A train carrying refugees leaves Amritsar station for Pakistan in 1947 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE TWO DOMINIONS of India and Pakistan were born of a bloodbath in August 1947 that entered the annals of history as one of the worst horrors of an especially sanguinary century. It wasn’t planned that way, and it took the political elite by surprise, largely because their imagination had failed them. What’s worse, we never managed to put a number to it that would be acceptable on all three sides of the border. How many died? 200,000? Or two million? Or many more? How many were displaced? Ten or 20 million? Or many, many more? How many families were divided? How many women were raped? How many raped and killed? How many abducted? How many children murdered? How many lost as the border was crossed?
Partition, like the Holocaust, is on the verge of fading from living memory. But remembering is difficult when it’s not a history shared, let alone uniformly, by the nation. More pertinently, in a society that’s institutionally weak and where the unit of the family dominates, the catastrophe, despite its scale, remains a collective experience and yet more of an individual trauma where the horror has been recollected largely in the confines of the home, notwithstanding the efforts to memorialise and understand it publicly, whether in literature and cinema or through state effort. Such was the foundational fact of the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the inheritance of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
So, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that August 14th would be observed as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, the reactions branched into three expected lines: one, the remembrance day serves the twofold purpose of honouring the memory of the victims and educating the youth of the first chapter of our post-Independence history; two, it’s too far back in the past and raking it up again would do more harm than good; and three, would symbolism, as remembrance days tend to be, suffice when it came to the horrors of Partition?
Partition was an experience unevenly shared, the brunt of it borne by the two provinces of British India that were divided: Punjab and Bengal. In the Indian narrative, it also involved the loss of territory in the provinces that went to Pakistan. Displacement, however, was the predicament of populations from all affected provinces, such as Hindus and Sikhs in territory on the Pakistani side of the Radcliffe Line and the extended border, and Muslims not only from the two partitioned provinces but also elsewhere in the Indian dominion. Moreover, the experience itself was not the same on the two borders in the west and the east.
The academic and political argument against Partition Horrors Remembrance Day would be deflated if only Modi and his ministers were to clarify, and repeatedly underscore, that August 14th hereafter will be a day of remembrance for all victims of Partition—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, et al
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The exchange of population—two-way migration—in the west with the paths literally crossing had ensured the slightest spark could trigger violence. But the violence had begun much before August and continued well beyond the moment of birth of the two dominions, in what could be called a genocide of vengeance (or a “retributive genocide”) on both sides. Hindus and Sikhs were killed in West Punjab and West Pakistan. Muslims were killed in East Punjab and in trying to cross the border. About seven million Muslims left East Punjab for West Punjab while about five million Hindus and Sikhs are supposed to have crossed over from West Punjab. Francis Mudie, the then governor of West Punjab, estimated half-a-million Muslims had died in making the crossing. But the official estimate of the Viceroy’s office maintained the much lower figure of 200,000. Fewer Hindus and Sikhs were reportedly killed across the western border in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of Partition, but the subsequent horrors of minority life in Pakistan became a history in itself.
That underscores the importance of what we remember and how. Modi’s initial announcement, later referred to in the Independence Day speech, also said: “May the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ keep reminding us of the need to remove the poison of social divisions, disharmony and further strengthen the spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment”. If that is the purpose of remembering, and its spirit is adhered to in practice, it is incontestable. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested: “Far from doing anything to heal old wounds, they would go to any extent to sow further dissensions for electoral gains….” It’s more than a little ironic since the Pakistan government had spent decades investigating and putting together its claims and data about the pogrom against those trying to cross into West Pakistan. Nothing, on the face of it, hints at this being a monochromatic attempt at remembrance. How it’s interpreted and observed is a different matter, which would take us back to the distinction between memorialising and crying retribution.
Here, the history of Partition on the eastern border complicates the matter. In the east, the flow of refugees was largely unidirectional. There was no ‘exchange’ of population unlike in the west, although many Muslims migrated to East Pakistan in phases. The reason why West Bengal was overwhelmed and Calcutta’s demography overhauled was the influx of millions, without a proportionate departure. Moreover, the Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad and Malda stayed with India while Hindu majority Khulna went to Pakistan. Because of the significantly less two-way movement of people, there was no comparable butchery as witnessed in the west. What happened nevertheless was the persecution of and killings among the Hindu population in East Pakistan that stayed behind or was slow to move. The 1951 Census recorded 2.5 million East Pakistan refugees in India, more than two million of whom had settled in West Bengal. By contrast, the 1951 Pakistani census showed about 670,000 refugees who had entered East Pakistan, whose numbers also included those who had migrated from Bihar.
There were further territorial and demographic complications. If the province of Sindh and the districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Khulna and Jessore felt they had ended up on the wrong side of the border, the fate of the Chakmas and others in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is ignored in the mainstream telling of the Partition story. While Louis Mountbatten has been accused of influencing the demarcation of the Radcliffe Line in India’s favour, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with an almost 99 per cent Buddhist and Hindu majority, would have stayed with India had it not been for the Boundary Commission overstepping its mandate and giving the region to Pakistan. The Indian Tricolour was hoisted at Rangamati on August 15th, 1947 because the locals had no inkling they wouldn’t remain in India. Subsequent efforts to enlist the Indian Government’s help on their part had come to nought. Systematic population pushes since 1947 have vastly altered the demography of the region, to say nothing of the periodic massacres of the Chakmas and others, first in East Pakistan and then in Bangladesh.
THE REAL BUTCHERY in the east had actually preceded Partition by a year. The Muslim League’s call for Direct Action Day on August 16th, 1946 is synonymous with the 1946 Calcutta Killings. In three days of horror, more than 4,000 people were killed in the city, the corpses left to rot in the open and for vultures to feed on. The week-long rioting came to an end after Bengal was brought under Viceroy’s Rule on August 21st. The culpability of Bengal Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, later a prime minister of Pakistan, has been the subject of much speculation in the absence of any written record of his speech at the Muslim League rally on August 16th. What is a fact, however, is that those who attended the rally resumed the violence with a newfound frenzy immediately after leaving the Maidan venue. The 1946 killings did not stay confined to Calcutta. Soon, riots would engulf Noakhali in eastern Bengal. About 5,000 people were killed in Noakhali in October and November of 1946. Gandhi’s mission to the district was a failure and the survivors of the Noakhali riots would be among the most desperate to flee to the Indian side in 1947. The arc of the Calcutta killings also spread westward through Bihar and the United Provinces to Punjab and the Northwest Frontier, with Punjab recording the most number of killings in a period extending from early 1947 till well after Partition.
The political uproar over Partition Horrors Remembrance Day may be self- and time-serving but the ‘academic’ spin being given to the matter—whereby Modi has been accused of “looking back”, and the remembrance day too is being tied up with the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act—is no less. The same academics, mostly left-leaning, would never let one forget what served their telling of history. Their problem is that any Indian memorialising of the bloodbath of Partition cannot avoid the fact that the victims of Partition included Hindus, who either died in Pakistan or while crossing the border, or ended up as refugees in India. If we are to recall the horrors of Partition, their story cannot be left out of that remembrance.
The bloodbath was the first failure of the Indian and Pakistani leaderships. It was ignominious for the departing British. Partition and Independence need not have been conflated in a free-for-all genocide
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In 1941, as per the Census, Hindus constituted 14 per cent of the population in what became West Pakistan in 1947. In 1947, Hindus were estimated at 12.9 per cent of the total population in the western and eastern wings of Pakistan taken together. That figure had dwindled to 1.3 per cent in the 1951 Pakistani census as evidence of Partition. In the post liberation of Bangladesh era, the 1998 census in Pakistan showed Hindus at 1.85 per cent and the most recent 2017 census showed them at 2.14 per cent. The 1951 census in East Pakistan showed a Hindu population at 22.05 per cent. The 2011 Bangladesh census found them at 8.54 per cent. From 9.9 per cent in the 1951 Census, India’s Muslim population stood at 14.2 per cent in the 2011 Census which will soon be superseded by Census 2021. And all that time, the total population of India had multiplied uncontrollably from 361 million in 1951 to 1.2 billion by 2011. Unofficially, India has about 200 million Muslims today, only a little behind about 212 million in Pakistan and approximately 230 million in Indonesia. For all its failures vis-à-vis its minorities and the periodic communal riots and massacres, India was never Pakistan, or Bangladesh for that matter—not in 1947, nor thereafter.
The academic and political argument against Partition Horrors Remembrance Day would be deflated if only Modi and his ministers were to clarify, and repeatedly underscore, that August 14th hereafter will be a day of remembrance for all victims of Partition—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, et al. If they mean it, they should do it. They could even go a step further and reach out to the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh to try and make August 14th a subcontinental day of remembrance. Pakistan would protest and most likely not come on board since August 14th means something else on its calendar. But it would always be worth a try, certainly if India wanted to convey the message that this is not an occasion for resentment and revanchism. Nobody is seeking retribution after 75 years. Besides, retribution, in theory, could be sought by all. There have been victims and victimisers on all three sides of the border.
Without invoking Santayana, let it be said that an effort at coming to terms with the past is imperative, especially when that past contains in itself most of the reasons why things are how they are. Remembering might reopen wounds. But in forgetting or in being in denial, the poison festers, and we do it all over again. What’s more dangerous than recollecting a collective trauma is that “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia” that WG Sebald observed in a German population “that seemed to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment”. Now, such an “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia” did not apply to victims of Partition and perhaps even to their descendants because they had remembered only too well. In the subcontinental context, the real danger is that few beyond the families singed by Partition have any knowledge, let alone memory, of the horror. It is impossible to name the dead or count their numbers. But if peace is to reign in South Asia, the bloodbath begat by the determination of its current political geography must never be forgotten.
The 1946 Calcutta Killings did not stay confined to the city. Riots would engulf Noakhali in eastern Bengal.The arc spread westward through Bihar and the United Provinces to Punjab and the Northwest Frontier
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That bloodbath was the first failure of the Indian and Pakistani leaderships. It was ignominious for the departing British who, fearing being caught up in a civil war, were too eager to escape after 200 years of colonial subjugation of the subcontinent. Otherwise, Partition and Independence would not have been conflated in a free-for-all genocide. At the least, the demarcation of the border would have preceded and not followed Independence.
Remembering right is the key. It isn’t a one-sided story. Partition is a shared catastrophe of the subcontinent. To understand it, we have to remember it. Only in remembering can we hope to find closure. And to think we had found closure long ago is to be in denial.