'Remembrance Day' opens old wounds for political gains

'Remembrance Day' opens old wounds for trifling political gains

The BJP is not the first to mark politically significant dates, but associating August 14 with the tragedy of partition is not just divisive, it is also factually incorrect

Refugees aboard an overcrowded train during the India-Pakistan partition in 1947.

Sunanda Chattopadhyay, an 87-year-old Kolkata resident, has experienced the pain of the partition. As a middle school student, Chattopadhyay witnessed the horrific communal riots, known as the “Great Calcutta Killings” of August 16, 1946. She also vividly recalls the joy and hope of the Independence Day celebrations a year later on August 15, in which she had joined in. But she says she is dismayed that India will henceforth observe August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.

Chattopadhyay believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement is inappropriate for two reasons — historical accuracy and basic decency.

To mark August 14 as a black day is historically incorrect, for it was on June 3, 1947, and not August 14, that Lord Mountbatten, the viceroy of India, announced the partition. Second, it lacks basic courtesy since our neighbouring nation, Pakistan, celebrates its Independence Day on August 14.

“If at all one has to think of a Day of Horrors, it can only refer to August 16, 1946, when undivided India suffered because of the orgy of killings, mostly in Bengal and Punjab provinces,” Chattopadhyay says. She says that effort should be to negate ill will, progress for peace and prosperity.

Interestingly, some of that spirit was in evidence five months back in Dhaka. On March 26, 2021, prime ministers Modi and Sheikh Hasina declared that India and Bangladesh would mark the 50th anniversary of their friendship by commemorating December 6 as Maitri Diwas, or friendship day.

It was the day India had recognised Bangladesh in 1971.

But December 6 is a controversial day in the subcontinent’s history. The razing of the Babri Mosque on December 6, 1992, led to communal riots against the minorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In subsequent years in India, Hindutva outfits, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, celebrated the day as Shaurya Diwas, or victory day. Modi and Hasina’s decision to mark it as friendship day symbolised that the two countries could remember December 6 for the birth of Bangladesh and the demise of the two-nation theory rather than for a divisive incident.

If a week is a long time in politics, five months is an eternity. The BJP has since lost the Bengal polls and is now preparing for the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assembly polls. The UP election, crucial for the BJP’s 2024 Lok Sabha fortunes, comes with the PM’s popularity declining and people complaining of inflation and job losses. 

Predictably, Islamabad reacted sharply to the PM’s tweet that India will observe August 14 as the partition remembrance day.

Pakistan’s foreign office termed it a political stunt. In India, Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former political adviser to L K Advani, reminded the PM how each August 14 morning since 2014, he had tweeted his good wishes to the people of Pakistan.

“Why no greetings this year? Why this call in 2021 to observe August 14 as the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day?” Kulkarni wondered. He concluded the announcement had to do with the forthcoming UP polls.

Since then, intellectuals and academicians have cautioned against pursuing a politics that had in 1947 led to the partition of India. Historian Sugata Bose said the decision is designed to foment continuing hatred and provide more fuel to the divisive politics that has been ruining contemporary India. “There are other ways to remember it (the partition),” Bose said.

Also read: Political row over Modi's pitch for Partition Horrors Remembrance Day

“Why do they want to divide us?” Professor Jagmohan Singh, a nephew of martyr Bhagat Singh, asks. “We have to reflect on the state of affairs today rather than what happened 75 years ago. Communal people on both sides were responsible for the horror of the partition,” he says.

Bengal and Punjab bore the brunt of the partition. One to two million were killed in the partition riots and nearly 15 million displaced, including 11.2 million, or 77.4 per cent, in the west, and 3.3 million, or 22.6 per cent, in the east. The trouble is both regions are in tumult again. The BJP is still smarting at its defeat in the Assembly polls in Bengal, while Punjab has convulsed with protests against the Modi government’s farm laws for nearly a year now. 

Emotive agendas

The decision to mark the partition day comes on the heels of Hindutva outfits trying to make religious conversions and population growth into emotive agendas. Protests over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens are still fresh in people’s memory. During the debate on the CAA in Parliament in 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah had accused Bangladesh and Pakistan of not honouring the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Pact of looking after their minorities.

However, the PM’s call has little appeal for the Sikhs of Punjab and Haryana, who migrated to the Indian side of Punjab. 

“Indeed, the partition of the subcontinent happened on religious lines — Muslims versus Hindus and Sikhs and vice versa. But today, since both the communities are minorities in India, the Sikhs see a reflection of themselves in the lot of the Indian Muslims. So in the suffering of a Muslim, Sikhs see their suffering,” says Chandigarh-based writer Shamsher Chandel. 

But Bengal could provide more fertile soil for the Hindutva push on the horrors of partition. Unlike Punjab, the Bengal partition has played out for a longer time. Bengal has received refugees continuously. The BJP has built a solid support base among Hindu refugees living in border areas.

However, at least for the present, Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress outfoxed the BJP. A month back, it announced observing August 16 as Khela Hobe Diwas, while the BJP struggled to mark it as “Save Bengal Day” to remind people of the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16, 1946.

Quest for legitimacy

The partition remembrance day is also crucial in the Sangh Parivar’s efforts to earn legitimacy for the period of freedom struggle where it was largely absent, while delegitimising the Congress party’s role. For the past seven decades, the country has marked August 9 as the Quit India Movement day and August 15 as the Independence Day — the remembrance of both occasions underlines the role of the Congress and its leadership.

The Modi government has now celebrated August 5 as the day for the emergence of the “new India” — the abrogation of Article 370 and foundation stone laying of the Ram temple have taken place on August 5. It has now added August 14 as the day to remember the horrors of partition.

There have been other instances of this. On Friday, as the Congress marked August 20, the birth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi, as Sadbhavana Diwas, the PM inaugurated projects in Gujarat’s Somnath temple. Within months of coming to power, the PM had celebrated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary on October 31 as National Unity Day.

The Congress governments had celebrated November 19, Indira Gandhi’s birthday, as National Integration Day.

Over the past seven years, Modi has spoken of socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and Jan Sangh founder Deen Dayal Upadhyay as his guiding lights in politics.

In 1964, the two had proposed a confederation of India and Pakistan. On his visit to Karachi in 2005, another of the PM’s mentors, LK Advani, a victim of partition, said, “Partition cannot be undone. India and Pakistan as two separate nations is an unalterable reality of history. However, some of the follies of partition can and must be undone.”

Two of Modi’s predecessors, IK Gujral and Manmohan Singh, were also refugees but both tried that the subcontinent should move past the pain of the partition.