Letter From America

Published:  12:51 AM, 13 February 2018

A final closure to India's partition

Three score and ten years ago, the British had left us in a messy lurch....at the mercy of a severe political vacuum, to reconcile with our circumstances. Or perhaps, were coerced into this action, after the servilities they had indulged in, for two centuries. In transition, they bequeathed upon us (the inheritors and successors), a legacy of conflict, chaos and anarchy. Was it sheer coincidence that similar dark clouds of turmoil had also imperiled India when they had taken over our affairs, two centuries ago? This was indeed a watershed moment in history. Diverse and self respecting nationalities of India were collectively brought to knees, to be cast upon as the sparkling jewel in the British crown.

When the Partition of India became imminent, rough lines were hurriedly drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe's Commission in 1947, defining the sensitive boundaries of the Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The division of the subcontinent created two distinct, neighboring adversaries...and sovereign nations; both were born in blood, along with several hundred princely states dotting the map of India. The British political thinkers had but prophesied of a shaky future for India, likely to be caused by repeated political attritions.

This may be ascribed as a direct corollary of our division; destined to cast dark shadows in both the newly created countries. This event was the harbinger of further, imminent subdivisions. Geographical boundaries in the subcontinent were also hallowed, waiting to be redrawn at a later time, as deemed proper by the new and emerging nationalities of this vast, vibrant subcontinent. British policy makers and prophets had but warned that a nation cannot be coalesced out of homogeneous entities, because they were already in the process of evolution, to become new nation states, some time in not too distant future.

Newly born Pakistan's lackluster attempt to force Urdu as the state language, led the way in establishing the truth of the forgotten prophecies. In 1971, the largest Muslim nation had been truncated. Pakistan's majority province had seceded, to emerge on the globe as the nation of Bangladesh.

The business of fragmentation has only paused in the subcontinent, waiting for opportune moments to flare up, to further claim the legitimacy of the envisioned apocalypses. Dangers, however have loomed ahead. India's volatile states of Kashmir and Manipur, and Pakistan's mineral-laden, province of Balochistan, continue to enjoy their roots, distinct from nations that had absorbed them at the time of the Partition of India. Are they waiting their turn to join the elite group of small nation states?

India's democracy gathered strength, peacefully after the first general elections in 1951; where every citizen got their chance to vote, regardless of gender, ethnicity, caste or creed or faith, wealth or poverty. Admirably so, it is one Asian nation, where the army has not ventured to seek or share political power with civilians.

The great diversity of India's people, cultures, ethnicity and languages make it unique for this country to function as a nation, despite extreme disparities of income and quality of life. What is central to the vibrant and shining India is its ability to remain united, strong and powerful and further, rely purely on its absence of semblance, for its national identity.

In many ways India replicates the continent of Europe, with its diverse nationalities, states,  cultures, languages and disparities. The absence of these facades 'unites' the people, to lend them what is known as the Indian identity. India has been and shall remain a plural democracy. A journey of seventy long years has enabled and emboldened India. A slow starter, the economic engines of this great nation took time to charge. Only after it had addressed the issues of extreme poverty, education, infrastructure, population and its bubbling caste system. Indians have since, fast paced forward speedily, in terms of industrial and economic progress.

Life expectancy stands today, loftily at 68. Per Capita Income exceeds $11,000. With its annual GDP of 15.0 trillion dollars, it ranks third only after China and the United States. Nearly 99% of Indian villages have electricity. Two thirds of Indians enjoy literacy, in the real sense of the word. Notably, Kerala state in south India enjoys 100% literacy. It is a vast subcontinent where 20 developed languages are spoken. Every change of government has been effected via the ballot box, a fact that brings shame to neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand and even the western democracies of Spain, Greece and France.

The present Prime Minister and leader Narendra Modi seems to enjoy his ride simultaneously, on two ferocious tigers. One symbolizes his challenge of leading India to prosperity, while the other, reflects his struggle to appease the fanatical, extremist Hindus of India. He falls well below the high expectations and hype, created by his meteoric ascent to power. India gathered momentum on its 50th birthday, as it raised itself to the status of a nation that had been bonded together, by virtue of its divergence.

Shashi Tharoor, the former Indian diplomat and Kerala's learned politician, has aptly described his country to have been built on a bold idea of difference and an agreement that it is healthy to disagree. All aspects of present day India, reflect its alarming pluralism. The great scholar has opined without reservations, that all those who live in India constitute the minorities.

A Hindi speaking Hindu male from UP may cherish the illusion that he represents the majority. Unfortunately, however he does not. He belongs to the faith adhered to by the vast majority of the population. The 'vast majority', nevertheless, does not speak Hindi in India, as also the vast majority of population, that does not speak Urdu in Pakistan.

In India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, our names unveil our true identities. These define our faith, custom, culture and language. When we reveal our names, we also point to our humble origins in the subcontinent. A Bengali scholar is easily distinguished from his Punjabi colleague. It is the difference among people that strikes us, when we stand together at any regional platform.

A Brahmin from Karnataka may share the same faith as his counterpart from Bihar, but speaks highly of their 'fascinating' personal differences. Mahatma Gandhi, including the nationalist founding fathers, created India and Pakistan in August of1947. Following the independence of the two countries, the larger task was to create the Indians out of Bharat and on the other side, the true Pakistanis, out of Pakistan. Seventy years later, this has been a wonderful accomplishment.

It was a leap of faith that enabled the Partition to divide a Bengali from a Bengali, and a Punjabi from a Punjabi. The spirit of nationalism in 1947 was certainly not based on the aspirations of national identity. Neither language, nor culture, nor faith, nor ethnicity played a role in charging the emotions of the people of India. This sacred land is one secular and a pluralist state, where the inhabitants are comfortable to live with all religions known to mankind; that have found their followers and practices. The concept has held strong that the citizens of India belong to an ancient civilization, bonded together by a shared history. There is what we call the common denominator that celebrates the common existence of major and minor differences in its diverse population.

Again, Tharoor has rightly pointed out that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, custom or conviction and may still rally around their faith and their country. In a real democracy, one does not need to agree except on the aspects of personal disagreements. India's true identity has evolved on the premise that there exists unity in diversity.

Let us all be brave to admit that the Partition of India unleashed one of the most horrifying tragedies in recent history. In the weeks that had followed, the full scale of the cataclysm became apparent. The north eastern and north western parts of the subcontinent of India came to be known as the territories of sovereign and independent Pakistan. The remaining territories belonged to Hindu India, a disproportionately large nation, compared to Muslim Pakistan.

When the division finally arrived in 1947, the population of Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east, were not set for a new kind of disconnect...their voluntary eviction. The Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians had lived and worked together to share in agriculture and trade, and coexist peacefully in a society that respected all faiths, cultures and traditions.

Even Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India had not anticipated the extremes of human responses, in the consequence and light of separation. Calamity followed catastrophe in the dark days, as people were moved by fear. In the face of rampant violence they were forced to take matters into their own hands. An emotionally charged majority simply could not tolerate the existence of a minority, in the face of human conflicts; and the violent forces unleashing in a background of dire and volatile situations.

Fear had truly gripped on the minds of the minority population on both sides of Punjab, and Bengal, including the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the Bombay Presidency. This was largely accompanied by coincident revulsions and horrors that it carried. Refugees on both sides hurriedly commenced to escape from their homes to reach the other side of the nearest border. Borderlines had cut through the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, to cause unforeseen turmoil in terms of human lives and injuries. Millions died from ethnic violence or diseases that were rampant in refugee camps.

The historic city of Lahore and the nerve center of communal violence, had been the heir to architectures of Mughal, Sikh and British rule and was famed for its poets, University and the cultural centers that existed here. Large quarters of this city were reduced to rubble. It took many years to clear the debris and much longer for the wounds to heal.

Likewise, on the eastern front, the city of Kolkata (Calcutta), was another nerve center, that guided the turmoil and tragic events in the region. Communal riots in Kolkata were chaotic and grimy, spreading in all quarters of this vast metropolis. No wonder the city had held the title of India's Black Hole. A witness to this cataclysm, my father had shared the brutality and frenzy that had continued in this city in those inglorious days that followed the Partition of India.

Nearly 100,000 women became victims of sexual violence, as a direct result of Partition. Even after seven decades, the issues of princely states including Kashmir have remained unresolved with time. The act of separation had set off a chain of events unforeseen by a human being. Post independence, the dramatic upheavals had changed the game and the terms of settlement.

Mystery has also shrouded the dark hearts of our partition. It has stayed behind, to remind us of history, layered with questions, voids, absences and silences. Nearly each refugee has a story to relate, about being uprooted and the wonderful friends he or she had, who had been left behind. The nostalgia for a cherished home had now fallen into the new faces, then going through their motions under refuge. There were stories of violence, frenzy, senseless direction, culpability and betrayal. About failures and losses of cash, kind, land, properties and human lives.

There is negligible evidence of enigmatic and baffling actions of blood thirsty, or uneducated peasants armed with sticks and stones, for the crimes committed against humanity, or the genocide. All this is attributed to the well organized and educated, well motivated groups of people who had ventured out in the plains to conduct high intensity, ethnic cleansing. In the aftermath, and much, much later, parallels had been drawn from similar cleansing conducted by the majority against the minority, in Rwanda and Bosnia.

In the end, the powerful British rulers who have emerged out of this painful story, appear to have lost face, and direction because they were seriously handicapped. And ill prepared, gullible and innocuous or naive, and very, very indifferent, indeed. They were obviously in a rush to vacate themselves and leave their legacy of errors and/or omissions behind in India. Did they carry the ability to pacify the competing nationalist visions in the South Asia as it went through from crisis to crisis in the forties, of the last century? Another tragedy to our partition is that extreme violence provided fodder to opposing perspectives and myths have crystallized around both India and Pakistan.

Historians have also failed to write accurate accounts of the great upheavals that mankind recorded in this part of our world. There has been tremendous pressure on them to rewrite accounts based on each nation's sacred narrative of creation of their country. There is still the need to record an appreciation of the truth, as Yasmin Khan, an eminent historian at the Oxford University has beautifully summarized ....'that the subcontinent was the land in which Sanskrit based languages were cross pollinated with Turkish, Persian and Arabic, in which the Rajput princesses married Mughal conquerors. Musical and artistic styles had thrived on the fusion of influences from Central Asia and the local cultures....'

Can we afford to bring about the final closure of the Partition of India or let this glide through the prisms of our history, to find a final resting place for itself?

The writer is based in the USA

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