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A "Yes Or No" Question For Modi On Partition


Since the mind can dream up anything, I am imagining a press conference where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking questions and I am present as a reporter.

I ask: "Calling for a 'Partition Horrors Remembrance Day', you tweeted, 'Millions of our sisters and brothers were displaced and many lost their lives due to mindless hate and violence.' My question is, are displaced or killed Muslims included in our sisters and brothers?"

It will be a new day if Mr. Modi answers this question with a clear "Yes". Not that he needs a press conference to do so. He can issue a simple statement, or send another short tweet, saying, "Yes, Muslims displaced or killed because of mindless hate and violence are also to be remembered."

I don't expect him to do anything of the kind. In fact, his tweet has already activated champions of Hindu victimhood. For them, remembrance of horrors only means underlining cruelty at Muslim hands.

Still, the tweet gives Indians believing in the sacredness of human life - of the lives of all humans - something of a chance. Teachers and parents can tell youngsters, quoting the Prime Minister, that horrors are produced by mindless hate and violence.

Going beyond this, some can remind young and old alike that in 1946-47, there were people who spoke the blunt truth to their own side. Putting their lives on the line, they championed defenceless children, women and men of every group. Thanks to such people, many lives were saved, the equal value of all lives was underlined, and our Constitution entrenched this equality.

Mahatma Gandhi may be the best-known among them, but he wasn't alone. In Bengal, and also in Punjab, where carnage reached unspeakable levels in 1947, 'ordinary' human beings protected neighbours and sent them to safety. Compassionate, courageous, and ingenious, these heroes - Hindu, Muslim and Sikh - were more than a handful. There were tens of thousands of them. Anyone who researches that period discovers that if evil stalked our soil in 1946-47, nobility too walked bravely on it.

Certainly, this was what I learnt when I researched the Partition story for my study of Punjab's history from the death of Aurangzeb to the viceroyalty of Mountbatten. Other scholars too have marked this amazing insaniyat that mercifully protected lives during the insanity of 1946-47. Any "remembrance" that excludes this insaniyat would be inadequate.

And any 'remembrance' that excludes horrors faced by the 'other' side would not only sound hollow, it would trigger fresh rage. On the other hand, a remembrance that takes an honest and complete look at the entirety of the violence of 1946-47 can move us forward. It could even become a step towards reconciliation within India and between the nations of South Asia. Truth and reconciliation go together. This is what the world learnt in the 1990s from Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and South Africa as a whole.

If 'remembrance' results in a truthful study of the entire sequence of riots and killings on the subcontinent from August 16, 1946, when Jinnah's "Direct Action" call triggered violence in Kolkata, to Gandhi's assassination in Delhi on January 30, 1948, not only scholarship, but the cause of peace would gain. "The spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment", to quote words from a second tweet by Mr. Modi about 'Partition Horrors Remembrance Day', would be enhanced.

It is widely known that August 1946's "Great Calcutta Killing", as it was called, was soon followed first by large-scale violence in September in the eastern part of what was still a single Bengal in a united India, and next by larger-scale killings in Bihar in October-November. A major episode of violence also occurred in Garhmukteshwar in Western UP in November 1946. The Punjab carnage began in March 1947 with a burst of large-scale violence in and around Rawalpindi and Multan, and the months from July to September saw, in both halves of Punjab, the peak of the carnage. This was the killing chain, which is not to say that the rest of the subcontinent was immune. It wasn't.

Regrettably, very few thorough accounts of the 1946-47 killings are available, although fairly soon after the Punjab carnage, two surveys of its scale were provided. One was G D Khosla's Stern Reckoning (1949), the other was Gurcharan Singh Talib's Muslim League's Attacks on Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab (1950). Perhaps the fullest account of the Punjab upheaval is to be found in the 2011 study by the Stockholm-based scholar of Pakistani origin, Ishtiaq Ahmed, whose Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned & Cleansed analyzes available literature and also provides hundreds of eye-witness accounts from every district of undivided Punjab. Killings outside Punjab were not part of Ahmed's painstaking study.

If most Pakistanis today seem to believe that Muslims were the chief if not the sole sufferers of the Partition killings, the opposite is the position in India, where Muslim lives lost in 1946-47 in Kolkata, Bihar, Western UP, East Punjab and elsewhere, have been almost completely forgotten by Hindus. Remembrance, if honest and complete, would show that in 1946-47 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were alike both in receiving brutality and in perpetrating it. Truthful remembrance would restore our awareness that human beings are the same, never mind the labels they give themselves or are given. With some at any rate, remembrance may therefore be a step towards reflection and even reconciliation.

But why confine remembrance to Partition-related killings? Why should we forget the carnage in 1971 in what is now Bangladesh, which in scale may have even exceeded the 1947 killings in Punjab's two halves? And what about the post-Independence and post-Partition killings in different parts of both India and Pakistan? Are those who after 1947 lost lives because of "mindless hate and violence" in Delhi, Muzaffarnagar, Bhagalpur, Gujarat, and elsewhere on the subcontinent not worth remembering?

The most crucial words in the first Modi tweet are "our sisters and brothers". Which is why I want to ask him the question spelt out at the beginning of this piece, and why the nation needs a simple "yes" or "no" answer from him. Are some groups of people not our sisters and brothers? Modi's answer, and the response of the rest of us to his answer, will make a distinct difference to the future story of India. In fact, to all of South Asia, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, not to mention Pakistan and Bangladesh.