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There’s a part of Indian history that has been kept hidden from young people for too long | Hasan Suroor

14 August 2017

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The Independent (UK) - 14 August 2017

Millions of young Indians and Pakistanis know little about one of the 20th century’s worst manslaughters in which their near and dear ones died

by Hasan Suroor

On Wednesday, India will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule. Over in Pakistan, they will get into party mood a day earlier to mark the birth of a new Muslim nation carved out of India’s Muslim-majority states.

British diplomats in Delhi and Islamabad will duly line up to greet the natives. But amid the toasts, the fireworks and the pomp and ceremony, the ghost at the top of the table will be studiously avoided by all. Nobody will mention the P word: the bloody Partition of India and its lingering corrosive legacy which continues to poison Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan relations to this day.

It was a cataclysmic event in modern South Asian history in which up to two million people were killed in sectarian Hindu-Muslim riots, and some 12 million were displaced in the biggest mass migration in recorded history. But it remains shrouded in an official veil of silence both in India and Pakistan. There’s a collective amnesia about Partition: it’s not taught in schools, there’s no memorial to its victims, no state-funded museum either side of the border, and no public debate.

Millions of young Indians and Pakistanis know little about one of the 20th century’s worst manslaughters in which their near and dear ones died. Their knowledge of it comes from the biased accounts in which the one side portrays the other as villains. Indian and Pakistani perception of each other is still heavily coloured by their selective interpretation of what happened during partition.

"To countless Pakistanis, India is totally Hindu with all the abominable and derogatory characteristics, whereas to their Indian counterparts, Pakistan is a fundamentalist Muslim threat and a vivisection of a once united India," wrote Pakistani academic Dr Iftikhar Malik back in 2002 on the 55th anniversary of independence. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed. If anything the mutual prejudices have become more deeply entrenched, particularly in my own country, India, under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government.

There’s something uniquely South Asian about the silence around partition: our indifference to history, particularly when it shines light on our own darker recesses. The argument is that "what happened, happened; let’s draw a line under it and move on".

Pakistan still hasn’t been able to separate itself from India

In more historically aware societies, a tragedy of such magnitude would be constantly remembered, debated, taught to schoolchildren, and lessons sought to be learnt from it. Europe is dotted with memorials to historical events; there’s even a memorial to the East Germans who died while attempting to scale the Berlin Wall. In Britain, reminders of its past are everywhere.

In South Asia, and especially on the subcontinent, there’s an extraordinary lack of historical awareness. We do nostalgia rather well clinging to the idea of a mythical golden age, but contemporary history? What’s that? Maybe it has got something to do with the fact that much of contemporary history of the region is so bleak. Whatever the excuse, a lack of debate and an unwillingness to confront the past has meant that we are condemned to repeating history. It has meant dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, the 2002 Muslim massacre in Gujarat, the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and an ugly resurgence of Hindu and Muslim nationalism: all a result of failing to learn from the horrors of partition.

Pakistan keeps truckin’ on

There’s a glimmer of hope, though: liberal voices in both countries are becoming more vocal in arguing for an end to the "conspiracy of silence" around partition. And, over the past year leading up to the anniversary celebrations, several private initiatives have been launched to create awareness about partition. India’s first Partition Museum, a project set up by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, a non-profit group, in partnership with the LSE South Asia Centre, will open in Amritsar next week. Similar projects are underway in Pakistan, including a high-profile Citizens’ Archives of Pakistan and The Oral History Project.

Laudable though these initiatives are, they’re no substitute for a collective national reckoning with this dark chapter in the subcontinent’s post-independence history. Seventy years after the event, it’s time to start talking about it, and the next week’s Independence Day bash offers an opportunity to set the ball rolling with baby steps like declaring a public commemoration Day of Partition on the lines of Holocaust Day (it was our equivalent of Holocaust, dammit) and raising a suitable national memorial to its victims.

Next, it should be made a compulsory subject of study in schools, and state funding should be made available for research to challenge biased and divisive narratives around partition. There’s a need for catharsis if Hindu, Muslims – and India and Pakistan – are serious about normalising relations. And though it’s 70 years too late, better late than never.


The above article from The Independent has been reproduced here for educational and non commercial use