Partitions, memories and reconciliation


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I am one of the post-midnight, post-partition generation, born during the early fifties of the last century. My infancy and childhood were spent in our village Masaania, almost a kilometre’s walk from the railway station, Shaam Chauraasi. The railway station on the Jalandhar-Hoshiarpur railway track was named after the famous but relatively distant village, a pilgrimage sight for the lovers of classical music. The families, living with the tradition of classical music for generations, had to leave the village with the partition of Punjab. However, the brothers Salaamat Ali-Amaanat Ali from the Shaam Chaurasi Gharana carried the family tradition with them to West Punjab in Pakistan.

My grandfather told me that before the partition of the Punjab in 1947, most inhabitants of the villages in our rural neighbourhood were Muslim. I was also told that till the eve of the partition, none of the three major religious groups of Punjab – the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs – had ever expected its partition or fragmentation. The partition came without being sought or asked for by the Punjabis. And yet it brought with it a baffling lunacy manifested in the worst forms of mystification, chaos, arson, turmoil, calamities of rape, eviction, dislocation and refuge. The bitter memories of this madness, whether lived or learnt through narration, continues to haunt the survivors, perpetrators and their descendent generations.


The people of Punjab passed through a rather slow but gradual transition from being a predominantly oral community to becoming a marginally literate one during the late 19th and earlier decades of the 20th century under the colonial regime. Of course, it must not be forgotten, and indeed we constantly need to remind ourselves time and again, that this historic period of transition had presented complex and unprecedented challenges for which we could not prepare ourselves. The opportunity created by the spread of literacy could have been a significant step for the development and enrichment of Punjabi language and culture. Unfortunately, our ancestors unwittingly collaborated to metamorphose this possibility into a disaster.

During this period, the religious and social elite of each of the three denominations tried their utmost to get their own preferred (religious) scripts accepted or imposed as the exclusive official script of the Punjabi language and as the medium of instruction in schools. This contest and rivalry resulted in a widespread mutual unfriendliness and acrimony to the point that both the Muslim and Hindu elite unwisely disowned Punjabi and made the mistake of professing Urdu and Hindi as their respective languages. In the name of the democratic principle of respecting the majority view, the colonial administration decided on the use of Urdu as the medium of instruction in schools and local official language for administrative purposes in the colonial Punjab. Thus the teaching and learning of Punjabi became marginal in the formal education system.

With the departure of the British and the partition of Punjab, the question of choosing an appropriate Punjabi language script resurfaced among the Hindu and Sikh leaders in East Punjab. It served as a source of fallacious claims on the part of a majority of the Hindu social elite and resulted in the reorganisation of the state into Punjab and Haryana in 1966. In West Punjab, Urdu continued to be the medium of instruction and administration as it had been declared the official language of Pakistan despite dissenting voices raised in East Pakistan.


The issue of the significance of Punjabi language and culture resurfaced in West Punjab only after the formation of Bangladesh as an independent nation state. The other Pakistani sub-nationalities, such as Sindhis, Baluchs and Pushtoons too had started demanding the recognition and use of their respective languages for educational and administrative purposes in their provinces. Soon Sindhis, Baluchis and Pashtoons had mustered courage to launch struggles for the protection of their respective national languages and cultures. It may sound ironic that Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, was the language of muhajirs (migrants from Delhi and United Provinces), and not of any local people in Pakistan.

It was in such a scenario that the Punjabis in West Punjab realised that they had unwittingly allowed themselves to letting their own language almost vanish by default. This belated concern for Punjabi language and culture gathered momentum and inspired the launching of the Lok Virsaa movements during the early ’70s in western Punjab for rehabilitating Punjabi language to its rightful place. This struggle though moderate was effective in slowly achieving its main goals by the beginning of the present century. It is no longer an offence to speak Punjabi in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Steps have also been initiated to teach Punjabi in the Shahmukhi script in schools from class three onwards in West Punjab.

It may not be wrong to conclude that the 20th century was a century of tragedies for Punjabi language, culture and people. The Punjabis not only divided themselves on the question of a script, but sections of Muslims and Hindus went to the extreme of disowning their language for privileging their preferred scripts. The negative fallouts of this scripted acrimony continue with us in a variety of facades and pretexts even today. Punjabis, across the borders and religious denominations, will have to make a concerted effort to protect Punjabi language and culture from future erosion and decline, particularly given the privileging of other languages in the processes of globalisation and economic development.


With an unanticipated partition of the Punjab, western Punjab became part of the newly constituted state of Pakistan while eastern Punjab remained in India, forcing a devastating dislocation of populations in a manner that further intensified the bitterness and lingering hostilities. The violence of partition generated deep feelings of terror, fear, hostility, hatred and other negative emotions among its victims and perpetrators. At the depths of despair and madness, on both sides of the divide, the ‘Other’ was seen and projected as the greatest and possibly the most dangerous enemy, one that had to be pulled down as effectively and as soon as possible.

On our side, we were taught in schools that the Muslims had partitioned the great country, fragmenting it into antagonistic pieces which could survive only with the decimation of the other. That the partition had become a reality as a result of an agreement between leaders of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League was rarely mentioned. It was the people of Punjab who had to actually live with the reality of the partition of their land, culture and language. Perhaps the same can be said about Bengal and Kashmir. Of course, a large number of people from other parts of the Indian subcontinent too had been dislocated and brutalised as a result of the partition. The officially and socially designed image of the Pakistani Muslim was a negative stereotype of a lurking brutal trespasser waiting to kill and reduce to rubble whatever came his way.


I had shifted from my village to the city for further education after completing class three in the village school. Our house, in the city of Jalandhar, was located in Bazaar Nauhariyan. At the end of the bazaar were the tall and impressively elegant minarets of Imam Nasser’s mausoleum. Till the mid-sixties, every alternate year an enormous number of devotees would come from across the border to pay homage to the saint during the urs of Imam Nasser. Among the devotees were my grandfather’s friends and acquaintances who invariably visited our house to share their old feelings of friendship, affection, nostalgia and delightful gifts. Their warmth, zeal and friendliness left me confused, as their behaviour was in total contrast to what we were taught at school and through the newspapers.

The designed image of the average Pakistani Muslim in the mainstream media in Punjab was extremely negative but the people I met were worth admiration and emulation. These conflicting images and feelings generated an intense desire to some day go across the border and see things for myself. I had grown up without any narratives of my kith and kin having been forcibly displaced from West Punjab. Consequently, my desire was never rooted in the feeling of going back to the land of ancestors that so many of the descendants of displaced families from West Punjab have shared with me.

Also, without experiencing the misfortune of being displaced, I had heard the horrifying stories of the circumstances in which the Muslims were made to depart East Punjab at the time of the partition. I often wondered whether fellow Punjabis from across the border carried similar negative ideas about us. During the early sixties, a relative was the medical officer incharge of a veterinary hospital at Jhabaal near the Indo-Pak boundary. Unlike the subsequent barbed wire fencing the then boundaries were invisible but for the presence of the militia doing guard duty besides manning the check posts. The villagers from the other side would bring their cattle for treatment to our side as that was more convenient. There was little evidence of the hostility or hatred that I had feared. There was no difference between them and us except in dress and accent.


Having inculcated an interest in literature and music during my school days, I came to learn that our literary, musical and cultural heritage was inconceivable without celebrating the composite culture of pre-partition Punjab. The Sikh Gurus and Sufi saints had shown the path of a constructive synthesis, drawing on positive elements from diverse sources and traditions for celebrating the ideals of equality and unity among human beings. They had questioned the restrictive and exclusionary boundaries of caste, creed, gender and religion. Their message, articulated in the form of musical poetry, had sustained the spirit of collective well-being among Punjabis for centuries. This spirit is likely to remain not only impoverished and weak but perpetually threatened unless a large majority of the people of the two fragments of Punjab start appreciating and celebrating the magnificence of the common heritage across political boundaries.


As of now, the political boundaries have come to stay. We have to learn to live with them. Any talk of breaking the boundary, like the breaking of the Berlin Wall, is neither intelligible nor acceptable to the forces that have become dominant across the borders. This was well articulated by a member of the Pakistan National Assembly whom we met when we went to Kasoor to pay our tribute to Baba Bulley Shah.

‘As Punjabis, we may like the opening of borders and the free movement of people, goods and services across the borders for the mutual benefit of Punjabis. But this will be resisted tooth and nail by all those whom it does not suit. Forces in Mumbai, Karachi and Dubai, having their vested interests to protect, will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Delhi and Islamabad to allow the winds of mutual cooperation and constructive support to blow between Patiala and Lahore, Amritsar and Kasoor, the two sides of Punjab.’

During the World Punjabi Conference held at Lahore in January 2004, a leading member of the East Punjabi delegation made an enthusiastic but indiscreet speech about the dismantling of borders and breaking of walls. In response, the chief minister of West Punjab aptly pointed out that, ‘Once the brothers fall apart and split their ancestral property, they find it hurtful or embarrassing to face each other. The walls that they construct to break up what their ancestors had built together, make them alienated and inaccessible. If they are gentle, they sidestep one another to avoid confrontation. Otherwise, antagonistic confrontation is the constant concern on both the sides.

‘With the passage of time, as the past memories of antagonism begin fading, they may start meeting each other but would hesitate to knock at the door of the other for seeking help or support. If they are fortunate, such an eventuality would encourage them to begin thinking of opening a window in the wall, which they may now see as a common one, for making interaction and exchange convenient and easier. But if one of the brothers, in his hurry or rashness to undo the unfortunate split, starts speaking of breaking the wall, it brings only apprehensions, fears, ill-will and bitter enmity rather than restoring old amity.’

The cautionary remarks of Parvez Elahi need to be seen in the light of another significant aspect of social life that we found in Lahore during our visit for this conference. Though the anglicised Lahorians have named the old Gwal Mandi as Food Street, we were guided by the receptionist at our hotel Shah Taaj that we first go to Luxmi Chowk and then ask the way for Dharampuri to see the all night eating shops for ourselves. On the way we came across buildings and institutions which continue to carry their pre-partition non-Muslim identities. I was curious whether any attempt had been made to change the old names. I was told that though new Islamic names had been given, public memory and habits proved to be more resilient than the votaries of change. It is not surprising that the fate of attempts to change the names of Ropar and Mohali on this side of the border as well was similar. Let us wish and hope that in the new millennium it will become possible for us to make our common Punjabi heritage accessible to all of us in its composite totality to guide our future destiny.