"Now before our eyes lies dried tracks of blood, cut up human parts. Charred faces, mangled necks, terrified people, looted houses, burned fields, mountains of rubble, and over flowing hospitals. We are free. Hindustan is free. Pakistan is free."— Hamid Jalal from Ayesha Jalal’s The Pity of Partition.
We will never know how many people died during Partition, how many were raped and how many were displaced. On August 14 and 15, 1947, while many Indians and Pakistanis rejoiced, others stumbled into a darkness that was characterised by large-scale killing, looting and systematic degradation, sometimes with the complicity of authorities, rulers of princely states and religious leaders. Historians estimate that between half a million to two million people were killed in Partition. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed in droves in what is modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. An estimated 12 to 17 million people were displaced from their homes and communities and moved across the borders – mostly on foot.
But while a 1.4 km memorial to the Berlin Wall commemorates the 131 East Germans, who were killed trying to scale the wall that divided Berlin for 28 years, there is not a single state memorial, or state founded museum, to memorialise the hundreds of thousands lost in the genocide that was Partition, or what Saadat Hasan Manto called the batwara.
There are some private efforts, to commemorate the horrors – including a museum in Amritsar that is about to be launched. The initiators of this effort recently exhibited a small collection of possessions, artwork and letters from survivors of Partition at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. Each possession, bereft of the house full of belongings that it was part of, and each sketch that was a part of a larger collection of eyewitness accounts, told a story of loss, which is unrecognised by the state.
I grew up in my hometown of Delhi, the capital of India, with no school visits to any memorial to the batwara. Today, India and Pakistan’s roughly 385 million youth in the age group of 10-25 years do not know of the bloodshed that characterised the freedom that their two-nations celebrate. They know even less of the events that triggered the largest migration of human beings, of the circumstances that led to an English judge on a first-time visit to the sub-continent to head the Boundary Commission, which was set up to divide the Punjab and Bengal regions of undivided India between India and Pakistan. Sir Cyril Radcliffe had five weeks to separate the Indians from the Pakistanis. Generations have paid for his lack of expertise in drawing boundaries, and for our politicians’ negation of their fiduciary duties, and a departing coloniser’s undue haste.
India’s liberal and progressive Constitution is notoriously silent on Partition, and framed no legal concept of mass slaughter or genocide and no remedies for such organised barbarism. While Delhi was flooded with refugees, and Purana Qila slowly filled up with the weakest of them, the drafters in the Constituent Assembly, housed but a few minutes away, stoically chose to almost entirely ignore the unfathomable violence that gripped India. By ignoring the devastation, they ensured that there would be no commemoration of our collective guilt and grief, only a celebration of independence from a coloniser. But the Independence of India and Pakistan is only the partial truth of 1947, our batwara and its resultant degradation is the remaining truth.
In Pakistan too, the country's creation was only a source of official celebration.
MA Khuhro, a politician from Sindh, told Mohammed Ali Jinnah on August 11, 1947, during Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly hearings: “Without a war you were able to get Pakistan.” As if the killings, rapes and displacement of so many would qualify as something less than a war.
Pakistan’s systematic constitutional, legal and social negation of its religious minorities – Hindus, Christians and Parsis – from its founding merits a separate piece of work. Suffice to say, its treatment of minority aspirations within its first Constituent Assembly is a classic example on how not write a Constitution.
The refusal of India’s founders to commemorate our worst instincts and the violence that we unleashed on each other have resulted in two grave moral black holes. First, the lack of commemoration of the status of our nation – as a post-Partition, post-genocidal society has meant that there is a lack of understanding of how identities are constructed in India. Second, the impunity that characterised the long process of loot, rape and murder that is Partition has continued to replay itself, to lesser degrees both in form and substance. For instance, the 1984 killing of Sikhs in Delhi, and the 1993 and 2002 butchering of Muslims in Mumbai and Gujarat respectively, are illustrations of the replications of the degradations witnessed during Partition.
These are but a few examples of patterns of organised violence predicated on religious or ethnic identity – that result in systematic rapes, murders and looting. This is always accompanied by no appropriate sanction from the state machinery including courts of law, the police and the executive. The lack of commemoration of our guilt and our grief has led to a cultivated habit of impunity subsequent to the organised culling of our own people.
Other constitutional dispensations have chosen to approach this differently. Over 14 European countries punish Holocaust denial. You can really not walk far in Germany without some commemoration of the murder of Jews. The use of hate crimes in many regimes, and the recognition in international law of the peremptory norm against genocide are some instances of alternative ways of approaching large scale violence.
The moral compass of a society is not built by state imposed censorship regimes or dietary restrictions – it is created by educating ourselves on the worst sides of our nature and our past practices of horror. By not teaching our children that we slaughtered our own as they crossed poorly thought out borders, amid a hastily arranged independence, we have ensured that the practice of organised mass slaughter will continue and the impunity that characterises it will flourish. For we have a constitutional, political, legal and social amnesia about the horrors that accompanied our founding.
Menaka Guruswamy practices law at the Supreme Court of India, and is visiting faculty at Yale Law School.