Forty-six years ago I crossed the Pakistan – India border. On both sides there were tangible signs of the forthcoming war between these two countries. Under the warm December sky, against the backdrop of the people going about their everyday business, soldiers were on the move by the truckload; tanks crept along the narrow highway, jeeps mounted with machine guns weaved between them – they meant business. After all, that is what the military is for; we keep them well- resourced so that they can go about their business and their business is killing. I was the nineteen year old product of a system of deprived privilege; a system that had been developed over a period of one hundred years to ostensibly educate the ruling class to operate both at home and in the colonies; a system that enabled the domination of vast numbers of people by a relatively small number of men.
It is now seventy years since the creation of the state of Pakistan in the extraordinary act of partitioning the sub-continent by religion. In the British media there has been significant coverage of this event, mostly through the stories of individuals who survived the mass slaughter brought about by the polarisation of communities through religion, and the consequent movement of vast numbers of people. Many of these people had subsequently made their homes in Britain, and were still haunted by what they had seen and experienced. It is not beyond the edges of imagination to see significant similarities with this and what is happening in the Middle East, conflict, misery and suffering arising out of human arrogance, stupidity and cruelty.
Travelling in an old coach that I had boarded on the edge of Clapham Common in London, we passed through Lahore, the old capital city of the Punjab, over the border to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, a road that had been awash with blood not so many years before; now the machines of violence were driving over the ghosts of women, children and men with the expressed purpose of wreaking more havoc and misery in the name of one of the most pernicious of ideas we so love to cling to – nationalism. On the way to Pakistan, amongst many other countries, we had passed through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir; entering Pakistan by way of the magnificent Khyber Pass. In those days it was the well-worn path of many a young Western traveller, fired with a sense of exploration and the wish to find something different. These countries were, to our eyes, whole, containing vast peaceful lakes, snow-capped mountains, clear seas and dark-green jungles; animals and birds beyond description, and people, whose many smiles would shake the dullness of a culture determined that the only way to live was to be materially successful. So many of the buildings and monuments incorporated extraordinary craft and skill; the timeless devotion of their nameless, forgotten builders – memorials to a world beyond the self- enclosure of the individual. In the ensuing forty-six years, how things have changed!
It has been said that the savagery brought about by Partition was without comparison in the history of Asia in its ferocity and long-term effect. Despite the fact it may be thought that the realisation of this might bring some semblance of sanity, Pakistan and India remain deeply entrenched in their inability to forge a peaceful relationship. The war in 1971 was one of the shortest wars in history, lasting thirteen days, and saw the creation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh from what was established as East Pakistan. In the early 2000s, Maggie, my wife, and I were in India during a particularly tense phase, many people we talked to were openly fearful of war between these two nations, who by then were both in possession of nuclear weapons. At present there appears to be little or no positive relationship between them: any public communication being confined solely to words of aggression.
In fact, disintegration, insensitivity to others and hatred are occurring on a global level fuelled by fear, greed and the deep insecurity brought essentially by the knowledge of the limitations the planet faces. The division of the many by the extremes of the few appears to be taking hold in the U.S, the U.K, India and many other areas of the world. Recently, some politicians have spoken of the use of nuclear weapons in terms of possibility or even probability; open hostilities have broken out between people who refuse to go any way towards respecting each other; it appears that hatred has been made acceptable, in the same way greed has. We are all in serious trouble.
The lessons of the past are clearly laid out before us, but many of us do not understand the past, or we only have a partial view which severely distorts our actions in the present. Often this distortion is used to further the aims of particular groups in order to support their specific ideologies, whatever the consequence. The present contains both the past and the future, in acting intelligently one has to have some awareness of where this action is coming from: that is the conditioning of the individual. We are imprisoned by our own backgrounds, and in order to be able to act intelligently and creatively it is from our backgrounds that we must free ourselves.