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  • Ramanjit Singh

Partition and our Seared Conscience


As part of the ongoing research of the Partition events, I have noticed that those who write about the 1947 Partition events often do so with a sense of bias by portraying the "other" side as more guilty of the violence and bloodshed than their own.

The ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Jammu in September-October of 1947 is written by many Pakistani writers however they forget to even give a token glance to the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs in Mirpur that was also happening around the same time not that far from Jammu. Both crimes were equally reprehensible and both countries should publicly take accountability of their actions or lack thereof in terms of the role the state machinery played during those months.

Indian writers similarly write about the violence and massacres of the Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab but fail to write about the equally brutal orgy of violence against Muslims in cities like Ludhiana, Amritsar, Gurgaon or Delhi. There are plenty of websites that espouse an insular viewpoint of the things that happened to Hindus and Sikhs but not a token of recognition of the similar violence experienced by the Muslims.

One writer writes exclusively about the plight of Muslim women in East Punjab during the Partition riots but fails to mention anything about the plight of non-Muslim women in West Punjab. Is it too much to ask why this writer didn't write about all the women rather than only about the Muslim women. Are other women less human or of less importance to the author?

The study of Muslim women's plight is an important subject in its own right and it must be further researched. However, the writer who wrote this study should at least acknowledge that both Muslim and non-Muslim women suffered horrendously in the hands of the mob. Similarly I have seen pro-Hindu blogs, books and websites that only talk about the atrocities committed by Muslims and not a token of acknowledgment that Muslims too were killed by the Hindu mobs. This level of intellectual malfeasance from writers on both sides is breathtaking and should be condemned by those who want to study Partition with objectivity and without prejudice.

Punjabi women's collective ordeal of being abducted and raped occurred on both sides of the border. All were Punjabis, regardless of their religion, and the violence inflicted on them was done by their Punjabi tormentors. Entire Punjab is still accountable for their sufferings.

We have not yet reached the level of mental maturity where we can take responsibility of the Partition violence or even take partial blame of our own people's culpability. To many, the ownership of violence always lies in someone else's backyard. To many writers, the overall theme of their writings can be summed up in a single sentence -

We were the victims, they were the perpetrators and it's their collective conscience that carries the full burden of the Partition guilt and not ours.

There are few and exceptionally brilliant contemporary historians who have written objectively on the subject of Partition such as Ishtiaq Ahmed and Urvashi Butalia. Their books not only narrate the Partition stories in detail but one important aspect of their writings, which carries over throughout their books, is the human instinct for survival under tremendous odds.

The Partition violence was so horrendous and total in its fury that it is disrespectful to the memories of those who suffered if we write stories that depict only one side as victim and the other side as criminal. It is insulting to our collective conscience to only highlight one side of a story knowing full well that on the other side people also suffered and died under similar or worst conditions.

We cannot progress as a society in South Asia if we are not accountable of our own past actions. History is essentially about record keeping and the students of history should enrich it and not mold it to their own political ends. Revisionist history is a fool's errand.

Understanding the violence during India's Partition requires some pre-requisites.

First pre-requisite is willingness to accept blame. If you hate someone because they are of a different religion then studying Partition is not your cup of tea. Move on, do something else. Writers in Pakistan when writing about the Partition violence often blame everything on Master Tara Singh. As if not for his irrational outbursts in Lahore somehow the ethnic cleansing in Rawalpindi in March would not have occurred. It is so convenient to blame others for your own culpability. Similarly the Muslim League is blamed for all the violence against the non-Muslims. The role of Sikh Jathas and RSS in instigating the violence or taking part in revenge attacks is conveniently ignored by the Indian writers.

Truth is somewhere in the middle, plenty of blame to go around because everyone was involved in the violence. For one Master Tara Singh there was a Magistrate Cheema of Lahore who acted as a modern day Mughal executioner going around Lahore and directing mobs to kill non-Muslims. And there are so many like these characters on both sides committing their horrible acts under the garb of religion or economic interests.

Second, if you are a Hindu then put yourself in the shoes of a Muslim and vice-versa. Imagine yourself as a Muslim boy playing in the fields of a Punjabi village near Jullunder during the summer of 1947. If you are a Muslim then imagine yourself as a Sikh farmer near Rawalpindi getting ready for the spring harvest and planning next season's crop. Imagine yourself as a Hindu businessman getting ready for an upcoming wedding in Shalami, Lahore. Try to understand their life experiences, their hopes and expectations in the Punjab of 1947 that was moving rapidly towards an abyss. A Hindu opens a new shop in Lahore, a Muslim buys a new parcel of land and a Sikh is looking froward to a bountiful harvest. There are millions of these types of stories in Punjab of that time. A Punjab that existed as a cohesive geographical unit from Peshawar to Delhi for hundreds of years. Invaded and plundered but also a Punjab that stood up and danced on Basant and Holi.

Third pre-requisite is read books from your non-coreligionists. If you are an Indian, read a book authored by a Pakistani writer and try to understand their narrative of Partition; why the Pakistani movement was so important to the Muslims and the factors involved in its birth. The suffocating grip of Casteism, the strange persistence of avoiding Muslim"food or paani" and other factors all led to the belief among Muslims that they had no future in India. Muslims believed that they are being treated differently and are being excluded from the mainstream Indian society as most Hindus continued to treat them as outcastes in their social and economic interactions. Do ancillary research on the arrival of Gandhi, his inclusion of religion in the Independence movement and how it affected the Hindu-Muslim relationship. Author Dilip Hiro's 'Longest August' is one such book that provides context to the Hindu-Muslim mindset of the mid-1940's India.

Similarly if you are a Pakistani, then become an Indian and see things from the perspective of a secular Indian mindset that imagines India as undivided and a continuation of Bharat that stretched from Afghanistan to Deccan. Indians struggled to come to grips with the whole rationale of Pakistan and why after living together for hundreds of years, Hindus and Muslims all of a sudden couldn't live together as one nation. To be Indian doesn't mean having a single identity, rather an Indian can espouse multiple identities encompassing multiple faiths or beliefs or geography. For more than couple of centuries, under the Mughal period, many Sikhs and Hindus converted to Islam in the Punjab province. However in 1947 these same people with same bloodlines were told that they couldn't live together under one political and secular entity called India, Why?

Indians rejected the idea of two nation theory championed by Jinnah because Indians believed that what makes an Indian is a Hindu and Muslim and all the faiths living together under one secular constitution that protects the right of all communities.

As a side note, I must add that India with its secular constitution forms the bedrock of its exceptional and inclusive character and I'm seeing a wholesale campaign by the current fascist leaning government to discredit the very meaning of India. If this continues then the only person we as Indians are proving right is Mohammad Ali Jinnah. We cannot and must not allow this to happen to the country. If this happens we are no different than the rest of the totalitarian countries in the Middle East or Asia and the outcome would be an onset of social unrest. Secularism is the foundation of India's democracy and the nation's true character is judged by how it treats its minorities. And if we lose this single most previous value that binds us together then we have failed as a nation.

The above pre-requisites are important but there is a fourth pre-requisite that is also important in learning about Partition history. And that is the acceptance of the role played by the British in carving up India that was entirely based on a policy of divide and rule and that the British had no interest in the well-being of either Indians or Pakistanis. You may like the British Raj because they had strict laws and brought the railways to India (although that was done for their own self-interest to extract wealth and raw materials from the hinterland) but you cannot ignore their complete incompetence and willful neglect of maintaining law and order in Punjab and their haste to withdraw from India.

The British played us and we gullibly took the bait. The blind faith in how "different" we were from the Hindus was not suddenly realized by the Muslim League in 1947, it was cultivated and nurtured by the British throughout the 1930's all the way leading up to 1947. And Nehru's insistence of not accepting the original Cabinet Mission proposal of an Indian Federation with equal electorates was also stunning after Jinnah gave his approval to the plan. If you keep screaming consistently that we are the victims and we want our own homeland because of what might happen to our community in the future if we continue to stay with the "other" then sooner or later people will start believing in you.

And the last pre-requisite is that not enough is written about the actual events in the summer of 1947. So the fifth pre-requisite in learning about the Partition violence is to keep researching, keep digging for more details. There are general narratives about Punjab but what happened in local areas, in small villages is not well documented. Look at each village in each district and search online or in libraries about anything written about that village or the area around it and what happened there during Partition. May be there's a story of someone that lived there who can share something that further enlightens our understanding of the events and helps us to account for those who suffered. We are all responsible for documenting, for archiving our family's history and let's make it a part of a larger Punjabi story without a religious slant.

The instigators of India's Partition were the British, however the deaths of so many lie heavily on their and our seared conscience.

#india #pakistan #punjab #history #partition #1947 #independence #southasia #historians #violence #survival

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