By Carl Naylor
My father and I were in a taxi nearing Churchgate, one of the main rail stations in Mumbai. I was nine years old and fascinated by trains. So, of course, I was very excited about catching a local train for my first experience on the bustling Indian railways.
It was the early evening of Tuesday the 11th of July 2006, the traffic was sluggish and we were running a little late. As we slowly progressed I felt the atmosphere around us changing, we were being engulfed by a strange, eerie dystopia. Our driver called out to a pedestrian, who hastily replied: “Train bombings – on the Churchgate Line”.
Immediately, the talk on the street was that “Pakistan” was behind the bombings. People said that the most likely culprits were the Lashkar-e-Taiba – a hardline Muslim terrorist group, which allegedly is supported by the Pakistani government.
This was not the first such incident. According to the Global Terrorism Database, an astonishing 12,002 terrorist incidents have occurred between 1970 and 2018 in India, causing the deaths of some 20,000 people. These acts are often presented as religiously motivated: Usually Muslims against Hindus, or Hindus against Muslims.
In August 1947 the British, the colonial rulers of the Indian subcontinent, left India. Many felt that a positive aspect of British rule had been that Britain had united the sub-continent, as before these lands had comprised many warring princely states. Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy, later recalled that Mahatma Gandhi, champion of the Indian Independence, had told him the view of the Indian Congress Party (later to form the government following independence): “One of the greatest single blessings the British brought was unifying India. It’s unique”.
However, with the coming of independence, Indian Muslims – led by Muhammed Ali Jinnah – demanded a country of their own. And so, there was the Partition. As the British left India, India became divided – and Pakistan was born.
Millions were suddenly on the move – Muslims travelling northwards to their promised land of Pakistan (initially West and East Pakistan, the latter becoming Bangladesh in 1971), chanting “Bismillah Pakistan Jindabad” (“In the name of God Long Live Pakistan”). Meanwhile, Hindus were heading the other way to the majority Hindu populated land of current India.
This was no peaceful migration. Along the way, Hindus and Muslims fought each other. The violence was horrific and the death toll was worsened by starvation and disease. According to Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh, in their book The Partition of India, 14 million people were displaced and between 200,000 and two million lost their lives.
These animosities remain today. In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi updated the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), which provided citizenship to non-Muslims with origins in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This meant that Muslims living in India who did not have Indian citizenship could potentially be left off the National Register of Citizens, essentially making them second-class members of society. The CAA, according to Human Rights’ Watch, is a violation of human rights’ law – a claim strongly denied by Home Minister Amit Shah, who stated that Muslims are “infiltrators” from neighbouring Pakistan.
Pakistan often cites violations by Indian police and soldiers against Muslims in the Indian governed (but disputed by Pakistan) region of Kashmir. Indeed, some claimed the Mumbai train bombings were committed as a response to alleged injustices to Muslims in Kashmir.
In Pakistan, contravening Islamic laws can lead to conviction. For example, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws sentence those who insult Islam to death. In the Human Rights’ Watch 2019 Pakistan report, it is stated that 40 people remain on death row for blasphemy. These religiously sanctioned laws appear to be part of the nation’s identity. When Salman Taseer, Governor of (Pakistan’s) Punjab, tried to reform these laws he was met with a vehement populous outcry. On 4th January 2011, he was assassinated by his bodyguard, who objected to his views.
The religious tensions on the Indian subcontinent can clearly be seen at the highest level of politics and are at the core of Indo-Pakistani relations. The increasing Hinduisation of India and the fact that Pakistan is an Islamic state (as Pakistan’s constitution states, “Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan,” and the legal system shall be in compliance with the Quran and Sunnah), leads to the question of religious citizenship.
What of religious citizenship? One side of the question is whether belonging to the religious majority will become a necessity for citizenship in India and Pakistan. Will Muslims be able to practice Islam peacefully in India and be recognised citizens? And vice versa, with Hindus and their faith in Pakistan?
Another side of the question is, from the perspective of the citizen, if citizenship in a given country is a necessity for religious realisation. That is, can an individual practice his form of faith in any given area, or are religious beliefs bound to a specific geographic territory where citizenship is the key to reach God? Can a conservative Muslim openly practice his faith in a secular country? Or is citizenship in an Islamic country a necessity for his faith to be realised? Were Jinnah’s demands for an Islamic country for Muslim Indians therefore reasonable – to have a safe haven where Muslims could practise their religion through citizenship – or is there an alternative?
Kushwant Singh, a celebrated Indian writer who lived through and witnessed the Partition at its rawest, most cruel, wrote about the events of 1947, notably in his book “Train to Pakistan”. He concluded the only way to prevent future atrocities “is to promote closer integration of people of different races, religions and castes living on the subcontinent.”
Such a vision may be unrealistic, as the events of 11th July 2006 so graphically reminded us. The legacy of Partition still torments the subcontinent: On that evening, seven separate bombs exploded within minutes of each other on those trains, with 209 people killed and over 700 injured. In retrospect, I consider us lucky not to have been on the “Churchgate Line” at that tragic moment.
By: By Carl Naylor
Illustration: Rebecca M. Bengtsson