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Partition violence didn’t come down to a simple ‘us’ vs ‘them’ binary

Urvashi Butalia writes: Remembering its savagery must begin with recognising our complicity – and finding a way to heal and move on

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
Updated: August 28, 2021 8:02:51 am
In theory, Partition was done and dusted in 1947. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Long years ago, in a crowded market in Amritsar, Mangal Singh, a Partition refugee, recounted his story to me. Together with two of his brothers, Mangal Singh had killed — he said martyred — 18 members of his own family, mostly women and children, because of the fear that they could be raped, abducted, impregnated and, if that happened, the “honour” of the quam would be compromised.

He was not alone in this, over the years as I researched Partition, this narrative would appear again and again — in Delhi, in Alwar, in Thoha Khalsa, in Thamali, men killed women of their own families ostensibly to “protect” them. Today, because of the work of Partition scholars, this violence is known, but, at the time, the narrative of Partition violence was so overwhelmingly one where the killers were the “others” that such accounts had no place in them. We could not admit that we had been violent too.

At the time, I asked Mangal Singh how he had dealt with the knowledge and the grief of what he had done, how he had lived with those terrible memories of, yes, mass murder. He said, “Look around you at this land of the Punjab. We call it sone di chiria, we have put all our forgetting into this land, we have irrigated it with our tears.”

Later, he took me to the Golden Temple where, engraved in the walls, were the names of the entire lost family. Every year, on the anniversary of their death, Mangal Singh came to the gurdwara and prayed for peace and forgiveness.

The stories of men killing the “weak” in their own families were not the only ones that emerged. Close on their heels came the stories of women, their mass abduction and rape, the mutilation of their bodies, the ways in which they were treated as property.

This, too, wasn’t something we could only lay at the door of the “other” for plenty of men of our “own” did this to our “own” women (Current histories of political violence have shown how practised we are at sexually assaulting our “own” women). And yet, here too the overwhelming narrative was that “our” women were violated by “their” men, and the “we” and “they” were defined quite unproblematically in terms of religion.

In theory, Partition was done and dusted in 1947. But the memories do not end there. Nor can they only be set at the door of “madness” or junoon. Take until recently the relatively unknown history of Marichjhapi, where lower-caste “untouchable” refugees, who were not welcome in the eyes of the state, were sent after being moved from place to place and were then forcefully evicted in the late 1970s by the Left Front government in Bengal. This, too, is a shameful Partition history that we cannot lay at someone else’s door.

One summer, my travels took me to Ramallah in Palestine. We entered the town on the memorial day for Al Nakba, the catastrophic moment in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their land. I wondered how this day would be marked: Whether there would be anger, fiery speeches, hatred. Indeed, on the borders of the town, violence had erupted, but inside, where the ceremonies were taking place, there was quiet. And a firm resolve to never forget.

Traumatic memories have many faces. They are, like life itself, complicated and are often caught in battles over the politics of remembering. For the Palestinians, remembering the catastrophe is a way of keeping alive the battle for justice, the battle for recognition that the land in which they have become refugees is theirs. In this way, their battle is similar to that of the women of Kashmir mourning the disappearance of their men, and their resolve to never forget: That memory is their weapon in the fight for justice.

For women victims and survivors of rape and abduction, memory is messy — betrayed by their families, often coercively relocated by the state, sold into slavery by their abductors, sometimes coercively married. How can this horror be forgotten? And yet how must it be remembered?

Clearly, there’s nothing simple about memorialising traumatic histories. Across the world, we have many examples of nations/countries that have put in place important experiments with memory, always with the end goal of healing, reconciling, acknowledging, learning from our mistakes and moving on.

Despite many moments of terrible violence in their histories, India and Pakistan have made no such attempts. If and when we do, the work of memory has to be approached with caution, with humility and with the openness to accept uncomfortable truths.

During Partition, for example, there were no clear perpetrators or victims. Remembering Partition violence then begins with recognising our complicity, our participation in it. It begins with going beyond the violence perpetrated by the other and turning the mirror on ourselves. Have we silenced histories of family violence? Why? Because they relate to women and women are dispensable? These are not easy questions.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge to memory is this: Can peoples, nations, remember together? Seventy-five years after Partition, can India and Pakistan come together to share memories of this defining moment in their histories?

In 1947, two men, a Sikh and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, both refugees of Partition, built a friendship with each other on the basis of letters they wrote. “I write to you,” Harkishan Das Bedi wrote from Jalandhar to Chaudhry Latif in Lahore, “as a human being….We are human beings first and Hindu and Muslim only after that.”

The two men’s friendship enabled them to talk of everything, to share sorrow, despair, loss, and to begin healing. Is it too much to hope, to imagine that one day, in the not-too-distant future, India and Pakistan may mark a Partition remembrance day together, that they may share not only the horrors but also the stories of friendship and love? Is 75 years not enough to turn hate into its opposite?

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 27, 2021 under the title ‘Memories have many faces’. The writer is publisher, Zubaan; and the author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

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