Harking Back: Stories of a bloody beginning might yet lead to peace

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn August 7, 2016

In a week from now both India and Pakistan will be observing the 69th anniversary of their independence from colonial rule. Both countries might display their military splendour, a macho mindset that long ago replaced saner dispositions that advocated that it is high time we paused to re-examine our common starting point?

In mid-August 1947 the largest and greatest exodus in human history took place. It was accompanied by a slaughter unknown to mankind. Never before had ‘humans’ slaughtered one another to such a degree in such a short time period. We dismiss it as merely the 1947 Partition of British India. The truth is very different. Just how much do we know about this tragic event? Why do we deliberately refuse to recall this colossal human tragedy? Why do we avoid discussing it still?

A mindset of irrational hate seems to have spiraled out of control. The urge to be seen as ‘macho’ is misused by politicians and military officials to further feed this hatred. The recent verbal clash between Indian and Pakistani interior ministers at a SAARC conference in Islamabad is just one example of how they both rushed back ‘home’ to declare: “They will never learn.” Their followers revelled in the implied threat. It surely is time that we examine our collective behaviour, and try to understand why we narrate our history based on ghosts that just do not exist.

In history 69 years is a mere bleep, and it goes without saying that we had a common starting point.


Our collective behaviour can be divided into three phases, at least so far. The utter shock of what happened in August 1947 locked our minds, and our tongues. The real sufferers, sadly, just cut out the past. Understandably it was too gross to recollect. The generation that followed seems like a lost one. Their elders did not tell them anything, and in most cases forced their children to ‘shut out’ the past. This is where the most damage was done by completely erasing our collective history stretching back thousands of years, virtually from the beginning of time.

So with our elders shocked into silence, with their offspring ‘lost’, what is the new generation doing? This is a question that is going to determine our future. No matter how much we deny them their future, and many might even force them into silence – to remain lost - their quest to find out what happened is not going to dampen. That is why all over the world the third generation is out to collect stories about what really happened.

Recently, I had the pleasure at a well-known university in Lahore of conducting two courses on the history of the Punjab, and more specifically that of Lahore. The students were made to find first-hand witnesses to the Partition of 1947, and to record and write their experiences. Without fail each and every student returned in a state of utter disbelief, if shock is not a better word. A few of them even had tears in their eyes when discussing a particular experience. Quite a few subjects, still, refused to let their names be used. In more than one case they simply refused to talk. One student told of how an old lady kept falling into tears, virtually breaking down.

The whole experience was described by a student as “an eyeopener like they had never experienced in their lives.” In class we discussed the whole process and, naturally, it dawned on everybody that our history as taught in schools and colleges is nothing but a collection of ‘half-truths’, and even utter lies. Here I would like to digress and move on to my own experiences researching ancient Punjab in the University of Cambridge. In their amazing and massive libraries I found one section that collects all the school textbooks of Pakistan and India. Scholars describe this as their best view of the current mindset of the subcontinent. Indian and Pakistanis here research their past like they just cannot back home. So far away in foreign lands a major effort is under way collecting and examining the horrible manner in which the Partition of 1947 took place.

My own interest in the subject finally landed me, thanks to the founder of the university in Lahore, at Berkeley in California and their amazing project titled ‘1947 Partition Archives’, which can be seen on the internet. I met their fairly large staff and saw their amazing computer programme throw up video recordings of over 2,000 experiences which they have collected. This is a collection from not only India and Pakistan subjects, but from 21 other countries, including South America, where a few of the 1947 refugees have ended up. Their objective is to collect at least 10,000 experiences in the next five years “before all the original victims pass into the next world” is how Dr Guneeta Bhalla described their future plans. She herself is a PhD from Berkeley whose parents once lived in Model Town of Lahore, with a huge house on Lake Road. “Sadly, that has been demolished to make way for a plaza”, she said.

As the stories for 1947 victims get collected, it is time to examine just what the future interest of our new generation is likely to be. My view is that the original victims were stunned into silence. Their children were lost and refused to discuss the issue. The new generation is a very different set of highly aware persons. They want to collect Partition stories so that, given some space by our ‘hate mongers’ on both sides of the divide, an impartial examination of the human aspect of this tragedy can be brought forward for serious analysis.

But before ending this column, let me narrate two stories. One of a near relative, an aunt by marriage, living in Lahore. These three sisters, then aged 23 to 18 years of age, walked all the way from Chawinda to Jhelum. Every time I ask them to narrate what happened they start crying. They refuse to talk. The other story is of an amazing village woman near Chechon-ke-Mallian. Their train from Jandiala with over 3,000 Sikhs was attacked and everyone killed. The beautiful were removed, violated and killed. Her entire family was decimated. This woman the local village mullah married, gave her a Muslim name, and today she has a large family.

When I interviewed her, at the end she said: “I will smile only when I meet my ‘Bappo’ in the next world.” That comment lives within me as a reflection of the pain she still feels. But then very soon she will, like thousands, pass on, and their stories will be lost forever. That is why our youth are on the right path of wanting to collect stories of 1947, each in their own unique manner. Real peace might still follow, but then our common starting point is what will emerge as where we can cry together.


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