It has been nearly three weeks since the Prime Minister declared August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. Though he did not mention any specific community in his tweet, his intention was abundantly clear, both from the date he chose and the joy with which members of the BJP responded to the declaration.
I was told on social media that, as a South Indian, I had no locus standi to comment, since the violence of Partition was not a part of my family story. I enter this discourse as an individual who, like many, belongs to a family that was parochial, though we lived thousands of kilometres away from where the frenzied mobs were doing their worst. Fear festers and perpetuates violence. But what caused this fear? Apart from the larger and universal philosophical enquiries into the nature of fear, we need to look closely at the undulations caused by religion, caste, and gender that have made fear normative. The millions who lost their lives during Partition were victims of this normalisation for which we, as a society, need to take the blame. My grandparents, sitting in Madras, were as culpable as a family in Punjab or Sindh. Fear has no borders. The Congress, the Muslim League and every political leader, including Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Jinnah, were only reflections of us. We failed — all of us, collectively.
We failed because we were fearful, angry and triggered by hate. Hate grabbed every human being in the Subcontinent, ate at our insides and let us strew carcasses on our streets, the stench of which still remains. Being deeply anguished by the horrors after they have happened does not reduce our culpability.
Remembrance is essential; we cannot and should not forget. But memory is also a prioritising mechanism. The first reflex of self-preservation is that the worst is hidden, in the hope that it will be forgotten. But those experiences, pushed to the deepest recesses, remain open wounds and the hate grows. Nobody knows where the hurt ends and hate begins. Soon they become interchangeable, even synonymous. Hence, Prime Minister, when you decide that the loss of lives during the Partition needs to be remembered, what do you mean? Whose deaths do you want us to mourn? Do you also want us to remember the incredible stories of compassion that emerged during the time? Shall we also remember that harsh political and religious lines kill? Do you want us to acknowledge the anguish of families who live in Pakistan?
What the Prime Minister wants us to remember is “the horrors”. And he wants it remembered on the day that Pakistan declared its freedom from the British Raj in a struggle we fought together. He qualified that tweet with phrases such as “our sisters and brothers” and “in memory of the struggles and sacrifices of our people”. Who are “our people” when men, women, and children were slaughtered by people who claimed to be either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh? Now that we have chosen to remember “our people”, we should also condemn those of “our people” who disembowelled women and smashed the heads of children. Why shy away from that remembrance? I am ashamed that, from that time of the worst kind of savagery, the Prime Minister attempts to claim a moral high ground for India.
After the PM’s announcement, his supporters equated remembrance of Partition with the Holocaust. Such an equalisation is wrong, manipulative and disrespectful of the Holocaust. Jews were persecuted, put in concentration camps, stripped of all their physical, emotional, political and economic humanity, and shot or gassed to death. In the Indian Subcontinent, Partition resulted in shared killing in the name of religion. The perpetrators and victims belonged to Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, each unleashing greater violence in their respective territories of control. This was a collective act of barbarism that has very few equivalents in the world. What scares me the most is that many who express this analogy actually believe it to be true. In India, they are Hindus, and undoubtedly, an equal number in Pakistan will be Muslims. Both are wrong in this internalised and dangerous falsity.
If the Prime Minister wanted us to really remember Partition for what it was, and hoped that we would learn from it, it would have been a day of shared remembrance between India and Pakistan. Instead, he ensured that the day would increase the Indian majority community’s fear of Muslims and Pakistanis a little more every year. When our neighbour celebrates its Independence, we will spew hate. Dharma has left this land.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 3, 2021 under the title ‘Partitioned minds’. The writer is a musician and author.