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A window on Partition

On the eve of this landmark day of Independence, there is a growing sense of disarray in the political domain. Against the backdrop of ritualistic ceremonies, our thoughts are focused on the implications of Nawaz Sharif’s defiant roadshow and on the outcome of conflicts that are not entirely comprehensible. A new season of protest and popular disquiet is not far behind.

At some levels, the present circumstances provide an appropriate setting for an appraisal of what we have made of our freedom during the past 70 years. One stream of thought was activated by the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court to protect the record that no prime minister has completed his or her constitutional term.

Another cause for concern is the cost that the nation has paid for an abiding tussle for power between the civilian and military institutions. What matters in this context is not just the retreat of the democratic elements but also the material and moral deprivation of Pakistani society.

Independence Day excites these reflections on an annual basis. But this is a special occasion. The 70th anniversary of Partition has somehow generated a lot of attention in the international media. A number of books have sought to interpret the legacy of that great divide. In addition to photographic reproductions of the trauma of Partition, personal recollections of that time – particularly of the mass migration – have meticulously been compiled. There is, after all, a limit to what living memory can preserve.

Now, when Partition is invoked in an earnest manner to allow a wide-angled look at the journey that both India and Pakistan have made during the past 70 years, it becomes difficult to maintain a celebratory mood. And this does not mean that it would be more uplifting to concentrate only on the present state of affairs.

When you go through comments made by respected observers, including those who are not of South Asian origin, you find that there is a general sense of dismay and regret about the present state of affairs in the two countries that won their independence from the British Empire at the same time even though the historical experiences of India and Pakistan differ in many crucial ways.

Two generations after 1947, how relevant is the madness of Partition for the young citizens of the two countries? In Pakistan, particularly, there seems to have been a conscious attempt to hide from history. What happened in December 1971 is nearer in time. But we don’t discuss its significance in the context of our identity or our ideological sense of direction.

At the same time, I have sensed a surge of interest in the events of 1947 among the children and the grandchildren of those who had suffered the calamity of migration and oral histories have been compiled to preserve individual memories of the early years of freedom. The first museum on Partition was opened only last year in Amritsar. Manto has almost been rediscovered in recent years.

In that upheaval of history, around one million people were killed and more than 10 million were displaced. It was, beyond doubt, one of the worst calamities of the modern era. It has been observed that seven decades on, people in India and Pakistan still live in the shadow of Partition. There is the bleeding wound of Kashmir as one of the loose ends of the independence arrangement. Relations between India and Pakistan seem to have subverted the inspirations of the people for freedom, peace and progress. One of the many ironies of Partition is that there are almost as many Indian Muslims as there are Pakistani Muslims.

In one respect, the insanities of 1947 are reverberating now with growing Hindu nationalism in a professedly secular India. This means that both countries are more vulnerable than ever before to similar strains of religious extremism and intolerance. I have noticed that liberal Indian intellectuals are very disturbed about the crisis in India. Pankaj Mishra has said that Modi and the Hindu nationalist mobs are, in many ways, completing the unfinished business of Partition.

One wonders if the leaders of South Asia would acknowledge this agony of failure that afflicts the citizens of the two countries. In his comments to The Guardian, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid said: “A person brought forward in time from the murderous slaughter of 70 years ago would probably look around and say, yes, this is what I expected”. One observation that I recall is: “In a sense, 1947 has yet to come to an end”.

So, how can we exorcise the madness of 1947 and salvage the spirit of freedom that this anniversary also certifies? We in Pakistan have suffered enough to understand the message that was delivered by our founder on  August 11, 1947. Our leaders are not able to figure out why those words were spoken at that particular time in the midst of the human tragedy that the communal riots and migration of millions had created. And the message is simple and profound: religion is not the business of the state.

For whatever may have been the demands, strategies and the political exigencies of the moment on the way to that “shameful flight” of the British from South Asia, the command of history later became obvious – though it could only be comprehensible to a man of vision. We now swear by the Quaid’s vision without showing the courage of going in the direction he indicated after the creation of Pakistan.

Alas, the price that we have paid for not accepting that edict has been unbearable. In fact, even if we did not have that policy speech to guide us, the violent religious extremism that we continue to suffer would be a sufficient reason to change our direction towards a more secular dispensation. This message is now being dictated by the collective wisdom of our times.

Incidentally, one article that I read in a British daily this week had this headline: ‘US history is a Pandora’s box. There has never been a better moment to open it’. Does this not apply to Pakistan also? But there is a problem. Understandings of history can only grow out of an informed debate. At the outset, I cited the current political crisis that has stirred partisan passions. The art of debate is increasingly becoming out of our reach. Sadly, the tone of whatever debate we have is set by the usual suspects of our talk shows.

Ghazi Salahuddin, "A window on Partition," The news. 2017-08-13.
Keywords: Social sciences , Pakistani Muslims , Liberal Indian , Religious extremism , South Asia , Political crisis , Political parties , Social impact , National occasion , Political strategies , Freedom , Political domain , Pakistan , India , Kashmir