By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
29 Dec, 2012
I first met him almost three decades ago at a conference in Delhi, where he had delivered an impassioned speech on the plight of the almost three million Dalits in Pakistan, his adopted country. We met up after the conference. It was strange how we instinctively bonded although he was some thirty years older than me. He returned to the town in Sindh here he lived, but we kept up a steady correspondence thereafter. Occasionally, he would come to Delhi, and then we would spend days together, of which I still have wonderful memories.
Despite fifty years of being separated from the land of his birth, his love for it remained intense. He couldn’t ever get himself to hate—much though the Pakistani establishment may have wanted this—the country of his ancestors. And then, he was convinced that all forms of nationalism were bunkum in any case. He was a sort of ‘humanist-communist’, after all, and he was dedicated to the dream of one wide world, free from the chains of nationalism and religious chauvinism.
He was born in a remote hamlet in Rajasthan that possibly doesn’t even exist on a map. His family claimed to be Chauhan Rajputs, who, only a few generations ago, had converted to Islam, but they still retained many of their Hindu practices and beliefs. His father had been posted in the Pathan borderlands as a soldier in the British Army, and so when India was partitioned his family found themselves in the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. Most of the rest of his extended family in Rajasthan soon migrated to the ‘Land of the Pure’, as it was mistakenly christened, and they settled down, like many Indian Muslim migrants, in a small Sindhi town.
He could never get to regard this nondescript town as home, however, and he kept coming back to India whenever he could. He just couldn’t accept the logic of the ‘two-nation theory’, the official ideology of the Pakistani state, questioning the wisdom of which can easily land one in jail. How could he, he kept asking, consider himself an enemy of the Hindus just because he happened to be born, for no fault or choice of his own, in a family that considered itself Muslim, albeit only nominally so? How could he deny, denounce and intensely dislike his ancestors, which was what official Pakistani nationalism insisted he should do? Naturally, he found the ideological regimentation in Pakistan in the name of religion to be insufferable. It was increasingly difficult for him to relate to people in the town where he lived, even to his close relatives, many of who had turned to a sour, harsh, supremacist and repressive version of their faith, spurning their Sufi-Bhakti ancestral legacy. He had almost nothing at all in common with them. It was as if they occupied two entirely different and antagonistic cognitive worlds. At the same time as he was bitterly opposed to Muslim supremacism in Pakistan, he decried its parallel—Hindu chauvinism—in India, which he saw as equally suffocating.
As if to remind him of his land of his birth, which now lay behind an almost impenetrable border, he spent much of his spare time with the Dalits in and around his town. He even wrote a book on the various Dalit communities in Sindh, probably the first such work. He set up the short-lived Pakistan Hindi Sabha to revive Hindi. The last of such ventures of his was a Sindhi magazine to highlight the problems of Dalits, many of who lived in slavery-like conditions in the estates of Muslim and Hindu landlords, mostly in Sindh. He wrote extensively in Pakistani newspapers—mainly about the problems of oppressed ‘low’ caste people, in India and Pakistan, the ideological bankruptcy of Muslim and Hindu supremacism and in celebration of freedom, love and compassion transcending boundaries of caste, religion, class and nation.
The last time I met him was when I visited Sindh some years ago. He was a wonderful host. Were it not for him, I don’t suppose I could have travelled on my own almost anywhere there. He took me to several places—his father’s little farm, the Indus river at Kotri, the ruins of Moenjodaro, the strife-torn town of Hyderabad, a couple of Hindu and Sufi shrines, and, of course, to the Dalit settlements where he spent much of his time.
When he saw me off at the railway station—I was going back to Lahore and from there to Delhi—I knew it would probably be the last time that we would meet. He was old now, though he would hardly admit it. There was little chance of his coming to India again, and I was almost sure that I would never return to Sindh.
Sometimes, I get news of him from friends in Sindh. He can hardly hear now, they say, and he suffers from several ailments. He doesn’t go out much these days, preferring to spend his time in his little one-room barsati. It is hard for me to think of him sitting there all by himself, doing nothing but count the days left for him to depart from this world, for I always remember him as bursting with energy and bubbling with irrepressible enthusiasm.
I know I won’t see him again. But I shall always remember him as one of the most remarkable, loving and passionate people I have had the good fortune of ever meeting.