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Filmmaker Ajay Raina Explains Why The Partition Still Hurts Us

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By Sourodipto Sanyal for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2016 that is going on in Delhi (13th – 20th September), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring reviews of films and interviews with directors. This year’s theme is “Reflections and Ruminations.” 


Ajay Raina’s documentary film “Wapsi” is an exploration of how the partition continues to haunt both the Indian and Pakistani subconscious. It was shot around the time when the Indian cricket team was touring Pakistan to play a test and one day series in 2003. It explores emotions, thoughts and perspectives of people from both sides of the border. It convinces the viewer that the memories of the partition are not only alive but here to stay. In an interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, he talks about the partition and the people of the two nations in general.

Sourodipto Sanyal (SS): Cricket is a recurring theme in your film.What do you think is the role of a sport like cricket in relation to identity politics? Does it reinforce identities or does it reduce the gap between communities, nationalities, etc.?

Ajay Raina (AR): Cricket in my film is only a starting point. A trigger and an excuse for the journey that could not have happened in any other way for an Indian without any familial ties across the border. It’s the only way to get an easy visa to Pakistan.

Cricket is a passion shared by Indians and Pakistanis. Similar to that of  Hindi Cinema or Coke Studio. Yet, I am a bit sceptical  given the history of the two nations. I am not sure whether our common cultural or sporting passions can bridge the bitterness and the ideological divide we have lived through in the last 70 odd years since Partition. If we really wish to reduce the gap between the people of the two countries, it can only happen through a prolonged, sustained and tension free face to face interactions as we see in the stadiums when Indian’s and Pakistanis come together to celebrate not just cricket but the joy of visiting each other. In such cases cricket can act like a bridge. It is more important for people to meet. Any sporting or cultural event can be the catalyst. It may not be reconciliation, but is cathartic and in any case preferable to actual shedding of blood that has been a constant in our relationship.

But, on the other hand, as you see in the film, when we watch India – Pakistan encounters on TV, it would seem that cricket, rather than uniting Indians and Pakistanis through the passions of a sporting event, in fact reinforces the divide that exists between us. Majority of the followers of cricket from both countries see all the matches between the two countries as a continuation of war by other means. It reinforces and brings out the divisiveness that our respective one-dimensional identities keep within reach.

 SS: You mention in your film how there is no memorial for victims of the partition on either side of the border. But don’t you think that  a memorial may result in keeping alive tragic memories which may have negative consequences in the future?

AR: Why are memorials important? Why do we need to erect or install physical objects to commemorate our loss or sufferings in a war or conflict? Every memorial represents people’s desire to remember the generation that suffered for us and a warning to our future generations to not repeat the follies of our ancestors. These memorials become historical touchstones. They link our past to the present and enable people to remember and respect the pain, suffering and the sacrifices of those who died, fought, participated or were affected due to a conflict.

I do not think that any of the memorials erected in remembrance of the conflicts all around the world have had a negative consequence on any people today or will in the future. Whether it be memorials to commemorate the Jewish Holocaust, the World Wars or the Vietnam war. If our intent is not to glorify or celebrate Partition but to honour and remember the tragic consequences of the common people on both sides, a joint memorial built by collaboration between the people of the two countries can serve as a focal point for increasing the understanding and fostering of friendship between us.

SS: Bollywood is very popular in Pakistan. But why are Pakistani films not popular in India?

AR: Bollywood and Indian TV channels are very popular in Pakistan. Pakistani music is very popular in India. Pakistan’s musicians continue to be invited to record in Bollywood films and to perform in India. Even though the atmosphere of late has become vitiated once again. If Pakistani films are not popular in India, I guess, it has more to do with the quality and output of Pakistani cinema. It has to do with popular demand and tastes of the audiences in the two countries.  The status of cinema as an art form and entertainment within Pakistan is precarious not only because of technological and financial reasons but also due to the lack of encouragement from the religious and cultural institutions in country.

SS: Why do the Hindu and Sikh refugees who have been displaced from Pakistan and have settled in Manekpur Sharif, Punjab in India, worship the village’s Muslim saint?

AR: We forget that the Partition; in which religion was used or abused to justify this divide, was in fact a political division enforced upon the unwilling people of undivided India. Therefore, it does not follow that the people who had shared and practised a common culture and syncretic beliefs before would give up that culture or those beliefs overnight. This is not only true of Sikhs in Manekpur who migrated to Indian Punjab from Lyallpur in Pakistan, but also about many Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan.

In ‘Wapsi’, at the shrine of Sufi saint Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore, the devotees offer lighted lamps to the saint in ‘mannat’. I realised that this practice is followed in exactly the same way (though intent, form and ritualistic specifications may wary) at many Sufi shrines in India and by many Kashmiri Pandits too, who offer lighted lamps to the mother goddess Kheer Bhavani, when they visit  her shrine at Tulmula village, near Srinagar in Kashmir. At the Sufi shrine of Shah Jamal, in another part of Lahore, I was told a tale about a childless Hindu devotee of the pir (Sufi master) that sounded uncannily similar to many such tales I have heard in many temples and Sufi shrines in India.

The retention of cultural practices and syncretic traditions by the ordinary people even after many years of the divide and the fact that idea of the two nation theory was finally dealt a death blow by the creation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan makes it obvious that the division based on religion was a false one. It was created by leaders representing only the interests of the feudal, educated and landed elite class. Partion helped in concentrating all power in their hands after the British had left.

SS: Many Pakistanis view Aurangzeb in a very positive light. You write how the version of history taught in Pakistan is also one of vital omissions. Why do you think history as a discipline is so important for nations to interpret according to their own needs?

AR: I do not think history can or ought to be written or interpreted according to our needs and requirements of nation – building. Our respective nationalism have had and continue to have a pervasive influence upon the writing of history. With respect to the two countries, the attempts at revision or partition of our common history – of a shared origin but multiple identities of ethnicity, language, cultures and religion – into contradicting and opposing narratives (as rival nations) have created for India and Pakistan a crisis of identity. Through this re-writing, a set of beliefs about political legitimacy and cultural identity of the two sibling nations have been formulated in such a way that a significant part of our past has become invisiblise due to the ”Othering’, falsification, elision and omission. While in the case of Pakistan, religion is a defining aspect of its nationalist narrative. India with its constitutional commitment of upholding diverse belief systems, ethnic and cultural identities and social justice stands in natural ideological opposition to the very idea of what Pakistan has become.

Our divided histories, as tools of nationalist ideology, have turned our understanding of the past into a toxic instrument of hate for the other. It has filled our people with the poison of religious nationalism that has now seeped deep into popular consciousness. I see history as a means first, to understand how we have lived and secondly, how not to relive our mistakes. Looking at how we have not been able to guide ourselves using history in a more reasonable manner and in the light of advancement of our critical thinking, I do not wish history to be the sole determinant of how India and Pakistan could imagine peaceful co-existence tomorrow. Our history can only guide us to the future in a limited way. Perhaps, in history we can find some hope in our syncretic past and find a reason to co-exist as two responsible nations.

SS: Interestingly, in your film, some Hindus and Sikhs were saying how they were happy living in Pakistan. Given that Pakistan is officially an Islamic republic, how do they reconcile differences between their nationality and religion?

AR: I would leave it to the audience to interpret for themselves the ‘confidence’ of the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan and their security and state of mind in a Muslim majority state. There is much that can be expressed/read in a film beyond what the subjects say. The only thing I could however suggest is that looking at the history of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh condition across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, since 1947, the existential circumstances of these minorities can only be fully understood better if we put ourselves in their situation.

How do they reconcile the differences between their nationality and religion? These questions have been asked in the films of Muslim/Sikh/Hindu Pakistanis as well as Indian Muslims.


 Featured Image Source: Joshua Song/ Flickr

Catch  Ajay Raina’s film “Wapsi” at 2:30 pm on September 18 at India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.

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