Balwant Bhaneja: A Canadian Hindu diplomat returns to Pakistan to find his truth

Former diplomat Balwant Bhaneja writes of a return visit to his native land in Troubled Pilgrimage: Passage to Pakistan.

Former diplomat Balwant Bhaneja writes of a return visit to his native land in Troubled Pilgrimage: Passage to Pakistan.

In 2006, former Canadian diplomat, Balwant Bhaneja, returned to Pakistan. He is Hindu, born in Lahore before the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. When he was still very young, at a time when the tensions between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent had intensified, the family moved to Delhi. Bhaneja left India as a young man to work in Bonn, Germany, for a civil engineer. He then returned to school to study international relations and eventually moved to Ottawa, where he worked as a diplomat. He writes about his return to Pakistan as a visitor in Troubled Pilgrimage: Passage to Pakistan.

How did you end up becoming a diplomat in Canada?

I was 23 or 24 when I left India and like all young people who have a sense of adventure, I wanted to see the world. I had an internship with a civil engineer in Hamburg but the language was a problem and I knew it would take me four years to get a civil engineering job. I started looking for countries where the language was English and at that time a friend from India had moved to Canada, to Montreal, and he said “Come here, you won’t have any problems.” That was in 1965 during preparations for Expo. And I got a job as a civil engineer.

You went to Carleton, studied journalism, married a woman with an Irish background and did graduate work in international relations. Why did you decide to go back to Pakistan after your retirement?

I was close to my parents, who were both born in Sindh, which is now part of Pakistan. I had seen my uncles and aunts and all my relatives who had come from Pakistan hoping one day they would return home. But they all passed away before they could do this. I knew the longing they had for their homeland. That is what drove me. I had questions about my identity.

You had some concerns going back to Pakistan?

At the time of the partition, politicians said things would return to normal and there would be a free flow of citizens on both sides of the border. That never happened. There were three wars between India and Pakistan after partition.

When I decided to go to Pakistan, it was post 9/11. Daniel Pearl had been kidnapped by Pakistani militants and murdered by Al Qaeda. I knew Stuart Hughes, the deputy high commissioner for Canada, in Islamabad, who had been posted there for two years. He gave me a feel for how things were in the places I wanted to go.

Despite all the tension in that country and the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, you still decided to go?

I made up my mind not to ask any political questions during my trip. It was a trip of self-discovery, a tribute to my parents. I started from Delhi and went to Islamabad, where my friend lived, and from there I went north of Islamabad on the Grand Trunk Road, which connects to Peshawar and Afghanistan. I went to the cities where my mom and dad lived and spent time — Sukkur, Shikarpur and Rohiri (in the Sindh area, in northwestern Pakistan).

What did you learn?

Indians have these stereotypes about the Pakistanis and Pakistanis have stereotypes about Indians. But we share the same food, we share a similar culture, and Hindustani and Urdu (the main language in Pakistan) are quite similar in structure.

I never spoke much of my parents’ language, Sindhi, but I did know it. One of the most interesting elements of the trip was visiting my father’s town, Rohiri, his birthplace. I found there was still a sizeable Hindu community there. That totally took me by surprise. We still think there was a massive religious cleansing in Pakistan and there were no Hindus left.

Then I came across this family of shopkeepers who said, “Don’t worry about anything. Stay with us.” They gave me lunch and dinner and put me on the night train to Lahore. Talking to this family in the neighbourhood where my father grew up and was married was fascinating. The question that came to mind was why did my father’s family leave Pakistan and why are these people still here?

Official figures suggest 14 million people were displaced after partition and that half a million to a million people were killed. And yet 60 years later these Hindu people in Rohiri are still there. They felt connected to the place where they were born.

In the three towns I passed through I kept meeting Hindus — traders, professionals. Their numbers were small, 300 or 400 families in each of these towns. They have their own places of worship. I dared to ask: “Are you happy here?” and they said, “Yes, this is the land where we were born.”

But living as a minority in a society does put you in a delicate situation.

When you were a child in Delhi you met Gandhi.

When I started my trip in Delhi, someone told me that the place where Gandhi had been assassinated had been opened as a memorial. I went there and all the memories from my childhood returned.

That was a place I had visited with my Dad and family just a couple of months before Gandhi was assassinated. I had great admiration for Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. Gandhi’s values, we are all children of the same God, were powerful.

When I was writing my book I was reminded of my father on his 70th birthday. He was visiting us in Bonn. I asked him where he wanted to go for his birthday and he said London. While there we went to Tavistock Square, where there was a Gandhi statue.

You talk a lot about the influence of Sikhs in the area of Pakistan where your family once lived.

We Hindus are pragmatists. Especially in Sindh there is a lot of influence of Sikhs because the founder was from Punjab. The early Sikhs came to Sindh and people were impressed by Guru Nanak’s teaching. It resonated with them.

You had one moment during your visit to Pakistan where you felt some fear. You were on a train in a compartment with some young Muslim men.

Usually I am an open person and I like to chat with people. But when these young people were talking in Urdu and started with their morning prayer, I began to feel cautious. I didn’t really want to talk to them because I felt if I did that there could be no end to their questions.

In India and Pakistan you can find out whether you are Muslim or Hindu from your surname. I thought I better slip out of the compartment and I went and sat in the corridor. But it bothered me: Why didn’t I have the courage to talk to these young people? I can speak their language. But I am Indian, I am Hindu, I am Canadian. I lacked the courage to talk to them because I thought it would lead me into trouble.

Why was it so important for you to return to the Indian subcontinent?

Most of us who have come from elsewhere to Canada always deal with the sense of displacement and being a refugee. I wondered how my parents dealt with that theme of belonging when they had to move from Pakistan to India. And I saw the same thing happen to me. Here I was in Canada, married to someone from Ireland with a Catholic background. I wondered, what does home mean? Even when I was in Canada during the early years, when I went back to India I felt I didn’t fit in. I was a stranger in India and a stranger in Canada.

Your book is titled Troubled Pilgrimage but beyond the incident on the train you didn’t seem to have any trouble when you went to Pakistan.

Troubled Pilgrimage was my effort to grapple with existential questions. What is the meaning of life? Having done that kind of pilgrimage to Pakistan I am finally at ease with myself. I got peace of mind through the journey back to my home.

You started the book with Gandhi and you end it with him.

Gandhi plays an important role in the partitioning of India and Pakistan. He didn’t want India be partitioned. He very reluctantly consented, and for that he was blamed. Muslims said he was not for Pakistan and Hindus said he was responsible for the problems that occurred after.

I talked about Gandhi during my last meeting in India with a former Indian prime minister, Dr. Inder Kumar Gujral. He told me that in India today Gandhi is still very much part of the life, part of the modern democracy of India. Gandhi believed we are all children of God, all sparks of the same divine.

Gujral spoke about Gandhi and why Pakistan failed and India succeeded in continuing as a democracy. (Muhammad Ali) Jinah, who in the late 1940s agitated for a separate Pakistan, saw Pakistan as one nation, with one language and one religion. In a country with a diverse population and many groups that is an impossible dream. It eventually led to the fragmentation of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. In India, the leaders were more flexible in accommodating difference. It was a more Gandhian way of doing things.

Now, India has a nuclear bomb and it could be said that is not Gandhian at all. But the structure and functioning of the democratic government and relative stability on the Indian side one would have to attribute to Gandhi.

Source: The Star