Why India’s Independence Was As Much A Tragedy As A Triumph

By Saanya Gulati:

15 August 1947, like most Independence Days, is a celebration of national triumph and pride – the day that India awoke to life and freedom in the famous words of Jawaharlal Nehru. But less often is it associated with the mass violence, abduction, and looting that occurred in one of the largest communal massacres of the 20th century: the India-Pakistan partition.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I am from a family of partition refugees. 3 out of 4 of my grandparents lived in present-day Pakistan prior to the partition. Growing up, I watched the Independence Day Parade on television every year. I heard successive Prime Ministers’ grand speeches about India’s potential. I learned about the freedom struggle in school. Yet, I knew little about partition apart from the fact that it happened.

For partition survivors, it is painful to recount their memory of the incident. This dawned on me when interviewing my nani (maternal grandmother) for the 1947 Partition Archive, a global movement to preserve life stories shaped by Partition. The nervous pauses and the unnaturally long moments of silence made me uncomfortable.
Is it better to let bygones be bygones? Talking about partition forces one to recollect painful memories. Yet it’s powerful for two reasons. Firstly, it gives individuals the agency to retell history from their perspective. No longer are political leaders and their decisions the subjects of history; rather it is the ordinary man. Secondly, recounting these experiences evokes themes that are often absent from the conventional narrative of Independence Day.

My nani grew up in Lahore and was on a family vacation in Malakpur during the time of partition. At the time they left Lahore there were rumours circulating of the city being handed to Pakistan post-partition. She remembers armed mobs coming to attack Hindus outside her house and hearing bullets at night. As an 11-year old girl, she wasn’t afraid because she didn’t fully comprehend the situation. After partition, my great-grandfather drove to Lahore to search for the rest of his family. No one heard from him for ten days, after which they returned with horror stories of cities burning and communal massacres. After living in Malakpur for three years, they finally resettled in Amritsar, modern-day Indian Punjab.

saanyapartition
Image source: Saanya Gulati

Fear and uncertainty, dispossession and a sense of hopelessness, run deep in the eyewitness accounts of partition. These accounts also challenge the conventional logic with which history is narrated. Partition is often justified as a means to an end, with the end being the creation of a nation-state. In individual accounts, however, it is depicted as a breakdown of co-existence. “Hindus and Muslims were in the grip of madness. Lunacy” is how a survivor recounts it in BBC’s documentary, ‘The Day India Burned.’

Enabling individual accounts to become a part of history also creates a shared language of violence, which partition survivors can identify with. Amidst immense pain and suffering is the sentiment of nostalgia in the memories of partition survivors. My nani recalls: “There were many differences between the two communities, but still they were living together…as one nation.”

Questioning the logic of partition forces us to come to terms with the reality of violence rather than justifying it on ideological grounds. While revisionist historiography recognizes this in theory, the practical challenge that we face today is that the number of partition survivors is continuing to decrease. As we celebrate India’s 69th Independence Day, let’s pledge to sustain the dialogue until we can. Because, as partition historian Urvashi Bhutalia beautifully puts it, by not being able to talk about it can we put it behind us at all?

This post was originally published on Saanyagulati.com.

Similar Posts

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below