The overwhelming majority of Indians alive today were born long after India’s blood-drenched Partition tore the country. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)
On the eve of India’s Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that August 14 would now be observed as the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. “Partition’s pains can never be forgotten”, he declared. “Millions of our sisters and brothers were displaced and many lost their lives due to mindless hate and violence.”
The overwhelming majority of Indians alive today were born long after India’s blood-drenched Partition tore the country. They must indeed remember this history: The agony of a million people losing their lives in Hindu-Muslim riots; of trains in both directions piled with corpses; of 14 million people uprooted in the largest distress displacement in human history, except the trafficking of Africans as slaves to the Americas. But the salient questions are — what they should remember, how they should remember, and what lessons they should draw from this recollection.
I recall speaking in a hall in Ludhiana, Punjab, some years ago about the imperative of fighting religious bigotry and hate. An ageing man, older than me, spoke, his voice quivering. He recalled the slaughter and pillage of Partition, which had snatched from him his family and his home. “When I recount this history to my children, how can you expect me to teach them to love and respect Muslims who destroyed us so mercilessly?”
I replied to him, “I understand your pain. I too belong to a Partition family, and the families of my parents suffered traumas identical to yours. But if you must speak of this to your children, and their children, can you at least tell them the full story? Tell them that Hindus and Sikhs did suffer horrendously at the hand of Muslim mobs in places where they were in a minority. But tell them also that Hindus and Sikhs, where in a majority, unleashed identical horrors upon Muslims. No community kept at bay the frenzy of hate in those horrific months. The hands of every community were equally tainted with the blood of innocents. You lost lives and homes, but tell your children that our Muslim sisters and brothers also lost their lives in equal numbers. Partial remembering can only nurture further hate.”
recalled to him Mahatma Gandhi’s epic fast in Calcutta, just weeks after India won her freedom, trying to restore peace and sanity to a city burning in feverish Hindu-Muslim violence. A Hindu man, torn by grief, went to where Gandhiji lay fasting, and shouted, “What you are doing is utterly unjust and heartless. I lost my son — so small —to Muslim mobs. How can I ever forgive them?” Gandhiji replied, “I understand your pain. But let me suggest to you a way. Find a little boy — so small. A Muslim boy whose parents were slaughtered by Hindu mobs. Adopt him as your son, raise him in the faith into which he was born; maybe you will then be able to heal, even to forgive.”
My parents’ village, Kahuta, near Rawalpindi, was among the worst-ravaged by hate violence during Partition. The Sikhs and Hindus of the village took refuge in a gurdwara with high, fortress-like walls. When Muslim mobs laid siege to the gurdwara, the men in the community decided that all the women and girls would save their ‘honour’ by throwing themselves into a well. When some women refused, men of their own families sliced them with swords and threw them in. I am grateful that I never heard a word of bigotry against Muslims from my parents. My father often told me that the word Allah appears more than a thousand times in the Sikh Holy Book. Their prayer room carried the name of Allah on its walls, along with a crucifix, Buddha and many Hindu gods and goddesses.
Decades later, when I decided to leave behind my career in the IAS in protest against the Gujarat communal massacre of 2002, to fight for justice and healing with the survivors, many relatives of my extended family were furious, and cancelled me from their lives. One of them said to me loudly during a family wedding, “We are ashamed of you. After all we suffered during Partition, you have crossed to the wrong side”. I replied, “After all our families suffered in Partition, who more than us can understand the suffering of victims of the same hate violence? It is, even more, our duty to stand resolutely with them, against the perpetrators of hate. I am on the right side. It is you who are on the wrong side. Don’t you see?”
What is important is not just what we remember from the tangled agony of Partition, but what lessons we draw from these memories.
Can we remember who were the most tragic victims of Partition violence? The women who were treated as property, and battlefields to defend or transgress the “honour” of the community. The Dalit Christians left behind in Pakistan, condemned to continue the work of manual scavenging but savaged by blasphemy laws and religious discrimination.
Can we remember the thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who risked their lives to save their neighbours from the hate violence of people of their own community?
Some of us believe that behind the announcement of the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day are the politics of the ruling establishment. August 14 is celebrated as Independence Day in Pakistan. My social media feed is already choked with messages that blame Gandhi and Nehru for Partition, and maintain that it was Sardar Patel and the RSS that saved India from fragmentation and further dismemberment. The RSS historically played no role in the freedom struggle. Is the announcement of Partition Horrors Day a part of their larger project to rewrite history, with the RSS painted as patriots and the Congress led by Gandhi as traitors? When we remember Partition, we must recall that it was Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha who, long before the Muslim League, imagined two separate nations, of Hindus and Muslims. It was the RSS that sought an India of Muslims as second-class citizens. It was the RSS and communal organisations of Muslims that lit and stoked the horrific fires of communal violence.
Yes, Indians must never forget the torment and horrors of Partition. We must remember so that we never allow hate to partition not just our land, but even more fundamentally, our hearts. We must remember always what the politics of religious hate does to a people.