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Vanity of Our False Distinctions

- Ramanjit Singh

Sketch by S.L Parashar, Ambala Refugee Camp 1947-49

Partition has changed us in multitude of ways and has left a permanent and an irreversible mark on the social psyche of the two countries. It stains our land and everyone of our lives.

One might ask how it is still changing us?

It is changing us because it is forcing us to look at the "other" as different, a lesser human. It is affecting us because it has created a false sense of pride, vanity of our false distinctions about our own superiority over the other. We are trying to build our own lives over the shattered dreams of the others. We carry hatred for those who believe in a different faith, who belong to a different caste, or who speak a different language.

Urdu is their's, Hindi is ours.

Hindus are true Indians, this country belongs only to us.

The tragedy of India and Pakistan is that hate has become a new normal about how we talk about each other and what we think of each other. India's Partition was due to a devious campaign to separate the two communities. When a lie is told a thousand times, people start believing it as truth. And after Partition, we have started to believe in that false narrative. We ourselves sustain it by making snark comments about the other community in private. The media amplifies it and the ruling class has weaponized it.

For Punjabis, the Partition's violence sits heavy on our minds. There will always be those who will say we can never be friends because of what they did to us. The challenge for all of us is that whether we can lift ourselves above that mindset. Can we rise above that pain, try to forget those collective memories that pull us back to our normal patterns of us versus them. Maybe it's a herculean task to change how we think of each other. Maybe the divisions are so strong that it cannot be undone. But for India's sake, it has to be done. I don't think Pakistan can change now, the depth of hyper religiosity is beyond self- correction. They have erased all connections to that old Hindustan. Their forefathers are now Turks and not Hindus. The moment they banned Basant, I knew it's all over for them. Only few remember celebrating Lohri or Baisakhi in Lahore.

We have to save India from sliding into that same abyss. There is so much at stake that it cannot falter, it cannot fail. The idea of India must not fail. However, we are gradually being dragged into that abyss. The news channels now mix God and the Prime Minister in the same sentence. The ruling class is removing periodic table, certain parts of Mughal history and theory of evolution from textbooks. I see the same madness that gripped undivided India in the 1940s happening again that could result in even more catastrophic consequences. Jinnah's two nation theory is now the policy of how this government is dog whistling its way into creating another blunder.

Hate is not a panacea for anything, let alone for moving the country forward. The development process of a nation has to include all and not just one community. Punjab's Partition violence suggests a role played by religious groups who treated others as mere objects that can be killed without mercy. Women, children were not spared because the very idea that they were human was erased from the minds of the perpetrators. Sikh and Hindu mobs that were killing Muslims in east Punjab showed no humanity and spared no one. The same was true of how the Muslims murdered Hindus and Sikhs in west Punjab. They were kafirs and the killings were justified.

We cannot just ignore the reasons and the significance of Partition and not learn from that experience. We cannot just go on and believe that what happened so long ago has no meaning in today's world. If we think like that then we have failed our children who will repeat the same mistakes. Today we see videos of the mobs that lynch Muslims, using whatever excuses to kill them. And we see the uneducated, uncouth, uncivilized youth whose only purpose in life has become to hate and destroy. Is this the new generation of Indians that will lead the country? Beating Hindu-Muslim couples, lynching Muslims or other minorities has now become daily events.

I'm reminded of that Muslim girl in Amritsar that I read about in one of the stories about the Partition violence. The mob was after her, she screamed 'you cannot catch me' and jumped off the roof and fell to her death. Her scarf hung in the air for few seconds and landed on her body. I use this story because in her I see India. In her, I see the idea of India trying to escape the madness that is after her. The hate has seeped into our psyche. You can see it in our friends, how they talk about the others in private. We may be one country, but we have splintered into different groups and tribes each jostling to out-do others in vitriol and violence.

During Partition, years of living together were forgotten. I remember a story of a Hindu family in Lahore, who had a tea shop in old Anarkali bazar. His closest Muslim friend for decades who came for tea and sat in his shop for hours, one day came with a mob, killed him and his wife and took away his daughter. This too is the result of madness that seeps into one's psyche that results in cataclysmic consequences for the society as a whole. No one escapes from it. Decades later the effects of that violence lingers on. The next generation learns from it, refines it and reapplies it again on others. And the cycle repeats.

The effects of reading about Partition has also changed me personally. When I go to a Gurdwara, and see the crowd, I start to feel how it would have been in August of 1947 in a similar Gurdwara or a Temple in places like Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Sheikupura or Lahore. I try to imagine the sense of fear, the cries of children, the panic on their faces as the crowd was coming to kill the Sikhs and Hindus. I can imagine a similar scene in a Mosque when the mob came to erase any evidence of Muslim existence in a town or a village. I transpose the scene of that August's Punjab on the present. And the sense I get is of immense sadness and despair imagining what can happen when madness takes over the better angels of our selves.

As you read this, imagine how one would feel being hounded and hunted. Imagine being someone whose basic sense of belonging has been snatched by the very people you trusted. Imagine being on the losing side of a constitutional failure. Failure of institutions that were there to protect you are no longer protecting you. Imagine being in a situation when the attackers outnumber the defenders. This is what we have become, this is what our society has become. There is a sense in our society that the Muslims and other minorities are no longer part of us. We use selective history to mutilate the very sense of what India means to all of us. Indeed the lie that we are two-nations still exists in us and we are applying it within India to our own detriment.

India is remerging, India's growth is catapulting it out from the league of countries that are failing or have failed. For it to sustain this growth, it needs to be inclusive. Some would say the development of the country is meant for all and that may be true. But this narrative is juxtaposed with a constant vitriol of hyper religiosity and dog whistles on TV and political rallies. You cannot have both. You cannot say the development is meant for all when a Muslim is lynched by a mob. You cannot say the development is for all when a Muslim is killed on suspicion of carrying beef. You cannot say the development is for all when a mob burns a Church. When you do that, you are destroying the very soul of India. You are making India just another 'regular' third world country where acts of hate and violence happen on a daily basis and are ignored. We cannot be like any other 'regular' country, we are better than that.

Vanity of our false distinctions, our sense that we are superior than "others" is going to be our downfall. We may end up being that mob that takes away someone's daughter. We may become that mob that goes after a girl and forces her to jump off a roof. The pump is primed for the mob to strike, and we are witnessing the same mindset that existed during Partition, the same environment being constantly created by the powerful, the media to vilify the other as a non-Indian. And there's hardly anyone amongst us who has the courage to confront this manufactured hate.

In the sketches by S.L. Parashar, we get a sense of what religious hatred can do to fellow human beings. As a supervisor, Mr. Parashar sketched some of the scenes he witnessed in the Ambala camp which was setup for the refugees arriving from west Punjab. One that stands out in my mind is when he was walking in the camp and saw a group of women sitting in a circle and wailing for their lost loved ones. He sketched that scene, the cries of those women echoing in the camp site for everyone to hear. It can never be forgotten. Those that were lost will never come back. We must learn from that experience and as citizens we need to remind ourselves of why we can never let hate destroy everything that we believe in and live for.


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