Significant Passings, 2 July 2013

Significant Passings                                                                     2 July 2013

My elderly father, aged 92, passed away last week. He had led a long, valuable and happy life, and his death was not unexpected. Nevertheless, his passing got me thinking about other deaths that had occurred, particularly in relation to the subcontinent. Some of these deaths are interesting to ponder.

One of the most profound events in Pakistan was the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah on 11 September 1948. Coming so soon after its creation, this new dominion lost its founding father, first Governor-General and major intellectual and political force. Had Jinnah survived for, say, another ten years, it is possible that many of Pakistan’s early—and ongoing—political, constitutional and military problems might have been avoided or obviated. Conversely, had subcontinental powerbrokers, such as Lord Louis Mountbatten, known that Jinnah had terminal tuberculosis, the partition of British India may never have occurred. On 16 October 1951, the effects of Jinnah’s death were seriously compounded when Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in Rawalpindi. Once again, Pakistan lost a major and important leader and political figure.

The assassination of Liaquat, however, was not the first assassination on the subcontinent of a political leader. On 30 January 1948, Mohandas Karamchand (‘Mahatma’) Gandhi had been killed by a Hindu ‘fanatic’. This began a terrible tradition that has seen other South Asian political leaders assassinated, including in Bangladesh (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1975; Ziaur Rahman, 1981), India (Indira Gandhi, 1984; Rajiv Gandhi, 1991), Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto, 2007), and Sri Lanka (SWRD Bandaranaike, 1959, Ranasinghe Premadasa, 1993). Casting the net wider, in 1979, the Zia regime executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, while, in 2001, the heir to the Nepalese throne killed his parents, the king and queen of Nepal, and seven other leading royals. While I hope otherwise, because of the volatility of subcontinental politics, I sometimes ponder who will be next?

An ‘interesting’ death occurred on 27 May 1964: Jawaharlal Nehru. This was interesting because of its timing: it occurred when a remorseful Nehru, who was then 74 years old, was trying to resolve the India-Pakistan dispute over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). To this end, Nehru had sent the popular Kashmiri leader, Sheikh Abdullah, to Pakistan to talk with General Ayub Khan and some leading J&K-ites, including Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas. But, unfortunately, Nehru died while Abdullah was in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, which both greatly distressed Abdullah and ended all efforts at that time at an India-Pakistan reconciliation or a resolution to the Kashmir dispute.

A noteworthy death for me personally was that of Sardar Ibrahim Khan, the founding President of Azad Kashmir, who died aged 78 in 2003. I was privileged to meet this energetic and interesting man at his ancestral home in Rawalakot, Azad Kashmir, on 4 March 1999, and again in Muzaffarabad on 17 March 1999. Sardar Ibrahim had no fear of death. At Rawalakot, half way through our four-hour meeting, this old political ‘stager’ took me up to the top of his property and showed me his future grave. Overlooking the Rawalakot Valley, this was next to his wife, who had pre-deceased him. It was a stunningly beautiful mausoleum.

One of the sad aspects of deaths in the subcontinent that I have had to deal with personally results from interviewing people from the Jammu Province of J&K who had been involved in inter-religious violence in 1947. A few years ago, my wife and I spoke to a number of victims of such violence in Pakistan, Azad Kashmir, India and Jammu. Their various stories were similar and harrowing, with people from all religious communities suffering in 1947. I also was very moved when an earthquake killed some 75,000 Azad Kashmiris in 2005, some of whom I had known.

Less personal, but still significant for me, some of the figures for deaths in the subcontinent defy reason and understanding: one million people were killed during the immediate post-partition period in violence that occurred in divided Punjab; possibly as many as a million people were killed in the violence that liberated East Pakistan/Bangladesh; some 50,000 people have died as a consequence of the anti-Indian insurgency in the Kashmir Valley since 1988. As Josef Stalin apparently once cruelly noted, ‘One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’. Such statistics nevertheless are appalling. Equally, the legacy of many of the people who have passed lives on.

Christopher Snedden, 2 July 2013


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