Almost as if to cue, the Independence Day weekend (August 14 and 15) was characterised by rage and feigned victimisation over Prime Minister Modi’s announcement about observing August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. The rage came from people who believed that the PM’s intent in declaring such an event was not kosher. It was an attempt to mine old wounds for electoral gains and an attempt to keep boundaries intact, not build bridges. In response to this, those who supported this action likened the cries of naysayers to ‘Holocaust Denial’ and believed that nameless (and shameless, in some accounts) ‘liberals’ were behind this so-called denial.
Has the brutal story of Partition been denied in India? Not really, is perhaps the first response. Films and literature have talked about it in great detail. There are far too many to recount. Hence, those who wish to access narratives of it can do so. As of 2021, there are still many who live among us who have lived through those days and can recount their experiences.
But those who claim that the brutal realities of Partition have not been acknowledged do have a point. ‘Official’ acknowledgement of Partition has been largely missing. The forced amputation of Punjab and Bengal, regions that had been whole for centuries, and the incorporation of their separated halves into separate nation-states and the effect it had on the psyche of those people has definitely not been given its due. One could well contest this by pointing out that refugees were resettled, many of them prospered, and most have gotten over their trauma, etc.
But that isn’t the point. The newly independent nation-state was duty-bound to take care of those of its citizens who had suffered for the sake of its creation. The larger point has to do with what August 15 has come to stand for owing to how the establishment chooses to mark that day.
August 15 is, and has been since 1947, a day of celebration. There is a festive air that envelops the nation on that day. The PM speaks from the Red Fort. The national flag is on prominent display in many places. Patriotic songs seem to be on everyone’s playlist. And “we did it…we drove the British away” is the mood of the moment. It is a time to invoke victory and partake of a feeling of triumph.
But is it so really? Is that the sentiment that everyone shares? For many, independence meant being uprooted and literally hurled into an empty abyss of sorts, with no light at the end of the tunnel. It meant losing everything that one was familiar with. It meant starting from scratch. It did not mean celebration or triumph.
Given this, is it my case then that the observance of a Partition Horrors Day or some such event would assuage those wounds and acknowledge the loss that people suffered? Decidedly not.
This new-fangled day does nothing to address that. For one, its observance on August 14 is always bound to be something of a sideshow. It is almost as if the nation was being told to be sombre one day so that the next day can be one of celebration. How does this work to address the horrors of Partition? It does not. It is mere lip-service, a band-aid to plaster over deep wounds.
What then is to be done?
The need is actually to recast the way we ‘celebrate’ Independence Day itself. True, the nation did become free from foreign rule on this day, and that is a commendable achievement. Also true is that this burden of freeing the many was borne unfairly by a few. Hence, this day ought to be marked by a certain sombreness and a subdued air rather than one of triumphalism and razzmatazz. That will go a long way in addressing the feelings of those who paid a heavy price.
Also, given that 75 years have passed since that day, the sombreness should also be on account of the fact that the dreams that were sold to the people about what freedom would bring have not been realised. The nation has a long way to go to realise those promises. Education, employment, equality and much else have not been provided to all in equal measure.
When freedom dawned in 1947, Faiz had lamented: “This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn/This is not that dawn of which there was expectation.” This should remind us of the price of freedom. And now all these years later, the words of Siddalingaiah’s song, Yaarige bantu, yellige banthu nalavattelara swatantra, which questioned who the beneficiaries of 1947 were, should temper our mood and celebratory attitude. There is some scope for modest celebration. But the need for sober reflection should be made stronger.
Let us not forget our past. Let us also not forget our tasks for the future.
(The author is a Bengaluru-based editor and writer)