I have been reading travelogues of Bishwanath Ghosh in the past few months and was keen to read his book “Gazing at Neighbours: Travels along the line that partitioned India”. This book follows the journey of the writer along the Radcliffe Line that split India into two (and later three) nations to see how it looks now from the perspective of people’s stories in the areas bordering India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh.
Ghosh finds the border artificial as he views the same fields spreading between East and West Punjab and West Bengal and Bangladesh. Similar language and people who interact cordially across the fence when they go to tend their fields between 8 am and 5 pm even as they are told to keep the interactions to a minimum by the cautious border security forces in Punjab.
The border is a lot more porous on the eastern side towards Bangladesh with family houses separated by the border drawn almost haphazardly by a foreign national who visited India briefly and altered it forever. However, the fact also remains that there wasn’t always bonhomie between the different religious groups before partition as they rarely ate or socialized together. Religion was the reason for the initial partition in 1947 but it could not keep the two parts of Pakistan together which were separated not just geographically but also linguistically.
I find the Bengal Language Movement moving and inspiring in its insistence on having their own mother tongue, Bangla as the official language of the erstwhile East Pakistan when the western side of the country imposed Urdu as the official language of both dominions (East and West). February 21 is the Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day) that is celebrated by Bengalis all over the world in remembrance of people who sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue. UNESCO also declared this day as the International Mother Language Day.
These are some examples of different categories of identity that define humans and impact their relationships. The common social phenomenon of similarity attraction effect (SAE) where birds of a feather flock together is often commonly observed where people show more cohesion and attraction towards people similar to them as familiarity leads to greater comfort whether it is based on religion or language. This cohesion or in-group attraction has its positives if it leads to greater solidarity and altruistic behaviour.
The concern is when this in-group love is accompanied by out-group hate. As the partition of the Indian sub-continent revealed, there is nostalgia and tales of prior bonhomie after the macabre events but to no avail as the damage is already done. The blame is placed squarely on the feet of politicians and unscrupulous colonisers with little introspection by the everyday person on their own personal behaviour of active discrimination and avoidance of people of other religious groups.
“Mere exposure effect” is a phenomenon described in social psychology. Exposure to people of different races or backgrounds can lead us to like the people and perhaps reduce prejudice and discrimination though there are caveats to this effect. If this exposure is not there as it was absent in the pre-partition days, prejudice against the ‘other’ may not go down.
“An old wrestler from Lahore who recalled how Hindus would not let Muslims drink water directly from their taps and even worse would attach a long pipe to the tap if at all they allowed a Muslim to drink the water.”
“An elderly Hindu man driven from Lahore by Muslim mobs during Partition blamed orthodox people for creating a social wall that kept the two communities apart. His mother, for example, would not allow Muslim women into the kitchen and had separate crockery for them.”
Ghosh quotes Khushwant Singh, “The mixing of Hindus and Muslims was only superficial with no intimate friendships, except a certain amount of wining and dining that took place in the upper class.” (p. 48). Has this changed to some extent in the current times with social media connecting people across borders?
Last year, I joined a Facebook page called India Pakistan Heritage Club where people from the subcontinent (India and Pakistan primarily and Bangladesh to a lesser extent) share pictures related to the countries as well as their thoughts. These pictures range from the architecture, city skylines, cultural practices, and icons (often common across the border), foods, and sometimes political figures. People express nostalgia, longing, and love for places left behind. Some also actively seek out landmarks from childhood homes and long-lost friends and strangers help them find their ancestral properties. They plan and meet in places outside the subcontinent or in Kartarpur Sahib (right on the Indo-Pakistan border) which opened to Indian citizens in 2019. And these are not just people from the older age group who have memories as children or from their parents. There are several young individuals who express a longing to visit the other side and more importantly meet people from across the border.
At times there are skirmishes online in this group with some people engaging in accusing the other side on topics like religion, terrorism, and Kashmir. But sooner or later, this is resolved with some of the trolls banned from this open group. They have a set of moderators who review all the posts. With all its flaws, it is one of my favourite social media pages as it connects me to our shared cultural heritage of the two Punjabs and other parts of the country. This same common thread unites us in foreign lands when we bump into each other and note the striking similarities amongst us.
During Ghosh’s travels along the two borders, he also finds a mix of people like this heritage club’s Facebook page. Very few people living near the border area malign the neighbour they see (in Punjab) or even stroll across (West Bengal- Bangladesh). The mere exposure effect has probably led them to not see the next-door neighbour as the ‘enemy’ in any form. Jingoism is left to the outsider opportunists who may sway some individuals by scapegoating the other by attributing their problems to this neighbour. It is not only the foreign colonists who did this. One’s own country people have done it.
In the book, a railway employee in the documentary says, “Common man wants only food, clothing, and shelter, he doesn’t want boundaries” (p. 49). Finding commonalities amongst people from the subcontinent makes us see people as ourselves with very little difference in the priorities. The differences to be celebrated and enjoyed and the commonalities to be cherished. But it is not always all rosy with people revving up old animosities. People in this book and the heritage club express the wish to have a union like the European Union (EU) with porous borders in future, even if it seems like a distant and a far-fetched dream.