For long, most of us have thought we know about partition. The story that our textbooks taught us was a simple one: Pakistan was carved out of India as a land for many Muslims and a partition occurred, one of the largest human displacements ever, and there was a lot of violence in which a lot of people died. We mourned those who died in the violence of partition for a sentence, not even a paragraph. And quickly moved on to celebrate our Tryst With Destiny, often forgetting that we kept our date with destiny after immense pain, bloodshed and hatred.
If only things were that convenient or simple to the people who lived through the traumatic violent months that were the ominous precursors to India and Pakistan's birth. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan is a stunning book, precisely because it shatters the convenient myths that India, Pakistan and Britain have maintained as history. Yasmin Khan brings to light the confusion and chaos that prevailed during the 'transfer of power' from the British Raj to the Indian and Pakistani governments.
Words that in retrospect have been inscribed with clarity and meaning - like 'Pakistan', 'independence' - were vague words, the meaning of which differed from person to person in that era! Some questions rang in the hearts and minds of people: 'What exactly was Pakistan going to be? Where would its borders be?' 'Who is a Pakistani? Who is an Indian?' 'What would independence really mean to the poor?' And before they could understand the magnitude of answering these questions, religious violence and ethnic cleansing broke out, partition happened. India and Pakistan were born, leaving behind thousands dead and thousands confused.
Yasmin Khan chronicles the months and events that lead to partition, the terror and trauma that men, women and children went through before two countries came into existence. Dr.Khan analyses with impressive neutrality and encourages the reader to grapple with cold facts and form opinions on what partition actually was. Some incidents that she quotes in her book made my heart beat fast and brought tears to my eyes. For instance:
Urdu journalist Shorish Kashmiri writes: ‘Some young people, whose parents had been butchered and whose sisters and daughters had been left in Pakistan, surrounded Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru). One young man lost his temper and gave Panditji a resounding slap; a slap on the face of the Prime Minister of India. But Panditji said nothing to him. He just placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. The young man shouted: ‘Give my mother back to me! Bring my sisters to me!’ Panditji’s eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Your anger is justified, but, be it Pakistan or India, the calamity that has overtaken us is all the same. We have both to pass through it.’
Understanding partition in just an academic point of view is impossible without confronting the emotions that come your way when you read of months of madness and slaughter. Neighbours slaughtering each other, people who once differed with each other on their political beliefs - Congress or the Muslim League - suddenly seeing each other as Hindu or Muslim 'enemies', women, almost 83000 of them 'abducted' on both sides of the border, rape being used as an instrument of war against communities, some politicians and parties aiding and abetting violence, British troops abdicating duty and simply watching as people died, in a land which they had exploited for more than 200 years and hastily declared independent.
Yet there were also those who at great danger to their lives, saved the lives of friends from other communities. There are inspiring stories of the many social workers and volunteers who set out to heal wounds, wipe tears, rebuild lives, even when their own lives had been torn apart by partition.
There is no doubt about the great tragedy that Partition was. And yes, it ought to be capitalized, just as the Holocaust is. Understanding Partition is crucial for anyone who wants to understand India, Pakistan and indeed their relationship with each other. It saddens me that Partition is used only as a one-word, one-sentence reference, as though it was an event that ought to be remembered, but only as a small axis point. It shouldn't. Partition and its many victims, perpetrators need to be fully understood in the context of the situation in the subcontinent at that time. We need to make our peace with the truths of that turbulent time.
The Great Partition is mandatory reading for anyone interested in India, Pakistan or the British Raj. It doesn't deal just with the politics of Partition from the elite Delhi perspective, but delves into the heart of the common man, from Lahore to Noakhali to East Bengal, who paid the biggest price for Partition. The book is not written in a racy, fiction-style format and therefore might not be the easiest of reads, but it is a wonderful, thought-provoking academic work that I highly recommend.
I hope to post more excerpts from Dr.Khan's book in the coming weeks, as part of A Passage to the British Raj.