© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

7 Decades After Its Creation, The Idea Of Who Belongs In Pakistan Narrows


Seventy years ago, the British buckled to immense pressure and finally granted India its independence. It came, however, with a catch. India's Muslims, who were distrustful of the Hindu majority, got the Brits to split India and to carve out a new country, Pakistan. In the decades since, though, the question of who is a proper Pakistani has turned into a deadly debate. What kind of Muslim counts? Who is devout enough? NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Wagah on the Pakistan-India border.

UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Chanting in foreign language).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm standing at the Wagah border, and this is where Pakistanis come to celebrate who they are. This is a stadium-style structure, and there's hundreds of Pakistanis here. And they're in their finery. The kids are waving green and white Pakistani flags, and some of the women even decorated their hands with henna. And the whole thing is lit by the glow of people's cellphones.

Every evening, soldiers from Pakistan and India, neighbors and rivals, hold a ceremony to close their border. It's a gate with stadiums on either side for spectators. The soldiers high kick, shake their fists, then shake hands and slam the gate shut. Kabir Mirza is here with his family, and he says he's proud of his country.

KABIR MIRZA: Pakistan is my soul, actually. I can do anything for Pakistan. I can die for it.

HADID: It's a popular sentiment at the Wagah border where you can see how passionate people are. Pakistan was imagined over 70 years ago by a stern, whiskey-drinking Shiite lawyer. Mohammad Ali Jinnah hoped for a country as cosmopolitan as he was. But Pakistan's very identity as a Muslim state sowed the seeds of intolerance says Taimur Rahman, a political scientist.

TAIMUR RAHMAN: By its very definition, it has already singled out a community in opposition to another one. And it's very easy for that community to be narrowed further.

HADID: Rahman says the narrowing of Pakistan's identity has been made worse by the military, the country's most powerful institution, which fostered hardline Islamic groups.

RAHMAN: Despite never having won an election, they are, nonetheless, able to dictate the narrative in the country because of the support that they have from the military establishment.

HADID: So the definition of who gets to be a Pakistani continues to narrow.

RAHMAN: For the state, a good Pakistani is a man. He is a Muslim, obviously, a Sunni Muslim, sadly, religious, who loves his army and the state, and hates democratic movements and, certainly, hates liberal Pakistan.

HADID: To understand this, I went to a leafy suburb near Lahore. The Khans live here in a two-story home behind a high gate that's firmly bolted. Khan says she stands on their balcony every morning, waiting for her husband to return home from prayers at their local mosque. She's terrified that somebody will kill him. [EDITOR'S NOTE: first name not published to protect her privacy]

KHAN: Terrorism, terrorism and always we are frightened for the life.

HADID: She is afraid because they are Ahmadis, a Muslim sect whose beliefs clash with the dominant Sunni version of Islam. Ahmadis played a key role in the founding of the country, and an Ahmadi received one of the only two Nobel Prizes that Pakistan has ever been awarded. But the state declared them as heretics, and over the years, militants have attacked their mosques and killed them on the streets. Most of Khan's family fled overseas, but she insists on staying because she runs a clinic that dispenses free medicine to her poorer neighbors.

KHAN: More people will suffer. And I will what to do there? I will just sit and eat. This is their - not meaning of life.

HADID: But the roots of intolerance run deeper than just how Pakistan defines itself as a Muslim state. The oral historian Anam Zakaria traces it back to Pakistan's birth story, the time of partition when millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Mobs raped and butchered each other. Around a million people were killed. But Zakaria says those events are pushed aside.

ANAM ZAKARIA: Now, if it's your biggest victory to date, you have to make sure that the bloodshed is portrayed to the younger generations as perpetrated by Indians, Hindus and Sikhs. And that's why there was a need to create Pakistan.

HADID: But there is a challenge now emerging to that narrative. A museum will look at partition through the stories of the people who witnessed it. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is an Oscar-winning filmmaker and heads the Citizens Archive project. They are building the museum in Lahore with the local government.

SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: This is the first place in the entire country where you'll experience what the refugees in 1947 experienced.

HADID: Listening to survivors of partition will help create a more inclusive Pakistan, she says.

OBAID-CHINOY: This is the first step to ensure that we give everyone an equal voice.

HADID: But it's a race against time.

OBAID-CHINOY: We are literally catching the last witnesses. No history book will ever teach you an experience. You have to hear it in somebody's voice.

HADID: I had to hear one of those voices. So I came to the Lahore train station. I'm here to meet Yousef Baloch. He's a retired train worker, and this is still his favorite place.

YOUSEF BALOCH: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Yousef was about 10 during the partition. He used to play here at this station.

BALOCH: (Through interpreter) The train was crowded. I saw people sitting on the top of the train.

HADID: He's talking about the trains crammed with Muslims arriving to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs heading the other way.

BALOCH: (Through interpreter) I saw on the platform women who were alive but wounded. I saw dead women.

HADID: People arrived dead to their new homeland and became symbolic of the partition's violence.

BALOCH: (Through interpreter) They would come on platform number two.

HADID: Yousef also wants to talk about what happened to him during partition. He recalls a Hindu woman he calls Mrs. Verma. She was a doctor. Around partition, some of the Muslim women she was tending to died in childbirth, including Yousef's mother.

BALOCH: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Rumors spread. Mrs. Verma was killing the Muslim women. Days after Yousef's mother died, his father and other men followed her down a street and murdered her.

BALOCH: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He says, "my father did not regret killing Mrs. Verma. The people's minds were poisoned." He said nobody died at Mrs. Verma's hands before, why now?

BALOCH: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Yousef regrets those frenzied days. He remembers chanting, we will kill and we will be killed, but we will have Pakistan at any price. He says age and introspection have mellowed him. The challenge, he says, today, is to provoke that feeling in his country's proud, flag-waving patriots. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE PHILLIP'S, "ISLAMABAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
More On This Topic