The problem

back to issue

TO many millions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the experiences associated with Partition and nation-building are very much a part of both personal memory and family history. Relatives who left, friends who were estranged, properties lost, homes mourned, awkward silences around certain individuals and their destinies, death, separation and bereavement mark ordinary lives over generations in a huge swathe of our region, from Punjab and Kashmir to Bihar and Bengal. Of course, many people started over, much has been forgiven and forgotten, and the young today have little care for events that took place in remote decades of the 20th century. But we would not have the political identities we have today, as citizens of these three countries, or denizens of areas that are still disputed among them, were it not for the cataclysmic histories that unfolded in 1947 and again in 1971. We live, by definition, in an aftermath.

But for those born in the 1970s, people who belong to the same generation as Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav, what we know happened to our parents and grandparents at the time of the founding of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nation states, and what we ourselves discovered later through our own travels, our cross-border cousins, our friendships forged in distant parts of the world, are two very different stories. In our consciousness, the other country seems neither so intimately familiar to nor really so irremediably sundered from us. If we manage to get a visa, we might go over there, visit folks we know, swap stories, marvel at how similar or how different we are, and bring back photographs and sweetmeats for older members of our families. When we cannot quite follow ‘their’ Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or Kashmiri, when idioms seem to have varied away from some long-lost mean, we try to patch things up with the English that we all share. Filmstars, cricket players, novelists, singers and celebrities go back and forth – we peek over their shoulders to see what’s up on the other side. We are aware of the pain our elders carry about, but we don’t quite feel it in our hearts; sometimes we are moved to investigate further what it is that they remember and regret so persistently; other times we just want to close doors behind us.

Supposing this was not the state of affairs in our region? Supposing we could go where we wished, move freely between our countries, take for granted the continuum rather than the ruptures? One of the scholars originally asked to contribute to this issue, Jalal Alamgir (17 January 1971 – 3December 2011), lived a life and pursued a research career that proceeded as though against the backdrop of a very differently conceived and realized South Asia. Jalal – at the time of his unfortunate death an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston – was born in Karachi, raised and educated in Dhaka and the United States, worked on India, Pakistan and China, and was beginning various new projects centred around Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Jalal died in an accident at sea in Phuket, Thailand. He had recently been tenured at U Mass, and was spending a sabbatical year in Dhaka where he was deeply involved with the nascent processes of justice, truth and reconciliation around both the genocidal conflict of 1971, as well as subsequent military regimes that have punctuated and marred Bangladesh’s short history as a new nation and struggling democracy. Jalal was a frequent visitor to Delhi and Lahore. In his last email sent just about two weeks prior to his fatal accident, where he wrote to say he wanted to contribute to this issue and was thinking about an essay, he invited me to visit Dhaka while he was still there.

In 2009-10, the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University’s Fletcher School ran a year-long colloquium on South Asia for about forty selected undergraduates. Jalal and I and many others acted as guest faculty, resource persons and advisors on this programme, culminating in a conference in February 2010. Experts on South Asia, some of them from the subcontinent, gathered and spoke, met with students, talked about pressing regional concerns. Some months later, at a dinner also hosted by Tufts University that I recall vividly, Jalal became the centre of a heated exchange between Pakistani and Bangladeshi scholars, with some Indians like me looking on awkwardly as we sat around a table eating Thai and Malaysian food.

Those present were from Tufts and U Mass, Harvard and NYU, Delhi University and the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Jalal kept his cool as he found himself at the receiving end of apologies for atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in 1971, congratulations for his own publications about various issues, and in general the kind of over-excited discourse where many people, at once tired and high-strung after long debate, found it difficult to maintain a line between speaking as themselves and voicing what they believed were national positions. He was impeccably graceful, even-toned, sober. I realized that evening that Jalal was seriously committed to objectivity, rigour and collegiality that rose above nationalist passions and sentimental attachments to land and language.

Jalal’s expansive and unselfconscious definition of identity and affiliation showed in other ways too. He played football, like a good Bengali – but also cricket, with a wider group of South Asians in Boston. He wrote and sang left-leaning, revolutionary songs in Bangla, but also sang a lot of rock and pop numbers in English in his small, informal band that included his brother Joy and other young cousins who lived in the area. He was associated with the powerful and well-endowed South Asia Initiative at Harvard, but also with Drishtipat, an energetic artists’ and activists’ collective based in Dhaka. He wrote incessantly about the need for the restitution of democracy and law and order in Bangladesh, in fora like Huffington Post, open Democracy, Economic and Political Weekly, and his own blog and twitter feed, but also trained for and participated in an 85-mile cycle marathon to raise money for medical research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute after his mother had a brush with the dreaded illness.

His interests and commitments oscillated effortlessly between the local and the global, the regional and the international, the personal and the political. Arguably this range of participation is not unusual for a young and upcoming South Asian academic, scholar and public intellectual like Jalal, whose work positioned him equally in Bangladesh and Boston, but in order to really grasp why he was special, perhaps we need more of an understanding of the trajectory of his own life and the history of his family.

Dr. Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, b. 1942, Jalal’s father, is a prominent Awami League leader, a former civil servant, an economist and planner, as well as an author and academic. He played a crucial role in reviving the Ganga Water Treaty between India and Bangladesh, and in moving settlement disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts towards a resolution. In 2002 and again in 2007-09, Dr. Alamgir was unlawfully imprisoned and tortured by political opponents, and during his detention, arrest warrants were also out for Jalal and his brother Joy. Jalal was unable to return home to Bangladesh for years on end. He led a campaign involving a number of US senators (including Sen. Edward Kennedy), international human rights groups, as well as pro-democracy forces within and outside Bangladesh to secure his father’s release.

After he got out of jail and re-entered active politics, Dr. Alamgir came to Boston – to the same programme at Tufts mentioned above – and spoke movingly about his time in prison. He brought with him his jail diary, Notes From a Prison: Bangladesh, that was published in September 2009. The next year Jalal got married, received tenure, won a Fulbright fellowship and was able to go back to Bangladesh after a long and terrible hiatus, leaving Boston in the summer of 2011. No one could have imagined that he was never to return.

The ordeal of his father’s repeated incarceration and persecution at the hands of militarist and Islamist powers in Bangladesh, and Jalal’s tireless campaign to free both his own parent and millions of his compatriots from undemocratic regimes, provide some clue as to the strength of the man’s political will, his unswerving dedication to the idea of democracy and to the establishment of the rule of law in his country. He wasn’t just a worried son, a politician’s family-member on the run in an adverse political climate, or some other kind of unhappy individual simply buffeted about by larger historical circumstances outside his control.

Quietly, tenaciously, bravely, Jalal fought the good fight. He kept writing, singing, playing sports; teaching his working class students at a poorly-funded public university with dedication and professionalism; hanging out with his friends, colleagues and fiancée (a beautiful and accomplished scientist whom he could not marry for many years for fear of endangering her parents and family back in Bangladesh while his father was being hunted). In 2008, his first book, India’s Open-Economy Policy: Globalism, Rivalry and Continuity, appeared from Routledge. It was hard to guess the awful pressure and daily uncertainty that lay behind his doggedly ‘normal’ life in Cambridge MA, where we were neighbours for four years. A lesser person would have cracked underneath the psychological strain, or at the very least lost his political bearings. Not Jalal Alamgir.

At first this issue of Seminar was envisaged in a creative vein. We wanted to invite a set of people to imagine a South Asia as they would have it, in the past, present or future, with an emphasis on trying to conjure a political-social-cultural-aesthetic space away and apart from the historical vicissitudes and effects of violent nationalism, colonialism, and for India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, Partition. We sought reflection on things that people never think about, either because they are too constrained by the habit of prejudice, or because of pragmatism and realism, or because of pessimism and cynicism, or out of just plain fear. Things that are considered too ‘sensitive’ – around religious identity, around borders, around everyday life, around cultural practices that are instinctively, routinely shared but nevertheless become battlegrounds for drawing lines of difference that people then find impossible to cross.

Specifically, we meant to provoke an audacious, imaginative projection of South Asia that actively militates against the pain, loss and grief of our burdened and compromised histories, that restores and heals, that allows Hindus-Muslims-Sikhs-Indians-Pakistanis-Bangladeshis or whatever other categories of people to come back into a degree of intimacy, familiarity, trust and reconciliation with one another. We tried to say: Let’s dream of a history not as a series of wounds, but as a set of limitless possibilities for flourishing, for dialogue, and for human intertwining. Let’s keep beauty before us as a value, and see what kind of world we are able to construct on that basis. We emphasized that contributors should feel liberated from the constraining parameters of history and policy, and that they ought to explore imaginative, creative, Utopian and radically future-oriented dimensions of their own thinking about the region. We anticipated that some of what emerged from this churning of the ocean might be utterly ridiculous – and so much the better! Our nation-driven geopolitical and historical predicaments are ridiculous and untenable in their own ways, as we are all more than aware. We were willing to entertain the wildest imaginings for a better South Asia – truly a country of our own.

The sudden and shocking death of my friend Jalal Alamgir somehow ended for me that original project of hope and optimism before it had even taken off in earnest. But other factors changed my mind as well. For one, a surprisingly large number of those we invited wanted to write about their personal past, especially their childhood, rather than about an unknown collective future. In other words, contributors found it difficult to think outside of history, even with all of its pain and limitations. Further, it slowly dawned on me that Jalal had in his own way already been a product as well as a proponent of a different kind of South Asia. His father, whom I met a few times on his trips to Boston, was born in undivided India, raised in undivided Pakistan and has lived in Bangladesh for the greater part of his life – but a Bangladesh that sometimes seemed like his own country and at other times treated him like an alien or an enemy. Jalal himself worked on all three countries in a comparative framework, and included other regional neighbours like China and Myanmar into his field of study as well. He spoke Bengali, but had he grown up in Karachi, the city of his birth, he might have spoken Urdu or Sindhi just as well.

Reflections of this ‘what if’ order led me to realize that were it not for Partition, my own parents might never have met – my mother’s Sikh family fled Lahore for Delhi in the late summer of 1947; my father’s education in Lucknow and youthful adventures in Bombay led him also to Delhi, around 1960. They both found themselves teaching at the same – at the time newly-established – college at Delhi University. An unorthodox marriage like that of my parents, two highly educated individuals from separate religious backgrounds, was very much an outcome of the broad historical processes of nationalism, decolonization and urbanization that swept across the subcontinent mid-century, dislocating families, throwing disparate communities together, and pushing women into the learned professions. Yet, as I grew up to make life-choices of my own, the very same experiences that had led to my parents’ union made them wary of my political judgment, or as they feared, the lack thereof. Partition had made so many lives possible in the first place, but it also left entire generations burdened with hostilities and resentments that one had to contend with fifty or sixty years after the founding traumas had – one might have thought – faded away.

Every life, every relationship, every family, I understood, is an exercise in re-imagining who we are, where we live, and how we might be connected with one another. The effort of marking out ‘a country of our own’ – a space we may inhabit with a degree of comfort and security – is so personal, so continuous and so immense that it’s almost impossible to write about it as a theme detached from the reality of being South Asian. One person we had invited had to go away on a reporting trip in embattled parts of Pakistan, tracking a story about unmanned drones let loose over territories whose political complexity defies even the best human intelligence, what to say of mindless flying robots. Another had spent several years researching Buddhist art and images that were slowly but surely vanishing from Pakistan’s museums, archaeological sites and public consciousness, taking with them an enormous slice of not just Pakistani but also Indian and Afghan history of a time long before Islam’s appearance on the subcontinent.

Yet another invitee wrote books and curated exhibitions that problematized the boundaries between Indian and Pakistani painting, photography and new media practices – but then did not stop there, going on to examine other contentious borders – between Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, divided Ireland, divided Sudan, and the United States that is invisibly divided between indigenous and settler populations. One potential contributor is the daughter of one of South Asia’s greatest modern poets, who wrote famously and fabulously in Urdu even as Urdu, torn from Hindustani idioms and Indo-Persian culture, was becoming impoverished and desiccated in its new homeland, Pakistan.

Despite their keenness, these writers could not eventually participate. Somehow instead of feeling annoyed and frustrated, as I might have been if this were some other anthology, I found myself sympathizing with their difficulties and hesitations. On 14 November 2011, in an email, Jalal had asked me: ‘Just to get a sense, what are the others writing about? Mostly memoir/biographical? Possible for you to share their article titles?’ And then the next line, which I can just hear said in his gently teasing way: ‘A most curious project, I must say...)’

This issue of Seminar is dedicated, then, to Jalal Alamgir. He was an ethical scholar, a cherished companion, a beloved teacher, who spent his adult life not just dreaming of another South Asia, but fashioning it in the living – through conversations, friendships, travels and writings; through teaching, curiosity and research. Sometimes we spoke about Rabindranath Tagore – one of my obsessions for the past few years – and Jalal and I would try to figure out who had a greater claim on the poet – I because I am Indian, or Jalal because he spoke Tagore’s language. In the end I had to grant that Jalal knew better because he was after all musically gifted, a writer of lyrics and a composer of tunes like so many of his fellow Bengalis on both sides of the border. My love for Tagore was more ideological: his was rooted in lived culture.

One afternoon in the winter of 2007, soon after I had moved to Boston, I asked Jalal for a ride back to Cambridge from our university. We walked together to the campus parking lot around 2 pm, but then we were stuck in his car in a snow-storm for the next seven hours, unable to traverse the scarce seven miles across the river to where we lived. We ran out of water, food, cell-phone charge and eventually, petrol. He said I ought to jump out and take the subway back to Harvard Square, but I didn’t think it decent to leave him alone with his car in the blinding snow for an indefinite period of time while I got myself home to safety.

We talked about as many things as we could think of in that unending crawl through the blizzard. He told me that when he was a baby in Dhaka during the 1971 war, sometimes his parents and their Awami friends used him as a messenger, hiding notes in his nappy as he was sent to visit people’s houses. It was a pretty early introduction to the radical politics of Bangladesh, he said, wryly. Outside the snow fell silent and unrelenting on Massachusetts, which we were at the time calling our country.

ANANYA VAJPEYI

top