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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Book Review – Partition: The Long Shadow

The legacy of Partition is a part of the shared history of all the post-colonial states of the subcontinent, whose outcomes cannot be settled unilaterally.

Written by Amrith Lal |
Updated: November 14, 2015 12:00:04 am

Title: Partition: The Long Shadow
Edited by: Urvashi Butalia
Publisher: Zubaan
Pages: 270
Price: Rs 599

In the popular imagination, Partition is a single event that occurred in Punjab and Bengal in the months that preceded and succeeded the formation of the Indian and Pakistani nation states. The violence that shadowed the Partition of the subcontinent — or the acquiring of a new national identity, depending on one’s location — has been reduced to mere statistic: a staggering 14 million people are estimated to have been displaced and thousands killed and raped. The two states, rather than “bear(ing) witness to the duality of the Independence-Partition”, have preferred to celebrate the singular experience of the birth of the nations. Perhaps, because acts of remembering and forgetting are contentious and painful, the subcontinent still has not “found a way of memorialising Partition” or “acknowledging what people lived through”.

Nearly seven decades after the event, Urvashi Butalia writes in her introduction to this collection of essays, “the memories have become more complex, acquired more nuance and layers, and been seen differently, depending on the particular circumstances of the moment of remembering”. Partition literature has gone beyond testimonials, blame games, history and politics to discuss how memories have been passed on, the impact on people living in frontier-turned-border lands with the hardening of national boundaries, and so on.

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The 12 essays in this collection explore different aspects of the Partition experience and unveil unexplored landscapes and suggest new directions of inquiry. These plot Partition as a continuous process, indicate the progression beyond the experiences of the eyewitness generation to the post-memory one, calls for re-appraisal of Partition categories to include the experiences of communities like Sindhi Muslims who ended up on this side of the border in the Banni region in Gujarat, recovery of caste and class issues submerged in the narratives of the bhadralok experiences of Partition, recall inclusive movements like the Communist Party’s People’s Militia in Kashmir, new second generation narratives and so on.

Writing about the impact of Partition on Trans-Himalayan region in general and Ladakh in particular, Siddiq Wahid locates the event as part of a worldwide phenomenon that took place in the context of decolonisation and the transformation of regions with porous borders into nation states. Ladakh, a junction where Tibet, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent met, is transformed into an isolated border land under threat from the homogenising tendency of a global “modernity”.

In the case of Assam, Sanjib Baruah argues that “the meaning of Partition has been unfolding slowly over decades through a tortuous process”. The redrawing, and, later, hardening of borders, accompanied by the transfer of communities on the basis of religion, clashed with the exceptional geography of a region that has for ever been shaped by rivers that frequently change course. Partition complicated the nebulous pattern of migration that was set in motion by the colonial policy of settling East Bengali Muslim peasants in the “wastelands” of Assam, argues Baruah. Sylhet’s separation from Assam and the resultant influx of Hindu refugees to southern Assam is a story in itself. Baruah points out that “the Barak Valley has nurtured very differrent memories of Partition, and its question of citizenship of cross-border migrants — of Hindu migrants to be precise — is fundamentally different from that in the Brahmaputra Valley.” The Partition experience of every region is exceptional and people have responded in their own exceptional ways. The explorations, where “the personal intertwine with the historical”, reflect Rita Kothari’s comment that her journey with Partition graduated from a conclusion to a beginning.

There remains, however, the question of how to memorialise Partition. As a mother tells her daughter (Prajna Paramita Parasher), should people be asked to remember what they have taken a lifetime to forget? Perhaps, a closure lies in moving towards mutual acceptance, mutual forgiveness, as Kavita Panjabi writes in her moving essay. “A mutual acknowledgement of culpability, a joint mourning for the lives we took, a shared atonement for the sorrows we wreaked upon each other, all have the potential to propel both sides towards reconciliation, to end the cyclical recurrence of violence,” she writes.

In the absence of memorialising the dead while accepting culpability in the massacres, the dominant Partition narrative will continue to be about the loss of territory and a sense of religious victimhood. The vicious political polemic of singling out dissenters on the basis of their religious identity and calling on them to leave for Pakistan becomes possible — and acceptable — only in a society that has not cared to introspect about its past and its involvement in acts of brutal and inhuman violence. Elsewhere in the subcontinent, Partition continues to play out in the form of religious violence, ethnic wars, real and imagined territorial concerns. The legacy of Partition is a part of the shared history of all the post-colonial states of the subcontinent; none of its outcomes can be settled unilaterally. That’s the collective message from these essays.

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