Amritjit Singh, Nalini Iyer and Rahul K Gairola (Eds)
Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture, and Politics
Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield), 2016
Price: Rs. 855/- (available at Amazon.in, in an Indian Edition from Orient Blackswan)
We dislike talking about our experiences.
No explanations are needed for those who have been inside,
and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.
~ Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning
Revisiting India’s Partition continues to be a painful experience and also, at the same time, a necessary coming-to-terms with the trauma which has gone beyond the two nations (India and Pakistan) directly affected by it, to become a worldwide South Asian concern that has percolated into the memory of subsequent generations. Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture, and Politics, offers a most welcome critical examination of these issues through 19 thoroughly researched and meticulously documented essays, and a comprehensive, well-documented introduction. These essays take into consideration the entire length and breadth of Partition Studies and also convey a sense of the new scholarship since the 1990s. Broadly framed within the concept of “The Long Partition” developed by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar’s The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia (2007), the volume presents three core ideas, that are like articles of faith in the discussions presented.
First of all, the Partition is not the past and it continues to impact the life of the subcontinent, and the ghosts of Partition have not been and cannot be easily laid to rest even 70 years after the trauma. Secondly, because of its continuing legacy, it has been marked by silences in many areas, and recent scholarship has taken on the task of opening up such silences and filling in the gaps that persist in the narrative of Partition. Finally, the most significant aspect of this work is that it is keen on facilitating the healing process so that individual survivors, the consciousness of the nations affected by it, and the next generations of Partition survivors can come to a fuller understanding of their trauma, as they learn to come to terms with it. In all these three aspects, Revisiting India’s Partition is in tune with the recent scholarship, ever since events like the Sikh massacre of Sikhs in 1984, the communal violence in Mumbai that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid, and the Gujarat carnage in 2002 brought back the urgency to revisit the happenings of 1947, seeing them as symptomatic of the binaries that continue to be dangerously explosive in this age and time, too.
The ghosts of Partition continue to haunt us across time and space. Since this work takes the South Asian scenario as its focus, it brings in perspectives primarily from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Four articles from scholars in Pakistan and Bangladesh challenge the idea that 1947 was a time for celebration in Pakistan since it saw the birth of a new nation. The brutal breakup of the new nation in 1971 undermined the idea that religion can serve as the primary basis of a nation’s unity and identity. Ambar Fatima Riaz’s “The Never Ending Partition: Pakistan’s Self Identification Dilemma” explores how the two-nation theory fails to account for the current divisions in Pakistan (for example, Baluchistan), prompted by ‘regionalism, and loyalty to blood and soil’ as against the unity that Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah had hoped to inspire. Riaz provides a brief account of the Islamisation of Pakistan under the Zia-ul-Haq regime, and its increasing radicalisation, suggesting that ‘the claims for such a nation succeeded, but the vision (such as it was) did not’ and she ends the essay by calling for a re-examination of the unitary vision of Pakistan and recognition of its multiple identities. Masood A Raja echoes a similar stance in “Cosmopolitan Aesthetics in Shakeel Aadil Zada’s Baazigar” when he says ‘it is crucial for Pakistan to reclaim its immediate sub-continental past in order to ease tensions with India but also to safeguard against the pernicious effects of Islamist and fundamentalist cosmopolitanism’. Both argue against ‘the narrative of the irreconcilability’ that escalates the perception of India and Pakistan as perennial enemy states.
The two essays on Bangladesh highlight the three Partitions faced by Bengal: 1905, 1947 and 1971. Md Rezaul Haq, while analysing the six Partition-related short stories of Hasan Azizul Huq, points to the comparative apathy of writers in Bangladesh in depicting the Partition in literary works, and the focus if its historians in examining the two-nation theory. Most Bangladeshi writers, he says, do not dwell on the violence, but Hasan uses violence as the determinant of the action in a story like ‘Parobashi’. Haque also tries to redress the silences surrounding the impact of Partition on Bengali Muslims who had to leave India and go to East Pakistan in the aftermath of 1947. Poet Kaiser Haq examines writings from the early novels of Abul Fazl and Alaudin Al Azad to more recent writers like Mahmud Rahman and Tahmima Anam and calls for an inclusion of the works of Partition literature from Bangladesh into the realm of Partition Studies in the subcontinent and to work towards ‘a common critical framework within which the literature of the entire subcontinent can be considered’. He also rues the fact that ‘the most deleterious outcome of the Partition has been the Partitioning of the sub-continental mind’, and that ‘[W]e have not only become an extended family of squabbling nations, we have grown to deny our civilisational unity’.
Among the first silences to be ‘heard’ were the voices Urvashi Butalia recovered in her seminal book The Other Side of Silence (1998). Women’s voices, to a large extent, have by now opened up and continue to be opened up, in spite of the resistance to their voices stemming from of the patriarchal notions of honour surrounding the questions of rape, violence and abduction. Also linked with the recovery of Partition narratives are aspects of memory and forgetting, including forgetting as a strategy used by families, communities and nations to keep the cruel realities of Partition at bay. Many essays in this volume attempt a study of the ‘Silent Spaces’ in Partition narratives within certain theoretical frameworks. As Radhika Mohanram, in the opening essay emphasises memory as ‘a political instrument’ which determines what is to be remembered and what is to be forgotten. Also, that nations can experience trauma collectively as acutely as individuals. Using a Derridian framework she argues that the ‘presence of ghosts is linked to the issue of justice’ and Indian democracy can never be complete as long as the injustice to the minority communities, especially the Muslims, is not controlled. She cites the success of the Right-Wing ideology in the phenomenal rise of the BJP under the leadership of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as a barometer of the dangerous divisive tendencies within the Indian nation. Citing Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Paani, she maintains that the ghosts that need to be exorcised are most often gendered, as exemplified by the suicide of the Sikh/Muslim Veero/Ayesha more than 20 years after she refused to kill herself in 1947 to escape abduction. The hold of patriarchy and the patriarchal state is so strong that after the father, brother and husband are no longer able to control her, the son steps in to ensure that the woman continues to pay homage at the altar of family and societal honour. Parvinder Mehta in “A Will to Say or Unsay: Female Silences and Discursive Interventions in Partition Narratives” traces the silence v/s narration dichotomy by taking a look at regressive paradigms that are used to suppress confessional urges and the need to express trauma. Exploring Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Lajwanti’, and Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Paani, she speaks of the silencing of women’s voices ‘by notions of shame, wilful forgetting and erasures’ resulting in the production of ‘inchaotic narrations’ – and the break-through achieved by the works she analyses in opening up these narratives and the resistance to totalitarian and sanitised versions of history. In the case of Veero/Ayesha (Khamosh Paani), Mehta also takes a look at her suicide as an act of self-affirmation in the Sikh tradition martyrdom or shaheedi. This opens up a new area of inquiry – the idea of martyrdom, as an act heroism and valour, which lifts a woman from her subservient role as victim and recognises her as an agent of change.
How to resist the tendency to maintain and totalise divisive narrative is the subject of Nazia Akhtar’s “Hyderabad, Partition and Hindutva – Strategic Revisitings in Neelkanth’s “Durga’” - a text that justifies the Right Wing demonising of the entire Muslim community in Hyderabad because of the violence unleashed by the Razakars between 1946 and 1948. In ‘Durga’, the ‘valiant’ Sikh woman Balwinder Kaur, is valorised, because as Akhtar points out, she is strategically co-opted into the Hindu fold (‘Sikhs are Hindus’ is a core belief in the RSS ideology) as a representative of the goddess Durga by her act of facing the Razakars with courage, and saving the other women from being abducted and violated.
Venturing into a comparatively uncharted territory, Debali Mookerjea-Leonard in “Difficult Choices: Work, Family, and Displaced Women in Partition Writings” speaks about the liberating impact of Partition on Bengali women who had to enter professions and the public sphere because of the dislocation, loss of property and loss of the earning male heads of families. Women taking up familial responsibilities were forced into spinsterhood for the sake of their parental families. Her analysis of two texts – Palit Chaudhari’s short story ‘Maachh’ and Shaktipada Rajguru’s Megha Dhaka Tara – also points to the dehumanising of those women who have to stretch themselves, often to the verge of cruelty and manipulation, in their attempts to ensure the very basic survival of their families.
Apart from the recovery of women’s voices, Revisiting India’s Partition also attempts to recover histories of territories and peoples beyond the usual narratives of Punjab and, later, Bengal. So, we have a range of essays in the volume that trace ‘the continuing Partition’ in Sindh, Jammu and Kashmir, North East India, Banaras, South India as a whole, and Hyderabad. Since these are comparatively newer areas of research, each contributor provides the much-needed historical perspective to the rupture caused by Partition in direct or indirect ways. Nandita Bhavnani in “Property, Violence and Displacement: Partition in Sindh” explores how the violence in Sindh was only sporadic due to the hegemony of the Hindus in education, business and trade and by virtue of being the propertied class. Also because of the alertness of the administration which was able to prevent large scale bloodshed of the mohajirs – a term used to describe Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan. Beyond her essay, Bhavnani’s book The Making of the Exile provides a comprehensive picture of the migrations that took place from Sindh to Bombay and beyond in India, the relocations, the nostalgia of the Sindhi Hindus and their regret that in India they still do not have a linguistic and territorial homeland. The Kashmir issue, which continues to be the most volatile issue in Indo-Pak relations and the cause of the extreme polarisation between Hindus and Muslims in India is placed in perspective by Ilyas Chattha in “The Long Shadow of 1947: Partition, Violence and Displacement in Jammu and Kashmir”. He refers to it as ‘the dark legacy of the long Partition’. The problems are aggravated by the uneasy accession of Kashmir to India in 1948, a perpetual near-war situation between India and Pakistan, the frequent border violations and ‘surgical strikes’, by the displacement of, first, the Muslims, and then, the Kashmiri Pandits, giving both displacements the colour of ethnic cleansing. It is Chattha’s conviction that it is the Kashmir conflict, which is the greatest impediment in the process of nation building in both India and Pakistan and also the prime cause of the acrimonious relations between them.
North East India’s – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura – ‘isolation from the national political and social consciousness’ has led to the history of these ‘inaccessible’ parts of India remaining even more inaccessible. Babyrani Yumnam’s “From Frontiers to Borders: Partition and the Production of Marginal Spaces in North East India” examines the mapping exercises which ‘fixed boundaries’ for the first time in these regions. Partition, he says, cut through them, and ‘transformed the NER from a colonial frontier to a post-colonial border zone’. The multiple histories of these regions, which find some kind of echo in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines need to be extensively undertaken to culturally link these isolated regions with mainstream India. Amit R Baishya’s “Looking East – Melodramatic Narrative, Ecotheater and the ‘Forgotten Long March’ in Jangam” goes further into the various Partitions that the sub-continent has been subject to and revisits the administrative separation of Burma from British India in 1937, which led to the displacement of Burmese Indians, who marched from Burma to India after a series of anti-India riots in the 1930s. This Long March has been portrayed by Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace, but the only ‘sustained’ novel based on it is Debendranath Acharya’s Jangam. Baishya’s essay places the novel in an eco-critical perspective and calls for a move away from the anthropocentric norm to one in which ‘Partition studies… pay closer attention to such representations that engage with the fluid interactions between “nature” and the “human”.’
Moving beyond the Master Narrative of Partition in Bengal is central to Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, writes Amrita Ghosh in her analysis of the novel in “Refugees as Homo Sacers – Partition and the National Imaginary in The Hungry Tide.” The silence surrounding the massacre at Morichjhapi shows that caste and class play their role in determining whose voices will be recorded. The residents of Morichjhapi are seen as refugees, but Amrita Ghosh challenges the idea of ‘refugee’ as a homogenised category. She shows that when they belong to marginalised groups, like the dalits, they are kept out of the discourse defined by a majoritarian perspective. Their plight, because of their subaltern status, almost invariably, remains unrepresented.
One of the pioneering scholars of Partition Studies, Jasbir Jain, seeks to broaden the scope of the term ‘refugee’ beyond its physical and immediate political contexts to include the long lasting impact of dislocation and homelessness on the psyche of the dislocated. So, Muhajirs, for whom, going to Pakistan was expected to be a kind of homecoming, remain refugees in their new ‘homeland’; and for them ‘the lost possessions… include memories, graves, homes, neighbourhoods and unfinished tasks’. In her essay “Lost Homes, Shifting Borders, and the Search for Belonging” she brings to the fore many such ‘Toba Tek Singhs’ who have faced ‘the tearing away’ from their roots; they are resurrected in texts across time and nations – in the narratives of Attia Hosain, Intezar Husain, Tahira Iqbal, Sorayya Khan, Munnawar Rana, and Ashgar Wajahat. She cites individual acts of ‘reciprocal goodness’ as in Jis Lahore Nahi DekhiyaO Jaminya hi Nahi and maintains that they can go a long way in easing the pain of the generations who have suffered because ‘one can only work out solutions at an individual level, and home, in the final instance is a memory home.’ Her perception remains valid because lasting political solutions and closures do not seem to be within reach even after 70 years.
There are geographical areas in India that are normally seen as being outside the purview of Partition studies. South India as a whole, for example, is presumed to have witnessed Partition only second hand. As seen above, Nazia Akhtar’s reading of Durga locates its narrative in the Hyderabad of the 1940s and the Razakar violence. Nalini Iyer’s “Partition’s Others -– A View from South India” takes a look at two novels based on Partition -- R. K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma, Balachandra Rajan’s The Dark Dancer - and Lalithambika Antherjanam’s short story ‘A Leaf in the Whirlwind’. The two novels take the protagonists’ travel to the sites most affected by Partition, e.g., Delhi, and join their North Indian colleagues in coming to terms with it. However, Iyer finds Antherjanam’s story very significant because it initiates the study of the gendered subject in Partition Studies. As Iyer notes, ‘Antherjanam’s imaginative recreation of the Partition experiences of a Punjabi woman precedes the work of feminist scholars of the 1980s who began rethinking Partition history from women’s perspectives.’ Jeremy A Rinker takes up a ‘narrative based action research agenda’ challenging ‘canonical storylines’ of Partition narratives by moving away from the epicentres of Partition to peripheral areas where the impact is more masked and in a city like Banaras, where he locates his project, questions of power centres and marginality become significant. He calls for a new grammar of ‘both tellers and listeners’ to get a more authentic picture of the long term cultural and political undercurrents that persist. He seeks to expand the scope of Partition studies by including the narratives of custodial torture, which would connect ‘the Partition pasts with the present-day realities of marginalised exclusion’. The need to speak is vital, leading to healing with the help of Testimonial Therapy.
Which brings us to Memoirs – first-person accounts of what some people actually were witness to, delineated in their own words, - ‘life writings’, as Tarun K Saint refers to them, in his essay “Exorcising the Ghosts of Times Past: Partition Memoirs as Testimony.” Taking a broad sweep of memoirs as wide ranging as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom, Ram Mahonar Lohia’s Guilty Men of India’s Partition to Prakash Tandon’s Punjabi Century, Kamlaben Patel’s Torn From the Roots and Anees Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, Saint emphasises that they are very significant because ‘they bring to the fore the moral ambiguities pertaining to Partition’. Some of memoirs have been controversial; thus, Kalam’s India Wins Freedom was published originally only in a truncated version because some of the facts he felt could not be revealed immediately. The fact that Anees Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade was written in around 1949 but was published only in 1974 and its English translation was ready only in 2011 indicates both its continuing relevance and the initial reluctance to let it become part of public discourse: ‘This reckoning with this major memoir may be symptomatic of widespread collective amnesia in the wake of the Partition as well as the modes of structured forgetting’. The preservation of Memories and ‘Testimonial Therapy’ are also the forces behind the on-going attempts to collect the narratives of as many Partition Survivors today, seen in the shape that digital projects like the Partition Archives 1947 is taking.
The essay “Migrations in Absentia – Multinational Digital Advertising and Manipulation of Partition Trauma”, by Rahul K Gairola shows how digital media marketing represents Partition with a simplistic mix of nostalgia, longing, hope and easy reconciliation. A soft drink can brings back memories of shared bonds obliterating old conflicts; and a Google search action can bring together friends in enemy nations with a few taps on the smart phone, re-establishing old friendships and paving the way to a hope for this bonding to be strengthened in the younger generation. These are facile market-driven myths, products of ‘capitalist manipulation’. This significant essay opens up an area which can be rich ground for future explorations: how the popular and post-memory media uses Partition as commodity, leading to a trivialisation of the experience. Gairola, however, lauds the role played by some pioneering digital media projects in successfully countering such perceptions; projects like ‘The Sindhi Voices Project’, ‘The South Asian American Digital Project’ and ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’ have been at the forefront of recording first-hand experiences of the Partition in accessible formats.
Intizar Husain’s life and writing exemplify most aspects pertaining to Partition – exile, dislocation, resettlement, nostalgia, homelessness, belonging, unbelonging, refugee, insider/ outsider, etc; he combines ‘the consciousness of a native who carries within himself the presence of an earlier multicultural history and heritage’. “Intizar Husain’s Quest for Meaning and Vision – Partition and Beyond” by Tasneem Shahnaz and Amritjit Singh takes stock of the entire gamut of the experience of growing up in a rich multicultural environment, imbibing influences as diverse as the Urdu qissa and dastaan, the Panchatantra and the Puranas, Alif Laila and the Jataka Tales, which result in his ‘plural narratives and perspectives’, combining ‘subjective, personal memory’ with ‘collective memory’. The pain of leaving one’s homeland, the ambiguous, second class status in the new country, the humiliation connected with being a mohajir, the Islamisation of Pakistan, the formation of Bangladesh, the disintegration of the great expectations which migrants to Pakistan had of the new nation, - the short stories and the novels of Intizar Husain bear witness to the collective trauma of an entire generation and beyond. However, as this essay concludes, Husain’s vision offers real hope, as against the facile hopes kindled by product advertisements (Gairola’s essay): it is the ‘capacity for introspection’ and ‘true self reckoning’ that ‘offers this human discourse as an answer to the brutality of the two Partitions that have been directly part of his [Husain’s] own experience’.
This overview of Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture and Politics merely skims the surface of this important, erudite work on the Partitions that the subcontinent has experienced. The concern for lasting solutions to the conflicts that inhere in South Asia and India and Pakistan, in particular, is pronounced in every essay in the volume, taking it beyond the pale of armchair academia and expanding the scope of both Partition Studies and literary studies. Voicing the trauma and recording it is one of the ways of coming to terms with it and moving into the future, many writers in this volume have stressed the need for ‘memorialisation’ of the Partitions by acknowledging them in conjunction with the celebratory discourses of independence, and by giving these memories a physical embodiment in Partition Museums or Monuments; History, Literature and Art forums have contributed in keeping the memories of Partitions alive, and also in making forays into newer areas which continue to reflect the on-going fallouts of Partition. But the exorcising of the demons of 1947, 1971, and the continuing polarisation of communities and nations in the sub-continent is far from being achieved. Revisting India’s Partition is an urgent reminder of the work that lies ahead for all of us -- teachers and scholars as well as activists and public figures.