Every Independence Day, the Partition of Minds Blocks Our Shared History

Both India and Pakistan have been successful in their nationalism projects, the former debatably more effective in its efforts. In doing so, both nations have found it necessary to look down upon the other.

Pakistan Rangers (R) and Indian Border Security Force personnel take part in the daily flag lowering ceremony at their joint border post of Wagah near Lahore and Amritsar. Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

Pakistan Rangers (R) and Indian Border Security Force personnel take part in the daily flag lowering ceremony at their joint border post of Wagah near Lahore and Amritsar. Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

August 14 marks the 70th year of Pakistan’s birth. It will also mark the 70th year of the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Every year, Pakistanis come out onto the streets to celebrate. Cars and motorbikes are adorned with Pakistani flags, young boys hanging out of car windows, jashn-e-azadi songs blaring out of the speakers. Witnessing the joyous mood, I often wonder how partition survivors feel on this day; is it a defining moment of patriotism or is it a somber reminder of the bloodshed and loss that accompanied partition? It is possible to feel both patriotic, about the country they helped secure, and nostalgic, about the one they left behind? And if so, is it possible to express both emotions or must one be hidden under the garb of nationalistic fervour, in case it is considered anti-national?

In my work with partition survivors, I have learnt of the fierce sense of pride they feel for Pakistan. Unlike many youngsters, who often suffer from bi-polar patriotism, heightened and dampened at different points of life, partition survivors have learnt to compensate the losses they have had to bear as a result of partition, by the achievement of fortifying a homeland. Children and grandchildren are invited to story telling sessions, where tales of bravery and the struggle for freedom is echoed. During the interviews, women would tell me of how they would lead marches and how many of them were imprisoned in the process. I would hear of young girls who trained under the Women’s National Guard, of women who nursed the wounded, who helped restore cities to normalcy in the post-partition years. I would hear of men who rescued entire families, of how they had to leave all their wealth behind, for after all, the greatest wealth was the nation that they had helped carve out. It made it all worth it.

Regret and gratitude too

Yet, as I delved deeper into my interviews with partition survivors, I also learnt that alongside these accounts of courage and valour, were other stories of nostalgia, of regret, and of gratitude to those who belonged to the ‘other’ communities.

I interviewed families where one sister was Pakistani and the other Indian, decades of separation, wars and divisions marring their relationship. I interviewed Muslim League supporters who had left behind entire families on the other side of the border for Pakistan, not being able to return to attend parents’ funerals. I interviewed a young Pakistani woman who crossed over to visit her grandparents for a summer break, having to surrender her Pakistani passport and never being able to see her father again. I interviewed men and women who were rescued by Sikhs and Hindus and felt these friends – and at times strangers – were the only reason they were alive today.

They ached to go back, to see their homes again and to meet their friends. Some told me stories of crossing over, of meeting neighbours who remembered them even forty years later. Others told me how their homes looked just the same, of how the familiar streets and alleys had dragged them back into a past they had never really been able to let go off.

Unfortunately, accounts that reinforce the brutality and bloodshed of partition have often overshadowed such stories. Narratives promoting the two-nation theory and jingoism have rendered such tales insignificant. Of course, we must remember the violence, we must acknowledge the brutality; we must accept the blame as readily as we point fingers at the ‘other.’ However, remembering violence, recalling sacrifices and celebrating the victory of a separate homeland does not mean that the space for other narratives is eradicated.

Pakistanis fly their flag. Credit: Asad Sayeed/Flickr CC 2.0

Pakistanis fly their flag. Credit: Asad Sayeed/Flickr CC 2.0

Partition stories need to be looked at on a spectrum, full of contradictions and fragmentation. History is not as linear as the Pakistani state has tried to make it out to be. It is full of cases of Sikhs and Hindus rescuing as well as Sikhs and Hindus murdering, Muslims being raped and Muslims raping. Many families that have spoken about being attacked by one community have also spoken about being saved at other instances by members of the same community. As the legendary Pakistani cricketer, Intikhab Alam told me in an interview, “At one end we were being helped by the Sikhs and at the other end they were attacking us. There was absolutely no logic.”

Another partition survivor, a seasoned Pakistani diplomat told me, “We were looking forward to Eid when all hell broke loose. I don’t know what happened but it was within those next few days that we came to slitting each other’s throats … there was no change, no transition. It was sudden; a complete cut off … my own family was such a strong follower of the Muslim League. We supported the creation of Pakistan; my elders fought for it. But any happiness we felt on August 14 was buried by these sad events. No one thought Pakistan meant this … it was supposed to be paradise on earth but the day its creation was announced, Lahore became living hell.”

How the partition survivors make sense of these dichotomies, how they come to peace with the contradictions, or how they continue to remain baffled at the turn of events, is what we need to struggle to understand as a nation. For in these contradictions is a glimpse of reality, a reality too complex to be neatly packed into pre-partition and post-partition years, rescue stories and violent stories, harmonious past or segregations and discriminations.

History as re-appropriation

However, instead of delving deeper into these histories, we have learnt to censor some versions and honour others. We have not moved on; far from it. Instead, we have learnt to re-appropriate history to fit the nationalistic discourse. Perhaps that is why the celebration of August 14 can only allow media channels and mainstream discourse to speak about the sacrifices and triumphs of the first generation. The rescue stories, the tales of co-dependence, of a time when the ‘other,’ wasn’t really the ‘other’ but an integral part of the community, are avoided.

In Pakistan, where the ordinary Pakistani never comes across a Hindu or Sikh, nor an Indian (according to Gallup Pakistan, 76% of Pakistanis have never met an Indian), these censored, linear and one-sided versions of history become the only truth. It is then perhaps no wonder that the young Pakistani students I took with me to India started to howl when a school principle in Delhi reached forward to place a tika on their foreheads. Had they been forcefully converted to Hinduism as they had heard their ancestors had been?

It is no wonder that a child to whom I passed on a postcard depicting a Hindu deity had begun to cry; she said her eyes had committed a grave a sin and she was scared she would now go to hell. It is no wonder that teachers in elite schools have asked students not to talk to me or travel with me to India for they may never come back.

One parent told me, “My father had migrated from Kapurthala and had lost most of his family members so I had a very frightening image of India in my head. When I told him my son had been selected to go to India and I was afraid to let him go, he told me to go ahead. He said he was confident that he would be fine there. I was shocked that despite losing so much, he still wanted to let his grandson go back. It made me rethink that maybe India wasn’t such a bad place …”

Her son, who accompanied me to India in 2012, told me, “I read a chapter in my Class 5 Urdu book about Sikhs. It said, woh bachon ko talwar se maar diya karte the. Un ke tukre tukre kar diya karte the (they would slaughter children, chopping them up into tiny pieces) … when I went to India and you told me that Sikhs would be receiving us at Wagah border, I thought what if they saw us and tried to kill us just like they had butchered Muslim children at partition? I almost expected them to be holding daggers. That’s what most of my class fellows thought too. Many still do…those who haven’t met any real Indians…many of them still hate them.”

Ignorance thrives

Unfortunately, the narratives in India often promote the same biases and hate sentiment. While primary and secondary school textbooks have undergone revisions, several historical events are censored or omitted. Students jump straight from the Quit India Movement to the creation of Pakistan, unaware of the struggles of the Muslim community, of why they wanted a separate homeland. In the imagination of a young child, Pakistan moves from breaking their homeland into two to a terrorist nation. The complexities of the freedom struggle, and for that matter the Kashmir dispute are largely brushed over, leaving young minds both ill-informed and prone to propaganda.

On my trips to India, I have been asked if all of Pakistan is full of terrorists, whether I know Hafiz Saeed and if I am allowed to go out of my house. A young child of no more than 6 years of age had run away from me in a school in Mumbai; when he heard I was from Pakistan he immediately thought I must be related to Ajmal Kasab.

Both India and Pakistan have been successful in their nationalism projects, the former debatably more effective in its efforts. In doing so, both nations have found it necessary to look down upon the other. Pakistan’s weaknesses and problems have been used to create a sense of superiority in Indians. The ‘infidelity’ of India has been stressed upon to emphasise the purity of Pakistan. Both nations have come to believe that patriotism must be based on hostility. Both nations have been successful in inculcating that venom among the citizens.

This August 14 and 15 will give the public across the border a chance to celebrate the triumph of their respective countries while emphasising the need for separation from the other. Chest thumping, heightened fervour and jingoistic passion will engulf the nations, silencing the nuances in history that we have become exceptionally good at overlooking.

Anam Zakaria is a Pakistani writer and author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.