THIS year an alternative discourse dominated the weeks leading up to the middle of August, when, 70 years ago, Pakistan and India became independent. Marking a shift in focus, the public narratives moved away from the traditional recounting of the politics of the leaders in the 1940s to the experiences of the common man whose fate was decided.
This, to me, is a significant development. This people-to-people interaction at the grass roots can eventually pave the way for peace in the region. It may also change the public perception of the events of 1947. Until now, the people of the two countries have been exposed to one-sided accounts of their leaders’ political ‘achievements’ and the ‘deceit’ of the ‘other side’. The new narrative can be termed the ‘people’s history’. It is oral so that more people can be accessed in South Asia. And these are untold stories.
You have to be part of the process to feel the impact of the emotions of the survivors of Partition — emotions that have not been articulated before. The term ‘survivor’ sounds odd to those fed on lies as I was when I was growing up and read in my textbooks that Pakistan was created without any blood being shed! Now we know better.
The voices of Partition must be heard to bring closure.
I knew of people in Pakistan who had suffered loss of kith and kin. I had also read books (Manto comes to mind) and seen films on the mass migration and massacres that took place in 1947. Though I was fortunate that my family didn’t suffer any violence, my memories of the period were not too happy. How could they be with the sight of crowded refugee camps in Lahore and the tales of woes floating around us?
I knew that the ‘other’ had also suffered as much, for the mobs from both communities had been overtaken by a mad frenzy never witnessed before. When a fortnight ago I listened to the tragic stories of three Sikh gentlemen, who fled from Rawalpindi and Lahore and became victims of violence and witnessed the killings of their near and dear ones, I was shaken.
The occasion was an event called Voices of Partition arranged in Mumbai by the 1947 Partition Archive. I was invited to participate by video. What was, however, interesting and of great significance in the narration was the survivors’ mentioning a number of times of how on many occasions Muslims — many of them strangers — helped the Hindu women and men and escorted them to safety. When offered a monetary reward for their services, they refused. Many Muslims have similar stories to tell of Hindus helping them.
This oral histories project called 1947 Partition Archive was founded in 2010 by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a post-doctoral researcher at Berkeley, who now serves as the executive director of the archive. On a visit to the Peace Memorial at Hiroshima and listening to the oral testimonies there, she realised that nothing was “as powerful and hard-hitting as the witness accounts”. Thus the seed of the idea was sown.
Initially, she did 100 interviews herself. As the project grew, more volunteers joined in. Today, the multinational, multi-religious board of directors comprises seven members (Dr Babar Ali, the founder of Lums, is one of them).
Guneeta’s mission is to preserve and share not just oral accounts of witnesses but also mementoes from all communities so that history comes to life. This month many of the accounts — 4,300 have been collected so far — will be released partially. The idea is to encourage research so that the knowledge of historical events is shared from the grass roots level.
That is what history is all about. People have suffered in the aftermath of decisions taken by their leaders worldwide. The tragedy is that in many cases the leaders on both sides have perpetuated bitter memories and not allowed healing to take place.
I have experienced similar exercises as the one initiated by Guneeta that have brought people together. At the Caux dialogues that I attended twice I was told how France and Germany shed their hostilities when their leaders met after the Second World War. I saw it happen in South Africa where late Nelson Mandela, the world’s greatest statesman, had allowed his people to come and speak about the racial violence at the hands of the whites before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a result, there was no bloodletting of the kind that had been widely expected when the whites South Africans stepped down.
What is crucial in such situations is the quality of the leadership on both sides. In South Asia we have leaders with questionable statesmanship. But Guneeta’s project should help clear the bad blood between the dwindling generations on both sides who were witnesses of the 1947 tragedy.
If handled delicately, this discourse could provide the closure we have been looking for.
Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2017