For more than 50 years, we shied away from discussions about Partition. The memories of blood and gore overshadowed everything else, and it was, unsurprisingly, intolerable to confront them.
In August 2011, I made my first Facebook post musing about the difficult time my grandparents must have faced as the nation was celebrating Independence, when they had to flee with their five children (ranging in age from six to 19 with another on the way), to an unfamiliar place to start life anew.
“Oh don’t start that again” said several responses. They implied that to honour the memory of my grandparents’ bravery and calm acceptance would be to provoke trains to fill up with slaughtered people once again, and women to be forced to jump into wells or have their heads chopped off by family members wielding swords.
However, by that time, there was already a rising swell of people who had begun looking at Partition more objectively. By 2017, Partition had begun properly coming out of the closet. It was the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, and a slew of mainstream Indian publications asked me to write about the insights I’d gained over the course of hundreds of interviews with Sindhis who had experienced Partition, followed by the heroic rebuilding of their lives.
A joyous event
I had understood by then that horror was only a small part of the story. Horror made the topic difficult to view objectively. It obscured the many other aspects of the period. And in fact, it was the relatively lower degree of horror in Sindh that had stood in the way of the Sindh story of Partition, a rich and complex research topic, from being addressed, and it was only now being taken up tentatively from various corners of the world where the diaspora has a presence.
It was a great step forward in the slow unfolding of the truth of Partition when, on August 15, 2021, the glorious occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day, the nation awoke to the news that August 14 had been declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.
An uneasy feeling came over me. My first reaction was, “The memory of Partition should certainly be kept alive. But to rename August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is to retain Independence Day as a pristinely joyous event. It adds insult to the injury of those who experienced its catastrophe and trauma”.
I passed this around to a largish group of people I’ve interviewed. Many replied, expressing pain and confusion at the announcement of Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. “Why should we include horror in our remembrance?” seemed to be the general feeling.
As the thought began to settle in my mind, new implications of a Partition Horrors Remembrance Day emerged. To select Pakistan’s Independence Day as a day of commemorating horrors against Indians seemed like a step towards more conflict, the instigation of an entire nation against its next-door neighbour?
Did we really want to perpetuate a conflict that can only benefit those who deal in arms and ammunition? I personally think it’s time to stop doing it, and the large positive response to my first message encouraged me to start a petition to request our prime minister to revoke the naming of August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.
I then moved the discussion to Facebook. “Saaz, you got it absolutely right in this para,” veteran journalist Abhay Vaidya commented, quoting the last part of my petition:
“Finally, we wish to acknowledge that people of every community suffered, in both India and Pakistan.
14 August was declared Pakistan’s Independence Day by the departing colonial rulers. To name it as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is to deeply dishonour every Indian of Undivided India who suffered the catastrophic trauma of Partition.
‘While we are grateful to you for creating a national platform to recognise and honour those who suffered Partition, we most humbly petition you to revoke the naming of 14 August as Partition Horrors Day.”
There were many other – varied – responses. One of my most beautiful, erudite, and articulate friends posted this response: “Memories of the Holocaust were kept alive so that families could get closure. It is very important that Partition is seen in the same way. It was a genocide and 15 million people were displaced and the rapes and sexual violence have never been acknowledged on either side.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that Partition was very different from the Holocaust in two very important ways. First: in the Holocaust, there can be no question about who the bad guys were and who were the victims. But during Partition, both communities suffered. People from both communities committed the atrocities. So while we must acknowledge the horrors and suffering, continuing to blame the other community, even when it’s clearly visible that both were to blame, cannot result in peace and stability.
Second: in the Holocaust, the unbelievable horrors were almost the whole story. However, while Partition had unbelievable horrors too, there were so many more layers. These are only gradually beginning to emerge and be understood. I believe that the more we talk about the intricacies of Partition, the more we represent it in writing with a capital letter (and not requiring a preceding article), the more we understand its different shades, the word itself will come to acquire all the baggage it actually represents and the word “horror” need never be specified separately. Horror is an intrinsic element of Partition, but Partition needs a much larger, complex representation.
This includes aspects such as the migration of large communities, their rehabilitation, the loss of not just their ancestral homeland and material possessions but also the loss of their language and culture, the distortion of their history, the suppression of their cultural and ethnic identity. There was the tremendous effort of starting life anew, working hard, using enterprise and skill, growing gradually to great heights of success – a process during which the past was discarded and material success was claimed wholeheartedly.
One of the least reported aspects of this period of our history, during which people robbed, raped, killed and mutilated people of the other community, was the support people got from people of the other community. Every person I’ve interviewed, without exception, has spoken of help received by members of the other community.
Yes, many spoke of ill-treatment, some even of horrors. Many retained vestiges of ill-feeling towards the other community. My own mother, a well-educated, thinking person carried traces of the trauma and one of its most poignant manifestations was that the sound of azaan always made her uneasy, perhaps taking her back to a time when she was 13 years old and knew that her parents were fearful about the future.
However she and her cousins also had stories of being protected, being helped, or being saved by someone of the other community, sometimes at risk to their own lives and families. Is it possible that when we commemorate Partition and honour its survivors, we can include the sacrifices made by these brave people too?
Saaz Aggarwal is a biographer, oral historian and artist. See her website here.