In August of 1947, India was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The birth of these two nations was marred by unprecedented violence in the region. More than one million people were killed in one of the largest mass migrations in human history. Once-peaceful communities turned on themselves, and families with age-old ties to their ancestral homes became instantly displaced. The new borders divided more than just two nations. No matter their distance from the India-Pakistan border, individual villages were also sliced open along new communal lines.
The Hindi poet Sachidadanand Vatsyana “Agyeya” was a first-hand witness to the horrors of Partition. From 12 October to 12 November 1947 he wrote a series of poems titled Sharanarthi – Refugee. As both India and my adopted country of Australia struggle with refugee crises and questions of citizenship, it is worth revisiting Agyeya’s 1947 account.
Agyeya wrote these poems from trains and train stations as he travelled across north India: from Meerut to Muradabad, and from Allahabad to Varanasi. Trains may have been a means of escape for displaced millions, but they were also sites of terror. On November 4th, Agyeya wrote from Varanasi:
The train stopped in the middle of nowhere
I was startled awake and heard
Someone had been murdered
And tossed out from another carriage
On the following day, he wrote on the topic of “Our Blood”:
Over here, the blood of my brother
And over there, just as red
Flows the blood of your sister
Both streams flow, then combine
To become one in the soil
Beyond the prose of Partition
When we think of Hindi literature addressing Partition, we don’t generally think of poems. We think first of novels: Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, Bhisham’s Sahni’s Tamas, or the recent novel Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan by Krishna Sobti. Hindi Partition literature has characters that resist religious bullies and ideological tyrants. It has characters who refuse to comprehend government decrees about new national boundaries. Most of all, Partition literature highlights humanity amidst the madness.
From reading history, I understood that communal tension had been inflamed through decades of British colonial policies, and I understood that shameful British mismanagement of the colonial departure further endangered Indian lives in the months following Independence. Incorrectly, though, I thought the madness of Partition only manifested in border locations or on the trains between India and Pakistan. I could see why cities such as Lahore and Amritsar could be seized by confusion, because they were near the geographical border. But it wasn’t until I read Rahi Masoom Raza’s 1966 novel Aadha Gaon that I properly understood the emotional depth and breadth of the madness.
The novel is set in Gangauli village in Raza’s native Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. This is far from any proposed national border. Yet some puzzled villagers wonder if Gangauli might become part of Pakistan. Muslim characters declare their connection to Gangauli to be unbreakable. But with Independence, new ideological borders cause the village community to disintegrate. Individuals become displaced. They become foreigners in their ancestral village – the refugees of Agyeya’s 1947 account.
Each generation of Hindi novelists has grappled with Partition. There are examples from decade after decade. But for Hindi poets, Agyeya’s Refugee stands alone. His eye-witness response from the railway lines was followed by generations of poetic silence. So, three decades after Independence, the Hindi poet Kedarnath Singh was correct to ask himself, “Do you even remember?”
His poem Remembering the year 1947 describes a family friend, a Muslim neighbour named Noor Miyan, who featured in the daily life of Kedarnath’s village before Independence. “Where is he now?” Kedarnath asks. He remembers so much from his childhood. He can even recite the 19-times-table he used to scribble on his school slate. But he cannot use his chalk and slate to calculate why Noor Miyan suddenly vanished:
Do you even know
Where he is now
Or in Multan
Can you tell
How many leaves fall every year
Why are you silent Kedarnath Singh
Has your math failed you?
Bhago bhago chaahe jis or bhago – “Run, run, whatever direction, just run,” wrote Agyeya in the fifth of his Refugee poems. Rukenge to marenge – “If we stop moving we die.”
Kedarnath doesn’t know which way Noor Miyan ran – to Dhaka or to Multan. He just knows he had to keep moving.
Where would Noor Miyan go today?
The concept of citizenship in India is currently undergoing a massive change. The proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) along with the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) threatens to deepen these wounds of Partition. The possibility now looms of a new generation of refugees created from Indian citizens themselves. If villages like Gangauli were to have a chance of becoming whole again in modern India, that chance was greatly jeopardised when the CAA was signed into law.
We already know that any implementation of the proposed NRC would throw the legal status of millions of Indians into question. If Noor Miyan had stayed in India, and if his citizenship were challenged through the NRC, he and his family would have less legal protection than Hindu families in his village. His Hindu neighbours could have their citizenship reinstated through the CAA, a law that differentiates on the basis of religion. As a Muslim, Noor Miyan would have no such recourse.
Even a cursory reading of the CAA reveals this is an intended outcome. The law ostensibly aims to protect persecuted minorities from India’s neighbouring countries. But in fact, it is also designed to bestow favours on the majority in India.
Through this scheme, Noor Miyan could be removed and detained. Or he would have to run, in whichever direction. The government could continue to claim that no Indian citizens are affected, because they could insist Noor Miyan was never a true citizen.
The refugee crisis
From Australia, I watch the news in my home country, the USA. Donald Trump demonises immigrants, cages refugees, and has made moves to strip Americans of their citizenship. This is fascism 101, and like the USA, India is not immune. Australia’s democracy is likewise stained by our practice of holding asylum seekers in detention centres. India is reportedly building similar centres in anticipation of the NRC’s implementation. Australians also face an internal refugee crisis, resulting from a mass displacement caused by a devastating bushfire season. The additional loss to animal life and habitat here is incalculable.
The relationship between India and Australia goes well beyond trade. Both countries face multiple threats to democracy – threats to freedom of expression, threats to equal protection under the law, threats to the right to live in our homes. Indian universities have been a major site for protest against these threats, and violent crackdowns against protests have endangered India’s students. Australian academics are therefore especially connected to these events. Many of our students are from India, and many of us have taught and have colleagues at Indian institutions.
Who is being tossed from the train in the middle of the night? How many Noor Miyans are about to go missing? Protesters in India, and those who stand with them in solidarity from overseas, hope that future generations will not have to ask Kedarnath’s question, Tum chup kyon ho? Why are you silent?