Balwant Bhaneja: Former Canadian Diplomat Travels to His Ancestral Sindh in PakistanWritten by Chelby Daigle
Balwant (Bill) Bhaneja is author of six books on arts, politics and science. He is a former Canadian diplomat who studied International Relations at Carleton University and holds a PhD from the University of Manchester. .
In 1947, the countries of India and Pakistan were born out of the partition of British India. Millions of people scrambled between the countries, fleeing ethnic and religious violence. Many Muslims fled to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs fled to India. Referred to as Partition, to date, it is the largest migration of humans.
Balwant Bhaneja was born in Lahore, in what is today Pakistan. Though at the time of Partition he was in New-Delhi, India where his father who was a civil servant resided, the remaining family in Pakistan fled to India as refugees to stay with the Bhanejas. Over half a century later, Bhaneja returned to the land of his birth and wrote a memoir on his experience.
Muslim Link caught up with him following the reading of his book, “Troubled Pilgrimage: A Passage to Pakistan” at Ottawa’s Lotus Corner last December.
Tell us about yourself
I was born in Lahore to Hindu Sindhi parents. My father was a civil servant with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) posted in New-Delhi at the time of creation of the two nations. As a Hindu, he chose to stay on in India’s capital. So I was raised there until I left India in 1965. I studied at Carleton University and met and married an Irish girl who like me was in Canada for adventure and studies. After my post-grad studies, I worked in the Canadian Foreign Service for many years, travelling with my wife on postings to London, Bonn, and Berlin. Now retired we live in Ottawa. Writing is one of my literary pursuits having many books and articles published in various media.
Why did you decide to return to Pakistan after you retired?
I was trying to find out about my roots, understand my ancestral lands of India and Pakistan and the place of Sind and the experience of Sindhis in the two countries.
It involved three kinds of journeys - geographical, psychological, and spiritual. A geographical journey because I went to the places where my folks hailed from and I was born. Psychological because of how it impacted their lives and my relationships with them. And finally existential because it explored the question of one's true self.
I had greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi as he was the man who practiced what he preached. Truth is God and God is Truth. These two can only be achieved through nonviolence. His nonviolent philosophy greatly impressed me. His movement of social reform and political Independence succeeded in mobilizing diverse groups and sections of Indian society bringing end to mighty British rule without firing a bullet, whereas in the West the Second World War during the same period resulted in the deaths of 60 million people.
[Sindhi people are an ethnic group native to the province of Sindh in Pakistan. They are believed to be indigenous to that region. While many Hindu and Sikh Sindhis migrated to India, 2.5% of the population in Sindh are Hindu (1998 Pakistan Census).]
Before your visit to Pakistan, had you developed any relationships with Pakistani Muslims in Canada?
I have many Muslim friends. My career as a Canadian Foreign Service Officer involved serving abroad; (and being married to an Irish person) friendships were never formed on the basic of ethnicity or country of origin.
Why did you want to write a memoir about your experience in Pakistan?
I had not gone to Pakistan with the idea of writing a book, it was to fulfill a sort of filial obligation that had been nagging me since the deaths of my parents. It was to fulfill their longing and of other older relatives who had been displaced by Partition and arrived in Delhi in 1947 hoping to return to Sindh one day. They passed away, never having had that opportunity to make a visit to their birthplace
However, they were with me in spirit throughout my travel to their native places of Sukkur, Rohiri, and Shikarpur and later on to Lahore, my birthplace. The journey in a way was to re-live their memories, for example, their love of Sindhu River and its deity Jhuley Lal; their admiration of Sufi poetry and music that ranged from the works of Abdul Shah Abdul Latif to Bhagat Kanwar Ram, even to enjoy again food and cooking native to Sindh and Lahore.
The idea of a book came only during the travel as I would get a sight of the old neighborhood where they grew up, or experience an unexpected meeting with someone who would mention of a Sindhi dervish that my parents spoke about, or dipping my feet into the water of Sindhu River. I thought a record of my impressions and reflections would be good for [our] family history, especially grandchildren. Unlike a travel diary, a memoir has often scope for more rich and layered content.
In your memoir you explore your family's connection not only to Hinduism but to Muslim Sufi traditions and the Sikh community? Why was this important for you to share, and what lessons do you hope readers take from these stories?
That we are all one – Insaan (human/person). Blood does not distinguish between a Hindu and a Muslim, there is little different between Hindu or Muslim blood. Another commonality is our emotions. Despite race, religion, and culture, we all experience same range of emotions, aspiring to become a better human regardless of our varied traditions. No great religion teaches us to hate others; it's always the opposite of that.
Sindhi Sufi poet Sachal in his poem quoted in my book says: "I don't know who I am, please someone tell me what love is all about?", that love is search of pure love. Sarmast Sachal thought of himself primarily as a human, any distinction as Hindu or Muslim would be insult to him and his poetry.
Same could be said about Pakistani Sindhi Sufi singer Abida Parvin, her singing similarly transcends cultural differences. The search for piety and divine grace is universal and Sindhis on both sides of the border know that a Sufis's way of love is from heart to heart. The recent bomb explosion by a Taliban fanatic at the shrine of Shahbaz Kalandar in Sewan was a shameful act that no true religion could approve of.
Do you regret not taking the chance to get to know the young Muslim men who came into your train compartment and assuming that they would have reacted negatively to meeting a Hindu?
Absolutely - I wish I had courage to do that, that the times were different, the kidnapping and killing of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl had not taken place. Some Pakistani-Canadian friends mentioned that even they are not sure of safety these days when they are planning a visit to Pakistan. They had frequently postponed their visit because of unpredictable violence in their homeland.
Why do you feel that finally being able to visit Pakistan helped you resolve the existential crisis of being an immigrant in Canada who also didn't really feel they fit in in India?
I never had any problem fitting in India as a Hindu Sindhi. It was about the erosion of Sindhi culture in the absence of a land mass in India. I imagine that a similar longing may likely be present among the Urdu speaking two percent of Muslims who chose to move from North India to Pakistan after Partition. My Urdu speaking Muslim Pakistani friends often mentioned about their older folks' longing for their ancestral homes and land despite the fact that Urdu had been declared at the outset as the national language of Pakistan.
When young, one is not bothered about the questions of identity; children are very adaptable and [its] easy to blend in with [the] majority. It's only when one has to move out from their neighborhood to study or make a living; or later, after parents are gone and ones own children are growing up that one thinks about deeper existential matters.
One of the questions that came up often in my travels: "Where are you from?" When I chose to explain that, I realized the complexity in replying to such a simple question: " I am a Hindu Indian from Canada, I was born in Lahore but my parents and ancestors who hail from Upper Sindh after the Partition moved to Delhi, India where I grew up before migrating to Canada," That statement I describe is an awkward common formulation for many first generation Canadian immigrants.
M.G. Vassanji, a Muslim Canadian who has written about the particular displacement of the South Asian experience in East Africa, helped to edit your memoir. Can you explain how that happened?
M.G. Vassanji is one of Canada's distinguished writers. When my publisher showed him the manuscript, it resonated with him, he recommended its publication. He happened to be writing at that time a roots journey of his own to his homeland in East Africa. I was grateful that he liked my script and returned it with his comments.
Do you feel that the legacy of partition plays a role in interactions between Muslims and Hindus in Canada today? Explain.
Partition resulted in displacement of 11 million people, and over 600,000 died. Most of those from that generation are now dead; they had hoped that one day they would be able to travel to their homeland. In post-partition India and Pakistan, there was little effort made to facilitate such travel or any other attempt at reconciliation. There were no mechanisms such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that we now have as part of post-conflict reconstruction in troubled regions of the world.
It will be great if 70 years since the creation of Pakistan and India, the younger Canadian generation with origins in South Asia are able to travel to their ancestral lands to develop a more objective view of the history of the Partition and its impacts. I have been invited to do reading of my book Troubled Pilgrimage in both communities, followed by interesting question and answer session from the audience.
Do you think it is important that there is more space in Canada for first and second generation Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi Canadians to discuss the impact and legacy of Partition with each other? Explain.
Surely, there is no better country than Canada to explore this as we have immigrants and refugees from all over the world who have come for better economic life as well as others who have escaped conflict and persecution in their homeland.
While in Sindh, especially when I was in my parents’ neighborhood where they grew up, a thought came about why some people chose to stay on in their homeland, and why others from the same neighborhood chose to leave? Going back home may provide answers to such unresolved questions, finding a missing link. That doesn't mean that one has to move back. Instead one tends to look at the past and after reflection, one reconciles with choices one made recognizing that there is cost to all our actions. It's like looking in a rear view mirror of one's car to check where one is and then with some course correction, move on. For a first generation immigrant that correction goes on whenever trips to homeland are made.
The question of identity is important. Identity is multi-faceted and always evolving, it's shaped by environment and life experience. My children are proud of their Indian, Irish, and Canadian heritages which subsume many other sub-identities. However, as Canadians they are not alone in this and they soon find out their peers are also inheritors of many different cultures and they are all evolving a new personality that is expansive, multi-cultural, non-discriminatory, and global and so forth. Canada provides that space and opportunity.
What efforts would you like to see by Hindu and Muslim Canadians, and by Indian and Pakistani Canadians, to unlearn the stereotypes about each other?
In Canada, as members of South Asian Diaspora we share a common identity and that can include many other religious groups also from same geographical region. For example both Hindus and Muslims have in that part of the world co-existed for centuries with Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, and Zoroastrian communities.
There are a lots of themes in which we can all work together in unlearning our negative stereotypes while focusing upon building an inclusive and expansive definition of a good Canadian, consistent with aspirations of Canadian Charter of Human Rights. One of the best ways to unlearn negative stereotypes is through education of universal human values of truth, love, peace, good citizenship, compassion, and nonviolence. In the South Asian Diaspora, despite diversity, we are fortunate to have additionally many cultural commonalities such as language, dress, food, music, films, and visual arts.
What are your thoughts on the rise of Islamophobia in Canada, particularly in the wake of the recent shootings at a mosque in Quebec City?
Terrible, until now it was ISIS supporters who were motivated to commit such heinous acts; now white supremacists seem to be joining in this hate mongering and even killing of innocents. A great deal of work has to be done in minimizing hatred of Islam, highlighting its multifaceted beauty and practice of tolerance and respect of other faiths as well as its focus on mercy and forgiveness.
I read somewhere there are around 200 Muslim sects, not just Sunni and Shia in the world today, showing its diverse expressions. In Islam, communities have to assert that those who talk of murderous acts are not true Muslims. Resolution of conflict and justice in a democratic society could only be done through dialogue and reason. When an act of violence, vandalism, or harassment takes place, we all have to stand up together in condemning such an act and support against whom such an act has been committed.
Your pilgrimage is also a pilgrimage that Muslims who lost their homeland and had to go to Pakistan or Bangladesh may wish to make to India. Have you ever had a chance to meet a Muslim who made a journey similar as yours back to India? What advice would you give to Muslims who wish to return to the land of their ancestors in India?
Travel is one of the best ways to reduce ignorance and minimize negative stereotypes; travel should be a basic human right. I don't have any figures but I have met more Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims who have travelled to India, than Hindus going in other direction.
As Pakistani Muslims are the largest ethno-cultural/national group of Muslims in Canada, do you think it is important for more Canadians to better understand the history, culture, and politics of the region?
Certainly more history, culture, and politics not only of Muslims, but of the South Asian Diaspora should be taught to all Canadians. It is important not to present our own cultures as unique, but to highlight how our cultures link with other cultures – the universality of our values and experience, so that the other is able to see him/her in us and not regard minority cultures as exotic and foreign.
Last year, you had the opportunity to speak about your journey at the Lotus Corner in Ottawa with a predominantly Muslim audience. Tell us about that experience.
A wonderful experience. Questions and comments were the same ones I hear at most of my book readings. These relate to one's longing / identity /moving forward. Sheikh Hamdi as head of the Lotus Corner is a great scholar and a thoughtful person. We both felt that interfaith dialogue was an inadequate term. For learning from each other, we should aim for unity of faiths. God is One, called by many names, Allah is God. If you believe in loving others as you love yourself, such expansive love will provide little space for differences and conflict.
Following my book reading, the Lotus organized a beautiful music concert at All Saints Church by Firdaus Ensemble. The musical group happened to be from Andalusia, Spain which was once a place where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures co-existed and thrived. The Firdaus concert with Muslim devotionals was a great example to show how music can transcend narrow minds and hearts.
“Troubled Pilgrimage: Passage to Pakistan” by Balwant Bhaneja is available at Sanad Collective's Lotus Corner and Beechwood Books in Ottawa, and Mawenzi Publishing House, Toronto. It can be also ordered through Amazon Books in Paperback and on KINDLE.
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