A Memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – II

Eric Rahim

I told my father that I had no intention of continuing my education in Sialkot; I wanted to go to Lahore, to Forman Christian (FC) College. But my Intermediate grade was considered not good enough for admission to FC College. A family friend suggested that the padre of Naulakha Church in Lahore (located near the railway station) might be able to help.

I went to Lahore, borrowed a bicycle from a friend and rode to the padre’s house, next to the church. I was shown in and explained who I was and what I wanted. Without much discussion he said ‘let’s go’. He took his bike and we both rode to FC College campus, to the house (as I later discovered) of the principal catering officer of the college (an important position, since he managed the facilities in all the four halls of residence.) The padre explained the reason for our visit, and turning to me in feigned sympathy, asked ‘were you unwell during your exams?’ I could hardly have said ‘no’.

The catering officer took me to Mr Sinclair, the vice-principal of the college, and explained that my modest performance in my Intermediate exams was the result of me having been ill during the exams. Mr Sinclair was sympathetic. I would get admission. This was the beginning of a new life for me. I was now 17.

FC College had a huge, beautiful campus outside the city. I had my room in North Hall, on the bank of the Lahore canal. Accommodation was excellent, with modern toilet facilities (not the usual thing at the time). The common room had two English language daily newspapers, The Statesman (Delhi) and the Civil and Military Gazette (Lahore), and table tennis facilities. Out of nearly 100 students in the hall, about 20 were Muslim, two Christian (me included), a couple of Sikhs, the rest were Hindus. There were three kitchens, and accordingly three sections of the dining hall. There was the halal section, a ‘non-vegetarian’ (non-halal) and a vegetarian. It was up to each student which section he wished to be in. In practice, the halal section was taken exclusively by the Muslims and the two Christians. 

At the time I joined the college, it was impossible to be unaware of the political developments that were unfolding around you.  Student organisations, offshoots of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party, were active on the campus; students were debating politics and arguing among themselves. 

It was now almost universally understood that the British would have to go (though there were still some diehards in Britain, such as Winston Churchill, who still thought that the Raj might still be saved in some shape or form). In August (94 5) the British Labour government announced that a general election would be held in India, and that after the election they would consult with the members of the newly elected provincial legislatures and the princes to establish a constitution-making assembly to arrive at the shape of the post-Raj settlement (including whether there would be Pakistan and, if so, the form it would take).  Elections were held in the winter of 1945-46 in a fevered atmosphere. The Muslim League swept the Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal, Punjab and Sindh, but not the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtoonwa). (Balochistan had no provincial legislature.)The idea of the Muslim nationhood had achieved its legitimacy.

In February (1946), sailors on HMS Talwar off the coast of Bombay, mutineed. With their control of the signalling system they sent messages to other ships to follow. A few days later ratings on another naval vessel responded by training their guns on a British officers club. There was a distinct prospect of the mutiny becoming general, and then spreading to the air force. At the same time the Communist Party organised strikes throughout the country, which involved hundreds of thousands of workers. I remember the day when the All India Radio played music all day. Leaders of both the Congress and the Muslim League found the developments profoundly disturbing and appealed for ‘calm’.

In August, Jinnah declared the 16th of the month as a Direct Action day. There were communal riots in Calcutta, with extensive killings. The riots spread to Bihar, and there was danger that they would spread to other parts of the country. With the sailors’ mutiny, widespread strikes and spreading communal violence it was apparent that things were getting out of control of all the parties concerned. There was a rush by all parties to the final settlement. 

In this fevered climate I (at the age of 17) I became political. I listened to and participated in debates and discussions on the campus where student   organisations, offshoots of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party, had become active. I attended meetings addressed by the leaders of various parties. I remember walking with friends from the campus to the other end of Lahore (open grounds near the Lahore Fort) to listen to various political leaders’ speeches.

During these months I came under the influence of a lecturer of psychology who introduced me to the People’s Age, the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India. Edited by P. C. Joshi, secretary general of the party, it was beautifully produced with the highest journalistic standard. This journal showed me the vision of a new kind of human society that was being built in the Soviet Union. I became a communist. 

I emphasise that there was no persuasion or intellectual argument on the part of the lecturer involved. It was sufficient for him to introduce me to the People’s Age. I was ready for the conversion even though I had had no exposure to political matters previously. Why did the achievements of the Soviet Union appeal to me? I did not consciously try to work out the different aspects of the decision I had taken, it was more of an emotional conversion.

Neuroscientists tell us that there is a large amount of stuff that is hardwired in our brains that shapes our perceptions, preferences, etc. To put it differently, we act in a pre-determined way. The environment in which we are brought up modifies and reinforces these pre-determined perceptions and preferences.

As I have indicated, our family was quite well off by the standards of the time, and there were some families in the village that were really poor. These were landless people who lived on casual work, when it was available. So as a child I was quite aware of the phenomenon of poverty and economic and social inequality. My father, to put it in modern political language, was a right-wing conservative who believed that poverty was a matter of choice – you were either lazy or stupid. (My siblings might not agree with this view of our father’s ‘politics’.) My mother, by contrast, was sympathetic to the poor, and helped them whenever she could – always behind my father’s back. As I was emotionally much closer to my mother, it is possible that as a child I began to look at the world through my mother’s eyes, rather than my father’s.

At this point an early experience comes to mind. When I was about twelve years old one of my doctor aunts was filling in for an English missionary doctor at the village medical centre. And so she had the use of the kothi (bungalow) that was purpose-built for the English doctors. One day my elder brother, seven years my senior and who was at the time doing a Master’s in philosophy at St. Stephens College, Delhi, were sitting in the drawing room of the bungalow. I casually picked up one of the numerous books stacked on the shelves and started to browse through it. In it I saw a picture of a group of sinister looking men sitting around a table, as if in a conference. I asked my brother who they were and what were they doing. He looked at the picture, skipped through some pages and said ‘Oh, they are communists.’ Who are communists? I asked.  Rather indifferently, he replied: they want to abolish private property and want it to be owned by the government. I thought it was a good idea, and declared that I would like to be a communist. He replied: you would then go to jail.

The conversation did not proceed. I was left confused and unable to articulate the apparent paradox: why should the government jail people who want it to take over all property. It would take me some years before I could resolve it.

In Lahore, troubles – Hindu-Muslim riots – started in March (1947). Our exams (final BA) which were scheduled to be held sometime in May had to be postponed. The halls of residence were closed and the students sent home. It was expected that normal life would soon return and students – Hindus as well as Muslims – return to the college and normal teaching.

But things turned out very differently, and as a result of extensive rioting the exams had to be repeatedly postponed. I was confined to my village. I had my course books which I continued to study. I also had some other books with me. I remember reading during these months Maxim Gorky’s The Mother, which made a strong impression on me. I also had a small pamphlet by the Russian philosopher G. V. Plekhanov on the materialist conception of history. But I was unable to make any sense of it. I subscribed to the People’s Age and an uncle of mine to an Urdu language daily newspaper, the Zamindar (the cultivator). So I was well-informed about the events taking place in the outside world, and of course the coming into existence of Pakistan.

This was a time – mercifully a short one, some months – of utter madness, of mass inter-communal killings. No one would have imagined that things would turn out to be this way. As I have said, our village was surrounded by Muslim villages. The Christian people in our village had lived in peace with the Muslims in the area, their boys had daily come to the village to attend the middle school and they had come to avail of the medical facilities when available.  During the time I am talking of Christians were left alone and there was no fear among them. But the Hindu families in the village were extremely nervous, and with good reason. However, they were assured by the people of the village that they were under their protection. A group of men, led by my father, with his gun slung over his shoulder, escorted all the Hindu families to Gojra where they boarded a train for Amritsar (in India, across the border from Lahore). We learnt later that they all crossed the newly established border safely. (My father never used the gun, as far as I know.  Under the British, gun licences were given only to loyal subjects and those who had some influence in the community).

By December all the cross-migration in Punjab – of the Hindus to India and of Muslims in east Punjab to Pakistan – was completed. The situation was now completely peaceful. The exam date was announced. The North Hall was practically deserted. All the Hindu and Sikh students were gone. We would never see our Hindu and Sikh friends again.

I had decided to make my career in journalism. But before I could start looking for a job I needed the results of my exams. Instead of going to my own village I decided to visit my maternal grandfather who lived in a village near Okara, in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) district. There my uncle, who was about my age and who had also completed his studies, suggested that we go to Karachi. One of his sisters, my aunt, lived there. She was a nurse in Civil Hospital.

Although life had returned to normal, railway train time tables remained disrupted. We waited for hours at Okara railway station for the train to Karachi, with no idea when it would arrive. I remember it was night and it was freezing cold. There were families with small children also waiting. The children were crying from the cold. At last the train arrived and our long journey to Karachi began.

Unlike the train passenger in Britain, the passengers in the sub-continent   talked freely among themselves. They talked about all kind of things, the state of the harvest, family weddings, one’s problem with toothache, etc. The talk in our compartment was naturally about the recent events, the partition of the country, the recent inter-communal violence, the mass transfer of populations across the newly established border, and Pakistan and the future.

Two lines of thought were running through the conversation, though of course people were talking about all kinds of things. It wasn’t against the Hindus as such, but about the superiority, perfection of the Islamic faith. During the discourse on this subject, one elderly man claimed that you could tell a Muslim by the light (noor) on his face, and as if to demonstrate the truth of his claim he pointed towards me. He wanted others to witness the noor on my face. I don’t think I ever received a better compliment. The other line of thinking referred to the future, the future of Pakistan. There was universal sense of optimism. We have plenty of fertile land. We will be able to feed ourselves. Above all, God is on our side.

This memoir was published in Criterion Quarterly, January-March 1919, vol. 14, no.1.

Eric Rahim is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, UK. Before he left Pakistan in 1958, he used to work as a journalist at Dawn, Karachi and later at Pakistan Times, Lahore. He has also been instrumental in setting up Democratic Students Federation in Karachi in the 50s. He is the author of A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview (Folio Books, 2020)

This memoir was published in Criterion Quarterly, January-March 2019, vol. 14, no.1.

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