Updated: September 2, 2021 7:13:56 am
On August 21, I travelled to Amritsar to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple and Durgiana Mandir, both powerful symbols of Punjab’s syncretic past and present. These shrines are revered by Hindus and Sikhs alike. They symbolise the quintessence of the state’s ethos — Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat.
Since the prime minister had made a grandiloquent announcement that August 14 every year would be observed as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, I made it a point to spend an hour in the Partition Museum located in the iconic Town Hall building. It was a sobering walk down the bloodstained pathways of history that stand as mute witnesses to the depravity of humankind.
I was born 18 years after Partition and grew up in Le Corbusier’s little fantasy town, Chandigarh. Our parents and even grandparents never really ever talked about the Partition. There was always the collective desire to just move on.
My first real acquaintance with the horrors that unfolded during the months before and after August 15, 1947 came in 2004 during my first parliamentary election campaign. As we hopped from village to village, many of them with typically Muslim sounding names especially along the banks of the river Satluj, one of our MLAs who is getting on in years educated me by reliving those traumatic times. He had come across from Sialkot, now in the Punjab that is part of Pakistan, to the rural heartland of east Punjab (Indian Punjab) in a buffalo-drawn wagon and had seen it all first hand. The vivid memories of those days would still bring a lump to his throat.
The term he used to describe the Partition was “ujara” or devastation, not “batwara” or division. Over the next 10 years from 2004-14, as we bounced from village to village during my public outreach programme in Ludhiana, this elderly gentleman became a kaleidoscope of memories about life before and after the Partition. He would emotionally recount the horror of that two-and-a-half month journey that uprooted them from their home and hearth and transported them into completely alien environs and the struggle to build a life all over again. The reason I have recounted this episode in detail is to attempt to bring home the bewilderment of an 11-year-old boy becoming an outsider in his home in the blink of an eye. This was the fate of millions like him. This is what Partition means to us Punjabis.
Over 5,00,000 people are said to have perished on the borders of a divided Punjab between July and September of 1947. Over 15 million crossed over the lines drawn on a map by the British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe who had not even set foot in India before unleashing this perversity. Independence meant rape, homelessness, if not death for many. Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, it didn’t matter. It was equal opportunity free-for-all mayhem.
In Bengal, the wanton loot and bloodletting on Direct Action Day, Noakhali riots, the Kalshira massacre, Nachole killings, and many more such horrific tragedies, have stained our history books.
While there are a myriad of theories about what led to the Partition — whether it was an imperial plot or events overwhelmed the makers of modern India and therefore made it inevitable — the fact remains that what emerged out of the ravages of this inferno was an Islamic Pakistan and two competing visions of India. A theocratic conception articulated by the right wing that conceives of India as a Hindu Rashtra, and an inclusive construct that believes that the idea of India has to be a nation where faith does not define an individual.
This is the fundamental ideological battle, going back seven decades. It is between those who want to make hate the life force of India and others who want to let go of hate and anger and make India the sky under which all could find shelter and not only survive but thrive and be prosperous.
The terrifying reality of Partition is a horror movie not only for India but for three nations of this sub-continent. Rather than bolstering people’s understanding of the Partition and the circumstances that led to it, such remembrances, if not carefully designed, would only further irrigate and perpetuate the hate that has held the field in the Indian subcontinent for the past 70 years.
Lord Mountbatten presented the Partition plan for India on June 3 1947 and the Radcliffe Award that partitioned the country was officially announced on August 17 1947 at 7 pm in the evening. Then what is the rationale behind designating August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day? It has only one purpose — to accentuate the otherness of the “other”. While the Muslim League is certainly culpable for the Partition of India, so are the right-wingers whose public advocacy of two separate nations based on religion pre-dates the formal articulation of this demand by the Muslim League by a couple of decades.
The Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is a terribly divisive idea that mocks the pain, suffering, tears and tribulations of all those people who suffered that carnage. What we owe that generation is a degree of equanimity and sensitivity when we recall those terrible times, not a politically loaded metaphor of polarisation.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 1, 2021 under the title ‘How we look back matters’. The writer, a former Union minister, is a lawyer and Congress MP from Punjab
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