By Ishtiaq Ahmed
October 13, 2013
It never happens that any day passes in Delhi without meeting someone from Lahore originally or whose elders were from Lahore
My seven-week lecture tour of India mainly on my Punjab partition book but also on the garrison state culminated with a two-week fellowship, March 9-March 22 2013, at the Department of Historical Studies at India’s very prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Professor Bhagwan Singh Josh, a Punjabi whose book, The Communist Movement in Punjab I had read with great interest many years ago and referred to in my research, was my departmental host. We began writing to each other a few months before my visit to India. Retired Professor Harbans Mukhia had put us in touch with one another. I also became a personal guest of his as he and his life partner Professor Shashi Joshi took great care of me. Once again, all three of us had our background in the Left movements of India and Pakistan and there was some much to discuss and debate.
Professor Josh offers a course on the partition of India, which is unique. I am not aware of any such specialisation offered anywhere else. I gave a formal seminar that was chaired by Professor Harbans Mukhia. The discussion was extremely stimulating. On the whole, my thesis on the partition of the Punjab was received well. There was some altercation over conventional archival material that historians base their research on and my use of oral history. When I posed the question: should one stop writing on the Punjab from August 14, 2013, when official documentation of the British ends and there is complete silence from both the Indian and the Pakistani Punjabs as to what happened afterwards, he had nothing to say really. In fact, the way I have used oral histories to trace the events between August 15 and December 31, 2013, is a new way of writing history by methodological innovation and theorising. I suppose in all disciplines there are biases and most people are uncomfortable with innovations and changes. I gave a lecture to one of the classes as well where once again the discussion was very interesting.
JNU also offers specialisation on Pakistan Studies. Professor Uma Singh whom I have known for years, a fellow Punjabi, chaired my talk on India-Pakistan relations. As expected, considerable discussion took place but on the whole the audience was very receptive. Ashish Shukla who is working on a PhD on Pakistan was there. He is potentially a good scholar and can make positive contributions to the field of India-Pakistan relations. Associate Professor Rajesh Kharaj, who I know from Stockholm when he visited Sweden and other Scandinavian countries in 2003, also attended my talk.
I was staying at the JNU guesthouse, very close to the Historical Studies Department. Since many students wanted to talk to me I had two hours at breakfast time in the morning for them to join me. This proved to be extremely useful as I could meet a whole range of students and listen to their interests and research.
JNU is a leftist stronghold. I could sense that it was culturally liberated and politically manifestly left leaning. One could also notice that many students from under-privileged backgrounds study at JNU. People from the northeastern states and Kashmir and other faraway places could be seen all the time.
The JNU campus is vast. It is green and studded with tries. I got the feeling that it was some sort of hilly territory. To my very great surprise, I learnt from Commodore Uday Bhaskar that the campus is built on the Aravalli hills. While researching on the origins of the Punjab I had come across the information that the Aravalli hills the historical-geographical boundary between the Punjab and northern India. This I had quoted in the book and was very pleased to be standing just on those hills, which probably were once quite high. Now the area is a plain.
I was invited to speak at another prestigious Indian educational institution: the Delhi IT. It was my friend and colleague from Singapore, Dr Jayan Thomas who arranged for me to talk to Indian psychologists about India-Pakistan relations and the partition. I believe when I presented some of the stories from my Punjab book many people were visibly moved by them. Life is stranger than fiction and some of the stories in the book are of that kind.
The stay in JNU gave me ample time to meet some old friends. Professor Partha Ghosh is always the perfect host. He and Indiraji have been kind to me whenever I am in their city. Similarly, Ambassadors Rajiv and Veena Sikri are a must for a visit and a long evening at their home. Ambassador Moni Chadha, as always, is the best friend in town and we spent a lot of time together. Vimal Issar and Uma Vasudev with their roots in Lahore too are dear friends. Commodore Uday Bhaskar and Ira Bhaskar who live on the JNU campus are also close friends and I enjoyed their hospitality as well.
Then of course I met Chicku Sahib (Comrade Saytendra Kumar) who once lived at the beginning of Waris Road, Lahore. Another friend I met was Billu Sahib (Mahesh Kapur) who also hails originally from Lahore. It never happens that any day passes in Delhi without meeting someone from Lahore originally or whose elders were from Lahore. A sad thing was that Pran Nevileji’s wife died when I was there. I went to him to convey my condolences.
Farooq Sulehria, a friend and comrade from Stockholm and a Pakistani, who is doing his PhD on India, Pakistan state televisions was in town to do field research. I also met Dr Amit Ranjan, a prolific writer and debater on India-Pakistan relations and Ashish Shukla who is doing his PhD on the same subject. A new generation of Indian scholars specialising on Pakistan is a good development.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013.