To be published in Pakistan Post, November 10, 2010.
Pakistanis and Indians are taught from infancy about the “factual” nature of what our cousins on the other side of the subcontinent are like. We learn of the deceitful Hindu, who lacks any true belief or faith, or the fanatical Muslim, who suppresses his womenfolk and beheads infidels for sport. This is the commonly-taught narrative across India and Pakistan, which the emigrants of these countries attempt to instill into their first-generation children. But then something happens which undoes this false dichotomy: we meet each other. In fact, the construction and deconstruction of this seemingly impassable enmity between nations is a product of two forces: lack of contact between the two people and the process of “othering” which was adopted by the elites of both nations.
The lack of contact between Indians and Pakistanis has been the greatest limitation toward reconciling the nations and is due greatly to the violent split of the nations and the bitter relationship created thereafter. Indeed, this lack of interaction was required if one wished to divide a group of people who shared thousands of years of common history and culture. Proving an old wisdom, “you hate and fear what you don’t know,” the inability to physically and socially connect across the border has been key in maintaining the enmity between the nations.
However, the mixing pot of America encourages an environment that breaks down these narratives by allowing full contact between all its citizens. Thus, the Pakistani and Indian Diaspora’s greatest gift has been to allow the first-generation to discover their connections rather than focus on their differences. When their American-born children go to school and college, they seem to find a great deal of camaraderie in the enemy population. First-Generation children clearly see rational, friendly Muslims and honest, sincere Hindus, forcing the deconstruction of warped characterizations. This contact allowed for the discovery of common familial relationships, culture, food, and art.
Further, the inevitable contact between one’s friend and family allow for our parents to further deconstruct their preconceptions based on a lack of interaction or knowledge. In speaking with the parents of their children’s friends, Pakistanis realize that they have the same exact interests as any Indian in America. Both want to earn an honest living and provide their children with an open environment while attempting to preserve their culture, values, and beliefs. Thus, the parent of a first-generation child wants their child to assimilate to the society while also retaining the culture of “the old country” whether by arranged marriage or speaking the language at home.
The second concurrent element that is central to the division between the Subcontinent is the process of “othering”. Oftentimes, we understand our own identity by contemplating who we are not. Each society, and enclaves within it, undergoes a process of “othering” to target a common enemy, but to also create a common identity. For newly-freed colonial states, one of their most important objectives was to create a common identity in the wake of overthrowing a colonial system that had provided stability for decades. By demonizing the neighbors across the border, the ruling elite of both nations profited by creating nationalist fervor in support of the proud Pakistani or Indian identity.
Yet, when they immigrate to nations like the U.S., their children undergo a convergent process of “othering.” This process brings together first-generation kids from across South Asian as they consider themselves collectively sharing common cultures and lifestyles distinguished from the mainstream American culture as a whole. Indeed, the existence of South Asian cultural groups in America ranging from student organizations to theater troops displays, how positive “othering” can be in building bridges and sharing the pride in their common culture.
On the other hand, there is a process by which first-generation children may feel excluded from the mainstream American society, as “others”. The Pakistani and Indian middle school student quickly discovers the fact that has eluded his parents and grandparents: an American bully doesn’t differentiate between the funny-named Indian or Pakistani, he steals the lunch money of both and laughs if either suggests a distinction. Also, after 9/11 many Sikhs shared in the trauma of being harassed just as Muslims were, because of the mainstream culture’s lack of distinction between Indians and Pakistanis. While these events are shocking, they allowed for the false dichotomy to be broken down as Sikh’s and Muslims realized their common struggle and identity.
Through the Diaspora of Pakistanis and Indians across the world, we have seen the deconstruction of the long-standing belligerent views between nations amongst the first-generation. By moving to foreign nations that allowed for open contact between the two groups, the children of South Asian immigrants have been able to develop a friendship and understanding unlike their families back home. Further, by being subject to the commonly-held American racial bias, Pakistanis and Indians have been able to connect with one another as a singular group who shares generations of common history. Thus, the arch nemesis relationship between the nations is a product of politics rather than inherent differences between the people as purported by chauvinists from both sides.