“Why do you guys use the word ‘partition’ instead of ‘independence’?” a friend once accosted me. For someone who uses the words interchangeably, I hadn’t dwelt on this much. He was right, I realised. People in Punjab, on both sides of the Radcliffe Line, commonly use words like ‘partition,’ ‘batwara,’ or ‘vand’ (the same word in Urdu and Punjabi respectively). It is only when one moves beyond the Radcliffe line that words like ‘independence’ or ‘azaadi’ emerge.
This difference, of course, is because Punjab and Bengal were the only provinces that were partitioned during the Transfer of Power in 1947. While Bengal also suffered large-scale violence, the extent of the holocaust in the Punjab was dramatic, as were its lasting effects. For most people in these provinces, the ‘partition moment’ overtook the euphoria of independence.
After all, what would independence mean to a person who has lost her home, seen the massacre of loved ones, and barely made it to an alien land? The joy of independence must be something different for her.
Over 10 million people crossed the Radcliffe line after it was drawn that Indian summer 70 years ago; nearly a million people died, or were injured and numerous displaced. While the bulk of the population movement was between the two wings of the Punjab and Bengal, there were others too who migrated to the other side. The big difference, of course, was that the migrations from other provinces, say from the erstwhile United Provinces, were ideological in nature. For them, Pakistan was the land of “milk and honey.”
In Punjab, though, most people—Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs – didn’t want to leave the land of their ancestors. There are scores of stories of people giving their house keys to their neighbours, saying they would be back once the violence had abated. But for them the moment of return never came. For them, partition has never really ended.
In Pakistan, the city which never really recovered from partition, is the city I was born and raised in—Lahore. I sometimes wondered why place names were such a casualty in other parts of the subcontinent. Ever tried finding Curzon Road in New Delhi or Elphinstone Road in Karachi? One would have to go round and round in circles till someone old enough to remember took pity on you. In Lahore, on the other hand, try looking for Faisal Chowk or Shahrah-e-Bin Badees and you’re bound to get a quizzical look in return. Charing Cross or Empress Road? Here are exact directions !
I had thought that this was because Lahoris took their history very seriously. But what then prevented Karachities or Delhities from taking theirs? Perhaps another explanation is due, which is that these names persist in Lahore because Lahore never really recovered from its partition moment. Latching on to old place and road names is a reminder of the once envious position the city once had, of being the heart of the subcontinent.
Lahore in 1947 was certainly a city proud of its multi-religious and cultural heritage. It had a large number of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, was the hub of excellent educational institutions, including undivided India’s fourth largest University – the Panjab University. Its writers and poets were world famous and its radio and film stars were already legendary.
But in 1947 it lost everything. Over half the city’s population left, and Lahore never recovered from its loss. Whereas Sikhs and Hindus from Lahore supplanted the exodus of the Muslim elite in Delhi, and UP Muslims replaced the exiting Hindus in Karachi, in Lahore no such replacement took place. The artisan classes from East Punjab took the place of Lahore’s Hindu and Sikh elite, and while they assimilated easily, they couldn’t recreate that unique mix which gave Lahore its pre-eminent position in undivided India.
A gaping hole was left in the heart of Lahore. Names like Krishan Nagar, Lakshmi Chowk, Qila Gujjar Singh, etc., are still cherished as reminders of the past the city once thrived in. In a way, the denuded Lahore stands as the lasting, and perhaps haunting, memory of the partition it never moved beyond.
In a few weeks, both India and Pakistan will celebrate 70 years of their existence. Two brand new nations were born and continue to be raised. While a lot of water has flowed down the Ravi and in the Yamuna since those dramatic days in 1947 and the generation of Indians and Pakistanis from that era is fading, the scars and memories remain.
Only Lahore, with its myriad existential crises, neighbourhood problems, and a contested identity remains in that partition moment. Our ancestors say in Punjabi, “Jise Lahore nai vekhya, o jamya nahi…” The person who hasn’t seen Lahore may as well not have been born. But that isn’t true anymore. Lahore remains incapable of overcoming the body blow that was dealt to it in the fires that ravaged the city, both physically and in the mind. Sometimes I wonder how many more decades it will take.