If it hurts, let’s heal wounds

Sanjay Kapoor

The horrors of partition still live inside us. An entire generation of Indians and Pakistanis have journeyed through this living nightmare more than 60 years ago. They have wondered how they can rid themselves of the memories of burning pyres, screams of outraged women and brutalities that redefine hate and rage. More than a million were killed in riots and organised killings facilitated by the use of State resources on both sides of the divide. In just a space of two months, the seemingly tranquil lands of northern and eastern India were transformed into killing fields by a cruel Radcliffe Line that divided each bridge, farmland, village, well, in a manner that would undermine kinship, loyalty and every other value that allowed human beings to live in peace in Punjab and Bengal.

Grainy images of refugees trooping sadly in bullock carts or atop overloaded trains have come to epitomise the tragedy of this last century. The birth of India and Pakistan was not only viciously bloody, intrinsic in this partition was the deep hatred that has not been adequately satiated by four wars and many near ones.

As historian Yasmin Khan in her book, Great Partition--the making of India and Pakistan, brings to the fore, majority of those impacted by the action of politicians did not really know that partition based on religious lines would entail shifting to some other place. The tragic transfer of population was achieved in just two months, but its gigantic shock and pain is still experienced after all these years. Passage of time may have silenced the urgency of revenge against unimaginable brutalities heaped on communities, families and individuals, but it has not smothered the curiosity about a question: whether partition could have been avoided?

And surely, who were the main culprits behind it?

Expelled leader of BJP, Jaswant Singh, in his latest book on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, father of modern Pakistan, has stoked interest in partition and its main dramatis personae. He tries to project Jinnah as a nationalist who did not want British India to be vivisected, but was driven by Jawaharlal Nehru and Congress's refusal to share power with the Muslim League. The long saga of freedom struggle allows its interpreters to cherry-pick that part of an individual's history that fits in with their overall thesis. There is a manifest attempt at simplifying characters and their complex contributions to life and the world.

Jinnah, or for that matter, Nehru and Gandhi, represented and said different things that would not sit well with their now-accepted public image or view. To be fair to all of them, they were operating in an environment where the British not only decided the rules of the game, but also had the freedom to shift the goalpost according to their whims and fancies. Worse, the British played their policy of divide and rule by pitting one individual or religion against the other. In short, every player would be looking at the colonialists to figure out who was the victor.

From this standpoint, it is important to dwell deeper on the role of the British in first partitioning India and then creating circumstances for many years that sustained this divide. For the uninitiated, the first war between India and Pakistan was fought in 1947-48 when British generals were commanding both the armies. Most of the tribals came to Kashmir in British army trucks to capture Srinagar.

Stanley Wolpert in his book, Shameful Flight, and more recently Narendra Singh Sarila's, The Shadow of the Great Game--The untold story of India's partition, reveal the larger game played by a bankrupt empire to geo-strategically control the politics of this volatile region. The British may have been ousted from the subcontinent due to our freedom struggle and also under pressure from the rising power of Americans, but they have left a terribly troublesome legacy.

This legacy of hate and division needs to be countered by a fresh interpretation of the role of the colonial rulers by non-partisan historians from both countries and how Nehru and Jinnah were merely marionettes in their hands. Reinterpretation of the history of partition could serve the purpose of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the two countries and prevent them from becoming the playground of foreign interests, as Nehru had warned. A re-look at history may throw up solutions to Kashmir and Balochistan, which at the moment seem so elusive.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2009