An overdone trope of contemplating one’s identity — II (a history we are slowly forgetting)

12 min readOct 30, 2020
Source: (Khadim Hussain Soomro) Statue of Harchand Rai Vishandas

Part II— Overdone trope of contemplating one’s identity; Link to Part I embedded

The Indian subcontinent was partitioned first into East / West Pakistan and India, and then later into Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 1947, when the first Partition happened, there were about 1.4 million Hindus living in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, spread across cities like Karachi and Hyderabad. By 1951, over half of that population had left due to communal tensions. In the present-day, Hindus living in Sindh, and across Pakistan, face discrimination and targeted violence from extremists and the state, while making up only 1.6% of the population as a marginalized minority. The community is a victim of forced conversions and dangerous vitriol based on a false equivalence of Hinduism with being Indian.

Before Partition, Hindus made up a very wealthy and intellectual strata of the population in Sindh. They included the likes of the freedom fighter Hemu Kalani who was executed, at just 19 years of age, by the British for not revealing details of other freedom fighters that were helping him in the Independence movement. Another notable Hindu Sindhi was Harchandrai Vishandas, who was credited with transforming Karachi’s electrical infrastructure (probably leaps ahead of what it is now), implementing a governance framework for the city’s municipality, and establishing a road network. Vishandas was instrumental in Karachi’s foundations as a municipal city, and yet soon after Partition the statue of the man who set-up vocational schools and helped the city’s sick during a plague, was ‘beheaded’. A road named in his honor was renamed and his statue removed to the dusty halls of the Mohatta Palace.

The events of 1947 saw people like Vishandas who had being living in Sindh for centuries, contributing to the formation of its cities, uprooted and dislodged from their ancestral lands, their identities erased, cast to the side by the Pakistani government that could not secure their safety or, in most cases, directly threatened it.

Communal tensions extended towards Muslims in India’s Uttar Pradesh and Bengal provinces as well. All four of my grandparents originated from four different localities within India: Allahabad, Lucknow, Dibai (a small village outside Aligarh), and Delhi. My paternal grandfather from Dibai had no intention of leaving India and was instead forced to vacate his house when his father was killed in communal riots, taking his siblings and mother to Karachi. My paternal grandmother grew up in Old Delhi and, while she was alive, used to recall stories remembering the way to her local primary school, all the landmarks, and her teachers and friends. She also recalled the time when riots had sprung out in Delhi, and her father bundled away the whole family extremely late at night, with all of them stowed away on a cargo plane to Karachi. She remembered on the way to the airstrip, when she left the house, and while they drove, that there were dead bodies strewn across streets, pavements, roads, indistinguishable in the dark from who was Muslim, who was Hindu.

Both my maternal grandparents were more fortunate in being in Lucknow, a part of Uttar Pradesh far from the border and the riots. They both stayed in India till as late as 1970, well after Partition, with my aunt being born in Lucknow. My maternal grandmother’s siblings slowly started leaving for Karachi. It was only then that she and my grandfather chose to leave for Karachi and give up their Indian citizenship for a Pakistani one. One of my grandmother’s sisters, and her multi-generational children and grandchildren, still resides in India to this day, having left Lucknow for Noida in Delhi.

When I went to London for university, these distinctions and parts of history started becoming more relevant. A common trope those who had grown up in South Asia made fun of there was the over or under compensation for their identity that diaspora South Asians often fell into. This internal conflict of identity seemed to be limited to just diaspora. I was surprised that those who had grown up in South Asian countries had absolutely no sense of this same identity conflict that they said the diaspora fall into, or at least did not appear to on the surface.

I came to university from a place where it was common to have my close group of friends during my high-school being Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi. It was not something I registered or thought too much about. But, at university, there were some times when I found myself either in a friend group where I was the only Pakistani amongst Indians, or one of many Pakistanis with no other South Asians. Internally, this bothered me. It made me segment and compartmentalize my friends in a way that I did not used to do before. It spawned my own internal identity conflict. A conflict of ‘where am I from?’.

One of my closest friends at university was, and still is, a Hindu Sindhi, Arun*. I met him in the second month of my first-year, and since then we’ve gone through late-night fried-chicken runs, multiple unproductive library sessions, and sleep-deprived prayers (to all deities: Hindu and Islamic) uttered together before exams we both knew we were going to fail. My friendship with Arun continued throughout my entire degree, and I think one of the reasons was because both of us had the same idea of identity. We both thought of it as superfluous, instead of defining. Hearing Arun’s story about his family made me disregard concepts of attaching my identity to something as reductive as ‘Pakistani’ or his to ‘Indian’.

Arun’s parents are both Hindus whose families originate from Sindh. At the time of Partition, parts of his family migrated to India while others stayed in Pakistan. He still has some extended family living in Karachi. When I first asked Arun, ‘where are you originally from?’ he said, ‘I’m half-Indian, half-Pakistani’*. My reaction was at first, ‘what do you mean?’. You can’t be half-Indian, half-Pakistani, you have to pick one or the other. But when he explained why, it showed me how worryingly reductive we have become in our own denominations of identity. While South Asians living in South Asia sometimes mock diaspora that engage in these overly pseudo-philosophical questions of ‘where am I from?’, we ourselves have failed to challenge our own understanding of identity.

We have peddled the overdone identity trope for Western audiences on countless occasions, trying to pen 4000-word essays on ‘what being brown in modern-day America meant to me?’, sometimes for Western countries that we have little historical link to. I’m not saying these discussions are unimportant, diaspora have now had a long history in the West and these stories reflect important experiences, especially with rising Islamophobia and racist rhetoric. But, in doing so we have also overlooked the other contemplations of identity that citizens living in the subcontinent might be having, or if not, ones they should be having. Important contemplations of identity that are slowly effervescing, while relatively recent map lines are solidified as dogmatic markers of identity.

Instead (or alongside maybe) of critiquing the diaspora for their over-complication of identity, perhaps we should first introspect on the oversimplification of our own identity. Arun’s family probably lived for multiple generations in Sindh, his identity is still that of an ethnic Sindhi by virtue of his parents, he speaks the language of the province fluently, and better than he does Hindi/Urdu. Arun is more ‘Pakistani’ than I am, that is if being ‘Sindhi’ is one of the many components of being ‘Pakistani’. He is from an ethnic group that has lived in the area, that now geographically is in Pakistan, has been for centuries and one that still resides there. Whether the Pakistani government has advanced national identity over provincial identities in recent years or not is irrelevant, because the province of Sindh and the Sindhi provincial identity exists with or without the government’s efforts. And yet, even though Arun belongs to the ethnic group present there, even though he would be able to converse with them better than a Sunni Punjabi man from Pakistan would be able to, in the current state of geopolitics, a Hindu Sindhi like Arun, if he had an Indian passport, would find it very difficult to be able to visit his ancestral ‘home’ in Sindh. Even if it were easy to visit, it would be difficult for Arun to live there with the discrimination faced against Hindus.

Whether Arun would want to go there or not in the current climate does not matter, what matters is how comfortably the current generation of South Asians have accepted these new drawings of identity that have emerged only in the recent 70 or so years, and ignored the centuries of links people hold to lands they were uprooted from. We engage in polemical twitter discussions on the diaspora’s tone-deaf ‘where am I from?’ struggle, forgetting that we also do not properly understand where we are truly from. Engaging in these discussions does not threaten our own identity, but allows us to have a better appreciation for how fragmented everyone’s identity in the subcontinent is, even Indians who have retained the historical moniker that was attributed to a large part of the region.

Philosophical discussions surrounding identity might be best left in drawing rooms, and contemplative essays such as these, they are divorced from the contextual reality of the people on the ground. They don’t really do anything to advance the lived reality of the citizens in South Asia. They don’t change the fortunes of the vast swathes of individuals in these countries living in impoverished conditions and extreme poverty.

But, the subcontinent has raged in geo-political turmoil since its drawing of arbitrary lines on a map in 1947, and then justified lines in 1971. India and Pakistan form the region’s main source of contention, one that has pushed the subcontinent into what seems like, to someone born after 1947, a perpetual gridlock of animosity and vile jingoism. In Pakistan, where the state operates under a pseudo-democratic framework with a behind-the-scenes authoritative military calling the shots, this conflict is pinned only and only on identity. A conflict that translates directly to the lack of a proper institutional structure in Pakistan, which then translates into the lack of proper economic conditions. Pakistan’s institutions decay day by day, and they are driven by this imaginary, drawn-out-of-thin-air ideological war pitting one version of what identity means against another, a war for which the figurative horizon always appears out of reach, because we steer ourselves further and further away from it. We are in avoidance of the ‘horizon’, steeped in an archaic fear that the ‘earth is flat’ and that we might tip over its precipitous ideological edge if we were to draw nearer to it. An archaic fear that has been properly disseminated, distributed, and indoctrinated. One that has also now been transferred to those that posit as the seemingly secular republic in the region. The right-wing, populist rhetoric across Pakistan has more in common with the Hindu-nationalist state machinery gripping India, and vice-versa, than it does with the citizenry occupying both countries.

When Arun told me he was half-Indian, half-Pakistani, he described his inner-conflict. He described his need to be attached to his ethnic identity as a Sindhi, and so resorting to saying ‘half-Pakistani’, but also recognizing that he can never be just ‘Pakistani’ because of what we have come to see ‘Pakistani’ as. I studied at a university that is supposedly a world-class institution in the social sciences, and yet still I encountered some people there who could not wrap their heads around the idea of a ‘Hindu’ Pakistani, when mentioned, or who saw Pakistan as first and foremost for Muslims.

Hearing Arun say that, triggered what I think my own subconscious had grappled with before too. What exactly determines me as more of a ‘Pakistani’ than Arun? Just because I have a passport saying so? And what exactly determines Arun as more of an Indian as me? Just because his family is Hindu and some of them were forced to migrate there?

I lived in Karachi for only five short years. My parents before me were the only generation of each of their bloodlines born in what constitutes as Pakistan now, the first ones of which to also have only a Pakistani passport. Just more than two generations ago, every generation of my family has resided in what was pre-Partition India, and what is now post-Partition India. I still have family who reside in what is now India. I’ve probably also had the same, if not more, number of friends who were Indians, Bangladeshis, or other South Asians, as I have had those who were Pakistani. It is scary how these lines of identity that have been seemingly etched into stone, in the backdrop of lost lives and intergenerational trauma in some cases, become so easily wiped away when we start examining the history of what it means to be ‘from the Indian subcontinent’. It is true though that in only 70 years, a large proportion of us have been duped into an illusory stupor that this is how it is, this is how it was, and this is how it will always be. But what it is, is currently very precariously undefined; what it was, is written in history; and what it will be, has to at least reconcile with that history.

These conversations are not something new, this questioning of arbitrary identity has already been talked about and engaged with before us (Manto). However, while evidence exists of such conversations being held before, they are not as prevalent now. Especially at a time when such conversations are needed. We have become siloed into our own bubbles of consumption through these arbitrary identities, engaging with them only when our sympathies are evoked on the basis of religion. Why can we (Indo-Pak) not empathize with minorities across both sides of the border on a level that is deeper than religion? Offering our support to them by virtue of defending their freedom of worship, without impeding on the sovereignty of minorities in their own nations through our hidden agendas. And, likewise, viewing cross-border demands for justice as a shared interest in a more cohesive subcontinent, instead of an agenda-driven attack on a nation’s sovereignty, a sovereignty whose lines were very blurred just seven decades ago.

Cross-border flow of news, ideas, and people always accompany an agenda with it. Trends, movements, and politics of hegemonic powers like the US and UK are more closely followed, critiqued, analyzed, deconstructed, lobbied for through online petitions, and opined on than the general state of people living across the border from us. Advocation of cross-border issues, without an agenda, is almost non-existent. It is easier for me to obtain a visa for the country that pillaged and looted the subcontinent, than it is to get one to visit the one across the border that I have more in common with. That seems absolutely and strangely absurd. Perhaps, we need to reexamine ‘where I am from?’ as much and unashamedly as the diaspora seem to do in their ‘What Kamala Harris eating idli means to me’ think-pieces.

*Arun’s name has been changed. And since writing this, he’s told me I overthought his ‘half-Pakistani, half-Indian’ description. It was really a flexible way for him to relate with any potential romantic interests from either side of the border.

Disclaimer: this piece is quite long because I found myself constantly inserting disclaimers after every sentence. After a certain point, I decided to stop and let the piece write itself. This is a reflection of my own experiences with identity, a judgement of how others around me approach it, and by no means a generalization of how those in a region that is immense in size and population grapple with it. There might be a lot of South Asians who think about their identity in this way already, and this is nothing new. My conclusion of there not being many of them who visibly interact with it though, is largely based on the interactions I had at university and what I see in online spaces. Conversations surrounding identity are not in and of themselves irrelevant, but this constant peddling of them under a Western lens is exhausting to read.

We need to continue with conversations about identity, but in comparative pieces exploring its inter-mingling with other identities in the region. The ‘global South’, not so long ago, was a mixture of regions that traded and interacted with each other with no help from hegemonic colonial states. It seems odd that we don’t explore how our identities have been transformed under that connected past, in good and bad ways, and instead mostly explore it under hegemonic powers that use our explorations for their own narrative-building. The intersectionality of markers like class, ethnicity, and religion define how we approach identity, how comfortable we are in it, and to what extent we push-back to challenge its definition.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent that of any third-party or employer.