Partition horrors: Restorative vs retributive justice

Partition Horrors Remembrance: Restorative vs retributive justice

We need to reckon with past trauma in a manner that does not beget more trauma as it privileges restorative over retributive justice

Indian soldiers walking through the debris of a building in the Chowk Bijli Wala area of Amristar during unrest following the Partition of India and Pakistan. Credit: AFP File Photo

Seventy-five years is a long time in the life of a nation. Yet, the memory of Partition remains fraught and vulnerable to political manipulation. The tragedy is that the communal politics which split the country over seven decades ago continues to define India.

A day ahead of India's 75th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that August 14 would henceforth be observed as the day of "remembrance of Partition horrors." August 14 is also the day Pakistan celebrates its independence. It's an important fact to keep in mind in this context.

The announcement sparked conflicting but expected responses. While the prime minister's cabinet and party colleagues enthusiastically and predictably greeted the decision, projecting it as yet another warning against politics of appeasement, others saw in the declaration a reinforcement of the BJP's divisive politics, an endorsement of the party's core agenda, expected to come into play in next year's elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: Unforgetting Partition: Overcoming a state of amnesia

Underneath the pedestrian spat, however, deep, unresolved issues simmer - issues that have a bearing on the present and future of the country beyond immediate electoral compulsions and tactics. Politicians will continue to spar with each other, leveraging historical events to settle petty scores. In this context, the prime minister's declaration of remembrance day left a great deal unsaid and open to fractious interpretation.

It's important to underline that remembrance of traumatic events is not imbued with simplistic, linear meaning. The institutionalisation of trauma is a double-edged sword. Memories can have a transformative healing effect. Conversely, they can foster and deepen existing instincts for further retributive violence. History is replete with such cycles of violence and retaliatory measures that continue to foster violence in the name of memorialisation.

In such circumstances, a lot depends on who is asking a community or a nation to remember past "horrors;" who is urging them to keep alive the pain of trauma. Are words intended to heal wounds also capable of keeping them festering? If they heighten divisive ideology and fan the flames of a fractious political culture, then dredging up images of violence to memorialise them adds to existing brittleness about peoples' relationships to traumatic history.

Given the long and bloody road that led to the Partition, the prime minister's call to remember its horrors evokes unsettling thoughts. The disquiet can be attributed to the country's prevailing atmosphere, laden with communal hostility. In recent years, the culture of stigmatising Muslims has assumed an increasingly virulent edge. Virtually not a day passes that we do not hear of all manner of attacks on Muslims, from the forced chanting of slogans to more blatant acts of violence and aggression. An array of intimidatory and humiliating tactics targeting Muslims is on display in the public sphere. Regardless of erratic, conciliatory statements that come from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders—for example, asking Muslims not to get "trapped in the cycle of fear"—the community finds itself increasingly hemmed in by the rising tide of majoritarian politics.

To understand Partition, it's important to keep in mind its complicated history. The two states most affected by the dislocation and violence of 1947 were Bengal and Punjab. Bengal, in fact, was partitioned twice, first in 1905 (subsequently revoked in 1911), then in 1947—the reverberations of which were felt in 1964-65 and 1971. It's disturbing that large sections of the majority community, despite the rich historical research that has been in the public sphere for long, continues to hold Muslims singularly responsible for demanding Partition and organising violence to achieve that objective. Large sections of Hindus continue to see themselves as Partition's sole victims, and Muslims as its sole perpetrators.

Also read: Why Punjab may not want to remember partition horrors day

History, however, tells us otherwise. It was not just the Muslim League or large sections of Muslims who advocated a separated homeland for themselves. Large numbers of Hindus and Hindu organisations too backed the idea. In her book, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, historian Joya Chatterji argues that although "Partition is generally believed to have been a consequence of the separatist politics of Muslim minorities, but in case of Bengal, Hindus evolved a parallel separatism of their own."

Chatterji explains how the split impacted long-term relations between Hindus and Muslims. The violence and dislocation spawned Muslim ghettos, widening spatial and social distance between the two communities. In many ways and on many levels, even after the passage of seven decades, schisms riven by the event continue to define contemporary India and our existing culture of violent intolerance.

Traumatic events like Partition need to be remembered as a warning against communal violence and not as what the Bharatiya Janata Party describes as "politics of appeasement."

In all this, there are perhaps lessons to be learnt from efforts like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission established at the end of apartheid. The Commission brought victims and perpetrators face-to-face with each other, hoping that an acknowledgement of historical injustice and violence could end cycles of inter-racial violence. There is, of course, no consensus that the initiative was a success—and, indeed, many convincingly argue it was not. However, regardless of its success, versions of the Commission have been implemented in over 40 countries, including Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.

The idea of reckoning with past trauma in a manner that does not beget more trauma is a powerful one. It privileges restorative over retributive justice. This is an idea whose time has come in India, where the use of violence to settle real or perceived injustice has gained alarming acceptance from vast sections of society.

(Monobina Gupta is the author of Left Politics in Bengal and Didi: A Political Biography)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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