By Rick Westhead
South Asia Bureau
BASTI MAHRAN, PAKISTAN—A single act of kindness, profound because it was so rare and unexpected, transformed this sun-bleached village in a remote corner of the Punjab.
A Hindu man gave his blood to save the life of a Muslim woman who had lost too much in childbirth.
In the seven years since, the 1,600 Muslims and 1,400 Hindus in this town live in peaceful co-existence, extraordinary because sectarian violence has marked the histories of Pakistan and India since the bloody partition of 1947.
“I was afraid, for sure. But it was the right thing to do,” says Bachu Ram, the blood donor. He is smoking a cigarette in the home of a Muslim village elder, who once was so steeped in hatred that he led the charge on the clinic to take Ram’s life.
Hatred and violence once defined life in Basti Mahran. Muslim men routinely raped Hindu girls — “we would have 20 cases a year,” says one local. Muslim men beat Hindus with sticks and fists, seemingly with tacit approval of the local police. Cattle belonging to Hindu families were slaughtered if they strayed too close to Muslim homes.
Mahar Abdul Latif, the host who now pours Ram tea, spent three years during the late 1990s as a member of the extremist religious group Jaish-e-Mohammad. He patrolled the rugged mountain passes and valleys of Kashmir, a region claimed both by India and Pakistan, killing Hindus when they crossed his path.
“I have done much I am ashamed of,” says Latif, a 37-year-old father of three. “But we are friends now. Our kids are friends, too. They study and play together.”
Latif and other local Muslims gave their time and money last year to refurbish a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman. Muslims visit the temple when their neighbours celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Hindus respond in kind, joining in Muslim holiday celebrations.
This village’s transformation seems to have happened in a moment.
The medical clinic was only open for a three-day health-care blitz when the young mother arrived suffering from severe blood loss and needing an infusion of O-negative blood. The doctors couldn’t find a donor.
Ram made his offer. As word spread among the village’s Muslims, Latif led the charge on the clinic. It had always incensed him that the doctors rejected his demand for two separate camps, partitioned facilities so that instruments used on Hindus could not be used on Muslims.
Outside the clinic, a doctor intercepted Latif and told him the only chance the woman had was Ram.
“I don’t know what came over me,” Latif says. “I remember thinking that here we were refusing to even shake hands with the Hindus and he was willing to give us his blood. It was a marvelous thing he did. It was the turning point of my life.”
The next day, Latif went to say thank you. It’s said to be the first time a Muslim had ever gone to a Hindu’s home.
Word of Ram’s charity and Latif’s remorse spread through Basti Mahran.
Muslim and Hindu women began talking to each other. Rapes virtually disappeared. Eventually, a single tin-roofed cowshed was built to house all of the village’s 3,000 cows, sheltering them from the scorching desert sun.
“That was a big deal,” Ram says. “Before, you would not see the cows near each other at all. A Muslim would not have touched the milk from a cow owned by Hindus.”
Standing in Basti Mahran’s round, thatch-roofed Hindu temple, 65-year-old Sobha Ram says he can’t believe the changes in the village.
“For years, we lived in fear of the Muslims but not now,” he says, cleaning photos of Hindu gurus and adjusting strings of paper flowers and glitter paper.
The odds seemed against peace in this village.
In 1947, the year of partition, Hindus made up 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population. But soon many migrated to India, seeking a better, safer life. The same happened with Muslims who lived in India and moved west.
Political leaders seemed ready to highlight the differences between the cultures, rather than their many similarities.
“The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature,” said Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father. “They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations.”
Today, just 2 per cent of Pakistan’s 170 million residents are Hindu.
Yet the Hindus in Basti Mahran didn’t seek refuge elsewhere.
“We were born here and we don’t know anyone in India. Even though we are Hindu, we are still Pakistani,” says Sobha Ram. “The few people who did want to go couldn’t afford it.”
The changes have had a direct impact on the quality of life, and have helped earn better incomes.
Hindu and Muslim women are working together to sell cotton to wholesaling middlemen, earning 200 rupees ($2.50) for a 40-kilogram bag of cotton, four times what they earned when they sold their cotton separately.
“You even see women travelling together unaccompanied by men to places like Lahore and Islamabad,” says Razia Malik, an aid worker who has spent time in Basti Mahran.
Communal harmony aside, it’s still a difficult life here.
Each morning, women set out in stifling 40-degree heat on a four kilometre-walk to collect the day’s drinking water. Cows have to be shepherded eight kilometres daily to their water supply.
Most don’t have enough money for feed for their cows, which graze on the Spartan green bushes that dot the desert plains.
Now that they aren’t fighting each other, Basti Mahran’s Muslim and Hindus are working to demand a new road through the village and they have asked the state government to extend water pipes here. Last year, they successfully lobbied for power lines that provide electricity for at least 12 hours a day.
“We’ve been so wrong about the Hindus,” Latif says, watching his 7-year-old son Osama play alongside Ram’s 11-year-old boy Sindhal Ram. “The biggest surprise has been that they are just like us. They want to live their lives the same way we do.”