The Politics of Partition and its Memory


Now that the euphoria over independence day “celebrations” and remembering partition are over, it is worthwhile remembering that it was in fact today, 70 years ago, that the Radcliffe Line was made public. Millions of people woke up on 15 August not knowing which side of border they would be on, today their fate was sealed. Sitting in Delhi on this day, having seen the way both Pakistan and India remember 14/15 August 1947, it is a stark reminder of how chaotic this process must have been.

The month of August in the sub-continent is when the monsoon rains gush down intermittently. The heavy rains leave places incapacitated due to the deluge that falls. Even today, where there is improved drainage, the monsoon rains have the capacity to bring towns and cities to a standstill. So, thinking about this back in August 1947, it is staggering to think that the last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, decided that 15 August would be the date for independence. The date was chosen because it coincided with the date when Japan surrendered after it was devastated by the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mountbatten was clearly sentimental about the date because he was Supreme Allied Commander of South-East Asia when Japan surrendered. But he also failed to show any foresight when it came to the sub-continent. All the leaders failed to anticipate that millions of people would be engulfed by violence and thus forced to flee and that too in the difficult month of August. This only added further to their misery and fuelled diseases in refugee camps. It must be kept in mind that the violence that was unleashed in August 1947 was not an isolated incident, it was a culmination and continuation of previous episodes of horrific communal/political violence in which many lost their lives and were displaced. It was thus not entirely unexpected, nor was it just spontaneous.

The British media (TV, Radio and Print) has decided to cover partition/independence extensively and interestingly for this decennial anniversary they have been giving full coverage to the voices of ordinary people. The BBC has had a full season of programmes (one of which I contributed to) devoted to India and Pakistan at 70. I have personally spent the last sixteen years working on partition and its wider impact on the Punjab region, so the ordinary voices are not new to me. In fact, this trend in scholarship has been evolving and growing for the past twenty years. What is sobering is how the coverage has differed in India, Pakistan and the UK. I can only speak about these three because I know them well and they were of course at the epicentre of this.

While there is still a huge gap in our understanding of empire and its consequences, these programmes are important in reaching out to ordinary citizens, to educate, to inform, to illuminate the travesty of empire and its end. They also serve as important markers of remembering, but that alone is not enough. Which is why being in India/Pakistan during the days of August has been important. It highlights the disparity between the diaspora and those who live here. Capturing and sharing the narratives of survivors is important but from an academic perspective, what do these voices mean, what do they tell us, why are they still relevant? The memorialisation of this memory and how it tells this story is also significant. There is little worth in collecting hundreds and thousands of accounts by survivors if this is not contextualised or critically framed in the existing historiography. A simple account of someone’s life and their experiences is important but what about beyond that? What lessons can we take from this?

And our politicians are still in the business of selling a myth of a glorious past and a dream for the future. It is that future which needs to be critically examined in relation to the previous seventy years. Pakistan today seems fragile as ever but (and more importantly its people) it is a resilient country. For the best part of the last seventy years Pakistan has been swinging between military dictatorship and democratic rule, while India, largely a democracy, has been busy playing and expanding upon the Hindutva card. A future in which we see a further entrenchment of Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India is entirely possible and while not a recent development, it does need to be contextualised firstly in colonial history and secondly in the how the developments of the past seventy years led to this. Of concern for everyone should be that in this vision to be exclusively majoritarian, both India and Pakistan would lose an asset: its significant minorities. The diversity in all its richness is what makes these countries vibrant and valuable, they should be celebrated rather than suppressed and targeted. And so, seventy years on, while we remember the people who suffered in the great partition, let us not forget that there a battle going on today for the hearts and minds of people. Which is why it is seemingly more poignant being here in the sub-continent at this moment because it is a reminder of the unfinished business of azaadi beyond empire.


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