Just Read: The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan
I’ve always believed, like many Indians I am sure, that the Partition of India was the worst thing to have happened to India. A people that fought as one unit for independence from the Britishers were, when the dream was about to be realised, asked to choose their country. The enormity of this predicament can only be understood if one were to be present there and forced to make the choice. The suffering of the ordinary Indians (yes, there were no ‘Pakistanis’ up to that point) is hardly remembered. These were people who never knew the actual meaning ‘Partition’ and ‘Pakistan’. What they lived through was a disaster. The scars left by the events of 1947 are still visible across the faces of the two nations. And will probably never heal.
That said, there were people who were glad to see the country divided. The Muslim League, so as to ‘protect’ the interest of Muslims, the Congress leadership, because it had convinced itself that the country could never be really ‘divided’ (because its foresight was blurred by the prospects of leading an Independent nation’s destiny) and the Britishers because they just wanted to get the hell out of India. None of them, however, had calculated the implications of this hasty decision taken on June 3, 1947 and forced up on the ordinary Indians in an impossible time frame of two and a half months. Millions were displaced and big cities on both the sides were flooded with refugees. The mental trauma suffered by the people, especially the women, is something that can never be quantified as many of them swallowed it and lived on with their lives.
Yasmin Khan‘s The Great Partition – The Making of India and Pakistan, is an attempt to capture the disastrous effects of the Partition on the ordinary Indians. Her work is well researched, and the narrative is powerful. Khan, a British historian with origins in both India and Pakistan, is able to connect the confusion that existed in the minds of the decision makers and the effect it had on the lives of millions of Indians very effectively. Many Muslims, for example, had been convinced that the place they stayed in would be a part of Pakistan. Migration was never mentioned to them–either by the Muslim League or the Congress. Had they known this, they’d have probably never supported the Muslim League. Even when the people did migrate, they did so with a thought of coming back soon, hoping that it was a temporary move. Khan manages to bring out the sheer futility–and inevitability–of the whole exercise using real life examples.
In the introduction she writes, “The plan…was heralded by a leading newspaper’s special correspondent with great enthusiasm as a day which would be ‘remembered in India’s history as the day when her leaders voluntarily agreed to divide the country and avoid bloodshed’.” Bloodshed, as we now know, is what personified partition. It allowed militants on both sides of the new border, in the West and East, to use state machinery to carry out the worst kind of ethnic cleansing on par with that carried out by the Nazis.
The irony of the whole fiasco was that people were promised equality in countries that had been formed on the basis of religion. What a paradox. But it was an illusion that worked with the short-sighted Hindus and Muslims. The Sikhs, probably the worst sufferers given that the Radcliffe Line sliced Punjab into two, had no say whatsoever in the goings on. Nothing, however, explains the short-sightedness of the decision makers more than what happened in East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh. No wonder then that same politicians who were happy at getting their share of land were shocked at the way events unfolded. In their knee-jerk reactions they painted the whole episode with nationalistic colours (albeit in varying degrees), blaming the ‘other side’ for the disaster. This mindset has lasted till date on both sides of the border and is perhaps the reason why any discussion on the Partition of India inevitably ends up as a cuss fest against Pakistan.
Lyrics for the moment
Now frontiers shift like desert sands
While nations wash their bloodied hands
Of loyalty, of history, in shades of grey – Freedom, Pink Floyd