Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Irony To Remember: Passports before Partition

I've always believed that one of the most fascinating things for a history buff is to spot and acknowledge the many ironies in history. Not just because they give us a chance to compare and contrast, but because they give us an idea of how much we have derailed from what many of our ancestors took for granted. These ironies also provide us a guiding light, if we show the courage to remember and learn from the past.

The history of the partition of British India and the birth of the two nation states of India and Pakistan is one that is littered with remarkable stories and ironies. Here's one that I'd like to share:

To quote Mahatma Gandhi is a national obsession of sorts, and not without reason. Everyone eagerly quotes the need to 'be the change' and not take 'an eye for an eye', to 'hate the sin and love the sinner'. However, some Gandhi quotes seem less sacred than others, even when they are arguably more significant. In fact, perhaps because they are more significant and slightly more inconvenient. Case in point:

“I do not consider Pakistan and India as two different countries. If I have to go to the Punjab, I am not going to ask for a passport. And I shall go to Sind also without a passport and I shall go walking. Nobody can stop me.”
[Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Speech at Prayer Meeting, 16th June 1947]

The India-Pakistan border is today one of the most dangerous borders in the world and boasts of rigorous, strict visa regimes on both sides. The two neighbours have fought several wars and are deeply distrustful of each other. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the fact that anyone could have ever thought of going to Sindh from Delhi without a passport. And before people dismiss this as the rantings of a disappointed old man, it is important to point out that Gandhi wasn't the only one to think so.

"In the summer of 1947 few could appreciate the full connotations of the division which would ultimately result in some of the harshest border regulations in the world; indeed one newspaper headline read ‘Passport rules believed to be needless at present’ [The Great Partition, Yasmin Khan]

Strange and quite overwhelming for those of us born long after independence, on either side of the border, to imagine this was even considered possible. The horrors of Partition are vital to understanding India and Pakistan. But equally important is the need to understand sentiments that prevailed in the lead-up to August 1947 and how Independence, Partition and its aftermath changed them.


Veens said...

Well, I am sure I have heard the quote from Mahatma before and had thought only he could have said/ done something like that at all. But the 2nd quote took me by surprise.

Vaishnavi said...

I have heard quite a bit about Yasmin Khan's book and it will go on my wishlist. I have Kushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan lined up, can't wait! :)

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Hi Kals, is there a way to contact you by email, or can you contact me? Laurel Ann, Austenprose

Kals said...

Veens, Vaishnavi - Happy independence day, first of all!

Veens - Yep, it's a surprise indeed that people considered passport rules unnecessary in that time. Of course, Partition changed all of that.

Vaishnavi - I would recommend Yasmin Khan's book for anyone interested in Partition and its terrible realities. I have Train to Pakistan on my to read list too!

Laurel Ann - Thank you for contacting me :) I have emailed you.


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