Written by Shiven Nath

How much blood has to be spilled until we understand that land is not holier

than people’s lives?

Ilan Leibowtz

Israeli, Knesset Member, July 2004

 Even before the onset of World War II, British determination to rule India was fading. With the onset of the War and in the years to follow, the tide was turning against Great Britain. So much so, in 1946, Viceroy Wavell reported to London that India had become ungovernable. Matters came to a head with the proposal of the ‘Cabinet Mission Plan’ and its subsequent failure due to fundamental ideological differences between the Muslim League and the Congress. While the Muslim League wanted a separate, Muslim state of Pakistan as voiced earlier in the 1940 Lahore Resolution, the Congress with fundamental objections to the division of India along religious lines could not reconcile itself to the possibility of a weak center in a federal set up as proposed in the ‘Plan’. The subsequent rejection of the proposal for a Muslim state, by the Cabinet Mission, led to a call for ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League, in pursuance to its demand for a division of the Indian Subcontinent, along religious lines. As a direct result of this call, there came to be, what has been called the “Week of the Long Knives”, a period of, “brutality – ridden microcosm of the political struggle that had the entire country in its throes later in 1947” (ZEHRA, 2016).  

 An unhappy Clement Attlee now replaced Wavell with Lord Mountbatten, who was sent to India with the express brief, to handle the transfer of power to Indians latest by, July 1948. Attlee, in what seemed like an act of desperation had also told Mountbatten, “Keep India united if you can. If not save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out” (The Asian Age, 2015). Upon his arrival in India, Lord Louis Mountbatten was confronted with a situation where Nehru, Gandhi ji and the Congress Party wanted a united, secular India while the Muslim League, led by Jinnah, was adamant in its demand for a separate Muslim state in the name of Pakistan. Amidst, fears of worsening communal violence it was Mountbatten’s decision to partition India and advance the date of the handover to 15 August 1947, as he came to feel he was sitting on a tinder box and that the whole country would be up in flames if he did not act immediately.

 Sardar Patel who had once dismissed Pakistan as Jinnah’s ‘mad dream’, came to be the first one to be convinced by Mountbatten. Having experienced the disruptive ways of the Muslim League during the days of the interim government he had come to feel that it was better to have, “one division” rather than “many divisions” (Singh, Is Sardar Patel the best leader India never had?, 2017) .Jawahar Lal Nehru, initially reacted violently to the proposal of Partition as introduced by Lord Mountbatten and had to be worn down gradually even though paradoxically, as early as 1943 he had written, “it is better to have Pakistan or almost nothing” (Frontline, 2002). Predictably, Gandhi ji the conscience keeper of the Congress, if not the entire nation, walked out of the meeting with Mountbatten when the topic of partition came up in their conversation. In fact, for him to accept Partition, because of the fear of civil war was to admit that, “everything was to be got if mad violence was perpetrated in sufficient measure” (Partition of India, n.d.).

Ultimately, he had to be prevailed upon by Sardar Patel and Nehru to accept the inevitability of partition and his rebellion against the notion is easy to understand, for contextually he had once said that, “My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines”. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God” (Gandhi, India of My Dreams , n.d.). So much so, to prevent this dismemberment of India along communal lines, Gandhi ji was willing to cede power to Jinnah if the unthinkable could be averted. With all these cross currents, it was Maulana Azad who expressed his premonition that the country was moving towards “great danger” and he later observed that even Gandhi’s vote giving assent to partition could not persuade no more than 29 AICC members to vote for the Resolution for Pakistan, with 15 members against the resolution (Desai, 2017). 

Even as Partition did come to be, it could be said that it was by no means inevitable, but it became inevitable due to the fact that the key decision makers were delicately poised, and they just happened to swing towards Partition. Firstly, there was the apparent haste shown by Britain in its desperation to exit India and this was coupled with the looming threat of civil war due to communal tensions- partition being one of several solutions but by no means the only solution. Secondly, the ‘divisive’ seeds sown by Britain’s politics of separate electorates for minorities (i.e., Muslims) held sway over the secularism as idealized by the Congress-Britain making no attempt to intervene in this regard, by assuaging insecurities of the Muslim minority. In fact, Yasmin Khan, in ‘The Great Partition’ says that, “if the British had not been in such a hurry to disengage, decolonization might not have involved partition at all” (Khan, 2008).

Finally, on June 18, the India Independence Act came in to being and with it came the impending “birth of Pakistan an ‘aberration’ caused by a configuration of forces at a particular historical juncture…” (Ali, 2009).Lord Mountbatten entrusted the task of demarcating the boundaries between India and Pakistan, to a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who strangely enough had never set foot in India and had no knowledge of the demographics of India.

Drawing the boundaries with no other considerations than religious demography, Radcliffe set about creating two nations from a monolith something which……did not curry favour with Jinnah who described his newly begotten state as a “moth eaten” Pakistan (Nayar, An excerpt from ‘Scoop, 2018). The aftermath of this exercise in ‘amateur cartography’ was a travesty in nation creation whose ‘state’ and human dimensions have been felt across generations. This was an event whose implications were not adequately anticipated by those who were the knowing or unknowing, perpetrators of the inhuman turn of events. 

In order to better understand the playing out of events after the announcement of the act of partition, it is essential to recognise and understand the fact that, for centuries mixed communities had co- existed across the subcontinent in a syncretic culture which was uniquely specific to undivided India. Even two centuries of British Rule had left this societal structure largely undisturbed, a structure which was to undergo a brutal and abrupt destruction, almost overnight across large swathes of the country, especially along India’s borders with the newly created entities of West and East Pakistan. Just as, Jinnah had discounted the “dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality”, it can be said with reasonable certainty that the blood shed of millions is something which was certainly not anticipated by Jinnah when he put out the clarion call for the state of Pakistan (Pillalamarri, 2017). 

The creation of Pakistan with a majority of Muslims and a Hindu majority India effectively meant that the provinces of Punjab and Bengal had to be divided along religious lines disregarding the fact that mixed communities would now be cleaved in a manner most-unnatural. This was a failure in planning and anticipation, wherein it was not anticipated that overnight millions would find themselves on the wrong side of the newly created border and it was but natural that if there was no anticipation of consequences there was no concomitant planning in place to take care of such contingencies.

As a consequence, it should not surprise that for millions of people not only was there was a loss of habitat but there was an accompanying loss of identity, which was probably even more traumatic. With the loss of a way of life, came loss and destruction of property and life itself. Cyril Radcliffe could not possibly comprehend the havoc that he was about to wreak on a populace that itself did not understand what partition would entail. Otherwise, why would he be reluctant to talk to eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar many years later and in fact have “regret written all over his face”, “like a person who felt that the killings during Partition were still on his conscience.” It seems Cyril was unwittingly naïve when he admitted (to Nayar) that, what tempted him to accept the assignment was the prospect of being the creator of two new countries.

Ayesha Jalal is pithy in her analysis when she terms the 1947 Partition as a “holocaust and one of the largest forced movements of people”, in recent times (Jalal, 2016). In a numeric dimension, it is estimated that more than fifteen million people were forced to migrate and to compound this human tragedy, the estimates of the number of deaths are often pegged as high as two million. To put matters in perspective, here was a migration which saw the number of Hindus in West Pakistan fall from 20 million to a quarter of a million.

The situation in East Punjab as a mirror image was no different as almost the entire Muslim community moved to East Pakistan.  This was a mass movement where Muslims headed towards Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs seeking safety of their kith and kin moved towards India. The wave of violence which accompanied and triggered this migration was of a people deeply rooted in their habitat and respective cultures, resulting in a fierce cataclysm of untold dimensions. The marauding mobs and guerrillas were present on both sides of the great religious divide and some killings were even carried out by members of the same community. Women being often abducted or raped, Nisid Hajari, vividly describes the turn of events as follows, “All too often they crossed the border in funeral silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.” This was a case of unprecedented violence, in a society where religious beliefs ran deep and women were targeted as “symbols of community honour” (Ansari, 2017). 

For a happening which was largely or almost entirely the result of political processes, Partition brought with it an extreme trauma which left deep rooted scars in the lives of those uprooted communities now caught in an “abyss of history” (RAMDEV, 2018). Among those affected by the bloodshed came agonies induced by “sectarian hatred and the shattering of social identity”. Dr Sanjeev Jain, a professor of psychiatry, exploring the impact of social trauma on the individual psyche, explains the loss of continuity and disruption of the sense of rootedness as a “systematic destruction of a civil society”.

It is in this context that he also ascribes the accompanying blood shed to the severing of bonds in a deeply integrated society.  Sadat Hassan Manto, a litterateur termed these happenings as “terrifying chronicles of the damned” just as he could not comprehend the futility of it all when he writes, “Despite trying, I could not separate India from Pakistan and, Pakistan from India.” Professor Shiv Visvanathan tellingly terms this disruptive event as a historical event which “is a conversation of nation states and a silencing of a people”.

Seemingly taking up the thread of thought espoused by Professor Visvanathan, Dr Alok Sarin, a psychiatrist voices the thought that even though the mental trauma of Partition was identified by the medical professionals of that era, not much was done to explore and examine the situation (Visvanathan, 2018). This is probably what leads him to say, “The silence was telling”. Ashis Nandy has called this silence as the “silence of a secret self” and points out to several plausible explanations for this eerie silence (Nandy, 2010).

The most obvious explanation stems from the possibility that the victims having possibly reconciled with their past, were now reluctant to rake up the past. Looking at the same set of events from the perspective of possible perpetrators there is the clear possibility that some of the killers could still be fearing possible legal consequences even as they confront ghosts from the past, at times having killed their own kin. Captain Nihal Singh of Rohtak being one such sufferer, cited by Nandy, who having killed his pregnant wife in 1947, could never come to terms with the consequences of his acts of violence against his own.

In contrast to Nihal who was a victim of his own act of violence there were others who managed to create their paradigm of normality when they termed the abhorrent as a time of madness, just like those who chose to create a coping mechanism which termed the period as an evil one which brought humanity to its knees. Paradoxically, Ashis also points out to those who carry a sense of anger and hurt for their suffering did not find honourable mention in the scheme of things.  

Accompanying this identification of ‘silenced memories’, in direct contrast, Veena Das refers to a “frozen-slide quality” in the accounts of the women who ‘sacrificed’ themselves in order to save their honour like the heroic queens of yore. Das, again uses the same “frozen-slide” analogy, when she refers to an idealised account of ancestral homes left behind by partition survivors. In her interviews with partition survivors Veena Das repeatedly came across such “frozen” memories of ancestral homes left behind which are best described in her words which are suggestive of a bitter-sweet, bitterness: 

In everyday conversation, the generation that left Lahore would refer

frequently to the puris (fried bread) and lassi (yoghurt drink) of Lahore,

the Zari embroidery; the sweetness and freshness of the vegetables.

the shopping in Anarkali Bazaar

It is Avishai Margalit, in Ethics of Memory who, then places this “frozen-slide” concept in context when he says, “People, events, and objects from the past are presented as if endowed with pure innocence”.

In matters of memory and a somewhat different perspective, Jonathan Greenberg in his seminal work on ‘Generations of Memory’, refers to the intensely felt emotions by the millions who lived through such “interrelated historical events” where for one family or part of a family, Partition was a matter of a homeland secured while for another family it meant the permanent loss of a home (Greenberg, 2005). These boundaries emanating from political considerations and neo-nation building exercises generated traumas which scarred the survivors, “like a covered stain” and Margalit elaborates on it as, “The memory of humiliation is the bleeding scar of reliving it” (Margalit, 2004).

This is no different from the thoughts expressed by Shiv Visvanathan’s unnamed friend who describes such traumatic memories to be akin to a layer of skin which is raw and open to pain. What is even more disturbing is the discovery of ersatz memory as documented by political sociologist, Chandrika Parmar and narrated by Professor Visvanathan when he describes his chance meeting with a businessman who had appropriated and internalized a memory which was his grandfathers to begin with. It is Chandrika’s contention that the conduit of ersatz memory had resulted in the percolation of partition memories to the second and third generations who had never gone through the tumult and yet claimed possession of the related memory (Visvanathan, THE WIRE, 2017). 

Nevertheless, the silence of these silenced memories has turned out to be a deafening silence, prompting historians and archivists to document and compile memories as living memories before being sanitised and consigned to the realm’s history. Urvashi Butalia, in ‘The Other Side of Silence’, has attempted to understand the pain behind the silence through a process of interviews with survivors (Ashraf, 2016). Among ‘her survivors’, perpetrators are conspicuous by their absence as she does not succeed in eliciting a response from such subjects. 

Still, in her process of discovery, Urvashi comes across some uncomfortable truths where the line between the victims and aggressors gets blurred and complicity surfaces again and again in the narratives. According to her there were many who lived in silence just as there were those who spoke only to have to live with the consequences. This is something she articulates, as in the case of a Sikh doctor who unleashed a crisis in his very self after he admitted to his acts of killing, albeit at the behest of the victims who were nurses and other women, living in fear of being attacked. In all this, her journey is one of empathy in the hope that the process of sharing can bring a sense of catharsis, in order to start a process of healing.     

With passage of time and exigencies of the process of ageing, there has been a renewed effort to ‘preserve memories’ and projects like the ‘Partition Museum’ or the ‘Oral History Project’ in Pakistan are a bid in this direction. Interestingly, a telling commentary on such silence(s) comes from Mallika Ahluwalia, when she says, “My father did not know that his mother was Partition-affected because that generation never told their children about it” (Kamakshi Ayyar, 2018). This was a deadly legacy or even a toxic legacy and the silence(s) of Partition, in the words of Professor Visvanathan are therefore the “real history of Partition”.

For, this exodus of epic proportions resulted in a deluge of collective memories resulting from a trauma which remain suppressed in silences even after a lapse of more than seventy years. In spite, of these acts of suppression, memories have lingered and returned to haunt again and again. According to Gyanendra Pandey conventional historians have succeeded in creating a narrative which admits horrifying genocidal violence only to elide it with the use of several historiographical devices. While this historiography, including the core political process of the transfer of power may be consigned to the pages of history in this manner, Partition in its dimension as suppression of memories, becomes a case of ‘persistence of memory’, spanning multiple generations. Maybe, a “Truth Commission on Partition” is what India needs to heal itself, and bring peace to survivors and the perpetrators, at the same time  (Visvanathan, THE WIRE, 2017) (ibid). For, let us not forget that in this unwritten, silent epic even the perpetrators became victims of their own follies.


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Image credit: Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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