When I arrived in the United States in 1968 to pursue a doctoral program at the University of Syracuse, the way married student housing was set up ensured that one got to know one’s neighbor, which in this case consisted of an American family. Once we got to know Bob, as I shall call him, and his wife well enough, he asked me one day: “Why can’t you Indians and the Pakis get along?”.
I did not at first quite know whether to take this as an accusation or a question. I decided to field it as a question and asked myself: How might one answer this question in a way emotionally intelligible to an American?
Then I tried the following tack.
“Bob,” I said, “I believe the U.S has a sizable black population, even 10 to 15 percent of its population”.
“Yes,” he said, “sounds about right.”
“Then suppose the blacks claimed a part of the U.S for themselves based on the belief that blacks and whites cannot live together, even though the whites said there is no need for this and all your rights will be safeguarded. And suppose they went ahead anyway …”
“But how could they?”
“Well. Suppose, Bob, the American Revolution has failed and the British were still here. And they introduced measured self-government in response to the agitation that had led to the attempt to overthrow them but had failed. But as they proceeded to do so, they said: you American whites will always out-vote the blacks. You don’t like them anyway. You don’t marry them. You don’t even eat with them. You don’t even drink with them. So we will designate a set number of seats in the House of Representatives for blacks only, to be elected only by blacks”.
“But why?” Bob asked, incredulously.
“To prevent the black minority from being overwhelmed by the white majority.”
“This is paranoid,” he said.
“Yes, but paranoids have real enemies too. But anyway remember the British are in control. They are the ones introducing the legislation for constituting the House of Representatives, not you, although it will be your House and you will vote for it.”
“OK What next?”
“Then somehow it is time for the British to leave America. When they get ready to leave the blacks say to them, what are you doing, leaving us to the wolves. The whites will overwhelm us. They are more than us. They are more educated than us. They are more wealthy than us. If you leave, we want our own country to live in”.
At this Bob shifted in the chair. “Their own country!” he cried, “But blacks are all over America. It is their country too.”
“Yes,” I continued, “but they are more concentrated in certain parts of the south. ‘At least we are majority here,’ they said. ‘Give this to us and if you don’t do so: we built this country and we will tear it down. You owe us this much.’”
“What next?” He asked, after trembling in mock fright.
We both laughed. Then I resumed. “So nobody wants bloodshed. So the British say, let’s divide the country. A part of the south will be one country: black. The rest of America will be another country. You can still call it America. It will be white.”
“This is crazy,” Bob cried, “what about the whites in black America and the blacks in white America?”
“The British shrugged their shoulders and said: ‘That’s your problem. We are leaving. Live in peace.’”
Finally Bob couldn’t take it any more: “Why are you telling me all this? I asked you why Indians can’t get along with the Pakistanis?”
“Well, if all that I said came about, what kind of relations would such a black and a white America have?”
Bob pondered the matter for a while. “Not very friendly, I guess. You Indians somehow always manage to end up blaming the British.”
“But I am not finished yet,” I said. “When the country was divided a pocket of black territory was left behind in white America because of the hastily drawn-up maps and black America kept asking white America to return that part to it.”
“Then why wouldn’t white America return it?” Bob asked earnestly.
“Remember white America never said blacks can’t live there. It still had no problem with blacks living in white America.”
At this point Bob’s wife spoke up and said: “Now let me also get into the conversation at this point and tell you what that part of the country was called”.
“What?” I asked.
She smiled and said: “Kashmir. Here, try this apple pie.”
Arvind Sharma is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. This article is printed with permission from www.outlookindia.com.