The Dawn: 21st June, 2013

A spectre haunts Punjab!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Our part of the Punjab is usually made out to be India obsessed and is blamed for all the ills that plague the relationship between Pakistan and India, creating a state of perpetual instability in the entire region. The main reason, liberal and enlightened analysts insist, is that Punjab being the biggest federating unit in the country stokes the fires of animosity against India and keeps the bogey of hostile other alive in order to get the largest share of national pie in shape of defence budget, which is consumed by the Punjab dominated civil-military establishment. There is no doubt that bureaucratic and military establishment in which Punjab has a large presence is in dire need of restructuring in the sense that its power and national resources at its disposal must be rationalised in the context of changed politico economic scenario. But the larger historical picture must not be lost sight of if we intend to analyse the present political mind set of the Punjab, a product of political turbulence of monstrous proportions created by peculiar historical conditions.

The Partition of India in the 20th century has been of colossal historical consequences for the Punjab that shook it from its roots. It was a political quake the after shocks of which are still reverberating across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Wherever we locate the epicentre, the fact remains that it was Punjab that bore the brunt and stood denuded as a result of its devastating impact. Though it survived and rose from the rubble, it has not been able till date to clear the dust and debris that continue to muddle its vision. The apocalypse was an experience never experienced before in the land of five rivers. The loss in terms of material and human life, unimaginably great, was such that it changed the psyche of entire society, damaging the collective memory of the people. Losing the sense of past and future the society was forced by extremely unusual politico social conditions to grapple with what was immediately present that spread out like an eternity. Just to gauge the proportions of the happening, we need to remember that in a period of a few months 10 to 12 million people, most of them Punjabis, were forced to leave their ancestral homes with literally nothing under their belt to save their lives. Almost a million hapless people including innocent men, women and children lost their lives. Communal conflagration consumed every thing and any thing that came its way. Each community turned into a ‘hunting pack’ in the words of Elias Canetti.

Senseless mass slaughter and mass rape inflicted a deep wound on the psyche of the people irrespective of faith, prompting the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Muslims to blame one another for the hellish violence that erupted from nowhere engulfing the entire Punjab. If any body was to blame for this all against all or free for all situation it was the political leadership of all colours and hues. The Indian Congress, the Muslim League and the colonial administration were in fact the real political culprits that proved totally incapable of handling the extraordinary situation which was of their own making. Congress and Muslim League miserably failed to guide the communities they claimed to represent in the crisis situation. They failed to anticipate the communal violence that was an outcome of their political decisions. They failed to rein in the communalists in their respective communities with the result that they were reduced at best to silent spectators and at worst the instigators of violence. The colonial administration, which was proud of its ‘civilizing mission’, all of a sudden forgot its ‘mission’ in a great rush to leave India for reasons still not clearly known, paralysing the well oiled administrative set-up. It spectacularly failed to manage smooth and orderly transition of power that irreparably damaged its reputation as an umpire forever. The Partition accompanied by deluge of hatred vitiated the social, political and religious atmosphere for a long time to come. Each community perceived this historical event as a holocaust in its own subjective context, holding the other responsible for unleashing the monstrous process. The Hindus and Sikhs hated the Muslims for dividing the ‘indivisible’ that caused the calamity, forgetting that Indian subcontinent had always been division prone. And Muslims, especially those who were forced to migrate to what became Pakistan, hated Hindus and Sikhs for not recognising the legitimacy of their independent homeland which they believed was denial of their historical right.

Such an immensely painful atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust became a breeding ground for two opposing national narratives in India and Pakistan, which we still carry like an albatross around our neck. Indian establishment disseminated the idea now internalised by a large segment of Indian society that emergence of Pakistan was a case of a member of the family gone astray that had to be brought back. And paradise lost had to be regained whatever the cost. The Pakistani establishment on the other hand persuaded a large section of its population into believing that India never reconciled to the idea of independent homeland for the Indian Muslims which had to be defended whatever the cost. People on both sides of the border have been cajoled to pay the cost. And the cost is horrendously high as it continually casts a pall of gloom and sorrow over their lives in the subcontinent while making the policymakers in the corridors of power comfortable with the fat budgets that they spend on ‘toys for the boys’.

With the passage of time the wound apparently has healed but in Bertolt Brecht’s words “when the wound stops hurting what hurts is the scar”. Now ‘scar’ is the spectre that haunts us. In order to restore our mental and spiritual health we must lay the ghosts which sprang out of burning ashes of Partition. Understanding how all of us consciously and unconsciously created them and what they stood for will help overcome the collective guilt that stalks us. Suffering understood humanly can relieve the pain. And the best way to go about it would be to recognise the core cause of shared grief which seems to be sense of self preservation gone ‘wild’ as Theodor Adorno would tell you. Ustad Daman, the legendry Punjabi poet, hinted at what it could be when soon after the Partition in a ‘Mushaira’ in Amritsar where Pundit Nehru was also present, he recited his famous verses;” Red eyes tell the story; you wept and cried / we too wept and cried”. And everybody in the gathering wept and cried again. We perhaps need to discover what lies beneath the tears and the sighs if we have moral courage.

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