Partition and memory


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TWO seemingly unconnected stories form the starting point for these reflections. Some months ago I visited Pakistan with Bir Bahadur Singh, a seventy-year old Sikh from Rawalpindi district. Previous to March 1947, Bir Bahadur’s family had lived for many years in Saintha village, the only Sikh family in a village of Muslims. When they sensed that trouble was brewing, his father moved the family to Thoa Khalsa, a Sikh majority village nearby. Ironically, and tragically, it was in Thoa Khalsa that Bir Bahadur’s family came under attack, and it was here his father took the extreme step of killing his daughter, Bir Bahadur’s sister, because he feared she would be raped and/or converted.

As Thoa Khalsa and its nearby villages had begun to come under attack, a group of Muslims from Saintha, led by the village headman Sajawal Khan, came to offer shelter in Saintha to Bir Bahadur’s family. His father refused because he no longer trusted the people he had lived with all his life. Bir Bahadur has never forgotten this rejection. This was the first time he was returning to his ‘home’ after that time.

As we wound our way towards Rawalpindi district and Saintha village, I asked Bir Bahadur what it was that he looked forward to most on this visit. What did he want to see, to do. ‘I want to see my home,’ he answered, ‘and my childhood friend, Sadq Khan (son of Sajawal Khan). And I want to drink the water from the village well, to drink it from the hand of a Muslim, and to eat in a Muslim’s house.’

I wasn’t surprised at this because Bir Bahadur had told me time and again that he regretted how Hindus had treated Muslims where he lived, and wanted to find some way to make amends. ‘After all,’ he said to me at Lahore airport, ‘once you have fought, what is left other than to make up.’



Once in the village Bir Bahadur was welcomed warmly by his old friends, many of whom were still alive and remembered him well. When he asked to be taken to the village well where he wanted to drink water from the hand of a Muslim, no one seemed to think it strange and a couple of young people were dispatched to bring a glass. Water from the well was then offered to him and he drank of it, deeply, sprinkling what was left in the glass on his forehead and turban.

The second story has to do with a different place, a different time, a different context. Shortly after the journey to Saintha village, I spent some time in Japan. Here, through many conversations and some reading, and particularly through discussions with women activists, I became aware of a number of debates on the question of war memory.

While many younger people were unaware that Japan had even been in a war with the United States, the question of memories of this, and previous wars, was very much alive among activists and academics. Women’s groups from all over the country accused the state of a deliberate, selective amnesia about the question of sexual slavery in wartime. Why was it that this shameful aspect of Japan’s history found no mention in school textbooks? Why was it that the memories of women who had served as sexual slaves were so often discounted?



They urged the state to recognize that it had deliberately used women and their bodies, that it had behaved in a patriarchal, masculinist way and had then blanked out this memory. They asked that the state recognize its role and more, that it make reparation to the women concerned, thereby beginning the process, for them, and for the Japanese people in general, of healing and reconciliation, not only with the individuals but also with the nations they come from.

For me, these two rather different stories point to somewhat similar questions. In many ways the war is to Japan what the Partition is to India: a part of its past that it would rather forget, something that turned Japanese society into a violent, brutal people (and I speak not only of the World War but also of Japan’s attacks on China in the thirties) in the same way as the violence and brutality of Partition is something which India would rather forget. Remembering it means having to face up to the reality that there was a dark side to the euphoria of Independence. And yet, in both instances, memories persist, they come back to haunt us, they may take new and different forms, but they don’t easily go away. And often, just when we think we have put a particular memory to rest, it returns.

In Japan, people must have only just begun to breathe a collective sigh of relief at its ‘disappearance’ when the issue of sexual slavery surfaced in the mid-eighties. No one really knows what made the first of the ‘comfort women’ speak out, but one can speculate that it could have had something to do with the existence worldwide of a women’s movement and the awareness it has created. Today, a number of women have told their stories and written first-hand accounts of what they lived through – even as I write, a public hearing is taking place in Japan where the testimonies of comfort women are being heard by judges from different parts of the world.

Memories of violence clearly do not go away easily. Bir Bahadur is not the only person I have spoken to who has, for more than half a century, carried within him the memory of that time. But along with the memory of the violence, Bir Bahadur also carried a desire to offer some kind of reconciliation, and this too is not an uncommon phenomenon. To Bir Bahadur specifically, what mattered most was that he find a way to return to Saintha and seek forgiveness from his friends, to restore trust, to somehow make amends, to extend again the hand of friendship. Having done so, he felt able to get back to his own life, to be at peace with himself.



For others, memories may take a different shape and dictate a different course of action. My father, who left Lahore on the 14th of August 1947 has always nurtured a desire to return – not so much to retrace his roots, as to locate one of his closest friends and somehow make contact with him again. The memory of that hastily truncated friendship has stayed with him – and it was only recently that, at age 80, he was able to revisit Pakistan. He managed to locate not his friend (who was dead by then) but his son. He came back a happy man, the memory laid to rest.

Memory is a complex thing, however, and remembering Partition does not mean only recalling the violence of the time. For every story of violence and enmity, there is a story of friendship and love, and it is as important to recall those as it is to look at stories of violence. Sometimes the two are intertwined as in Bir Bahadur’s story where the violence is internal to the community, although its causes may lie elsewhere, and friendship comes from ‘outside’, so to speak.



But the questions I want to raise here are different: Partition represents, among many things, the moment of nation-making for India. We might ask how the Indian state, and the Indian people, have memorialized this moment. We might further ask: how can such moments be memorialized, particularly when the histories they speak of are violent ones? Or, indeed, when the histories they seek to memorialize are living histories, those whose protagonists are still around, those whose influence is still visible in our lives. Further, and to me particularly important, is the next question: even if we recognize that acknowledging, admitting memory in the process of healing and reconciliation is an important step, how do we actually go about doing this?

This is where thoughts on war and memory in Japan come back to me. In Japan there has, for many years, been a debate on how the history of Japan’s role in China, and indeed Japan’s experience in the World Wars, can be taught in schools. Currently, there is a kind of ‘censorship’ – often self-imposed but with the tacit approval, and sometimes active intervention – of the state. Thus the Japanese attack on China, and the brutality of the Japanese armies in Nanking, is not even called by the epithet of ‘aggression’. Rather it is simply called the ‘advance into China’.

While many Japanese intellectuals and members of the intelligentsia oppose this and demand a more honest representation, there is a powerful lobby that argues for the use of such euphemisms in the name of national interest. While the army’s role merits at least a discussion about whether it should be called an advance or aggression, the experience of sexual slavery does not even figure in these debates. We might draw parallels with the way Partition is represented in our history textbooks: do we hear the voices of women, children, minorities in such histories? Do such histories discuss at all the question of violence? And, importantly, can they discuss the question of violence?



It is this last question I want to return to. Some years ago I published a book on Partition (The Other Side of Silence, Penguin India, 1998). At the time, I argued that it was important for us to remember our past, and not to pretend that it did not exist. While I still hold firmly to this belief, I am now concerned with another question: how do we remember our past? Or, how do we talk about a violent past in such a way that we do not further increase and exacerbate the cycle of violence?

To take a more concrete example, if we were to think seriously about attempting to include a more realistic history of Partition in our textbooks, to teach the young about Partition, how could we do it in a way that would remain true to the ‘facts’ – which include some very violent histories – while ensuring that the violence was neither legitimised, sanitized, nor passed on? Another way of putting it would be: how can we write non violent histories of Partition while ensuring that the violence is not glossed over? While I have asked myself these questions for considerable time, I have no easy answers to them.



However, I think these questions become particularly important today because of the increasingly communalized atmosphere we live in, for memory never exists in the abstract. The way people remember particular events and histories dictates the way they relate to the world around them, and how they act in this world. It is our past that directs us to our future, and we therefore need to deal with the question of the use and abuse of the past in order to work towards the kind of future we want.

Krishna Sobti talks about how Partition is difficult to forget but dangerous to remember. Today, when Partition memories are surfacing in different kinds of explorations – whether academic or otherwise – this difficulty is more evident than ever. Some of these memories are extremely painful; often they bring back a sense of loss, of anguish; sometimes they bring back resentment. Equally, the danger of remembering has never been greater for this surfacing of histories is taking place at a time when India is going through a resurgence of ‘nationalism’ – this time an ugly, majoritarian nationalism, and there are ways in which such memories are being drawn into the service of this nationalism. There are any number of examples of the abuse of such memories that I do not really need to list them here.

What makes the need for the kind of carefulness I am arguing for even more necessary – and more difficult – is that we function today in a rapidly globalizing world, where the catchwords seem to be ‘freedom’, ‘opening up’ and so on. The illusion of ‘freedom’ makes the plea for caution seem unnecessary. And yet, caution, or sensitivity is all too necessary for, as elsewhere in the world, the pull of the global, borderless world goes together with the development of identity politics and movements based on assertions of ethnicity, religion, and so on.

Of course it is also important to recognize that while majoritarian nationalism is at an all-time high, there has also never been such a move to friendship and crossing of borders between India and Pakistan as there is now. While the two states continue to posture and spew rhetoric and hate, at a people-to-people level there is considerable movement across borders. And here, especially when the journeys are planned – such as with a group of journalists or women activists or human rights workers – there is also considerable openness in the discussions that take place, even while differences remain and are openly articulated. Perhaps it is in these journeys that we can look for hope, for a kind of reconciliation.

When added to the kinds of journeys Bir Bahadur and my father – and innumerable others – have made, these might offer us a way to approach the next important step, articulated so well by Bir Bahadur: ‘After you have fought, what is there left but reconciliation.’

But I do feel that as people concerned for the future of our countries and indeed of our world, we need to work hard at doing away with our selective amnesia about the past, to come face to face with our memories, and to begin from there the process of learning how to deal with the future. Let me put it this way: If Indians of my generation had known, from the beginning, the different and plural truths of what happened when our country was partitioned, if we had not been fed on only one side of the story, we might have grown up to be better, more tolerant, more confident and indeed better human beings. Is this not after all, what we are all striving for?