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Learning, not avenging history – Why India needs rethink on Partition Horrors Remembrance Day

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In the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring 14 August as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, it is pertinent to examine whether it has been done to genuinely commemorate the sufferings of citizens affected by Partition, or to rake up past wounds that can further polarise society. India’s ludicrous preoccupation with the past is not new, and time and again gets reflected through the changing of city names, fighting over the legacy of a medieval king, or as justification of a grossly unjust authoritarian move. The events related to Partition have previously been distorted by the Home Minister in Parliament to justify the enactment of religion-based citizenship law.

Partition, after acknowledging the uncalled politics around it, was perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of India. It led to the death of many people, which ranges from 200,000 to 2 million, and left many others homeless, which ranges from 10 million to 20 million people. Not only did Partition cause loss of lives, homes and culture of people, but it also created fissures between two religious communities, which does not seem to heal even after seven decades of co-existence, and, worse still, get bitter day by day. Had India been honest about its past – especially in the early decades of the republic – and healed wounds by acknowledging and accepting it before moving on, we would have resisted the weaponisation of history.

Also read: Modi’s enthusiasm for dates misses the real memorialising of Partition violence

Learning not avenging history

Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in The Indian Express, “India in an act of creative resetting decided to make a fresh start. We embraced our tryst with destiny, even in this truncated form. We tried to let the legacy of freedom define India more than the obsession with Partition.” He tones down the after effect of Partition on India and acknowledges the fact that this nation started afresh, devoid of any grudges against anyone, which may have otherwise hindered her progress like her neighbour. On further reading, Mehta startlingly draws a parallel between the period of intense communalisation preceding Partition and today, where the same victimhood and schism have returned to haunt us. India, according to him, has to choose between the logic of Partition and the logic of freedom, which are inherently incompatible.

Similarly IPS officer Najmul Hoda in his article for ThePrint, ‘Hindutva to Sachar – What Syed Ahmad Khan would have done today’, speculates how Syed Ahmad Khan would have chosen the path of conciliation while dealing with majoritarianism in line with what he did to placate the hostile British State after the failed first war of Independence in 1857. He further urged the Muslim community to follow if not imitate Khan’s politics while presenting depoliticisation of the community as an “ineluctable imperative for sailing through the tide of Hindutva.”

The above two articles tell you how one can reflect on one’s past in order to better their present and future prospects.

Don’t let your past become an impediment to your future

The constant attempts of reducing history to a mere tool to fan sectarianism in an already communally precarious society lay bare the ulterior motive behind the government’s declaration. In fact, the strongest opposition to the declaration has come from the people whose family members bore the brunt of Partition. They see it as an attempt to add insult to injury of those who faced catastrophe and trauma by riling up the memories of blood and gore, which got overshadowed over the course of time. They are wary of using the word “horror” with “remembrance” while insisted on making genuine efforts for “reconciliation.”

Dr Ramachandra Guha, in his column “Lucky is the country without a glorious history”, expressed dismay at the worrying trends in countries like Turkey, India, US, Russia where political leaders are fancying themselves as medieval saviours of their respective countries so as to hold on to political power.

Also read: Let’s talk about Partition. We owe this debt to the dead and the displaced

The way ahead

The need for peaceful reconciliation with dreadful portions of history becomes apposite in a post-colonial third world country like India, which is as diverse and complex as it can get. This exercise is a slippery slope in a country whose history is highly contested and complex, therefore it should not come at the cost of disrupting the larger harmony of the nation. After all, the vainglory of the perished must not hamper the future prospects of the alive. I conclude with the hope that my motherland may live up to the immortal words of Sri Aurobindo:

“We do not belong to the past dawns,
But to the noons of the future”

Saif Ali is a student of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Views are personal.

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