Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s declaration of 14 August as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day was entirely in keeping with his enthusiasm for dates, memorials and announcements. Modi’s declaration once again seeks to redirect attention to nationalism. On this occasion too, the latest announcement drew widespread support while the government’s critics were left to quibble and argue that this was ‘political’ and even selective memorialisation of Partition. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up historian to know that nations and nationalisms are built on memory. And that all national memory is selective, partisan, and indeed, political.
Crucially, both admirers and critics of this announcement obscure and hide once again that it was not Partition’s memory but the catastrophic violence of 1947 that was deeply political. Partition or division was not the abstract drawing of the line of a border: its most potent realisation took the form of violence.
Civil War: The true name of Partition violence
None other than Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had, in 1946, called the stark problem of political violence between Hindus/Sikhs and Muslims as that of ‘civil war’. In fact, the reality of widespread violence since the interwar period, and certainly from 1946 onwards, had presented Partition as a choice for the cessation of this civil war. It was, however, Jawaharlal Nehru who called this violence a human ‘horror’ that defied contemplation. Ironically, and in this sense, Nehru has prevailed over Patel in Modi’s anointment of Partition violence as a memory of horror.
Civil wars, though prevalent in history, are rarely owned. They are primarily deemed to be pathological, immoral and even as a form of war without winners. From the Roman Republic to the American Civil War, as the Harvard historian David Armitage contends, civil wars have had a profound and more significant role, as opposed to wars between states, in shaping the world.
Civil wars, and none more so than 1946-48 in India, are blood-feuds. As neighbours murderously set upon neighbours, this violence was entirely intimate in nature. The aim of civil wars is precisely to create an externality out of an intimacy. It is striking that in 1857 and the largest and most violent anti-imperial movement in the 19th century, several thousand British men and women were killed. By contrast, and a mere 90 years later, the outgoing masters were singularly spared. In short, the catastrophic violence of 1947 was both fraternal and domestic. The foreign ruler and outgoing imperial master had ceased to be relevant, even in terms of hostility.
The memory of Partition violence has remained profound and highly operable in two significant ways – first, in evacuating responsibility for that catastrophic violence, and second, as a form of trauma that has been violently repeated subsequently.
Partition has mainly been accounted for in two kinds of accounts. One type of account focusses on details of negotiations between hostile parties and representatives of the outgoing empire, Indian nationalists and spokesmen for Pakistan. These are steeped in the concerns of the politics of interest, ranging from territorial boundaries and apportioning of natural resources to the division of government assets, be they office typewriters or army regiments. A second type of account relays the details of violence recounted as memory and trauma: the subjective or personal experience of violent division.
If the former register is infused with the cold logic of realpolitik, the latter compensates for this with the pathos of the personal and emotional costs that history extracted. While in the former register, the violence is addressed in terms of a revolving ‘blame game’, with historians in particular apportioning guilt between key figures — primarily Jinnah, Congress leaders and the outgoing British masters. In the latter, by contrast — in the memory portraits of Partition violence experienced as popular suffering of the consequences of high politics — no one is guilty: everyone is a victim of a violent history. Both accounts, effectively, depoliticise the violence of 1947.
Crowds: Anonymous agents of violence
Emanating from the intimate, civil wars make, suspend and test the boundaries of any given order. Civil war has thus been characterised as the opposite of ‘the law’.
Paradoxically, though intimate in nature, the perpetration of this violence was shrouded in the anonymity of the collective. The anonymity of the crowd militates against individual culpability and responsibility because it functions as an active agent in concretising new bonds of the collective. The intimate nature of violence is significant because next-door neighbours, rather than the army or the State machinery, became the bearers and perpetrators of aggression in the form of face-to-face combat, while civic institutions, and the police, became entirely partisan.
Nor was this dissolving of individuals into the crowd, and the machinery of public order merely the temporary suspension of the norms of peace, or an exception to order. As Thomas Blom Hansen strikingly argues, the crowd in such a case, as riots or civil wars, arrogates to itself the right to kill with impunity, and becomes ‘semi-sovereign’. The intimate and the individual was absorbed into the crowd, the collective, the ‘mass’ that was visible but, crucially, without culpability, as it became the effective and deadly ‘anonymous agency’ of the civil war.
Civil war or Partition violence then neatly divided leaders as powerful but helpless in controlling it; the anonymity of the crowds, meanwhile, made the violence free from guilt and responsibility. No single person has been named guilty, judged or punished for this violence. As such, Partition violence, or more aptly the Civil War of 1947, is the direct opposite of the Holocaust that was prosecuted by the Nazi State. Followed by trials such as the Nuremberg Trials and the wholesale de-Nazification of German society alone guaranteed that the memory of the Holocaust would lead to responsibility if not reconciliation.
As a ‘horror’ Partition violence was prosecuted by ordinary individuals with the aid of kitchen knives and batons, the weapons of this civil war too were ordinary but lethal. Though romanticised as its victims, ‘the people’ were the effective prosecutors of Partition violence. Without responsibility, reckoning or reconciliation, this violence will remain traumatic. As Sigmund Freud would tell us, left unattended, traumas only repeat themselves. Each subsequent violent memory both invokes the original trauma and amplifies its violent memory and capacity. The long litany of riots and pogroms in India since 1947 testifies the same. To change that, at least the trauma must be correctly identified and named. Otherwise, it will become yet another date in the national calendar while retaining the power to repeat that violence.
Modi’s declaration is exceptional to the extent that it is the first official memorialisation by the State and head of government of the catastrophic violence that ushered in the newly independent nation-states of India and Pakistan. Until now, this has defied State reckoning, and on both sides of the border. The enthusiasm for dates and announcements has missed the real and true nature, effects, and memorialisation of Partition violence. As inheritors of a guilt-free violence, the independent and free people of India and Pakistan are the true and living memorials of the Civil War of 1947.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Her forthcoming book “Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in The Global Age” out this autumn elaborates on partition violence as civil war. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)