Babu Mistri and Westphalia
People were migratory birds, not legal or illegal immigrants.
BABU Mistri may have never travelled to Assam but his story is emblematic of the tragedy of four million people who have been rendered homeless through an officially sponsored land grab. I use the term ‘land grab’ because Nehru had described it as an integral feature of majoritarian communalism, which I believe would be equally true of the majoritarian right-wingers eyeing vulnerable quarries in early Pakistan.
I remember Babu Mistri in his trademark karakul cap and nearly always chewing a fragrant paan. Pulling on his preferred ‘Cheetah Fight’ brand of bidi he supervised a young team of Muslim car mechanics in his makeshift garage abutting Lucknow’s Roshan ud Daula Kachehri.
That was after Babu returned from Karachi in the early 1950s, and offered my father a good reason for doing that. He missed home in Pakistan, and so he and several more like him thought they were sufficiently homesick to be prepared for the ordeal that awaited Muslim returnees in India. The CID was out to hound them back to Pakistan and they were determined to dodge the dragnet. That’s when my father spotted Babu, and later others of his ilk, and helped them pro bono.
Father had been a staunchly pro-Congress lawyer with loyalty to the militancy of Subhash Chandra Bose. After selling gaarha (as khadi was also known) on the call of Gandhiji, the law student found himself shot in the hand by a cop while pulling down the Union Jack at Lucknow’s Christian College against a visit there by the Simon Commission. He went underground and was duly rusticated. Father never boasted about his heroics but a pellet mark on his left wrist directed him to the way he would conduct his legal practice for the less privileged.
Babu Mistri and several more who returned from Pakistan were accommodated back in Lucknow, Barabanki and other kasbahs with a legal loophole (later plugged and sealed) called a stay order. Babu was a unique craftsman as a car mechanic, the type you won’t find very easily today. He looked after many of Lucknow’s Old Crocs, including my father’s 1948 Ford Prefect and Dr T. Bahadur’s Lagonda, driving which the senior citizen of Lucknow would allow any hurrying rickshaw-puller to overtake. After the mechanic with his confused nationality died in Lucknow, the car was parked in our garage and rodents feasted on its last scraps.
Before the advent of Westphalia-spawned nation states, exactly 300 years ahead of India and Pakistan becoming its postcolonial offspring — despite pretensions to an older, spurious nationalist genealogy — life was easier. People who pass for immigrants today were called travellers or settlers. Some were bought and sold as slaves but if they came with the help of the sword, they were called invaders.
That’s how a Pathan moneylender from Kabul could engage the benign attention of Tagore in faraway Bengal. That’s how a Buddhist (not a Hindu) princess from Ayodhya travelled to Korea and is remembered there as the harbinger of the Great Master’s creed to the distant shores. (In the post-Westphalia world the princess would perhaps be subjected to nationalist scrutiny, not unlike what Jemima Khan or Sonia Gandhi experienced in their respective adopted countries.) That’s how Indian languages, or any other, evolved, including Assamese, through years of cultural cross-pollination. People were migratory birds, not legal or illegal immigrants.
The ordeal of the hounded Assamese is actually many times worse and more complicated than what awaited Babu Mistri and his friends. Babu and his fellow returnees — as with the Pushto and Urdu speakers in Karachi — were byproducts of human innovation rooted in a treaty signed in 1648 in far away Europe. In Assam, it is a combination of adverse geography coupled with greed and prejudice that has threatened the lives and dreams of millions.
Two South Asian countries — namely the Maldives and Bangladesh — are perennially threatened by climate change, more than any neighbour. Global warming, denied by the American president as a reality, will in the coming years completely submerge the Maldives archipelago. And it will continue to swamp huge swathes of low-lying areas in Bangladesh.
Prone to cyclonic devastation — one of which saw Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Bob Dylan among others coming together to lend a helping hand — Bangladesh has witnessed huge movements of its people to escape the wrath of nature, or, shall we say, wrath of an increasingly angry nature provoked by man into a rage.
Many of the Bengali peasants, mostly Muslim, had settled in the vicinity of the Brahmaputra in Assam, and worked hard to make the region habitable. If global warming presses on, as it will, the demographic pressure on Assam will increase, not abate. Adding to the crisis are dollops of resurgent prejudices and narrow nationalism.
Let’s see the same story from the prism of the Gujjars who straddle distant abodes from Swat to Kashmir and beyond. They are a pastoral community whose passage along traditional, seasonal routes has been interdicted by manmade forces and related narrow-mindedness. The recent horror in Kathua was a warning shot to the community from those in position of power today.
Prejudice is not as intractable a monster as it is often made out to be, however. In 1968, British rabble-rouser Enoch Powell delivered his rivers of blood speech against Asian migrants in the UK. He never made the grade as a politician. A civilised society responded by becoming more inclusive. Jeremy Corbyn represents a slap on the face of any old British prejudice. In India, a similar rivers-of-blood speech by a communal leader in Assam led to the massacre of migrant women and children in 1983.
Westphalia gave us nation states but left their people to grapple with the intolerance they would spawn. It’s a dingdong battle between the easy and cynical biases that Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, for example, represent, and the zest for life and hope that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Babu Mistri will keep alive.