Freedom Issue 2017: Essay

Partition Narratives and National Projects

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians
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Hell is the other, still

Hum India kyun jaa rahe hain? Udhar toh saarey kaafir hotey hain…woh toh achche nahin hotey (Why are we going to India? Only infidels live there. They aren’t good people),” said Maham, a five-year-old girl when her father told her he was going to be posted to Delhi as a defence attache.

In a study conducted by Gallup Pakistan, it was revealed that 76 per cent of the Pakistanis surveyed have never met an Indian. Seventy years after the blood-stained Partition, the physical divide between the two countries has only crystalised communal identities, drawing clear lines between what it means to be a ‘pure’ or pak Pakistani, and what construes as the Hindu ‘other’. Across the border, rising nationalism premised on religious zeal has also carved out a distinct criterion for what it means to be a patriotic Indian, a law-abiding gau rakshak. Claims for ghar wapsi are made each time the nationalist fervour intensifies, as if home or nation has come to symbolise a particular religious identity. To be a Muslim must make one more Pakistani than an Indian. To be a Hindu is to be Indian. In my interactions with school-children in Pakistan, I found most of them trying to convince me that Shah Rukh Khan had to be a Pakistani for he is a Muslim.

For a young child, growing up in an environment where religious identity has become synonymous with national identity or citizenship, it is mind-boggling to comprehend that Hindus can be Pakistani as Muslims can be Indian. For religious minorities on both sides of the border, this myopic line of thinking has devastating consequences. Each time communal riots or violent episodes erupt in one country, religious minorities face a backlash in the other country. In 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, Hindu temples and their inhabitants were attacked in Pakistan. In 2016, when India-Pakistan tensions escalated over the Kashmir conflict, Pakistani Hindus came out to pledge their allegiance to Pakistan, criticising Prime Minister Modi’s policies vigorously, in the hopes of convincing their fellow citizens that they are as patriotic as them, regardless of their faith. Had they not preemptively asserted their loyalty to the nation-state, they may have become scapegoats for the neighbouring country’s deeds. In 2015, when Aamir Khan expressed his and his wife’s disillusionment with the rising intolerance in India, he was told to go to Pakistan. The list goes on. The question then is, as nation-states, where do India and Pakistan stand 70 years after Partition?

I have often encountered well-intentioned peace activists hoping that as we move further away from the bloody memories of Partition, the younger generations will be able to bridge the gap between the two countries and its people. Yet, I find that the further we move away from Partition, the more hardline and prejudiced Indians and Pakistanis are becoming towards each other. I have come to realise that Partition is not a static event that one can ‘move on’ from; rather it is an ongoing process that continues to shape national identity and politics; it penetrates national policies, it seeps into our self-image, it taints our textbooks, it informs our media debates, and it is used to craft a sense of patriotism in Indians and Pakistanis—a patriotism based on hostility towards the ‘other’, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Indian or Pakistani.

India and Pakistan continue to define themselves in opposition to each other, claiming that they are everything the other is not. In India, Pakistan is projected as backwards, economically impoverished, conflict-ridden and extremist. It is no wonder then that on many of my visits to India, young children and adults alike have asked me if I am ‘allowed’ to wear jeans at home, how I speak such good English, and of course, whether I have met the notorious Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa. It is no wonder that a child of no more than six years of age had run away from me when he heard I was from Pakistan. He told me he was scared of Ajmal Kasab, guilty of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The child had already assumed that all Pakistanis were fanatics; why would I be any different?

Both nations are at the brink of losing their Partition survivors. Alongside the memories of violence, these are the only people left who also recall a time when the ‘other’ wasn’t really the ‘other’ but rather an integral part of their community

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Pakistanis are taught that to be Indian or Hindu— terms that are often used interchangeably— is to be treacherous, deceitful and infidel. Pakistani textbooks openly call Hindus cruel, blaming them entirely for the bloodshed during Partition. Children are taught to never trust an Indian or a Hindu, and if a Hindu child is found lurking in a classroom— an anomaly in the Muslim-dominated country—the child is often put on the spot and asked derogatory questions about his or her religion. One Hindu child in Lahore had confided that his teacher often made him stand up and explain why ‘his’ community believes in these deities and gods, with children mocking him from behind, making fun of ‘Hindu names’ and religious beliefs. In class six, in an upper-income school that I worked in, I had witnessed a child break down in tears when I showed her a picture of a Hindu deity as part of an exchange programme that I was running for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan—a local non-profit organisation. She told me her eyes had committed sin. She was convinced that she would now go to hell. Meanwhile, when I took a delegation of students with me to India and the principal of a school in Delhi received us with garlands and placed a tika on our foreheads, three children looked at me, frightened, asking if they had just been forcefully converted to Hinduism, a fate they had heard their ancestors had been subjected to. Another child told me that when we crossed over the Wagah border for this trip, he had expected Sikhs to be awaiting us with daggers in their hands. “That’s what my class five Urdu textbook taught me, that Sikhs would slaughter Muslim children with swords, that they used to cut them up into tiny pieces,” he sheepishly explained. For these young children, the majority of whom will never come across each other, the textbooks, the filtered oral histories, the biased media reports become the only truth that they know, a truth reinforced by ongoing jingoistic policies, visa hurdles and war-mongering.

It is pertinent to note that there are two Partition narratives that have emerged over the past 70 years. Just as Partition is not a static event, its journey from 1947 onwards has also not been straightforward. It has been appropriated, hijacked, filtered and butchered as deemed fit for national projects. In India, Partition is perceived as a loss. Textbooks portray it as an event that arose out of a vacuum, breaking off an integral part of India, all without any comprehensive explanation of where, why and how the demand for a separate nation-state arose. According to educationist Krishna Kumar, author of Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan, ‘The Indian narrative is extremely reluctant to go into the details of any event following Quit India. Textbooks jump from one mention to the next, rushing towards Partition, which from the point of view of the young student, begs for an explanation more substantial than what the British-Muslim conspiracy theory can provide… the Indian narrative of the national movement socializes the young to perceive Pakistan as an illegitimate achievement.’

Current political issues, such as the Kashmir conflict, are then also perceived in the same light; as if Pakistan is again trying to break off India’s atoot ang, silencing indigenous Kashmiri voices in the process. In Pakistan, in comparison, Partition is owned as the biggest triumph to date. It is seen as a clear rupture from the infidel past of this region, ridding the land of non-Muslim influences. Over the years, the Pakistani establishment has worked diligently in shedding off any Hindu residue that may have been left behind. By only speaking of the bloodshed at Partition, and that too at the hands of Hindus, and at times Sikhs, it has ensured that children graduate year after year memorising the viciousness of non-Muslims and reinforcing the need for the creation of Pakistan, and that too a Pakistan which is only Muslim. It leaves little room to explore the loss, the nostalgia, the feelings of remorse and longing that many Partition survivors carried with them when leaving behind the only lives they knew prior to 1947. To speak of this longing today can be construed as an anti-national sentiment, just as any peace efforts between India and Pakistan are routinely labelled as anti-state. Meanwhile, the two-nation theory, used as a justification for Partition, continues to inform political rhetoric in the country. Therefore, children are taught that Kashmir is the unfinished agenda of Partition, that Kashmir is the main artery of Pakistan that has always belonged to Pakistan because it holds a Muslim majority. In the process, the Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of Jammu and Kashmir are ejected from the equation, sidelined for they do not fit this neatly packaged narrative.

Two Partition narratives have emerged over the past 70 years. Just as Partition is not a static event, its journey has also not been straightforward. It has been appropriated, filtered and butchered as deemed fit for national projects

GIVEN THAT THESE two parallel narratives exist—one of loss and the other of triumph—the countries seem threatened of the ‘other’ narrative challenging their carefully crafted one. In 2017, Pakistan refused to screen the Vidya Balan-starrer Begum Jaan. It was claimed that the country has a policy against importing movies on Partition. In other words, any portrayal of Partition that may counter the state narrative is outright rejected. Only state-sanctioned black-and-white narratives are allowed, with clear distinctions between good Muslims and bad Hindus. A movie that dilutes these stark binaries is not appropriate. There is a sense that there is a superior or correct narrative and a wrong narrative of Partition. This is not only limited to state policies but also impacts national sentiments.

During the recent India-Pakistan Champions Trophy Final, one of the most common social media posts in Pakistan went along the lines of: ‘India, let us show you who your father is’. This was in retort to earlier Indian posts, which claimed that they would show Pakistan who their real father was. Both countries and their citizens want to claim that they truly belong to this ancient land, that the other is somehow inferior, almost at their mercy. The cricket match was then not about two teams playing each other, but rather a fight between two people, two civilisations, two nation-states; victory a testament to their overall strength and superiority. After the match, a couple of school- teachers that I work with shared images and posts to celebrate Pakistan’s victory. One of the pictures showed a lion draped in the Pakistani flag, ferociously humping a lioness wearing an Indian flag; the sexist depiction denoted that the victory was somehow symbolic of the empowered masculine Pakistan countering the weak, feeble, female India, not just in cricket but rather in a way that would finally finish off this beastly enemy. These are the same teachers that are going to go back into the classrooms after summer vacations and prepare the next generation of Pakistanis, teaching them what it means to be a true Pakistani. These teachers, too, have studied the same distorted textbooks that their students are using now; they, too, have been subjected to the same hostile discourse in society, a discourse bent upon juxtaposing Pakistan as triumphant over India.

AS WE ENTER the seventh decade of separation with minimal mutual interaction, I wonder and worry about young children growing up on both sides of the border. After a Skype interaction with school children in Mumbai last year, a young girl had confided that she had thought of Pakistanis as murderers. It was only after our hour-long chat that she said she could consider visiting Pakistan, now that she knew not all the people on the other side wanted to kill her. I wondered what would have happened had she never spoken to a Pakistani. Was that the image that was going to shape her understanding of the ‘other’, later transmitted to her own children and grandchildren?

Today, both nations are at the brink of losing their Partition survivors, the millions of people who went through one of the most traumatic displacements the world has seen. Alongside the memories of bloodshed and violence, the bitterness they hold in their hearts and minds, these are the only people left who also recall a time when the ‘other’ wasn’t really the ‘other’, but rather an integral part of their community. Faultlines persisted, but so did co-existence. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Partition, I am left wondering whether all memories of that co-existence will also be buried with this generation, the national projects successfully complete at last.