OpinionIs reconciliation still possible for India and Pakistan, 75 years after Partition?

Is reconciliation still possible for India and Pakistan, 75 years after Partition?

Muslim refugees sit on the roof of an overcrowded train near New Delhi on Sept. 19, 1947, as they try to flee India during its partition with Pakistan.The Associated Press

Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian and writer from New Delhi. Her books include Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided, In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition, and the forthcoming novel The Book of Everlasting Things.

In the north Indian city of Jammu, a man offers me a scrapbook he has kept about Mirpur, the city he was born in, now across the border in Pakistan – photographs and newspaper clippings collected over the years, memories from his childhood that he has written down. He was 12 at the time of the 1947 Partition of India, and recalls with clarity how, during the riots that ensued between communities, a bullet nearly took off his right ear. His father and two uncles had been hacked to death, his mother abducted and grandmother taken to a camp, leaving only him and his sister alive. Hand in hand, the siblings walked for three days from Mirpur to Jhangar in India, wearing the same clothes, neither eating nor drinking anything along the way. As he walked, he remembered keeping count of family members he had lost in a single day.

“Tell me who I can blame for what happened,” he asks solemnly, acknowledging that if Hindus and Sikhs had been massacred in what became Pakistan, then so had Muslims in what remained India. At the end of our conversation, he says that despite it all, he wishes to return, if not in life then in death: “I have written it in my will. I want my ashes to be submerged in the Chenab River at Akhnoor, from where they will flow westward [into Pakistan], back to Mirpur, across this border to the place where I was born.”

Across South Asia and its diaspora, one can find innumerable such stories carrying the conflicting legacies of separation and attachment, loss and longing. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the withdrawal of the British Empire from undivided India, which led to the drawing of a border, the Radcliffe Line, between the now-independent nations of India and Pakistan (which was further bifurcated into East and West, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971). It resulted in the largest mass migration of refugees across a man-made border, forcing Hindus and Sikhs to flee to India and Muslims to Pakistan, leading also to an unprecedented scale of sectarian violence on both sides, in the form of massacre, rape, abduction, forced conversions, looting and arson. Official numbers reported the displacement of approximately 14 million people and the death of a million more.

The history of all four of my grandparents can be traced back to what is now Pakistan, but I never grew up with their stories. One decade ago, I began speaking to eyewitnesses, only to discover that the silence around Partition was as old as Partition itself. “I’d rather not talk about what I saw. I cannot repeat those things, bring them to life again,” a Muslim woman from Lahore told me. “But what will you do after you know, what will it change? The past will still be the past,” maintained my paternal grandfather in Delhi. Sometimes when multiple generations were present at the interview, I would ask the survivor if they’d shared these memories with the family. A Sikh interviewee in New Jersey sighed and said that though he had, “the days are not worth remembering.” Purposefully forgetting to remember, consciously remembering to forget; in these cases, sometimes “I cannot remember” also meant “I don’t want to remember.”

But over time, using catalysts like the objects that families had been able to carry during their migration – books, jewellery, photographs, documents, keys and even weapons – stories did emerge. And contrary to the patriotism and politics, suspicion and othering, incongruent even with the way in which I had learnt about Partition in my school textbooks, these were stories of human suffering and longing, irrespective of nationality, ethnicity or religion. Naturally, permeating these narrations was violence, bitterness, guilt, loss and poverty, but told alongside were memories of how neighbours or friends who were now the “other” saved or hid them, helped them escape or warned them of danger; of divided families and multiple migrations; of survival, resilience, and the rebuilding of community. Like my interviewee from Jammu, many also wanted to return, once again walk on their soil with dignity, though given the state of constant political tension between the nations, they knew it may never happen.

In my own family, this desire to see what had become of their land was heightened by my work as an oral historian. My maternal family, now settled mostly in Toronto, hailed from Lahore, and before my first trip to the city, they recalled their life pre-Partition. During the riots in March, 1947, my grand-aunt found herself stranded in a bank as a 10-year-old on an errand, and the family had to flee soon after in the summertime, as a fire razed their entire neighbourhood of Shahalmi Gate – a Hindu and Sikh stronghold – to the ground. Once in Lahore, as I walked through this neighbourhood, searching for a house I knew would no longer be standing, I was struck by my belief in the power of memory, even second-hand. After I’d circled the area for hours, the residents took notice and asked if I’d come from India, if I was searching for my ancestral home. In that moment, “home” felt like an impossibly heavy word, constructed through various people’s memories, passing through decades and degrees of separation, and yet I found myself nodding.

Around the 70th anniversary, a recognizable shift was felt, a renewed interest in the stories of Partition amongst generations physically untouched by its trauma. Fuelled by curiosity, often aided by the borderlessness of social media, many young people began to look beyond the language of hatred and othering, to search for their origin across borders. “History does not give you leave to forget so easily,” Urvashi Butalia wrote in her seminal Partition work, The Other Side of Silence, and so I began interviewing descendants, to find if a passage of memory between generations had occurred.

What emerged quite naturally was that the legacy of Partition had long been bound to nation-state and post-Partition identities defined by which side of the border people found themselves on. If for India, Partition had meant a loss of land, then for Pakistan, it was the gaining of nationhood, and for Bangladesh, the year of independence, 1971, held far more significance in popular consciousness than 1947. For decades, generations of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis had grown up largely in isolation from one another with little opportunity for interaction, their understanding of “the other side” shaped by militarized borders, state histories, news reports, films, and the wars fought since Independence. If they ever did encounter one another, it was far away from the South Asian region, in a foreign land, where the burden of the border could no longer be felt. But as these conversations touched on shared history, centuries of co-existence, and the cultural and linguistic similarities that still persisted, the erstwhile shape of a once-unpartitioned land began to appear.

An interviewee once said that “in a single second, Partition can transform from an event in history to a feeling in the present day. In a single bite, you can be transported to a land you’ve never seen but your family belongs to. When the food we are eating, the language we are speaking are all remnants of this division, it feels like Partition is woven into our everyday life, and it may remain that way, no matter how many generations come after us,” making it clear that Partition was very much an ongoing event, a process.

Seventy-five years on, the events of 1947 remain some of the most historic and most violent in the world, and yet the collective legacy is not one of tolerance or reconciliation. We have no physical memorials to Partition, and the three nations impacted by it do not collectively observe one single day dedicated to its memory. In 2021, the Indian Prime Minister announced that Aug. 14 would henceforth be known as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, in “memory of the struggles and sacrifices of our people.” However, the struggles and sacrifices made at Partition were not one-sided, and so while a day of remembrance is welcome, it cannot exclusively apply to Indians, and must extend beyond our frontiers, potentially paving the way for gradual reconciliation. An official day of commemoration should give the peoples of a once-undivided land the opportunity for their varied experiences to be heard and recognized, acknowledged and honoured – not only by their own countrymen but also their neighbours. Ironically, it is the stories of conjoined tragedy, the very moment of being divided, that binds them to one another and can offer an essential layer in understanding both the past and the present. And while there are many who would remember only the horrors committed in 1947, there are an equal number interested in looking beyond jingoistic narratives, to a more nuanced, sustainable, cross-border dialogue.

As we move forward from the 75th anniversary, it is my hope that our young nations can look both outward at community and state, and inward within families in order to understand collective grief, generational trauma, divisive tendency, and how the legacy of Partition can serve both as precedent, but also tool to interpret and learn from the past, to make sure that such an event does not happen again.

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