Tag Archives: india


On April 13th 1919 protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India.  Several thousand people in all packed the public gardens.  The British Army officer in charge of the city, Colonel Reginald Dyer, assembled a unit of 90 Gurka soldiers under British command and proceeded to the gardens.  He ensured that the exits were blocked and ordered his troops, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, to open fire.  They continued to fire for ten minutes until their ammunition was expended.

The official death toll, according to the British, was 379 dead and over a thousand wounded.  The report issued by the Indian National Congress claimed that more than a thousand had been killed.  The alleyways leading to the garden were too narrow for Dyer’s armoured cars and so he had to leave them behind.  At the inquiry he testified that he would have used them, and their machine guns, if he had been able to.

I visited Amritsar on my way from India to Pakistan in 2009, ninety years after the atrocity.  I vividly recall visiting the Jallianwala Bagh and walking around the memorial site which felt very much like sacred ground for the Indian independence movement.  Bullet holes in the walls were still visible.  The well, down which many people threw themselves to avoid the bullets, is still visible.  120 bodies were later removed from its depths.

Yet the impression which is seared most powerfully onto my memory is the reception I received from Indians visiting the site.  I wanted to hide away, to go incognito, to avoid being connected with the massacre.  I am British, after all, and although even my grandparents were not born in 1919 I nevertheless feel a sense of regret and grief at what happened.  While not personally responsible for it I am nevertheless connected, by dint of my passport if nothing else.  I tried to avoid people, to avoid getting into conversations, and yet Indian people are so welcoming that this was impossible.

A group of Indian students came over to say hello.  I explained what I was doing and told them about my impressions of India and of Amritsar.  Eventually I couldn’t hold it in any more, and I blurted out:

“I’m so sorry for what happened here”.

The students smiled.  Oh please, do not worry.  It was a long time ago.  These things are in the past.  You should not worry about it.  You are welcome.  You are most welcome.

“You are most welcome in India”.

We shook hands and departed, and as I walked back to my hotel in the searing May heat my footsteps were oddly light.

At first sight the land of Pakistan is almost entirely Islamic.  Its population is something like 97% Muslim, of course, and mosques are found everywhere, from rural villages to large cities.  Yet a closer inspection reveals a surprising truth: that this land has a history far more diverse and complex than would first seem to be the case.

This becomes very clear when you visit the Hindu temple complex at Katas Raj, near Chakwal in the Punjab.  The complex is located in the Salt Range, an immense line of mountains which separate the plains of the Punjab from the Potohar Plateau.  These mountains were formed when an ancient sea, long since dry, was thrust upwards by tectonic activity.  The temples are located in a fold of land in this beautiful part of the country.


Hindu teaching has it that the temples were formed from the tears of the grief-stricken Lord Shiva on the death of his wife, Sati.  There are seven temples on the site, each dedicated to a particular Hindu deity, and many of them still contain original features such as carved wooden door frames or magnificent frescoes depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.


In 1947, when the tragedy of Partition tore the Punjab in half, the vast majority of Hindus left the newly-formed nation of Pakistan and migrated to India.  The complex was left to deteriorate, with nobody showing an interest in its upkeep, and signs of decay are evident.  The pool itself, formed from the tears of Lord Shiva, is muddy and neglected; nearby cement factories have drained much of its water and the remaining water is muddy and garbage-strewn.  Yet to the credit of the Pakistani government steps are being taken to rectify this situation: many of the temples have new rooves, are newly painted, and even the damaged frescoes are being repaired.

The temple even hosts Hindu pilgrims, many of whom come from the southern province of Sindh, and some of whom even come in selected groups from India during auspicious Hindu festivals.  Given the hostility between India and Pakistan and the agony of Partition, it is surprising and heartening that Katas Raj exists at all, and particularly encouraging that the Pakistani government is taking steps to restore and protect it.  Long may this continue.


I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

Murree-Pictures-Old-photo-of-Soldiers-Home-Upper-Topa-Murree-1920s-30s IMG_20150629_094716396_HDR (1)

When the British captured the Punjab in 1849, in one of those acts of greed and military prowess by which my ancestors so distinguished themselves in the subcontinent, they realised two things:

  1. In the summer the plains of the Punjab are insufferably hot.
  2. In the summer the hills of the Punjab are lush, green and comfortable.

They therefore decided to move their capital from Rawalpindi to Murree during the summer months.  The entire British administration of the Punjab shifted into the hills for a summer of dancing, shopping, and gardening.  I have a map of Murree from the 1920s which marks all of the cottages built there by the British, all of them given suitably English names: Dingley Dell, Strawberry Villa, Derbyshire House.  It was as if the green hills and regular rainfall reminded them so strongly of England that they sought to recreate a second England here, far from home.

We are currently doing the same.  At the moment we are living in a building that was originally constructed as a sanatorium for wounded British soldiers.  An Irish missionary by the name of Miss Sandes built it as a way of keeping bored soldiers away from the opium dens, brothels and drinking establishments of India.  It is a beautiful place of lush grass, trees, birds and butterflies.  It had, I imagine, the same effect on the wounded soldiers of the Raj as it is having on us: soothing our souls, calming our stress, taking us away from the summer heat and into a place of coolness and comfort.  Our children spend their days running through the grass, exploring the trees, finding lizards and ladybirds, gaping at the spectacular and varied birdlife that zooms overhead.

The soldiers of the Raj are long gone, and even their graves that dot the Murree hills are being eroded, worn away by the slow but incessant passage of time.  Yet the buildings they left here are still being used to bless and refresh their distant compatriots, warriors in a different struggle, ambassadors of peace in a time of strife and fear.

In 1947 British India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan.  Their lives as independent nations began at the same time, and yet since then the two countries have diverged drastically.

Modern India is a stable democracy with a growing economy.  Pakistan only just completed its first democratic transition of power, is burdened with serious security issues, and has a lacklustre growth rate.

India is a significant target for investment from the West and elsewhere in Asia.  Potential investors in Pakistan are put off by its predictable unpredictability and its chronic power shortages.

India just sent a space probe to Mars.  Pakistan is not yet able to provide more than half its citizens with an education.

This assessment is not entirely fair – things in India are not quite as rosy as Western filmmakers would have you think, with corruption, economic problems and a cruel caste system that often results in violence against women, while conversely Pakistan is really not as bad as the Western media makes out – but it is undeniable that, broadly speaking, the two countries have travelled along different and diverging paths since the summer of 1947.

The question is this: why?

Some people blame Islam, but this surely cannot be fair.  Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and yet is relatively prosperous, while Nepal, a Hindu majority country like India, is wretchedly poor.  Corruption is also notoriously high in Christian countries like Nigeria and Kenya.

Some people blame the army.  The amount of money spent on the Pakistani army is dizzyingly high – some 30% of GDP – but the army is more or less the only trusted institution in Pakistan and has saved Pakistan from domestic chaos on a number of occasions.

My best estimation would be that a number of factors are at play, including a lack of education, a culture of endemic corruption, the physical makeup of Pakistan (a couple of prosperous and fertile provinces, coupled with wild mountains and remote deserts that are chronically undeveloped and miserably poor), and a cruelly unjust social system in which the poor are kept in poverty by the avarice of the wealthy.

It simultaneously baffles and saddens me that a country with such potential can be so horribly misused.  The Pakistan Paradox is a rich and dark mystery for Pakistan’s leadership, and global institutions, to resolve at their earliest convenience…