In 2008, the University of Southampton (UK) had organised an international conference to commemorate the sixty years of India’s Independence. At the plenary session, I discussed the Partition of India with emphasis on its horrific events and implications. As the paper was opened for discussion, an Indian historian based in the UK sought to know why historians from India keep harping on the disaster and trauma of 1947. In doing so the scholar sought to suggest that the tragedy of India’s Partition was just ‘extra baggage’ that came along with the ‘grand story of India’s struggle for freedom and needs now to be forgotten’. This point of view did not surprise me as I was aware of such historical perspectives being part of the historical narrative that has been made to dominate historical discourse in the decades that followed Independence and Partition.
Even a cursory review of history readings prescribed in the past for schools, colleges and even competitive examinations would show that the Partition story has merited a paragraph or at most two paragraphs in most readings. The attempt to oversight and understate the unfolding of the tragedy is in fact just one part of this carefully crafted narrative which has also propagated the view that the decision to Partition the country enjoyed mass support. This reading of the Partition story has also argued that the process was the result of historical circumstances which created conditions in which Partition was the only option. This is gross misrepresentation.
The bitter exchange that took place between Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru during this AICC meeting has been documented by Dr Lohia. As Gandhi said, he had not been consulted while Nehru insisted he had done so. The exchange was heated and left the gathering shocked
The fact is and Jayaprakash Narayan, too, had said the decision to Partition the country was taken at a personal level by a few leaders and did not represent the people’s will. The only public forum where the issue was debated as we know was the All India Congress Committee that met on June 14, 1947.
Clash Between Nehru And Gandhi
Several leaders of the time including Dr Rammanohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan had said that the 400 members of the AICC were all nominated and in no way were representative of the people’s will. Only 200 of the total actually attended the session and even as 129 of them supported the Partition resolution, in their speeches there was huge opposition to the proposal almost without an exception. Most speakers opposed the idea but were unable to vote against it. The bitter exchange that took place between Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru during this AICC meeting has been documented by Dr Lohia. As Gandhi said, he had not been consulted while Nehru insisted he had done so. The exchange was heated and left the gathering shocked.
The Partition plan was widely condemned. As The Tribune noted: “We accuse those whom providence has made the architect of our destiny… of accepting the two nation theory… of describing the unprecedented suffering as the price for freedom…” (Oct.1 1947). Likewise Sardar Ajit Singh, the great freedom struggle hero, noted: “The champions of partition will not escape condemnation in history” (June 9 1947). The Punjab Congress leader Gopi Chand Bhargava, too, said: “The Punjab is ruing the day when Indian leaders compromised with communalism… The Punjab lies prostate and bleeding… India stands divided”. This list is unending.
Devastation and Horror
The one key story that emerges from 1947 from whatever section of society, it may be from the masses, the official system, the influential and well-connected, the press and so on is that, the ‘story of Partition’ is one of horror, devastation and sadness.
Let us look at what the use of the term Partition actually means. It is estimated that about 17 million people were forced to move out from age old homes in the West and the East – Punjab, Sind, Bengal and other parts so as to cross borders. This remains the largest peacetime forced migration in history. Even conservative estimates suggest that the number of deaths that took place in this communal madness is in excess of 500,000. Some credible sources take this figure upto even a million. This tragedy manifested itself most for the manner in which women were especially targeted. Here too, the most conservative of estimates suggest that over 100,000 women were violated and abducted. The actual figure would be many times more.
The horror of Partition to which Prime Minister Narender Modi drew the Nation’s attention last year and spoke of commemorating the tragic happenings on August 14 every year also has another side. The statistics of the killings apart, it is the nature of violence that even today has almost no comparison. The Nazis and dictators like Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung have had the blood of millions of innocent men, women and children on their hands. But this was the power of the State against unarmed ordinary people. The Partition violence was extra tragic because it was a conflict between people who had co-existed for centuries and suddenly took upon themselves to outdo each other in terms of the harm they could inflict on the ‘other’ community. The idea was to make conditions so impossible that migration was the only option. In today’s terms the economic impact could be in the range of 3.00 lakh crores.
It is important to commemorate a tragedy of such unprecedented scale to keep in mind and instill in the national psyche the memory of those that experienced and lived through this monumental disaster and horror
The horror of Partition also stands out for the fact that the perpetrators of the violence sought to remove not only the physical presence of the other community but also cultural as well. Insanity became common place, enabling people to freely violate age old taboos and norms. The common man, the small peasantry, petty traders, shopkeepers and those that followed ancestral professions were the ones who suffered the most. The vast majority had no idea of what was happening and why it was happening. The trusting mass of humanity on both sides just followed the line. Most of the wielders of governmental authority, the owners of large land holdings, the wealthy barristers and bankers and the political class of all kinds had taken the early call to move and safeguard their interest. This led Gandhiji to comment on the unfortunate manner in which the ‘rich had left the poor behind’.
Seventy five years have now passed and interest in why and how it happened only seems to grow. The impact of the tragic unfolding of the Partition decision on the individual psyche is seated deeply and cannot be wished away however hard one may try. The fact also remains that for the for the vast majority of people with memories of Partition, it remains a monumental disaster in terms of human lives lost and most importantly for the manner in which it ended a shared way of life.
Having spent over 30 years studying the tragedy, I have yet to meet one family that lived through the Partition trauma and would now wish to forget it. ‘Purists’ and sections of our academia may have chosen to stay away and understate the horrors of 1947 by downsizing and downplaying important parts of the tragedy but the question remains – can or should such events be forgotten and wished away.
It is important to commemorate a tragedy of such unprecedented scale to keep in mind and instill in the national psyche the memory of those that experienced and lived through this monumental disaster and horror.