Mixed Messages from a PM and President: Are We to Remember or Transcend the Past?

The heads of state and government gave contrasting speeches on Independence Day. If the horrors of Partition are to be remembered, the object must be to counter distorted narratives.

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First the prime minister: “We have been enjoined to commemorate August 14 henceforth as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’.”

August 14 also happens to be the day when neighbouring Pakistan celebrates its Independence Day.

Whereas the prime minister has spoken on furthering “social harmony” through such remembrance, subsequent comments made by satraps clearly suggest that this may not be the intent.

Those comments invite us to believe that the Partition was caused entirely by the “appeasement” of Muslims by the Congress, and especially – you guessed it – by Jawaharlal Nehru.

The idea thus seems to be to keep fresh in mind the blood feud of old between communal forces – one “nationalist” and the other treacherous.

Far from any purpose to generate social harmony through the recommended remembrance, the moot point seems to be to perpetuate a politically enabling Hindu-Muslim divide, and to make it felt that Partition was the work of Muslims alone and that only Hindus were killed in the horrors that ensued.

This recall of those horrors seems cutely also to be informed by the calculation that, so doing, the horrors of the present day may be brushed under the “nationalist” cloak.

Also read: Why the Partition Is Not an Event of the Past

Just to recall in passing that it was V.D. Savarkar who in 1923 (Hindutva: Who is a Hindu) averred that those whose places of worship (punya bhoomi) lie outside the territories of Bharat (pitra bhoomi) cannot be considered authentic inhabitants of India.

What could have been a more telling theorisation aimed at the exclusion from citizenship of Muslims and Christians, and, thereby, an inducement to them to seek shelter elsewhere?

In his inaugural address as president of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, at Nagpur, Savarkar enunciated clearly the thesis that “India is two nations, Hindus and Muslims”. This was three years before the Pakistan Resolution.

The engendering of Partition was thus a rather more nefarious proceeding than what the right-wing seeks to propagate and persuade us to now remember.

An image from 1947 showing the partition of books from India and Pakistan, at the Calcutta National Library.

As to Nehruvian “appeasement” of Muslims, in the same year when elections were to be held to the Provincial Assemblies, Nehru refused Jinnah’s demand that the Muslim League be considered the sole representative of Indian Muslims.

If anything, it was the Hindu Mahasabha which was to collaborate with the Muslim League in Bengal. 

As corollary to the injunction to remember the horrors of Partition, slave trade and the Holocaust have been invoked as examples of how such horrors are commemorated in other parts of the world.

The inference is that India’s Partition was as one-sided an atrocity as those historical episodes from American and European history. 

One ventures to think that not even the most loyal of Modi followers might find it in the remainder of their conscience to nod assent to the idea that India’s Partition was so one-sided, or that only Hindus were massacred in that horror.

It may then be the case that the invitation to remember the horrors of Partition is directed rather at the coming elections in Uttar Pradesh – and then everywhere in the Hindi belt upto and including the Lok Sabha election of 2024.

It is becoming felt on the ruling party that the new Mandal politics it is embracing with gusto may not be enough to yield desired dividends any more, given the multiple failures of governance over the last few years, and that it must keep its time-tested Kamandal plank constantly on the boil as well.

Also read: A ‘New India’ Cannot Be Constructed by Re-Living the Misfortunes of Old India

And if the plurality inherent in Mandal politics flies in the face of the unitary thrust of Kamandal politics, so be it. One must win; those who lose, sin.

The President

Curiously, in his corresponding address to the nation on the eve of Independence Day, the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, has spoken an entirely different language and offered a wholly contrary recipe for the future progress of India.

He has visualised that in the years to come, far from remembering the horrors of the past, “discrimination of caste and community will be a ghost of the past”.

He has spoken of the need for “compassion and cohesion” not just within the country but in the wider world, led by Indian’s ancient traditions of accommodation and peace, since Bharat has always considered the world to be one family.

We may then excuse the befuddled citizen as she wonders what it is we are to do – to remember or to transcend.

 If the horrors of Partition are to be remembered, the object must be to counter false and mischievously distorted narratives and the violence and hate such narratives fuel.

Supposing that the Hindutva archive of “nationalism” indeed truly wishes to forge now an inclusive and non-sectarian republic afresh, the only way to do so is to remember the vision and work of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Azad, to name just the stalwarts, and to emulate the quality and substance of their stewardship of India.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.