Partition: Looking back to heal and not hurt
On two successive days on August 14 and 15, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent and its catastrophic fallout on millions of people. On the first day, he took to his official Twitter handle to announce the observance of August 14 as "Partition Horrors Remembrance Day" every year. The next day, he reiterated the same during his customary address to the nation from the rampart of the Red Fort in Delhi on the occasion of the 75th Independence Day of India, and described the decision as an "emotional" one in memory of all the victims of Partition.
"While we celebrate our freedom today, we cannot forget the pain of Partition that still pierces through the heart of all Indians. This has been one of the biggest tragedies of the last century. After attaining freedom, these people were forgotten too soon. Those who were subjected to inhumane circumstances, suffered torturous treatment, they could not even receive a dignified cremation. They must all remain alive and never get erased from our memories. The decision of celebrating Partition Horrors Remembrance Day on the 75th Independence Day is a befitting tribute from every Indian to them," said Modi in his Independence Day speech. This was the first time Modi gave such a call since assuming power for the first time more than seven years ago.
The significance of making the announcement on August 14 cannot be missed. The independence of India and Pakistan was born out of a two-nation theory based on religion, effected by the British colonial power, that tore asunder the lives of people in the subcontinent, leaving indescribable pain and a deep sense of loss of families, friends, relatives, and home and hearth.
Understandably, Modi's remarks evoked mixed responses and set off discussions in both the traditional and social media. The main question emerging from those discussions is: why did he choose August 14 and 15 to raise the Partition issue? Why did Modi dig up the past to look at India's future, 75 years after Partition? The Indian Express, in its report on August 15, quoted an unnamed "highly-placed official" drawing "a parallel with how other countries mark dark chapters of their history: Holocaust, Slave Trade and Bangladesh's March 25 as Genocide Day…"
The reaction of leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party, including its President JP Nadda, left little doubt about the political context of Modi's decision. Nadda talked about "appeasement politics" in a reference to criticise the Congress party. Another senior BJP leader, BL Santhosh, was more forthcoming when he tweeted that the "Nehruvian legacy and its proponents tried to whitewash the (Partition) tragedy fearing accountability." This was clearly aimed at the legacy of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. "Appeasement" has been a key component of BJP's anti-Congressism over the decades and an important part of its nationalistic agenda.
Predictably, the Congress and other opposition parties accused Modi of playing "polarising politics" over the sacrifice and trauma of the Partition. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala cited a letter from Modi written to Pakistan PM Imran Khan congratulating the neighbouring country on March 22, the day Muslim League passed the Partition Resolution in 1940. Surjewala suggested that the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day call was made keeping in mind the coming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab early next year.
There is nothing wrong in delving into the past to take lessons from it, especially from how the colonial power drew an arbitrary line to divide a subcontinent and injected seeds of religious strife to rule. Remembering the past should also be an occasion to introspect if a section of the people and parties played into the hands of the colonial rulers over Partition. The prime minister made a cogent case for revisiting Partition in order to "remove the poison of social divisions, disharmony and strengthen the spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment."
However, it must be recognised that any discussion on Partition has the potential to make passions run high, with trading of blame for the sufferings that make up the collective trauma in all countries of the subcontinent. To remember the sufferings of only one side of Partition and ignore the other is selective amnesia. How fruitful would it be to recall the horrors of Partition after 75 years, particularly for new generations?
A society that does not learn from the past is susceptible to faltering again. That is why the utility of the annual exercise of recalling Partition depends, to a large extent, on how and to what end it is used. In looking back, there should be no reopening of old wounds (though some of it may not be altogether unavoidable). Instead, there should be a sober reflection as to how the scars of Partition can be healed.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.