To be able to forget, you need to remember. To be able to forgive and move on, you need to confront the truth, your own and that of others. Any situation involving trauma is addressed by the need to confront the source of trauma and then make peace. For years, those of us who work on Partition, and especially since many of us have come from families that went through the experience of Partition, have been both advised and done this advising.
However, memories are double-edged swords, they both rake up and heal. The journey to the past needs to be made with the responsibility of an adult and not the reactiveness of an adolescent. It’s a highly difficult process accessing memories and emerging unscathed from that encounter. Scholars on Partition have commented on the psychic effects of Partition and how both the Indian and Pakistani states needed to have instituted therapeutic practices.
Seventy five years after Partition, we are left with the disappearance of the generation that needed this the most. However, even the witness generations that grew up in insecure and paranoid families that could not understand why reactions to random events triggered off strong sentiments go through trauma at a second hand. Given all this, we needed to and still need to make peace with Partition. The urge for museums, narratives, testimonies, books have been part of this commemoration.
However, the therapeutic need to remember and memorialise is different from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s declaration that August 14 will now be marked as Partition Horror Remembrance Day. It raises questions therefore of not just memory but the motivations behind the excavation of that memory. The prime minister wishes to remember and remind the “horrors” of Partition, the “sacrifices” Indians made. Undoubtedly this horrific event scarred millions but they were not sacrifices like ones made in a war. Nor were only Indians the ones to suffer.
The reactions to Modi’s decision are, as usual, sharply divided. Some have argued that the prime minister’s move is motivated by hatred while some others, clearly his supporters, have applauded the move to commemorate Partition. this is exactly what Modi would have aimed for – to stir the pot.
It’s a different matter that senior Bharatiya Janata Party leadership drawn from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, such as LK Advani, also could not remain unmoved by the poignancy of meeting friends across the border. Or that Jaswant Singh, who is not with the party anymore, was also ambivalent about the politics of hatred when he visited Pakistan. However such ideological impurities are systematically brushed aside in the BJP’s consistent consolidation of hate politics.
If Modi was serious about the role of memory he would also notice, as researchers have done, that the sources of hatred sometimes lie elsewhere. People who suffered during Partition did not suffer always and entirely out of violence perpetrated by the “other” religion but also their own kind. Going closer to Partition history would reveal that Partition was caused not only by what a BJP representative sees as the doing of “two incompetent persons” but also the casteist behaviour of the upper-caste Hindus towards Muslims. Going closer to the stories of Partition, you discover brokenness in relationships of love and the fragility of trust, the insidiousness of the state, the threat to life and convictions that economic resources bring.
More importantly you discover how difficult it is to blame any one person; that while those in power need to take the responsibility for taking decisions on behalf of ordinary citizens, the nature of this crime had less to do with religious fervour than with power. Going closer to that past makes you realise that nationalism is a violent project and leaves in its wake many collective institutions weak.
These are disturbing truths about Partition that do not allow us to fit its sources and consequences into neat boxes. That is its biggest lesson. The enduring affect of Partition is one of bewilderment and heartbreak and not one of hatred, even amongst those who went through it. However, these are lessons you learn only when you get closer to the truths of Partition. From a distance it would be appear as does to Modi – an opportunity to foster divisions.
So how do we respond to the urge to remember, which by itself is not illegitimate? What we need is a truth and reconciliation movement, so that the meaningless deaths that occurred on both sides are remembered and mourned. It is good to remember so that Partition does not happen again, not so that Partition memory makes this endeavour about a one-sided sacrifice.
Rita Kothari is the author of several books and articles on Partition, most notable among which are The Burden of Refuge and Unbordered Memories. She teaches at Ashoka University.