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OP-ED: Partition 1947: A season of remembering

  • Published at 10:03 pm July 14th, 2021

When the sharp dagger of communalism sliced away at the country

Remembrance of a traumatic phase in the history of the South Asian sub-continent assails us again. It is the painful memories of the cataclysm which overtook the land in August 1947 and which have gone on, in ghostly manner, inhabiting our collective imagination that we confront all these decades after the disaster. As many as 2,000,000 people -- Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs -- perished as the sharp dagger of religious communalism sliced away at the country. 14 million people bade goodbye to their ancestral homes and made their way to territories they had never known.

The partition of India remains a gnawing pain in the collective memory, of generations born after 1947 and indeed long after 1947. In Pakistan, you come across families who recall with fondness the homes they left behind in Lucknow and Delhi. In India, men like Khushwant Singh, IK Gujral, and Kuldip Nayar were constant reminders of the uprooted lives they lived once they were forced to leave the western half of the carved-up Punjab and make their way east. 

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, Muslim descendants of the partition generation get wistful at thoughts of the homes their ancestors once inhabited in the western half of a province knifed through, to be shared by two countries. In West Bengal, Hindu men and women in their 50s and 60s speak of their grandparents trekking all the way to Calcutta, in the expectation that the division was but temporary, that they would soon return to their homes in Dhaka, Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazar. 

Partition was not to be temporary or tentative. It has become rooted in history. And it is the old tales of heartache we go back to. Yasmin Khan, in her magnificent work The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, gives us a glimpse of the tragedy partition was. A young Hindu, his mother killed in what was to become Pakistan and his sisters missing, screams at Jawaharlal Nehru as the region slips swiftly into disorder: “Give my mother back to me. Bring my sisters to me!”

The young man’s pain is everyone else’s. Zakir Husain, future president of India, is nearly killed by a Hindu mob at Ambala. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, destined to be a leading Indian politician, goes through the horror of his brother’s death through stabbing. Ghulam Mohammad, future governor-general of Pakistan, experiences the abduction of his daughter. A leader of the Jamiatul Ulema, incensed at Jinnah’s politics, denigrates him as “Kafir-e-Azam.”

Could partition have been kept at bay? Yes, there is Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s address, on August 11, 1947, wherein he speaks of Pakistan being a democratic state that has space for all religious denominations to practise their varied faiths. It was a noble sentiment expressed too late to prevent the bloodshed. And when Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of India’s tryst with destiny on August 15, tens of thousands of people were dying on the dusty roads to their new homelands. 

Louis Mountbatten, obsessed with thoughts of his place in history as the man who presided over India’s breakout into freedom, had little appreciation of the tragedy unfolding. Cyril Radcliffe, in India for the very first time, calmly and with little sense of history and tradition, carved up villages and towns and rivers and homes between India and Pakistan. 

Could partition have been avoided? The last known attempt to keep the country together came in the nature of the Cabinet Mission Plan, with Muslims being guaranteed a good say in the way they would run the provinces where they were the majority. A federation succeeding the British colonial power was the idea and both the Congress and the Muslim League agreed to it. But then came the first blow to the idea, from Nehru. 

On July 7, 1946, he was emphatic in his remarks at a meeting of the Congress: “When India is free, India will do just what it likes. We are not bound by a single thing.” That effectively was the prelude to disaster. Nehru would expand on his thoughts, in greater detail, three days later on July 10: “The first thing is we have agreed to go into the Constituent Assembly and we have agreed to nothing else … What we do there, we are entirely and absolutely free to determine. We have committed ourselves on no single matter to anybody.”

That was a godsend for Jinnah, criticized as he had been by his Muslim Leaguers for agreeing to the Cabinet Mission Plan. Nehru’s statements gave him the perfect chance to wriggle out of the deal. On July 26, he told the media: “Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble.” And trouble was soon to rear its ugly head, with Jinnah decreeing August 16, 1946 as Direct Action Day. 

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy took the cue. In an article in the Statesman newspaper, the prime minister of Bengal made it obvious where Direct Action Day would lead. “Bloodshed and disorder are not necessarily evil in themselves, if resorted to for a noble cause,” he wrote.

The die was cast. In four days of bloodletting, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Muslims and Hindus lay dead on the streets of Calcutta. It was putrefaction that would be replicated in Noakhali and Patna, in that year and the next. The unity of the country did not matter. Religious communalism did, as the writer Neeti Nair was to portray in her well-researched Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India. 

Gokul Chand Narang, a Punjabi Hindu leader, made his sentiments and those of others like him known a decade after 1947: “I was chairman of a public meeting. I said I would agree to Pakistan, but never to parity.”

The mindset mattered. In the seasons leading up to partition, minds did not work. Even the formidable Gandhi was unable to prevent the break-up. Jinnah went off with his “moth-eaten” Pakistan and yet, for a brief shining moment, late in the day, he seemed to comprehend the enormity of what had happened, of his role in the making of the tragedy. “What have I done?” He murmured as he observed tens of thousands of hungry, tired, and bedraggled men and women making their way to his Pakistan or to the geographically smaller India left in the wake of partition.

Decades after partition, Cyril Radcliffe speaks to Dominique Lapierre (in the latter’s A Thousand Suns: Witness to History) on his work on Bengal: “My boundary was just a pencil line drawn on a piece of paper. In the tangle of marshes and half-flooded plains of Bengal there were no natural boundaries to serve as a frontier.”

Bengal has suffered. And so has the rest of the old country. 


Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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