It is time India, Pakistan and Bangladesh set aside a date in August to collectively mourn Partition and the genocidal killings it triggered. Through such a public ritual, the subcontinent can perhaps hope to confront its bloody past and overcome the perennial temptation to indulge in majoritarian politics, aware as we would then be of the many demons it spawns.
Ironic as it may sound, Bangladesh observes August 15 as its National Mourning Day. It was on this day that a group of Army officers assassinated the country’s foremost freedom fighter and first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and almost all his family. We in the subcontinent mourn the violent deaths of leaders, but ostensibly seem unconscionably indifferent to the people who perished in the Partition violence.
At least a million people are said to have died in the madness that gripped India and Pakistan as the British exited the subcontinent in August 1947. A few historians believe that the death toll might have even touched two million. Women were abducted, raped and murdered, or forcibly converted to Islam or Hinduism and married. To save them from such a fate, the men invoked the notion of honour to murder their wives and daughters, a detailed account of which can be read in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.
In addition, there was a massive transfer of population. Between 10 million and 12 million people are estimated to have crossed the newly created borders, leaving behind their land and homes, and starting life anew in a cultural milieu they were not familiar with. There was a veritable ethnic cleansing in Punjab and Bengal –village after village was depopulated of their religious minorities.
Even as horror stalked large swathes of undivided India, the successor states to the British Raj – India and Pakistan – prepared to celebrate their respective Independence Days with pomp and gaiety. This was, in a way, understandable: decades of struggle for freedom had finally succeeded.
But what remains incomprehensible is the silence that was allowed to shroud the Partition violence. It was as if we did not wish to be reminded of the dark side of Independence. Or we consciously wished to elide from the national narratives the lament of millions that seemed to indict the political class for pursuing shockingly inhuman strategies in its quest for freedom.
Lesson from Germany
Nations that cannot mourn their bloody past are doomed to fail in achieving a socially harmonious and stable future. This was more or less the thesis of The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour, an influential book that the psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich wrote to explain Germany’s failure to face up to its Nazi past.
Though the Germans had wholeheartedly supported Adolf Hitler, his military adventures and, to a large extent, even his extermination of the Jews, they were prompt to switch their allegiance, rather jubilantly, to the Allies. Ideally, the Mitscherlichs thought, the Germans should have mourned their country’s defeat and the fall of Hitler. “They followed him into total war with such enthusiasm, but they could not mourn their idol Hitler,” they wrote. “As if he and their love for him had never existed, the Germans identified with the victorious powers without so much as a transition.”
Only through mourning and by examining their past behaviour, the Mitscherlichs argued, could the Germans comprehend their history and foreclose the possibility of regressing into the darkness of the early 20th century. The Inability to Mourn is credited to have inspired Germany to push for a conscious confrontation of the past.
In the subcontinent, neither India nor Pakistan chose to comprehend the processes that spawned the Partition violence, and the overnight descent of its citizens into barbarism. It is perhaps why communal violence continues to scar the subcontinent. It is perhaps also why Bangladesh was born, its citizens experiencing once again the horror of the 1947 Partition. We in India justifiably gloat over our durable democracy. Over the last three years, though, it has certainly started to acquire dreadful majoritarian overtones.
On Gandhi’s path
In mourning the Partition violence, we would only be imitating Mohandas Gandhi, who, amidst the jubilation over Independence, did not forget the price we paid for it. At a prayer meeting on July 20, 1947, he said, “I cannot rejoice on August 15. I do not want to deceive you.” Gandhi said he could not rejoice because India’s partition had grieved him no end.
Gandhi went on to add, “But the people in whose hands we have entrusted the reins of power are big people. If they say we should have celebrations on Independence Day, then you should do so.”
So what suggestions did Gandhi have about celebrating the Independence Day? At a prayer meeting on August 8, 1947, he said, “The 15th is the day of our trial. Observe a fast on that day…The independence we are going to get is not of the kind we can celebrate by having illuminations…On that day we have to fast, ply the charkha and pray to God.”
That was exactly what Gandhi did from his temporary base in Calcutta on August 15. At a prayer meeting, he congratulated Calcutta for its Hindus and Muslims meeting in utmost friendliness. He rejoiced that Hindus were admitted to mosques and Muslims to temples, reported his weekly journal Harijan. Gandhi ascribed the Hindu-Muslim amity to the fact that they both had drunk from the poison cup of disturbances. The nectar of friendliness should, therefore, taste sweeter than before, he argued.
With Gandhi’s death, the “poison cup of disturbances” was refilled, and Hindus and Muslims, whether in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, are made to drink from it repeatedly. This is why it is important for the subcontinent to confront and comprehend the darkled past, to create an annual ritual of remembrance.
What date in August should be declared the Day of Mourning?
It has to be August 17 because it was on this day 70 years ago that the lines Cyril Radcliffe drew on the map of the subcontinent became the boundaries that divided India from Pakistan (and from Bangladesh in 1971).
The map was apparently ready on August 12, but was not made public lest it marred Independence Day celebrations in India and Pakistan as well as future relations between the two countries and Britain. It is another matter that Radcliffe’s map became yet another cause for bitterness and bloodletting between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Obviously, it is too much to expect the subcontinent’s notoriously myopic political class to declare August 17 as the Day of Mourning the Partition and its violence. This is because it will fear upsetting the majority population in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is us the people who must come together to confront our past and release from its sharp claws our future.