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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Voices from a Cleaved Land

Unravelling multiple narratives of Partition survivors on both sides of Punjab.

Written by Nonica Datta | September 17, 2011 2:29:51 am

The Punjab: Bloodied,Partitioned and Cleansed; Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First Person Accounts

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Rupa,Pages: 754,Rs 995

It is almost impossible for a Pakistani researcher to do fieldwork in the Indian Punjab,and likewise for an Indian in the Pakistani Punjab,” writes Ishtiaq Ahmed,author of this rather big,ambitious book. Being a Swedish citizen somewhat helps this Lahore-born writer escape the countless restrictions that constrain Indian and Pakistani researchers to travel to the other Punjab. The author’s main concern is to look at forced migration,ethnic cleansing and genocide that erased the entire landscape and destroyed the demographic structure of undivided Punjab.

Partition and the ensuing violence was a pathological moment in history,wracked by the impulse to annihilate the Other. But,as that moment was entwined with the moment of decolonisation,independence and freedom,there’s something smooth and unambiguously rational about the conventional Partition narrative. The visceral is quite often lost in the narration of Partition. Ahmed’s narrative,despite its thickly textured memory,somehow falls within this limit of Partition historiography.

This is a book that exhausts you with tiresome details,and that’s not cool. Along with a reading of “secret” fortnightly reports of Punjab governors,the Transfer of Power volumes and newspapers like The Tribune and Pakistan Times,Ahmed,via “historical fieldwork” and “oral history”,seeks to unravel multiple narratives of Partition survivors and refugees on both sides of Punjab. He interviews politicians,retired bureaucrats,government officials,teachers,lawyers,peasants,workers,writers,wrestlers,tongawallahs.

The Partition of Punjab,the Holocaust,the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia or the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur are part of the same narrative of “irrational” violence of modern times,writes Ahmed. But wasn’t Partition a hideous “civil war” unleashed by the colonial state where victims and perpetrators,caught up in a convulsive embrace,simply enacted a script of carnivalesque violence? Ahmed reduces the complexity of Partition violence to mainly community violence and his tone is moralistic and judgmental. But his rich material reveals narratives of “organised” and “sporadic” violence that just do not fit into Hindu,Muslim and Sikh categories of violence — Hindu Jat peasants killing Muslim Rangars and Gujjar pastoralists in southeast Punjab,railway workers clashing in Lahore in July 1947,local goondas and “badmashes” (backed by the RSS,the Muslim League,Panthic party and the Sikh jathas) pillaging public and private spaces.

Ali Baksh,a shoemaker,recounts police violence in Amritsar. “There was kayamat on 14 August 1947 at both Amritsar and Lahore railway stations… I am not sure if this was the Pakistan we wanted. We were a poor working community and moving to Lahore did not change our fortunes in any sense,but we love Pakistan nevertheless.” Also,Ahmed reveals the extent of bureaucratic violence and the intrusion of the colonial state’s administrative agencies (the DCs,SPs,magistrates,armymen and demobilised servicemen,to name a few) into daily lives. Clearly,the arithmetic that was played on the border after the infamous Radcliffe Award had little to do with the micro-histories of the people. Many buried histories,including Malerkotla state in east Punjab where,unlike Patiala,Muslims escaped annihilation,and the horrific photographic account of “The Rape of Rawalpindi”,also find a place in Ahmed’s research.

Ahmed unfolds Partition as a tale of violent possession and dispossession,of humiliation and jubilation,of structural violence. Property and human life were targeted. Women and children were mutilated. Yet,his work,like any conventional Partition text,often expresses the failure to represent oneself,the impossibility of seeing oneself except as constructed via the searing post-colonial reality of being an Indian or Pakistani — Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. It’s a tragedy of Partition that very often the personal,local and gendered becomes national and at times authoritarian and fixed while narrating the event. Yet,there are innumerable narratives of love,friendship,music,pleasure and pain that remain outside the categories of community,nation and state. Even if the critical historical question that began in the 1980s — what did Jinnah want? — remains relevant today,and even as historians comb the archives to supply a new reading,the afterlife of Partition in India and Pakistan,including 1965,1971 and 1999,continues to inform research and language of the event and its memory.

Probably that’s why the dominant memory of Partition remains the same story of a victim. It’s time for a student of Partition to freely explore the unmapped territory of histories of mentalities or psycho-analysis and to narrate Partition as both an event and a non-event. Ahmed’s material does open up such infinite possibilities.

Ahmed brings us closer to both the political and human story of Partition with all its paradoxes and meanings. To dismiss such an exercise would be a failure of historical imagination and empathy.

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