reasons to feel cheerful. Both would be disgusted and appalled by the toxic forms of pseudo-patriotism that have gripped both Indians and Pakistanis.
I venture to guess that both Iqbal and Gandhi, if they were to come and visit us today from the other side of death, would find themselves in far greater agreement with each other than with the followers of shallow nationalism from both sides of the border. They will immediately recognize that much of what goes under the banner of Indian or Pakistani nationalism is the trickery of the rich and powerful, created only to decive and subjugate the poor and powerless. The old colonial game between the rulers and the natives is still being played, with the main difference that the advertised aim is not so much to civilize the natives as to spark their love of motherland which is, after all, in their own best interest. The real aim of the game, not surprisingly, has remained unchanged, i.e., divide and conquer.
I think both Iqbal and Gandhi would also find themselves in agreement with the following assessment by Arundathi Roy. She speaks as an Indian, but her words are equally applicable to the neighboring Muslim nation.
In India, those of us who have expressed views on Nuclear Bombs, Big Dams, Corporate Globalization and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism – views that are at variance with the Indian Government’s – are branded “anti-national.” While this accusation doesn’t fill me with indignation, it’s not an accurate description of what I do or how I think. Because an “anti-national” is a person who is against his or her own nation and, by inference, is pro some other one. But it isn’t necessary to be “anti-national” to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
What if Iqbal and Gandhi could deliver one last message before returning to their eternal abode? I can imagine Iqbal addressing his admirers in Pakistan, and Gandhi advising his devotees in India, saying “If you find yourselves getting divided into ever smaller groups, find out who is benefiting.”