Forbidden memories

Fakhra Hassan reminds us that our own ancestors' lived experiences of Partition are the most powerful indictment of nationalisms in South Asia

Forbidden memories
What could one possibly add to the hundreds of authentic voices that have already celebrated, mourned and debated the Partition of 1947, which for most of us in our collective memory, has been programmed as Independence Day?

Whose ‘Independence’ is it exactly that we as Indians and Pakistanis celebrate every year? Is it the individuals in India and Pakistan who managed to sustain their independence after the Partition of Punjab and Bengal? After all, the dictionary definition of ‘independence’ means self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-representation, freedom, liberty, autonomy, home-rule, sovereignty etc. etc. Whatever nationalist identity emerged as a result, is it a collective representation of these individuals only, ‘the national bourgeois’, as Fanon calls them?

Or shall we mourn the 15 million people who never came out of the trauma of leaving their homes and families behind, for good, ‘the national middle class’ for Fanon, who were never free to begin with? I haven’t even begun to explore the 200,000 deaths and 75,000 women raped by men of other religions - as well as men of their own religion - in a matter of days. On this Independence Day, perhaps we should reflect on the annual reports of human rights violations in Pakistan: there is not much of a change in those numbers.

Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla collecting Partition testimonies in Punjab
Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla collecting Partition testimonies in Punjab

I made a conscious effort to disconnect myself from history altogether. I hated it

Let’s not be wishy-washy and euphoric over the egalitarian colours of our flags. Even a child can tell that phrases like ‘let’s rise above our differences’ are measly inventions of the nationalist political parties. The dichotomy between the bourgeois and the middle-class is real. A nation is not a monolith.

For a middle-class person like myself, born and raised outside the realms of Indian or Pakistani or Bengali nationalisms - let alone Arab nationalisms - I had my Indian teachers and friends from childhood who inspired me and then, on the other hand, there were history textbooks that spewed hate. And then there was the madness and frenzy leading up to the fissures of Independence Day. I made a conscious effort to disconnect myself from history altogether. I hated it. As Foucault prescribes, “We must try to return, in history, to that zero-point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself. We must describe this other form of madness which relegates Reason and Madness deaf to all exchange, and as though dead to one another.”

Farhana Afroze interviews Muhammad Hanif
Farhana Afroze interviews Muhammad Hanif

Saadat Hasan Manto happens to be the only Urdu writer of the Partition era to have given a fairly accurate description of this kind of madness that Foucault is advising us to revisit. Consider, for instance, Manto’s epic short story Toba Tek Singh, which was set in a mental asylum in Lahore. He writes:

There were a number of lunatics who were not lunatics. The majority of them were murderers whose relatives had bribed the officers to get them sent to the lunatic asylum, to save them from the coils of the hangman’s noose. They understood something of why Hindustan had been partitioned and what Pakistan was. But they too were ignorant of the actual events. Nothing could be learned from the newspapers.

It is important to explore whether Manto’s lunatics fit Foucault’s description of the insane in confinement - the lazy ones, the jobless, the woman-hating wife-beaters, the tramps, the obscene and the harassing beggars.

Sadly, none of Manto’s stories were ever included in our syllabus. Therefore, it is no surprise our textbooks turn a blind eye to the state’s prejudiced and biased attitudes towards religious and ethnic minorities in Jinnah’s Pakistan, who continue to suffer because of Partition. On the one hand, Pakistani Hindus are migrating to India under the constant threat of persecution, forced marriages and forced conversions to Islam - living under the dark shadows of the Blasphemy laws and the malicious 1973 anti-Ahmadiyya Act backed by the extremist mullah groups. On the other hand, Pakistani Hindus are denied visas by the Indian government to attend the annual holy pilgrimage of Kumbh at Haridwar or meet their families in India, because of their passports. Wasand Mal, a Pakistani Hindu businessman from Sindh, shares that he was separated from his family during Partition and has not seen them since then. “I’ve never been to India. I can’t go on any pilgrimage. All my ancestors are there and I’m completely cut off from them for the last 70 years,” he says.

Interviewing Ranjanpreet Nagra in Punjab
Interviewing Ranjanpreet Nagra in Punjab

"Hatred and fear of people from other religions,that Partition instilled in me, changed my personality altogether"

India shares Pakistan’s dilemma, with instances of marginalisation and persecution of Muslims - Bihar in 1989, Ayodhya in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002, Sikhs in 1984 - and the Dalits.

Although these powerful stories are strewn across mainstream media libraries and easily accessible now (thanks to the internet), they are not enough to get one engaged in the process of developing effective counter narratives and undoing the cognitive biases instilled by nationalist narratives and the erasure of certain communities from our daily lives. One reason is that they are missing accounts of people who have endured these atrocities and survived to pass on these tales of trauma to their loved ones. Most such narratives digress from the nationalist narratives. As Butalia aptly says in her book The Other Side of Silence: “These aspects of Partition - how families were divided, how friendships endured across borders, how people coped with the trauma, how they rebuilt their lives, what resources, physical and mental, they drew upon, how their experience of dislocation and trauma shaped their lives, and indeed the cities, the towns and the villages they settled in - find little reflection in written history.”

In that respect, the work of emerging historians like Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar is promising. In her groundbreaking book The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories, she radically reconfigures the historical significance of space and time as an element of Indian/Pakistani nationality, according to the South Asian Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, SAMAJ. Basing her research on personal and family histories of the displaced in Delhi and Karachi around 1947, she explores the ways in which the category of ‘refugee’ was created in both countries, by juxtaposing rehabilitation of one community with the exodus of another - thereby inscribing new forms of community identity - and the refugee crises. She also explores the politics of evacuee property Acts, evolution of travel permits into passports and the history of visa regulations. “We think of Pakistan as a profoundly Indian concept, arguably a minority concept that has and continues to shape the conceptual category of India. We must ask how the category of Pakistan came to be produced,” she said at a seminar at The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi earlier this year.

Malkit Singh Ghumaan interviews Sukhdev Singh
Malkit Singh Ghumaan interviews Sukhdev Singh

Sociologists, scientists and researchers at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute have been recommending to the State some textbook reforms for several decades. These include the removal of nationalist hate material from history and religious studies books, sanctioned by the textbook boards for schools and colleges.

Similarly, several second- and third-generation South Asian students of history and researchers in Europe and the US have been publishing their academic research around oral narratives of Partition that they have been recording in their home countries on university-funded trips and scholarships. Who knew that these foreign educated academics are on their way to becoming the next national bourgeois? It’s a dismal state of affairs for the national middle class not to have easy access to these powerful counter-narratives on nationalism for an intelligent discourse in our living rooms, at home, or in the classroom.

In the recent decade, some conscientious academics, educators and students of Indian and Pakistani descent have taken up the task of recording oral histories and case studies around individual stories of 1947 migrants to Pakistan, as well as highlighting biases in the nationalist narratives of Indian and Pakistani textbook boards. Example of these initiatives include the commendable Citizens Archive of Pakistan and The History Project. The History Project, a group of educators from Cambridge and Acumen, teaching a 5-week course on history at schools in India and Pakistan, has recently launched a book of case studies called Partitioned Histories: The Other Side showcasing the contrast in multiple versions of people’s narration of their past.

Srishtee Sethi interviews Partition witness Kanahya Lal Sethi
Srishtee Sethi interviews Partition witness Kanahya Lal Sethi

Ritika Popli interviews Sarita Singh
Ritika Popli interviews Sarita Singh

One conscientious academic in the US to have begun a grassroots people’s movement in documenting individual oral histories of Partition is a physicist at UC Berkeley, born and raised in Delhi. Her name is Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founding director of the 1947 Partition Archive. She became the only woman to set out on a daunting journey to record and publish individual oral histories of Partition on social media platforms from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Her work has enabled many students of history around the world to gain first-hand knowledge and understanding of Partition, directly from the eyewitnesses themselves.

The starting point for Dr Bhalla’s journey of recording interviews - which began in 2009 at Faridkot in India - was based on purely personal reasons. The first was listening to the traumatic stories from her paternal grandparents, of their forced migration from Lahore during Partition, that had left her distraught since childhood. The second reason was that she was not able to find a word written about Partition in textbooks during her schooling in Florida and New Jersey in the US.

She says, “Our history textbooks had a lot written about the Holocaust in Germany and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but not a single line on Partition. When I asked my teacher why the genocide of the Partition of India and Pakistan is not included in the syllabus, they said that if it’s not included then it must be of no significance in world history.”

Dr. Bhalla shares that after 2008, she searched for projects on Partition histories on the internet and was met with extreme disappointment. “At that point, I realized that if our history is not documented properly, no one in the world is going to know about it.”

The 1947 Partition Archive's online Story Map
The 1947 Partition Archive's online Story Map

Farhana Afroze would accompany her father to the India-Pakistan border. He would stand and weep silently by the rail line

Founded in 2011, the 1947 Partition Archive started functioning formally in 2013, as a registered not-for-profit organisation in California. It is entirely people-funded or crowdfunded. Today, it has a presence of over 500+ volunteers around the world, including cohorts of paid Oral History Apprentices and Story Scholars in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the US. Dr. Bhalla tells me, “Since its inception, the volunteers have recorded over 3,000 stories in 14 languages, including Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Gujarati, Kashmiri and Hebrew, from 11 different countries. A large majority of the interviews recorded are in the Punjabi and Bengali languages.”

Some of the prominent names interviewed are Syed Babar Ali, Atin Bandyopadhyay, Milkha Singh, Rehmatullah Rad, Bapsi Sidhwa, Salima Hashmi, Major Geoffrey Langlands and H.H. Dr Karan Singh, Governor of Jammu & Kashmir.

Anyone with internet access can find excerpts of the recorded stories on the project website’s homepage and on its Facebook and Twitter pages, which are updated daily. “Anyone regardless of their nationality, religion, educational background, ethnicity, caste, class, gender or race can get involved to collect stories in their own towns and villages,” she says. The process of becoming a citizen historian is quite simple. “One just needs to participate in our two-hour online oral history workshop that is provided for free. The workshops are offered twice every month.” she says.

By the end of 2017, Dr. Bhalla aims to document 10,000 stories. Her organisation has also been holding ‘Voices of Partition’ events at leading universities in the US, and in India, where Partition witnesses share their personal stories directly with the people in attendance. There are plans to organise a similar event in Pakistan in the near future.

In late 2007, the violent effects of Partition on women was one of the themes I was exploring for my graduate thesis on literary narratives at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. At that point, it didn’t occur to me to interview my grandmother and cite her for my research, under the notion that narratives of middle-class families such as ours have no meaning or relevance alongside the big names of published Partition-era writers like Ismat Chughtai, Qurat ul Ain Haider, Amrita Pritam and Bapsi Sidhwa.

My grandmother Afroze Jahan Begum’s story of migration from Delhi to Karachi is amongst the many stories preserved by the 1947 Partition Archive’s team of volunteers. I believe one of the successes of the grassroots people’s movement that Dr. Bhalla initiated is that it gives credibility to the voices of Partition from all walks of life. She has revived a form of communication lost with the Partition generation, and inspired many youngsters to get on to the bandwagon of preserving their family histories, one story at a time.

A question often comes up to us, especially from the higher echelons of society: why are we revisiting relics of a past instead of paying heed to the present state of affairs, for instance the lack of good education, poor health, land conflicts, state oppression, water shortages, religious extremism, human rights violation, rise in hate crimes against gender, ethnic and sexual minorities, lack of jobs, civil disorder, border tensions etc. etc.

Dr. Bhalla argues that what is happening today is not disconnected from the past: “One of our emerging findings is that in terms of law and order, the phenomenon of Partition is quite visible in cities around the world, be it New York, Delhi or Karachi. If you take away the infrastructure of law and order, the crimes soar. The transfer of power from British India to Pakistan and India was hurried. Within 3-4 weeks of its onset, all state services were gone. The police and army officials were in a state of flux, getting transferred between India and Pakistan. That’s how the have-nots became the haves,” she says.

World War II veteran and educator, Major Geoffrey Langlands shares Dr. Bhalla’s thesis. “The bloodshed and violence that resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people was due to poor leadership decisions. We used to call Mountbatten a ‘whirlwind man’. He was told to get the final independence by August 1948 but he had it done in August 1947. Otherwise, millions of lives could’ve been spared. It could’ve been done more peacefully,” he says.

As a result, we still feel the effects of a hurried Partition that has led India and Pakistan to three wars, and the separation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The post-colonial borders that severely restrict our mobility and create hostility have also imposed restrictions on our imagination and consciousness for cities our ancestors were born in, migrated to or migrated from, argues Sarah Suhail, Lahore-based Pakistani lawyer of the High Court. She is a member of the Punjab Bar Council and the Awami Workers’ Party, and is deeply involved with various feminist movements, peasant movements and class-based struggles in Punjab, all the while studying for a PhD at Arizona State University. “The biggest city near Lahore is Amritsar and that’s not even in our imagination anymore because we never think about it, and the reason we don’t think of it is a border that was actually enforced on us. We should work towards eliminating these borders,” she suggests.

Nabiha Meher Shaikh, a Lahore-based feminist educator and member of the Women’s Action Forum, adds: “In our region, oral histories are essential to understand societal power structures. Our education policy forces all teachers to indoctrinate our students with state sanctioned, factually flawed history so that they leave schools as adults who can’t think beyond propaganda. These stories are important to heal from our collective trauma.”

The first starting point to eliminating these borders is to reconnect with our ancestors hailing from the cities of pre-Partition India, whose testimonies are stifled by the silence inflicted by borders and nationalist propaganda. “When we started interviewing Partition witnesses, most of them were sharing their story for the first time,” Dr. Bhalla said at a seminar addressing students of the South Asian Studies Centre at Punjab University in Lahore. For students, it was difficult to process memories of Muslim migrants to Pakistan growing up in cities of East Punjab like Gurdaspur, Firozpur, Jalandhar, Patiala or Amritsar, and having cordial relations with Hindus and Sikhs.

Mrs. Rasheeda Husain, another Partition witness and author hailing from Hyderabad, Sindh, who was raised by both Hindus and Muslims, explains how Partition transformed her personality: “I was not someone who believed that Partition was good for the country. The hatred and the fear of people from other religions that it instilled in me changed my personality altogether and it is the most terrible thing to happen to anyone who has been brought up in a communal environment.” she says.

On a positive note, there are nearly 500,000 people from around the world reading excerpts of interviews on Partition, via Facebook. This also gives them a chance to engage with one another and learn surprising facts about cities the Partition witnesses hail from, and debunk nationalist myths.

Muhammad Ali, a young undergraduate student of Chemistry at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, has been following The 1947 Partition Archive for three years. “Very recently, I came across the story of Dr. Vivekanand Sachdeva, a Sikh gentleman, and I was pleasantly surprised to know he was actually born and raised in our town of Shujabad, in Multan. All those years, we’d been brought up with a consciousness that no Hindus or Sikhs have ever existed or lived in Multan. It was rather refreshing to read his story and learn what Shujabad used to be like before Partition. Such stories instill a new kind of hope,” he shares.

Harpreet Cheema, an Amazon Books employee hailing from Ludhiana in East Punjab, recently found the story of Brig. (Retd.) Izzat Mukhtar Shah, a migrant to Lahore, hailing from Ludhiana. In his story, he’d shared that one of his friends told him that his family’s graveyard opposite Khalsa School - where his mother is buried - had been desecrated and there is an airport built on it. Due to this reason, Mr. Shah did not go to his ancestral home in Ludhiana during his chance visit to India after Partition. Harpreet shared with Mr. Shah that he’d been misinformed. “His family’s graveyard is intact, surrounded by boundary walls and large trees. There are 80,000 Muslims living in Ludhiana today,” she commented.

Sharing her paternal grandmother Dr. Saida Zafar’s story of Partition, Sarah adds: “My grandmother always exhibited a deep level of discomfort and resentment towards Partition. Her life in Hyderabad, Sindh was in harmony with her Hindu neighbors. Her father was a convert [to Islam] and his family lived in Hyderabad too. There was a bit of trepidation there because they were obviously not happy about his conversion, but they still loved him. There is a deep sense of loss because of Partition - all her Hindu relatives had to leave. However fraught that relationship is, you really don’t want that kind of separation. It’s the loss and separation that is visible from her nostalgia and melancholy. All these stories are strewn over my childhood from listening to her and listening to that mixture of nostalgia and melancholy.”

Author of Ice Candy Man and Partition witness Bapsi Sidhwa, interviewed by Dr. Bhalla, was separated from her son in Mumbai for decades because of Partition. She shares Dr. Saida Zafar’s feeling of melancholy. “It affected my life by taking away my son and it put me through a grieving period for years… You don’t forget it.” she says.

Another Partition witness, Baljit Dhilon Vikram Singh, interviewed by citizen historian Farhana Afroze tells us that as a little girl, she would accompany her father to the India-Pakistan border, where he would stand and weep silently by the rail line. “He would point towards the west and say, “Oh! Everything is over there, on the other side. Lahore, Lahore! Nanikie, Nanikie!”

In view of these arguments and shared experiences made possible through oral history projects like The 1947 Partition Archive, the second step to look beyond borders, i.e. to strengthen the transnational voices and narratives of resistance against state-sanctioned biases rooted in the colonial past, violence, injustices and the persistent threat of lawlessness that Dr. Bhalla points out.

As the ‘economically powerless’ national middle class that Fanon has theorised us to be, it is the most logical step, to hold hands with our immediate neighbors and form a power circle - from Independence to transnational Interdependence. However, rhetorical and emotional it may sound, that indeed is my message to everyone on this Independence Day.

Fakhra Hassan is working as a Story Scholar with the 1947 Partition Archive, documenting oral histories for the project since 2015. She has conducted over a hundred and fifty interviews of Partition witnesses from all walks of life, beliefs and ethnicities across various regions of Pakistan. She is preparing to pursue her doctoral education in migration studies and comparative history in Europe after the end of the project