Remembrances of mass killings and collective violence can play an important part in societies seeking forgiveness for the crimes they committed against humanity and resolving that they will never let those terrible events happen again.
Israel remembers the Holocaust for more reasons than one. For different reasons, Germany too remembers the Holocaust through discussions in schoolbooks, public events and more. Japan, by actively remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has not allowed the world to forget the destruction caused by the nuclear bombs dropped on the two cities. Not all nations, though, are committed to national remembrance. The United States, for instance, has not cared to publicly remember the genocide of the Native Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries.
A refusal to remember
The biggest example of forgetfulness of a 20th century event is that by India. It has never cared to collectively remember the estimated two million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who died in targeted murders and the tens of millions who were displaced in British India during the months before Independence. India’s holocaust, which never has an ‘H’ to it, is for the most part something we remember as having happened because of British perfidy and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s cunning ways. As a society we bear no responsibility, we believe. But it is only by constantly telling ourselves what happened that we can come to terms with the mass murders of the time. By not remembering the crimes perpetrated on each other, we do not reach closure, we only push them aside in our minds.
There is no national memorial for the millions murdered, sexually violated, and displaced during Partition. School textbooks only note the killings; they do not remember them. There are no names, there are no faces, there are no voices of those millions. In a reflection of the national attitude, the arts too barely remember the slaughters. Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories, Bhisham Sahni’s novel Tamas (which was also turned into a film for TV), and the fictionalised presentations in the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag are exceptions. The academic world has over the past quarter century sought to make amends with a wide body of work of Partition studies and the creation of Partition archives, but these have not permeated into wider society. (There is, though, a Partition Museum that has been established in Amritsar, not by a government but by a trust set up by a dedicated group of citizens.)
The blame for this post-Independence refusal to remember and seek forgiveness must be laid squarely at the door of the governments since 1947. In their anxiety to deny the two-nation theory, the state of the new republic sought to gloss over the terrible killings of Partition. It did not forget the mass murders, but it did not seek to actively remember the horrors that had taken place only a few years earlier. Pakistan was no different in not remembering the violence that happened on its side of what became a new national border.
Independent India’s call was ‘Let us get on with building a nation of communal harmony’. Yet it was the opposite that happened. In the absence of collective remembrance, people’s memories of the mass violence became easy fodder for the embers of communal hatred. Indeed, the refusal to openly acknowledge and atone for the Partition slaughter was an important cause of the communal violence that dotted the decades after 1947. A string of violent events took hundreds of lives each time, if not thousands, from Jabalpur (1961) to Ahmedabad (1969), Jamshedpur (1979), Moradabad (1980), Bhiwandi (1984), the Rath Yatra killings of 1989, Bhagalpur (1989), the Babri Masjid demolition violence of 1992-93, Bombay (1993); the list is endless extending to Gujarat (2002) and beyond. All these conflagrations are testimony to the outcome of the divisions built around Partition that have lingered ever since.
It is never late to begin the process of remembrance and to come to terms with the past without erasing it. This remembrance must be of all the communities — Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs — in undivided India, on both sides of the present borders, in the west and the east, who saw unimaginable devastation. It must be a journey of remembrance that seeks forgiveness and makes us say ‘Never again’. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision (let us make no mistake: the decision has the Prime Minister’s imprint all over it) to institute August 14 every year as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ cannot be such a beginning. No communities are mentioned in the Prime Minister’s statement, but the choice of the date tells us what it is about. Up to two million people of all religions died, but it is on the day which marks Pakistan’s emergence as a nation that we will remember the brutalities of Partition.
This kind of remembrance will reopen wounds and give a new edge to the divisions that led to the deaths during Partition. If the post-Independence error was to avoid talking about the mass killings, the new decision will keep the past on the boil. This is not remembrance; it encourages us to let the wounds fester. We are surprised with this decision, but we should not be. It is in keeping with the idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra. A part of the Rashtra was ‘lost’ to Pakistan on August 14, 1947, and we are now told that we must remember on that very day those who lost their lives during the events that ended with the break-up of the so-called Akhand Bharat.
This is not a dog whistle ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections; it is something more dangerous. Seventy-five years after the birth of two countries, this decision by the Prime Minister of India seems to be aimed at recalling that the emergence in 1947 of two independent nations, rather than just one, was a mistake that we cannot be allowed to forget. The institution of ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ will then not help us remember and grieve in silence for the people who were killed. It will have the opposite effect — perhaps even intentionally — of retaining the anger over Partition. Such a decision could have dangerous consequences in the future.
If we truly want to make a beginning at remembrance of the horrors of the time, we could start by establishing a national museum of Partition in the heart of New Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi had suggested after Independence that the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) should be turned into a hospital; the suggestion was not taken up. Perhaps, now we could turn the new residence of the Prime Minister, proposed as part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, into a museum that remembers the millions of people of all communities who were killed or were forced to flee their homes 75 years ago.
Such a national memorial in India could be a catalyst for Pakistan and Bangladesh to establish similar museums to honour the dead in those parts of British India. This may well mark a larger South Asian process of remembrance of everyone who died, whatever their religious denomination and wherever their location at the time of Partition. This would be a true collective atonement for those terrible events.
C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of The India Forum