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The horrors of Partition must be remembered — but for the right reasons

Shyam Saran writes: Remembrance can be a prelude to healing from a tragedy, to foster a determination among people to never allow the tragedy to repeat itself, but it can also be used to reopen old wounds and reignite ugly passions.

Written by Shyam Saran |
Updated: August 19, 2021 7:38:53 am
The Partition of India into two independent states had been announced in June 1947, but the physical contours of the two successor states of India and Pakistan became known sometime after their formal independence on August 15 and August 14 respectively.

On August 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi solemnly declared that henceforth every August 14 will be observed as the “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”. Of course, it was not lost on anyone that the new anniversary also happens to be the day when Pakistan celebrates its independence. The Partition of India into two independent states had been announced in June 1947, but the physical contours of the two successor states of India and Pakistan became known sometime after their formal independence on August 15 and August 14 respectively.

We should certainly keep alive the tragic memories associated with Partition because the blood-letting that scarred people of both countries must never be repeated. The horrors of Partition did not occur on a single day but spanned several weeks and months, both preceding and succeeding the declaration of independence of Pakistan and then India, just one day apart. If the new anniversary intends to ensure that the monumental human tragedy is not repeated, then it may be of some therapeutic value. If the intent is to cast India-Pakistan hostility in stone, as may well be suspected by the choice of the date for its commemoration, then it can only spawn negative domestic political consequences while seriously limiting India’s foreign policy options.

The announcement comes at a time when we are witnessing an upsurge in anti-Muslim communal incidents in various parts of the country. Just a few days ago, activists allegedly belonging to the Bajrang Dal assaulted Afsar Ahmad, a rickshaw-puller in Kanpur, even while his young daughter clung to him and cried for his life to be spared. He was collateral damage in a feud between two neighbouring families, Hindu and Muslim, though he himself was not involved. There have been similar incidents in other parts of the country. We have also witnessed the rabidly communal slogans raised at a recent Jantar Mantar gathering in the capital. As parties gear up for the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections next year, communalisation is once again being seen as a potentially winning strategy by the BJP despite its recent setback in the Bengal elections. As the date for the UP elections draws closer, the communal card will be seen flashing more and more in the state. The PM’s declaration on the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day should be seen in this context.

Remembrance can be a prelude to healing from a tragedy, to foster a determination among people to never allow the tragedy to repeat itself. Remembrance can also be used to reopen the wounds of yesteryear, to reignite ugly passions, where past horrors are regurgitated so they may be re-enacted with renewed passion. The date chosen for the remembrance of Partition horrors — Pakistan’s independence anniversary — may fall in the latter category.

Such a brand of politics is dangerous and carries within it the seeds of India’s possible unravelling as a nation. Writer Sadat Hasan Manto described the dangers spawned by Partition most evocatively: “…. human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry… slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.”

Do we want to conjure up that dangerous world once again by using a selective and curated memory to reignite violent communal passions? Or should this tragic history be used instead to heal the wounds of yesteryear and resolve never again to become slaves to ugly passions ignited through a cynical political calculus?

On the occasion of India completing 74 years of independence, it is time to recall what is truly remarkable about our country — that it is home to an extraordinary spectrum of ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures and yet proudly and expansively Indian. Any attempt to impose an arid uniformity over this vibrant and colourful diversity will fail. Worse, it may unravel a national fabric whose myriad strands celebrate a complex tapestry which is the legacy of an extraordinary mingling of races, faiths and philosophies without compare in the world. The Partition of India in 1947 is a warning of what can happen when the politics of exclusion overwhelms the culture of inclusion. There are many partitions waiting to happen if we, as a people, do not derive the right lessons from 1947 and recognise the ugly scars that it has left in its wake.

At the moment, we are focused on the dangers of communal passions that are being unleashed in the run-up to the UP elections and which will be followed by others. Other fault lines are simmering under the surface. These relate to caste divisions, regional and linguistic identities and economic and social inequalities. There is an unspoken assumption among some political managers that a Hindu-Muslim binary will somehow enable the political consolidation of other constituencies under the Hindu banner. This is a failure to understand how political and social dynamics work. The continuing farmers’ agitation is a case in point as is the electoral outcome in West Bengal, despite the immense and intense political and communal investment made by the BJP, led personally by Prime Minister Modi himself.

The response to this perceived decline in political capital has been to double down on the communal platform, and the announcement of the “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day” may well be a part of that effort. There is also an effort to gain political advantage through the use of the levers of a security state and the Pegasus affair points to that. The beauty of a security state is that every security failure leads to the enhancement of its role rather than its retreat. Every failure leads inexorably to further limiting the freedom of citizens while enhancing the power of security agencies. This is quite visible in the slew of legislation that has been already passed or which are on the anvil.

We may end up with a coercive state which tries belatedly to prevent the fragmentation of the country’s social and political fabric, which its own policies have spawned. This is not the vision of India that the Constitution of India envisaged. It is not the miracle of unity in diversity that has been the calling card of India through the ages.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 18, 2021 under the title ‘Reason to remember’. The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow, CPR

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