Stories lurking in the air

June 5, 2016

Making sense of a central event, partition, that defines our lives

Stories lurking in the air

As I write this, it is June 2, 2016. Next year India and Pakistan will turn 70. 69 years ago on the June 3, 1947, the plan for the partition of India was announced.

A lot has been said and written about the events that ensued -- but not enough. The more one thinks and reads about partition the more one realises how little we talk or even think about it. This was an event that changed and, at many levels, destroyed millions of lives. It is invisible yet it is the omni-present background to how we see and define ourselves -- even if we do not realise it.

As Urvashi Batalia once noted, it is surprising that there are not hundreds of television shows simply discussing Partition. It was no ordinary moment in time. The emotion and the violence involved was unprecedented; in many ways it shocked men as intelligent as Nehru and Jinnah. There is of course the legal/constitutional aspect to partition, the division of areas and whether one side or the other got a fair deal. But there is more importantly a human aspect to the entire saga too. And it is those stories which we often ignore.

The violence surrounding the issue of partition was particularly gruesome since, as many have noted, it went from the public to the private domain as well -- women and children were specifically targeted in an attempt to either make an example of the "other" or to damage the honour of the other side. An estimated more than 80,000 women were abducted and were kept back by their abductors. Many of these women, however, later got used to life on the other side of the divide and did not want to be "returned" to their own. But their voices were not heard.

Last week I came across the story of a young girl who, after having been abducted near Amritsar, grew up and married a man in the family of those who had abducted her. The story goes that she was happily married but was forced to return to her family -- since the governments on both sides only looked at the fact of a woman’s abduction to decide her future for her. After being returned to Pakistan, this woman was forcefully married to a much older man. Her Sikh husband on the other side longed to see his love but was denied the opportunity to cross the border, let alone meet her.

These stories raise immensely difficult issues of autonomy, agency and of course law. But how many women were actually listened to in these matters? And how often do we talk about this?

Consider another angle: we all hear stories of how the other community was responsible for burning homes, looting, raping women, killing children and forcing "our" community to move out of their homes. This is the classic migrant tale regarding the partition.

There will be many stories of compassion, friendship and acts of kindness too. Why do we not talk or find out more about them?

Now let us imagine Lahore in 1947. A cosmopolitan city destroyed and deserted within weeks. And the Hindus and Sikhs who literally had to flee from Lahore have similar tales of Muslims from Amritsar who came to Pakistan. So of course thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, who were Muslims and remained in Lahore saw grotesque violence being perpetrated. Many of them must have been a part of it. Yet how many people over the years, on this side, have told you that "I burned homes, raped women and killed children".

We do not hear people owning up to this. Yet it happened. And this was not a long time ago.

Read also: The days in Lahore and after

These are people who are around even now or at least most of them would have been around till the 1980s and 1990s. These were people we must have interacted with, known as part of our families or friends, shopkeepers etc. And we must have known them to be decent people -- yet what overcame Lahore and those who had the security of knowing they were staying back in 1947? Why did they perpetrate such senseless violence and why did we not ask enough questions of them?

The same is true for people who stayed back in many towns in India and drove people out with brutal violence or the threat of it.

Thinking about Lahore in this way helps me make sense of other episodes of mass violence in history. I always wondered why people in Hitler’s Germany did not do enough to prevent the mass violence that was committed in their name. Of course a lot of it was state sponsored but why didn’t more people oppose it? Why did most people simply watch as Jews and other vulnerable communities were dragged out of their homes before them? And partition helps make some sense of that.

Once we plant the idea in a people’s head that "we" are fundamentally different, if not superior, to "them" and that the existence of the other threatens our way of life, then people can overlook extreme injustices -- some out of fear, some out of a reluctant commitment to the greater good and many out of conviction that violence is somehow necessary for a better tomorrow. Maybe partition-related violence is in many ways more tragic than the Holocaust because people committed violence, or condoned it, without fear of the state ticking a box against their name.

And yet you hear of the rare individual who, even today, will speak of the violence he perpetrated. Last week I was told the whereabouts of a man who flaunts the violence he committed in Amritsar before moving to Lahore.

These are all stories lurking in the air around us. Of course there will be many stories of compassion, friendship and acts of kindness too. Why do we not talk or find out more about them?

So here is an experiment that I will do: from each day starting in 2016 I will place myself in the shoes of someone living in Lahore in 1946. And I will try and find out as much as I can about partition and Lahore as we head into 1947 -- and imagine what life was like 69 or 70 years ago. I will bring the subject up more in conversations and maybe with the dawn of 14th and 15th August 2017, I would have made more sense of a central event that defines our lives.

Stories lurking in the air