Bollywood Songs Continue to Bring Back Memories of Partition and Communalism

For most Indians August 15, 1947 signifies 'azadi'. For others, Partition. We celebrate independence with great enthusiasm, but people in parts of the country also recollect and mourn the tremendous violence.

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This is but a footnote to The Wire’s interesting piece on 11 songs that inspire us to think about azadi (freedom). There are two other songs that compel us to rethink the violence of Partition that accompanied independence.

Both songs are from the film Dharamputra produced by B.R. Chopra and directed by Yash Chopra. It starred a young Shashi Kapoor, born to a Muslim woman but adopted by a Hindu couple. He grows up a rabid Hindu fundamentalist, hating Muslims till the point his identity unfolds. Questions that had not come to his mind earlier now arise to wrack him: why this hate? Why this bloodshed in the name of religion?

His trauma is poignantly expressed in the song written by the immortal Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by Dutta Naik. The song is enacted by Rajendra Kumar with tears pouring down his face while from the sidelines a troubled Kapoor watches terrible scenes of violence, open with the following stanza:

‘Yeh kiska lahoo hai kaun mara. Kis kaum ke hai yeh deen dharam/Jo sharam ka daman chak kare/ Kis tarah ke hai yeh desh bhakt/ Jo baste gharon ko khaak kare/ Yeh rooheh kaise roohe hain/ Jo dharti ko napak kare… Yeh kiska lahoo hai kaun mara’.

The poet asks to which community these religious groups belong to that outrage the modesty of women? What kind of people are these worshippers of the nation that set fire to established homes? What sort of people makes the earth impure with their deeds? Whose blood was this? Who died? The scene shakes up our conscience. We are compelled to once again ask the question: whose blood was spilled? Who died – a fellow citizen, our co-worker, our neighbour, another Indian who spoke our language, sang our songs, shared our traditions and our memories, saluted the national flag and stood up for the national anthem?

The film also included a qawwali that should make us reflect on the mindless barriers that have been constructed between religious groups. The qawwali is picturised on two protagonists, a Hindu with a trademark tilak on his forehead, and a Muslim wearing his traditional headgear.

It opens with the wonderful lines: “Kaabe mein rahon ya kashi mein/nisbat toh usiki zaat se hai/ Tum Ram kahon ya Rahim kaho/matlab toh usiki baat se hai/ Yeh masjid hai woh butkhana/ chahe yeh mano ya woh mano/ Matlab toh hai dil ko samjhana/ Chahe yeh mano ya woh mano 

(Whether we believe in Kaaba or in Kashi, we worship the one supreme being. Whether we call him Ram or Rahim, we refer to the same God. Whether we worship in a mosque or a temple, the idea is to make the heart understand. This is the message of tolerance that should inspire the project of living together).”

Screengrab from ‘Kabe Mein Raho Ya’ song from ‘Dharmputra’ (1961). Photo: YouTube.

For most Indians August 15, 1947 signifies freedom. For others, Partition. We celebrate independence with great enthusiasm, but people in parts of the country also recollect and mourn the tremendous violence that was unleashed on unsuspecting men, women, and children in 1947.

We re-tell harrowing stories first narrated by our parents and grandparents; we grieve at the loss of our ancestral home and the merciless way in which people were torn away from a land that was the repository of their memories, locus of their traditions, centre of their loyalties and the main anchor of their imaginations. We mourn the territorial division of two groups that speak the same language, that subscribe to the same rituals, that narrate the same mythology even if they worship different gods.

Also read: Eleven Songs That Force Us to Think About the True Meaning of Azadi

The division of India into two countries: a new country – Pakistan, and the Republic of India – was the outcome of a political agreement between leaders. The covenant was not based on the agreement or the consensus of the inhabitants of regions that were going to be affected. Nor were people happy when the decision was announced. How could they be? They were wracked by fear and anxiety. Insecurity about the present, and the future sparked off a train of cruelty, sadism and terrible abuse that was unprecedented in history. Memories of Partition continue to hang on our collective heads. We realise in great pain that the founding moment of the Republic of India was embedded in terrible violence. Has violence been handed down as the patrimony of this great Republic? Perhaps.

Partition and poetry

Few can make sense of the violence during the territorial partition of India. The Hindi poet Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’ was witness to the insane bloodletting in Punjab.  Overcome by anguish and disbelief he wrote a series of agonised poems titled Sharanarthi between 12 October 12, 1947 and November 12, 1947.

Sitting in waiting rooms, or on the benches and piles of luggage on platforms of railway stations, he scripted a testimony of large-scale and mind-numbing violence unleashed in Punjab. He concluded that the region was caught up in an epileptic fit. There was no other explanation for the madness that overcame it.

On October 24, 1947 he wrote: ‘aaj jaane kis  hinshr dar ne/ desh ko bekhabri mein das liya/ sanskriti ki chetna murjha gayi/ mrigi ka daura pada/ichashakti bujh gayi. 

(Who knows what violent dread has stunned the country. Awareness of our common culture and of our great civilisation have withered. An epileptic fit has extinguished the autonomy of our will.)”

Punjab could only have been overcome by an epileptic fit. People attacked each other with weapons, sharpened on the touchstone of hate and bloodlust. Ethnic cleansing of entire districts was carried out with the precision of a skilled surgeon’s knife. Historians tell us that in 1947 confrontations were scripted by well-organised groups from all communities. But we also have to recognise that violence, once it is sparked off, takes on a life of its own. It multiplies. It reproduces like the proverbial amoeba. This deadly reptile sweeps up an entire people into its coils. It mercilessly crushes their sensibilities.

The trigger that extricated violence from the realm of the unconscious and the unimagined, and brought the beast into the public sphere of uneasy performance and theatres of blood, was the division of territory. Entrepreneurs of hate profited from this. Resultantly, newly drawn boundaries that included some but excluded others, turned homelands into alien, arid, destroyed and desolate spaces. Homes were wrecked and burnt to the ground, families were torn apart, and mosques, temples and Gurudwaras were callously desecrated and pitilessly demolished. Even if violence was planned and executed by gang lords and organised right-wing groups, it escalated into unplanned acts of extreme and insane sadism and cruelty. This is what happens when communities confront each other as members of a religious group that considers other groups as the enemy.

This is what communalism does to people. It turns them into victims but also executioners, the tortured as well as the torturer, the persecuted as well the persecutor. During prolonged phases of mindless violence, it becomes difficult to distinguish between perpetrators of violence and those who are annihilated by extreme forms of cruelty. Killers driven mad by bloodlust often targeted their own community. One of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories tell us of a man who slid a knife down the groin of another man. The knife sliced the pyjama cord into two and exposed the genitals of the victim. He was not a Muslim. “Tch tch,” exclaimed the murderer I have made a “mishtake”. Many such “mishtakes” were made in the heat of bloodshed.

Refugees atop an overcrowded coach of train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan in September 1947. Photo: Wikipedia.

We have been told that now August 14 of every year will be devoted to the remembrance of terrible things that happened to people 74 years ago. More important than memorialising, or the art of remembering, is judgment. We must remember but we must also know how to remember and what to make of our memories. We cannot hold our own fellow citizens responsible for the division of the country when their parents or grandparents wanted to live in the country. We must take care to historically locate and contextualise what we recollect. We must also know what lessons history holds for the present.

Lessons from Partition

There are conceivably three lessons we have learnt from the blood-spattered history of the Partition. One, when we invoke religion to justify ‘this’ or ‘that’ act, we commit a serious mistake. When politicised religion or religion as a political ideology is unleashed on the body politics, it proves uncontrollable. Religion takes on a trajectory of its own. It becomes the master not the instrument of human ambitions.

The central theme of Agyeya’s poetic collection, titled Samanantar Saanp, is the tale of two interlocked serpents (competing communalism) that caught Indians in their grip and spread their venom far and wide. Hatred oozed out of their eyes and people ran for cover because if they stopped they would die.

“Ham ek lamba saap hain/ jo badh raha ha aiththa khulta, sarakta, rengtha,/mein na sir hoon (aankh toh hoon hi nahi)/ dum bhi nai hoon/ aur na mein hoon daanth zehreele/ mein us saanp ki gunjlak mein uljha hua-sa/ek bekas jeev hoon/bahar se guzre chale tum ja rahe ho/sir jhukaye, peeth par gathri sambhale ( I am a long snake, which moving forward flexes, constricts, opens out, slithers, and stings. I am not its head, nor am its eyes, nor its tail, and nor am I its poisonous teeth. I am helplessly caught in the coils of the snake. Nearby you pass with bowed heads, laden with bundles on your back).”

Also read: Gendered Violence and the Horrors of Partition: The Price Paid by Women

Two, we should learn that break-ups of countries are a tragedy, but violent ruptures between people who could have lived in peace as citizens of two sovereign states is a tragedy of epic proportions. Partitions herald the closing-in of boundaries and lead to constricted minds and truncated imaginations. India lost not only territory and people in the Partition. We have lost what was called the Gunga-Jumna syncretic culture or tehzeeb, we have lost much of the language of love and longing that is Urdu, except by courtesy of songwriters of the Bombay film industry. Above all we seem to have misplaced the art of reaching out to people who might speak a different language and worship different gods, but who are quintessentially human like us.

The two governments of India and Pakistan are often caught in a situation of undeclared war. Yet many Indians whose families are from a country which is now Pakistan yearn to see their ancestral homes. And many Pakistani’s feel the same.

As the poet Gulzar writes with some sadnes: “Tumhe aziz hai apna watan/main jaanta hoon/mujhe bhi us se mohabbat hai/tum yakeen kar lo/zara sa pharak hai gar tum samajh sako isko/ki tum wahin ke ho aur main wahin se hoon (I know your nation is dear to you, I also love it, believe me. The difference, if you understand, is this. You are from there and I am from there).”

Three, our contemporary history teaches us to ask how many Partitions? How many times will communalism partition the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens? For how long? How can we put aside the legacies of colonial rule that gave to us essentialist categories of Hindu and Muslim and of the hate between them to divide people and to rule people? Is it not time to do so?

Perhaps August 14 of every year should be re-named ‘Day of Reconciliation’. It is then that we know we have learnt to ask the question: yeh kiska lahoo hai kaum mara? It is time that we begin to care about people who died avoidable deaths.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.