The anniversary of a divide

Fear, like an invisible fume that you do not see, surrounds us. And it can ignite in our face
By Gopalkrishna Gandhi

This year, the 70th anniversary of India’s independence is also the 70th anniversary of India’s partitioning. The division was not neat. It was a giant, bloody mess. Uprooted from their homes, some 14.5 million human beings, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, left the new Pakistan for India, or India for the new Pakistan.

They left in terror, travelled trembling, and ‘arrived’ traumatised to a ramshackle refuge. A new and powerful word moved from the small print of the English lexicon to everyday Indian speech: refugee. The very rich and the ridiculously poor were refugees together. One had left a manor, another a hut. Both begged together for food, shelter, medicines, clothes — and dignity. All these took time coming. The only immediate relief was that the claws of abduction, loot and death were no longer upon them.

Rejoicing and mourning

Estimates vary but some of them tell us that at the lowest about 200,000 and the highest about 2,000,000 human beings were butchered in the process. The Government of India claimed that 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women had been abducted. The Government of Pakistan claimed that 50,000 Muslim women had been abducted.

Life stood divided, death stood partitioned.

Refugees seethed in rage.

On this anniversary, we should remember that 1947 was one part independence, one part dismemberment, one part triumph, one part tragedy. Unimaginable, indescribable tragedy.

“Tomorrow we will be free from bondage to the British,” said Gandhi in Calcutta on the eve of the new dawn. “But from midnight tonight Hindustan will be broken into two pieces. So tomorrow will be both a day of rejoicing and of mourning.” There was much celebration in the city, great camaraderie.

The euphoria was short-lived. Sixteen days into Independence, on August 31, at about 10 at night, a fuming mob of Hindu youths came to where he was staying in the Muslim quarter of Beliaghata, looking for his Muslim hosts to attack and perhaps kill them. It was Gandhi’s day of silence.

He was unwell, tired and preparing to leave the next morning for Noakhali, by now in East Pakistan, to assuage Hindu families traumatised by the murderous attacks on them. The youths started breaking things, hurling stones at lamps and window panes.

They ran into the rooms looking for their ‘targets’. “What is all this?” Gandhi asked the rampaging crowd, breaking his silence and walking into the mob. “Kill me, kill me, I say. Why don’t you kill me?’’ A posse of military police arrived and dispersed the crowd. But riots flared in the city. The next day, Gandhi cancelled his Noakhali visit and went on a fast.

“For how many days?” Abha Gandhi asked. “Until peace is established I shall take nothing but water.” By the fourth day of the fast, Calcutta was quiet again. Later that night some of the riot-instigators came and surrendered their weapons — rifles, cartridges, bombs.

In Delhi shortly thereafter, he saw the same mayhem again. Another fast ensued, another calm. In his prayer meeting on January 20, 1948, as he spoke, a small bomb — they later called it a gun-cotton slab — detonated. There was some commotion. “Suno, suno (listen, listen),” he said to the congregation, “kuchh nahin hua hai (nothing has happened)… agar sach kuchh ho jae to kya karoge (if something were to really happen, what will you do)?” And then asking the gathering to stay calm, he got his associates to begin singing the Ramdhun. All India Radio has recorded the entire sequence, with the sound of the explosion distinctly audible.

The ‘bomber’ was 25-year-old Madanlal Pahwa, a refugee from West Punjab. He was spotted by a woman, appropriately named Sulochana (the good-eyed), and a police team soon arrived and took the young man into custody. When asked later if he thought Pahwa’s was just “the harmless prank of an irresponsible youth”, Gandhi said it was not.

“Don’t you see there is a terrible and widespread conspiracy behind it?” He was right, Pahwa was integral to the conspiracy which was to hit its target 10 days later. That was the temper of the nation 70 years ago. Hate, brutality, violence both sudden and also calculated. It was the season of vengeance, of retribution. It was the season of dank suspicion, of hooded conspiracies.

So, does the 70th anniversary of the birth of independent India which is the 70th anniversary of the death of undivided India as well, admit of any celebration?

Of course it does, for ridding ourselves of the yoke of colonialism was unquestionably a triumph. Seeing the imperial power out of our lives was a matter of rejoicing. Watching Jawaharlal Nehru unfurl the Tricolour on the Red Fort was “very heaven”.

We must and will celebrate that and more — the advance of India on the path of economic self-reliance and prosperity, electoral democracy and the rule of law. But we cannot afford to forget the price at which that independence came. Not just because it was a heavy levy but because we are paying that cess even today. And it may be called the Two Nations Theory Cess.

The Two Nations theory had two celebrated articulators: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League. Their perspectives were different, their purposes divergent. Savarkar believed Hindus and Muslims were two nations living in their distinctness within an un-harmonised India but he did not want a division. Jinnah believed Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations that needed to be in two separate nation states.

The Muslim League’s advocacy of the Two Nations theory reached its purpose by the formation of Pakistan 70 years ago. What of the counter goal of a Hindu Rashtra?

Bedrock position

For some three generations over the last 70 years, India has been a plural society with a secular government committed to the idea that religion has no business with government and government has no interest in religion.

Has that bedrock position been officially reversed? No, it has not. But it stands undermined.

Those connected historically and culturally to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra are, today, promulgating their passionately-held philosophy in different ways, dispersed incidents, apparently unconnected, in ways that make a Muslim feel fearful, a Christian feel as light as a leaf that can be blown off by a single majoritarian breath, a liberal feel vulnerable, a dissident feel targeted. They serve to make the cattle-trader afraid, the non-vegetarian at his meal declare it is not, please, Sir, not beef. They go to make the journalist feel hesitant, the farmer feel betrayed, the Dalit and the tribal feel insecure. Above all, anyone hurt by administrative wrongdoing or dismayed by state policy feel afraid to say so for: if you are against the government, you are against the nation.

Fear is abroad, like an invisible fume that you do not see but know that it surrounds you. And know, too, that it can ignite in your face.

The great American thinker Thomas Jefferson said: “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation.” A new generation of Indians, a new distinct nation, is marking the 70th anniversary of our independence in an idiom and with a vocabulary which has nothing to do with the freedom struggle. It is making ‘the differently disposed’, both outside and within the Hindu fold, its target. And its equally active counterpart in Pakistan, going for ‘the other’ both within and beyond Islam, is not its adversary but its twin. Their religion is not Hinduism or Islam, it is Separateness.

On the 70th anniversary of independence and partition we must resist a second partitioning of India, of its versatile ethos, through an invisible surgery, performed by the knife of discord moving under the numbing anaesthesia of fear.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor.
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