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How different are we from the partition generation?

Updated August 14, 2017

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Youngsters wear masks painted in the design of the national flag to celebrate the country's 69th Independence Day in Rawalpindi.— AP/File
Youngsters wear masks painted in the design of the national flag to celebrate the country's 69th Independence Day in Rawalpindi.— AP/File

KARACHI: The partition generation was scarred by narrative of hatred for each other as they had the facticity of the mayhem originating out of the great divide.

At the same time, however, the generation shared long-held ties with people from the other side — religion and nation — which made it possible to reach out and see reason.

70 years on, the rabid hatred may be less but there is a mindless disgust among the young generation as in the absence of relieving narratives, religious bigotry assumes an organised form pervading across India and Pakistan.

The partition sentiment

It was a tippy day in August 1947 in Mandi Bahauddin, a town bordered by the Jhelum and Chenab rivers in Pakistan’s Punjab, when 84-year-old Santosh last visited her native town.

Despite a lapse of 68 years, glimpses of the faded past often made way into her dreams and with each passing day, Santosh grew restless to visit her birthplace. On hearing news of Pakistan, she would challenge her grandchildren in Delhi that she could still find her house if only they would take her back to the Mandi Bahauddin railway station.

One chilly afternoon in November 2015, Santosh walked her house from the same platform she had once spent the entire night on waiting for a train to rescue her family.

“The thought of the Mandi Bahauddin platform to date had reminded me of everything I had lost. It is now, after years of longing, the same platform brought memories of my childhood back,” says Santosh in a trembling tone.

“We have grown up listening to stories of Naniji’s (grandmother) childhood spent there but could not relate with her experiences,” Santosh’s grandchild, Gaurav Uppal, shares. “Our family and friends tried all possible ways to stop us from taking this trip. Visiting Pakistan is another thing, just talking about Pakistan evokes apprehension in India,” he adds.

Upon realising the contrast in opinion across generations, 35-year-old Uppal took the “risk” of travelling between borders with his Naniji. “Growing up in India, I have only learned to equate Pakistan with negativity. History books in school and films like Border had taught me to perceive Pakistan as an illegitimate achievement,” Uppal confesses as he identifies how internalisation consumes post-partition generations.

“Countries progress with time, but sentiments remain. For the first time in my life, I witnessed what Pakistan meant for my own family,” he says in disbelief. “While exploring Naniji’s hometown, the locals volunteered to join us in our quest to locate her school and marketplace. It was no longer a part of her memory— it became our memory,” Uppal tells Dawn, saying that he could have never experienced such sentiments about Pakistan if he hadn’t visited.

“We [Indians] can’t find such hospitality elsewhere...as an Indian traveller, Pakistan tops my list of favourite countries,” he advises his countrymen.

“Ab toh yahan bethay baat karo toh Pakistan baat pohanch jati hai…iss zamanay mein bhi donon deshoon mein itne ghalat fehmiyan hain? (If you speaker here [India] then they know of it in Pakistan. Even in this age, how are there misunderstandings between the two countries?’’ Santosh ponders as she holds a photograph of herself outside the house in Mandi Bahauddin close to her heart.

Survey

An online survey was conducted with respondents from India and Pakistan, aged mostly 18-35, to assess what factors influence public perception of the ‘other’ across generations.

Target population: Of the 1,340 responses generated, 45% of the participants were Indian while 55% were from Pakistan.

The research covered several states from India, including Uttar Pradesh, Madya Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra and the capital Delhi. All four provinces were included from Pakistan.

  • 51% people think their parents’ political opinions/stereotypes of the ‘other’ influence their views
  • 60.6% people believe they are more involved with current affairs than their parents were at their age
  • 57.1% people contest that faith-based conflicts drive individuals into violence but at the same time
  • 76.5% respondents maintain that inter-faith harmony is achievable
  • 47.8% of Indians relate terrorism with Pakistan, while only 13% Pakistanis relate India with terrorism
  • 58% of respondents think the present generation is more intolerant than that of their forefathers

The price of xenophobia

Back in February 2016, a series of protests in North India introduced an unusual disparity between identical but invisible divinities. In a movement dubbed as the Jat reservation agitation, the politically influential Jat community in Haryana sought inclusion of their caste in the Other Backward Classes category, which would make them eligible for affirmative action benefits.

What initially started as a number of “peaceful” demonstrations, eventually transcended into several incidents of inter-caste violence in the city of Rohtak as clashes emerged between Jats and non-Jat protesters.

“The Jat reservation narrative favoured a defensive attitude against your own community,” 19-year-old Muskan recalls. “The classification of Jats and non-Jats divided Haryana— a state which is home to 36 different castes. The same people who had lived together for years were now blaming each other for inciting violence,” she regrets, while averring how communal riots leave no room for neutrality as people are entirely motivated into proving the ‘other’ wrong.

Witnessing the state succumb to communal disparity at the hands of political narratives, Muskan travelled back in time—to 1947. “Do we hear of Pakistan-related incidents as they happen, or have we heard of them as they are told?’’, she wonders.

Muskan feels that India’s national attitude feeds onto a nurtured perception of Muslims as partition wrought permanent psychological modifications in the region. “My father’s clinic is in a Muslim-dominated area but he is still guarded in his treatment of Muslims—we may befriend them, but we can never be at peace with each other,” the puzzled teenager remarks.


60.6% people believe they are more involved with current affairs than their parents were at their age


When terrorism inflicts pain abroad, the Indian narrative is that terrorism has no religion. But when terror strikes within the country, it is religious and given a nationalist context, she points out.

In her view, the BJP politics follows the same suit as it is not wholly pro-Hindu but rather more anti-Muslim in ideology. “The BJP policies make it a point to single out Muslims. It is not the beef that should be the target of debate but the ban that should be questioned,’’ maintains Muskan. “India is yet to seek independence…from xenophobia,’’ she asserts.

“We, as the post-Gulf war and 9/11 generation, have become dangerously accustomed to the concept of terrorism. Till 10th grade, one might take a few minutes to name the chief minister of his state but will speak of Ajmal Kasab without giving a second thought,” Muskan observes of her generation.

“My brother, who has no interest in cricket, makes sure he watches every India-Pakistan match. It is a trend, and we are trend-seekers. That’s the furthest our contact with Pakistan can go… anything beyond and you become a traitor” the Haryana girl abhors.


76.5% respondents maintain that inter-faith harmony is achievable


Role of collaborative projects, social media

Just a glance at the social feeds, reveals how rhetoric surrounding politics on social media has become increasingly intense and divisive. In contrast to the post-partition era, information access has emerged to be a norm over privilege in 70 years. But to what extent do social media influence political psychology in India and Pakistan?

Editor of Aman ki Asha (hope for peace) — a joint media campaign for Indo-Pak peace—Beena Sarwar observes: “On both sides there have been concerted efforts to create a right-wing narrative that incorporates bigotry and hatred for ‘the other’. The right-wing counters anyone furthering the peace and democracy narrative on social networks. This gives the impression that the lobby against peace is far greater and more powerful than it actually is.”

In her experience of drawing youth from both countries to converse on a common medium, she identifies that the younger generation, including those who share no family partition history, are more curious about each other.

“Many use social media platforms to connect but nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. Unfortunately, the governments are becoming increasingly stingy and restrictive about granting visas, even to students,” Sarwar protests.

While efforts are being made to utilise the online space for peace-building, activists and researchers at both ends of the border have introduced a distinct trend to pursue alternate partition history to the younger generations.

Anam Zakaria, author of a 2015 oral history book, Footprints of Partition, draws a parallel between Indian and Pakistani partition narrative, “I think that over the past 70 years, the further we have moved away from 1947 the more the narratives of partition have been hijacked and appropriated for political use on both sides of the border.”

In her assessment, Pakistan views partition as the biggest victory to date while India views it as a loss, even a treachery by Muslims, invaliding the struggles of the people to quite an extent.


47.8% of Indians relate terrorism with Pakistan, while only 13% Pakistanis relate India with terrorism


“While the partition generation suffered immensely in 1947, alongside the bloodshed they also remember a time when there was communal coexistence. These historical truths are hard for the younger generations to even contemplate 70 years later. I have even come across families in which the grandparent speaks fondly of Hindu friends while the grandchild refuses to even speak to a Hindu student across the border.”

As we lose the only generation that remembers a far more nuanced history, oral histories play a defining role in pushing post-partition generations to imagine history beyond state endorsed narratives, she adds.

Influenced by a similar ideology, Mallika Ahluwalia set up the world’s first Partition Museum in Amritsar. “The Museum was founded because of a stark realisation that we were losing the generation that had witnessed partition. Even 70 years after history’s largest migration there was no museum or memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped the lives of millions—and continues to do so,” she shares.

Given the dearth of history projects in the region, is the youth willing to explore their roots? “The youth are extremely interested in partition because they want to know their own history. At our first event back in 2015, which we had only posted online, some 1500 people showed up into a venue meant for 300,” Ahluwalia reveals.


58% of respondents think the present generation is more intolerant than that of their forefathers


Last year, she adds, an open-mic event was held for young poets aged 18-25, and the depth of feeling and emotion she observed for an event that happened 70 years ago, left her astounded.

Independence day celebrations

Given the volatility of the Indo-Pak political climate, patriotism has grown into jingoism. Despite, a higher fraction of the younger population indulging into political psychosis [according to the survey], independence day celebrations witness a lack of effort.

“Back in my childhood, we used to spend an entire day decorating our house with flag buntings. Now, it’s just a change of display picture on social media followed by a patriotic status,” Mehlum Sadriwala, an artist from Karachi, shares. “It’s different with the older generation. My father still wears a flag badge on his kurta on Aug 14 and goes to flag-hoisting ceremony hosted by a Bohra organisation.”

Sadriwala observes that the previous generations were genuinely involved with the independence sentiment. “There was a greater respect for the flag as it was only allowed to be hoisted by government institutions. Now you come across it lying on the roads in the independence season,” he regrets.

According to a Delhi-based professor Sanjay Kumar, India has become more jingoistic than ever. “The national anthem is re-introduced in cinema halls while educational institutes are dropping perspectives that question the hegemonic narrative of partition.”

There is a consistent political effort to identify Pakistan as the country’s enemy and cause of terrorist incursion in India, but regardless of the myopic approach, the trend to celebrate independence day is limited to social networks.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2017