The Ashis Nandy interview: ‘People didn’t have the moral sanction to kill even during the Partition’

If the BJP regime lasts long enough, sizeable sections of the bureaucracy, army, police could be contaminated with a very narrow conception of nationalism.

Political psychoanalyst Ashis Nandy, 80, recounts his memories of the Partition, and how the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage triggered a recall of those images of horror. He also runs through the findings of the Partition Project undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, of which he was then the director. Excerpts from the conversation with

You were 10 years old at the time of the Partition in 1947. What memories do you have of it?
I was nine years old in 1946, when the Partition violence erupted with the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action Day on August 16 of that year. I had forgotten my Partition memories, but they gradually came back to me, more so because of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

What are those memories?
I recall an old coachman – Calcutta used to have horse-drawn carriages then – being stoned as he was driving his coach. He slumped and gradually collapsed. It was traumatic for me. My brother, Manish, a year younger to me, was so traumatised that he stopped taking food.

Did he too witness the death of the coachman?
He didn’t, but he witnessed other instances of violence. My father was also shot at.

By whom?
We resided in north Calcutta, in a flat in the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) Complex, near the Science College. The police had become partisan. In the beginning, they favoured Muslims. There was a Muslim League government. Two-three days after Direct Action Day, Hindus retaliated. Once the riot spread, Hindu policemen too had to be deployed. They took the side of Hindus.

A mob had gathered with violent intent. My father asked the policemen to control the mob. One of them turned around and shot at him. I guess they didn’t want an eyewitness to their inaction. Fortunately, the bullet missed him and pierced the window and lodged in a wall.

Do you remember Direct Action Day?
Of course, I do. As YMCA secretary, my father worked in the slum located across our complex. It was inhabited by Muslims. I remember the old maid who worked at our place was bewildered that even though August 16 wasn’t Muharram, people from the slum had come out with knives and swords.

The YMCA had playgrounds, lawn tennis and basketball courts. In the first two days after August 16, about 100 Hindu families came to live in the complex. They knew they wouldn’t be attacked there. It was August and it was very hot, I remember. On the third day, Muslims too began to come.

This was quite an experience for a child. From our flat, I could see the streets, the smoke and fire. It was like being in a theatre.

How did the 1984 riots bring back to you the memories of 1947? Was it a case of repressed memories bursting forth?
Walking through the lanes of Delhi, seeing burnt houses and blood splattered walls – these were the things I hadn’t seen before. In Calcutta of 1946, after the first six days of violence, the killings were random. Mohallas had volunteer guards. A Muslim who strayed into a Hindu locality or a Hindu who happened to venture into a Muslim locality was killed.

But why did 1984 trigger the recall?
Until then, I had never realised that my interest in studying violence was connected to my own childhood trauma over Partition violence. I was of the opinion that my academic interest grew because of my long years of studying religious riots, though there is nothing religious about them; it is organised violence.

In one of your lectures, you said there was a long gap between your experience of Partition violence and your study of it.
I started studying Partition violence, to be very precise, in 1996. There was a request from an NGO that I should do a small study on the Partition, not only on the violence that was perpetrated, but also aspects that were redeeming. In 1998, we at the CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) did a larger study with other partners.

To me, this long gap seems a metaphor for the silence with which India has treated the Partition.
What you say is very true. I found out that it generally took a generation and a half for the best studies on the European Holocaust to be produced. This was in countries which were supposedly fully educated. The immediate response to the Holocaust was shallower, too pat, in comparison to the studies conducted later.

How many Partition survivors did the CSDS study interview?
More than 1,500, but some we had to cancel (for reasons of methodology). Ultimately, the larger survey was confined to 1,300 plus interviews. In addition, we did 150 intensive interviews.

Did your team interview people in Pakistan and Bangladesh?
We had the money and we wanted to interview survivors in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. The NDA-I (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party) regime insisted that the money we had been given couldn’t be transferred for conducting interviews in the other two countries. Fact is that without conducting interviews there, a part of the picture was lost.

But we were allowed to invite Pakistanis and Bangladeshis for seminars in India. Ultimately, we got an inkling of their experiences. There was a person, Amir Salim, who was already collecting data independently. He had some 100 case studies, but these were of people who had been helped by Hindus to run away to Pakistan.

Viceroy Lord Mountbatten visits riot-scarred Punjab. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Viceroy Lord Mountbatten visits riot-scarred Punjab. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This reminds me of your University of Berkeley lecture in which you said the most astonishing aspect of the CSDS project was that one-fourth of the respondents credited their survival to their opponents – that is to say, Hindus protected Muslims and Muslims protected Hindus from killers.
At the time I delivered the Berkeley lecture, we were still in the process of digitising our data. The actual figure climbed up to 40%. (In the lecture, Nandy had said such incidence of a victim group being assisted by people from the assailant group had not been reported from other genocides.)

How come 40% of the respondents were helped by people who were their enemy, so to speak?
I think three or four structural factors helped. One, both sides knew that only a few hundred miles away their co-religionists were doing the same thing that was being done to them. That balanced things out in their minds.

The impression we gained from our respondents was that the moral universe had collapsed. There was a social implosion. There was a certain instrumentality to the violence – many thought if they could expel such and such person, they could get his land and house. There was also this awareness that they were perpetrating violence on the innocent because everyone was doing the same. Saadat Hasan Manto has captured it very well in some of his stories.

There was also no concept till then that the followers of two religions were two different species. One psychoanalyst – I think it was Erik Eriksson – used the term pseudo-specie (which is how people imagined the other to be). But this idea wasn’t there in the subcontinent, where inter-species relationship wasn’t of the kind as it was in the West. In the German Holocaust, scientists were speaking of eliminating life that was not worthy of life. So they started with homosexuals and the insane, and then went on and on.

It remains a mystery to me why the saviours behaved differently from others.
The concept of neighbourhood and community hadn’t disappeared. The young were hot-blooded, but when the elders met they would say it would be very shameful to allow residents of their own village to be killed just because of their religion. In many parts of Pakistan, the local qazi or imam issued a fatwa against the killing of fellow villagers.

Most narratives, both from India and Pakistan, suggest that most killings were done by outsiders, by those who didn’t belong to the village they attacked.
Our study suggests that the most barbaric killers belonged to the group of people who had been displaced from India. They were very bitter about having been uprooted from India. So, a police inspector would come to a village and order all Hindus to go to Hindustan. Whoever objected would be dubbed a kafir (unbeliever).

Governments change, people don’t change. However, in 1947, the composition of the countries changed, at least in Punjab, Bengal, Assam, Sindh. Today, in India’s Punjab, a Punjabi Muslim is a rare species. Similarly, a Punjabi Hindu is a rarity on that side. There was ethnic cleansing on both sides of the current border.

One of the findings of your study was that the generation that suffered in the Partition is less bitter about Muslims than their children and grandchildren. How do we explain that?
This is because the children got stories in a packaged form.

Is it because it is so much easier to hate the other in abstraction than it is when you live with them?
Yes, you are right. But they are also bitter about their parents or grandparents’ suffering. They only remember that. But the good parts of living in West Punjab (West Pakistan) that the parents or grandparents told them only seem an exception to them.

Your project apparently showed that your respondents considered pre-Partition days as some kind of utopia.
That is very true. Nearly 95% of the people spoke about the utopian past. But that was perhaps a compensatory mechanism – they didn’t have the kind of community they had when they came to India. They had moved from village to city, which partially also explains why they considered pre-Partition days utopian. Also, they spoke Multani or Saraiki, not the Punjabi of India.

Did your team come across people who admitted to killing people during the Partition?

How did they live with it?
Only one of them seemed to have lived a happy life, at peace with himself. He was a Sikh. He didn’t have bitterness. Also, he said it was more or less like war and, more importantly, he and his group were attacked first. They raised a jatha (a Sikh armed squad) and managed to escape to India.

Did it make it easier for him to rationalise his act?
Not rationalise, he genuinely felt that way. He said he had trusted his Muslim friends more than his Hindu friends (and then he was betrayed).

What about the others?
They pretended they were at peace with themselves.

Did your team detect that they weren’t really at peace?
Yes, they were broken men.

How so? Did they have nightmares?
I would say, delusional, the feeling of guilt…

Give me an example.
Seeing ghosts, for instance, or…

Hearing screams?
Yes, but even Madanlal Pahwa (who threw a bomb at Mohandas Gandhi five days before his assassination, and was later convicted in the assassination case) ultimately confessed that he was a different person during the Partition and that he became a humanist later. But it simply didn’t work for him. He would talk nostalgically about Pakpattan, a small town in Montgomery district (in Pakistan), from where he came, about the Sufi shrine there and how he would visit it.

A train carries refugees during the Partition. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
A train carries refugees during the Partition. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

There were also many instances of parents killing their children, particularly daughters.
Urvashi (Butalia) has covered it very well in her book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. They were abettors to killing or killers…

But they thought they had saved the honour of their daughters and wives, and the community.
That is what they would try to tell themselves. But somewhere they were very conflicted. Their later life stories bear this out. For instance, there was this boy whose father killed his daughters (the boy’s sisters) and subsequently died in a clash with Muslims. That is what the boy claimed. But, according to another version, he wasn’t killed but injured in the clash and he asked his friend to shoot him. The friend shot him dead. The boy himself was involved in Partition killings. He was examined by two psychotherapists. (Decades after the Partition, the boy’s wife told Butalia he would still wake up screaming and could not forget the cries of Muslims he had killed.)

Why is it that apart from that one Sikh in your case studies, no other person who had killed during the Partition could live at peace with himself?
The Turkish psychoanalyst Vamic Volcan says that finding enemies and allies is a normal part of child development. Each individual has to find enemies and allies. But it is difficult to set up pure enemies in the subcontinent. That is because we are threaded together.

But isn’t that weakening because of ideological indoctrination?
Yes, but let us also not forget modernity, which makes us individualistic. The earlier concept of enemy in the subcontinent was that it existed within you. The enemy was the temptation, so to speak. It was what you had to avoid. Even Gandhi tried eating meat to be tough.

There is a lot of inconsistency in old civilizations, a lot of play. I am told that in the Maghreb countries, there are communities that adhere to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence and still believe they are allowed to drink as long as they don’t get drunk. They believe the Quran doesn’t ban drinking but drunkenness.

What is the test for being drunk? You are supposed to raise your fingers and if you can count your finger correctly, then you are not supposed to be drunk. I suppose it gives you a very wide berth.

What about South Asia?
In South Asia, if your enemy is great, it doesn’t diminish but enhance your stature. It added to the stature of the Kauravas that Krishna was their enemy.

All communities in India look down upon other communities. I have written three-four papers on this issue. Each community thinks it is the best and others are inferior to them. This enmity is of the imperfect kind. There are imperfect enemies, just as there are imperfect allies.

The definition of the enemy and ally is very different in India from what it is in the West. Here even gods are not perfect, not only in Hinduism, but even in Semitic religions. For instance, we have the notion that God hasn’t noticed something and we beseech the peers (spiritual figures) to intercede on our behalf. In much the same way, the enemies are not fully enemies.

Listen to this story I heard in Karnataka and which I have narrated at two or three places. When Ram built the bridge to Lanka with the help of the monkey brigade, a ritual was required to be performed in order to ensure its longevity. But there was no Brahmin in the area. The only Brahmin was Ravana. So, a letter was sent to Ravana, who was a rakshasa but also a Brahmin. He knew there was no other Brahmin in the area. Therefore, he had to fulfil his duty as Brahmin. Ravana came in disguise. But that was of no use because everybody knew it was Ravana in disguise. He performed the puja and returned untouched. From his perspective, he did the puja knowing that this could be his end.

Are you saying that since there are no pure or perfect or full enemies and there are duties to fulfil, so…
Yes, since there were no pure enemies, people didn’t have the moral sanction to kill even during the Partition. That’s why for one exception, the Sikh I told you about, we did not come across a single person who killed and still lived at peace with himself.

Are we getting partitioned all over again?
If this regime lasts long enough, sizeable sections of the bureaucracy, army, police would be contaminated by textbooks having a very narrow conception of nationalism.

You have written that psychoanalysts have identified three factors that weaken moral restraints against violence: when it is authorised and official, when it is routinised, and when the victims of violence are dehumanised through ideological indoctrination. Quite frighteningly, these three factors seem to have come into play in today’s India.
The restraint against violence might weaken because traditional defences against these three principles are being broken down in the name of borrowed concepts of the 17th century Westphalian state as the be-all and end-all of our existence. We are patriotic. Nationalism came into being in the 17th century. We have been on this earth for much longer. Add to this the fact that the global finance system has become an integral part of our life. So, we will have a Singaporean kind of plurality – a negotiated, bargained plurality.

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