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  • Ramanjit Singh

Carrying the burden of Partition's memories


It has been 70 years after India's partition and its affects still linger in our political and social domains. These 70 years has seen a lot of changes in both India and Pakistan. Both countries are still trying to formulate their identity based on its majority community's constructed reality. One has already established itself into an Islamic state and the other is moving unpretentiously towards a non-secular identity.

Whether we like it or not, the British understood quite well that the undivided India consisted of two nations, one made up of Hindus and the other of Muslims and they simply kicked the doors and brought this virtual divide into a reality in 1947. Minorities really didn't had much of a say in this process, false assurances were enough to force them into one camp or the other. Some leaders such as Maulana Azad and Mahatma Gandhi realized the futility of Partition and what it will do to the two countries, however the political leadership that was deciding the fate of millions was outside of their realm of influence. In other words, nobody listened to them. Gandhi became the peacemaker trying to stop the violence in places like Calcutta as the fate of the country was being decided in Delhi and London.

As Punjabis, we are all carrying the pain of Partition in our hearts and minds. There are stories that we have heard from our friends and family, stories that we have read in books about the suffering of people who found themselves on the wrong side of the border, stories that linger in our sub-conscious mind about those who suffered, about those who left a part of their life on the other side of the divide. Sometimes our feelings about the Partition becomes more pronounced when we talk to someone from the "other" side of Punjab. Simple conversations about one's ancestry from a village that now lies in the charhda or lehnda Punjab rekindles a sense of loss and a longing for a united Punjabi reality.

Maybe the feelings about the sense of loss is more among the Punjabis and Sindhis than any other community in India. But it must be said that this sense of loss also remains in the second and third generation of Punjabis born after Partition. Stories told by grandparents often become as precious as family heirlooms that are cherished and passed from one generation to the next. People who have no direct connection with the "other" Punjab often would say things like "saaddey Lyallpur wich amm de baagh sunn", we had mango farms in our Lyallpur and so on. These memories persist in the current generation and is carried over to the next and thus a connection to the old saanjha Punjab continues to exist among the generations born well after 1947.

I also am learning from this academic exercise of collecting and archiving the Partition experience. Born well after the Partition, I belong to a generation of children growing up in late 1970's and early 1980's. We learned about the Partition experience mainly through books or through stories passed on from friends and aquaintances who migrated from west Punjab. Now in 2018, we may no longer have a direct connection to west Punjab, but through a common Punjabi identity, we have internalized the Partition experience as if it was part of our own. Thus the burden of memories, good and bad, is carried over from one generation to the next.

Memories shape our understanding of Partition and how we perceive each other. I have noticed that when discussing the topic of Partition someone would comment by saying something like "they killed all of our family" or "we will never forget how cruel they were to us" and so on. One's narrative of how one perceives the other is dependent upon the stories or anecdotes the person has learned over time from his or her ancestors. Thus the eventual breakdown of a sane conversation about Partition into a free for all 'us versus them' commentary destroys the very hope among the rest of us that wants to bring the two sides together.

Whether it is 2018 or 2025, people will continue to say mean things to each other because the closest they have come to know each other is from the personal stories being passed from one generation to the next. Talking to a Sikh would trigger a feeling of hate and someone would eventually say "we will never forget what the Sikhs did to us". And the person may say it with such raw passion as if he personally witnessed and suffered in their hands in 1947. Similar things would be commented by a Sikh or a Hindu about the murderous cruelty shown by Muslims and would say something hurtful to a person who would have no connection to the killings that happened during Partition. The passage of time is subverted and is made irrelevant by the raw passion that gets stirred up by people who are still itching to settle scores. Punjabis identify the "other" based on the memories being passed within their own community.

How do we manage these contradictory memories, one that has a sense of longing for a united Punjabi identity and the other that is filled with hate?

We carry this burden of contradictory memories with us and the sentiments that these memories trigger depends on the context or the social setting we are in at the moment. We get emotional when we see a movie or read a book about Partition, we long for the violence being depicted in the movie to stop as if it was real. We get emotional when Punjabis from both sides meet and talk about the loss of so many innocent lives during that fateful year. If we are with friends and the topic slowly moves towards the "other" side after some negative news about India or Pakistan then we dig up the memories that strengthen our case that the "other" is in fact bad and untrustworthy. If we are sitting in a group that has a mixture of Pakistani and Indian Punjabis then we dig into the memories that allow us to express love of our common heritage. Obviously, not everyone changes their tune based on situational awareness, some genuinely espouse core beliefs regardless of the social settings they find themselves in, but most do change their commentary out of compulsion, out of fear of social rejection, or out of a desire for social acceptance.

Burden of carrying these memories needs to be managed by the current generation but I think the need for reconciliation and the desire to look towards a positive future is becoming more paramount by the day. People on both sides want to live peacefully and we as individuals need to inculcate the idea of a common Punjabi heritage that brings people on both sides closer. We need to change how we interpret one another. Our interpretation of the "other" needs to change. We need to create new memories that overrides the old ones, replacing the negativity that has persisted for so many decades. New memories that expands on building trust and chips away decades of hate that has been cultivated through text books, news media and family stories.

We need new memories because the old memories have been mostly negative and brings out the worst in us. We need to stop looking backwards and we need to collectively look towards the future. Our collective burden of carrying these memories has taken a toll. It lives with us and frames our mind on how we think about those who are different from us. It forces us to hate, it forces us to think of the "other" as a lesser human. Old memories keep the trauma of Partition alive in us. In the end, the British did indeed win by dividing us and that was their ultimate victory and our ultimate loss. Partition not only divided the country it divided a shared history and culture.

#memories #partition #punjab #history #india #pakistan #1947 #blog #archive

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