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Exposing Oneself to Partition Literature: The generational trauma of a continent divided

This Independence Day we need to look back and reflect on the volatile history of our freedom through literature. The cost that people of undivided India payed for their respective liberation.

fazā tabassum-e-sub.h-e-bahār thī lekin pahuñch ke manzil-e-jānāñ pe aañkh bhar aa.ī

Few months ago, before we were hit by a global pandemic, I had found myself at the gates of the Bangla Sahib gurudwara with two friends, mainly out of curiosity. This was during the time when the anti-CAA protests were at their height across the country. We looked around, paid our respects, received a helping of the kada prasad and were sitting on the steps of the gurudwara, when I began paying attention to the words of the Sikh preacher, who was addressing the holy congregation (sangat).

From what I picked up of the religious discourse, I realized that the preacher was talking of Aurangzeb and praising the traits that had earned him the label of ‘Zinda Pir’. His words were along these lines: ‘Aurangzeb was a good god-fearing Muslim who followed the tenets of Islam and lived by the rules of his religion, however, his only fallacy was his intolerance.’

The words of the Sikh preacher made an instant impression on me, not because he had spoken of Aurangzeb in soft terms, and not because I was questioning the historical accuracy of Aurangzeb’s portrayal in the Sikh tradition, but for the underlying message that he delivered through the usage of his words which was: ‘kattarta’ or fanaticism was undesirable in the practice of religion. The message delivered was important with respect to the charged political atmosphere of the nation at that time.

Every year, I expose myself to literature on Independence & Partition, leading up to the 15th of August. Two years ago, I read Shamsul Islam’s ‘Muslims against Partition’, which not only introduced me to the charismatic leader of Nationalist Muslims, Allah Baksh, but was also an important text in the sense that it demolishes the claim of the Muslim League being the sole representatives of the Muslim population of undivided India, which it does by shifting its focus to the prominent Muslim leadership outside of the League and is possibly the most comprehensive text in its niche.

Last year the book I chanced upon was Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, an account comprising partition voices which tells us how the marginalised have always been the worst sufferers of partition. Women who were raped, abducted and often forced to settle down with strangers due to state-imposed exile, were then ‘rehabilitated’ through efforts carried out by the governments, on both sides of the border. However, these abducted women were sent back to their old families, without being consulted. Women were thus forced to relive the trauma of partition and displacement twice. This went on for about a decade. In fact, a joint India-Pakistan passport was issued by the Republic of India to migrants enabling them to visit family, friends and ancestral homes located on the other side of the border and was functional till the mid-sixties.

The book I have been visiting this year is ‘India Wins Freedom‘. The story of India’s most crucial years begins in 1939 with the beginning of the War in Europe and unfolds over the next eight years, being narrated from the perspective of the Congress President Maulana Azad. I have personal reasons for revisiting this particular text, however, the personal in present-day India is always influenced by the socio-political. Azad seems to be the only sane voice amidst the chaos of partition, which is a reassuring tone even in present times.

Azad’s role as Congress President during the Indian freedom struggle’s most crucial years, as well as his proximity to other leaders who played a substantial role in the Independence movement, allows us to observe Indian history from the eyes of a spectator who saw everything from close quarters. Azad and Nehru’s mutual admiration for one another can be read by anyone, even in their most brief mentions of each other in their written works.

Together for three years in Ahmednagar Fort— where Chand Bibi had once also been detained; as Maulana Azad & Pandit Nehru both recall in their respective memoirs. They formed a friendship that they had both come to cherish, which is evident when Jawaharlal Nehru specially mentions Azad at the beginning of the Discovery of India— thanking him, saying Azad’s vast erudition would often delight and sometimes overwhelm him, while Azad dedicates India Wins Freedom to his dear friend and comrade, Nehru.

Maulana Azad and Pandit Nehru often saw eye to eye, but they also had their vast share of differences, their respective stances on the question of partition is where we can highlight such differences. When Vallabhai Patel, Pt. Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi had given into the inevitability of partition and had begun viewing partition as the necessary collateral damage for Indian Independence; without inserting any unnecessary hyperboles, Azad stood firmly like a falcon against the idea of Partition which would clip the golden bird’s (India’s) wings.

However, Partition did occur and it occurred on the fateful night of Laylat-ul-Qadr. Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery writes “India is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision”, whereas Maulana Azad in India Wins Freedom calls the finalizing of Partition, with the Congress. Working Committee passed a Resolution in its favor on June 1947 as “The End of a Dream”. Although, the dream of Indian Independence was not realized in full measure, it was felt very substantially.

The zero hour between the night of August 14 & August 15, 1947 proved to be the most significant moment in the history of the Indian subcontinent. The transfer of power to the independent dominions of India and Pakistan was set to occur on the midnight of August 14 and August 15, which also coincided with the 27th day of Ramzan.

However, because it was physically implausible for Lord Mountbatten to be in India and Pakistan at once for the transfer of power, Mountbatten was in Karachi on the 14th of August delivering the King’s message of Independence to Pakistan, before he left for India. He attended the Independence day celebrations in India at the Red Fort on the morning of August 15, as the first governor-general of Independent India.

Therefore, as the constituent assembly of India met for its fifth session at 11pm on the night of 14th of August in the Constitution Hall in New Delhi; with Tirangas to brace itself in order to welcome the dawn of freedom, Jawaharlal Nehru in what is now recognized as one of the best speeches of the 20th century, delivered his address ‘Tryst with Destiny’. At the stroke of midnight, Rajendra Prasad, the president of the constituent assembly read out the oath, which the members read with him, and millions in India took to the streets to partake in celebrations. Subsequently, across the border at 11:59 pm, 14th August, millions were glued to their radio sets, when an announcement was made in the voice of Mustafa Ali Hamadani: “Yeh Radio Pakistan Hai’’

Even though the oath in Pakistan was administered on 14th August, technically the Indian Independence Act, 1947, was to be effective from the midnight of 14th & 15th August, as the act states: “As from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan.” Therefore, at the zero hour, M.A. Jinnah inaugurated the Pakistan Broadcasting Service by delivering the following address to the people of Pakistan: “It is with feelings of greatest happiness and emotion that I send you my greetings. August 15, is the birthday of the independent and sovereign State of Pakistan.”

Successive revisions in history have time and again made it difficult for us to locate the real dates of events, but Manzoor Ahmed Butt in his book ‘Quaid-i-Azam Rahmatullah Alaih: Akhri Do Saal’, says that M.A. Jinnah’s speech went on air after 12 am on the night between 14th and 15th August. Controversies aside, the celebrations for Independence on both sides of the border barely lasted for two days before they gave way to communal violence. Neighbour turned against neighbour, friend turned against friend and the most sane and pragmatic headed people changed. Families were torn apart in the midst of inexplicable horrors.

However, with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January, 1948, communal riots in the country stopped, as the news of his death sent shockwaves through India and Pakistan. Barring a riot or two in Bombay, partition related anger and violence magically evaporated. The Government of India cracked down on the organizations that were spreading communal hatred and communalism lost its appeal for the next three decades.

“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

While it is for the readers of ‘India wins Freedom’ to decide who the real villain of Indian Independence is, it is certain that a common enemy between the present & the past is ‘communal sentiment’ failing to defeat which we landed ourselves in the mess of partition. But from Hey Ram! to Jai shree Ram, India has come a long way.

The emotional trauma of exposing oneself to partition literature never gets easy, especially when we know what awaits us in these pages of history. South Asia as a region is so divided by its politics that we often forget the aspects of history and culture that unify the subcontinent— the beating heart of Asia. I am often reminded of these similarities when I read the writings of Nighat M. Gandhi, that surpasses boundaries drawn on paper.

India’s own history cannot be studied in a vacuum and has to be presented in the backdrop of South Asian history. Any attempt to understand it in a vacuum is a half-hearted attempt which ends in a feeling of incompleteness, hollowness, of not knowing; which allows one to wonder about what might have happened to homes and descendants that are separated from them by borders. The History of this region flirts and flows into one another and as long as we do not learn to study the history of the subcontinent in its vast fullness, we shall always experience a feeling of hiraeth whilst encountering it. Partition for a moment erased words like “choice” and “self-determination’’ on both sides of the border. Your religious identity came to the fore as your political identity. It did not matter if you were an atheist or not, whether you were practicing your religion or not. My reading of the ‘Other side of Silence’ and my own experience from interacting with a partition survivor has taught me that Silence can sometimes speak volumes. In the case of a partition survivor, Silence speaks for the trauma, loss, longing, loneliness and carnage one has experienced.

We have recently witnessed on several occasions how fatal communalism, the belief that interests of different religious groups are mutually exclusive, can be, and the inevitability of partition was a result of this very belief. While it is tough to revisit partition literature again and again, one must learn to visit it. Now more than ever, as the country stands sharply divided, we must learn from history.

Maria Uzma Ansari is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Nuzhat Khan

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Maria Uzma Ansari

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