Partition: An event to celebrate, mourn, or forget

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh each remember Partition differently and all seem to forget the role of colonialism.

India-Pakistan border AP Photo
An Indian Border Security Force soldier and a Pakistani Ranger take part in a daily retreat ceremony at the Joint Check Post at Wagah near Amritsar, India [File: Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

More than 70 years ago today, the Indian subcontinent was divided by its British colonial rulers into two nation-states – India and Pakistan. The Partition sparked three wars, paved the way for the creation of Bangladesh, and transformed Kashmir into one of the world’s most militarised zones. It is the single most defining event in the history of the region to this day.

In my home state of Punjab, which was one of the two states physically divided by the new border, the Partition is interwoven into the very psyche of society. It is part of the collective memory, state discourse, and family histories. There is no escaping what happened there all those years ago. I know this to be true for people living in different corners of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today.

But today, the Partition continues to be imagined and reimagined constantly across borders and even within the same nation. Some stories of the Partition are purposefully perpetuated while others are silenced or conveniently forgotten in national discourses.

There is not a singular narrative of the Partition. In fact, it is possible to say that the story of the Partition itself has been “partitioned” over the years across the arbitrarily drawn borders that have since divided the subcontinent.

Celebrating making of a nation in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the events of 1947 are seen as the birth of a new nation. While people suffered immense loss and endured horrific violence, which left an indelible mark on their psyche, the national discourse is overwhelmingly focused on the founding of the Pakistani state.

Loss is mostly mentioned in a way that beefs up hostility towards India and reinforces the notion that the partition and the creation of Pakistan were inevitable and must be celebrated. Consequently, violence is portrayed as one-sided and perpetrated by Hindus and Sikhs only, who are equated with Indians, while any atrocities carried out by Muslims are regarded lightly if not dismissed altogether.

This selective narrative about violence is institutionalised in Pakistani textbooks, media and museums. For instance, state-endorsed textbooks include statements such as “Hindus can never become the true friends of Muslims” and “Hindus started the genocide of Muslims”, often describing the community as “scheming” and “cunning”.

In the Army Museum in Lahore, which opened in 2017, the gallery on the Partition speaks of “rape and abduction of Muslim women” at the hands of Hindus and Sikhs, with no mention of crimes committed by Muslims. This despite the fact that Lahore itself, which had a significant Sikh and Hindu population prior to the Partition, witnessed violence by all sides.

The Partition then, in a sense, is synonymous with “independence from India” in the Pakistani subconsciousness. As the Pakistani school curriculum pays little attention to the actions of the British on the subcontinent, not many people think of the end of colonial subjugation when they think of 1947.

In the schools that I work in Pakistan, students frequently tell me that they celebrate Pakistan’s independence from not the British Empire but “Hindu India” every August.

Mourning a breakup in India 

As Pakistan celebrates the “making of the motherland”, every August India remembers the Partition as the “breakup of the motherland”. In my discussions with students in Indian classrooms, children have often told me that while Indian leaders never wanted the Partition, the Muslim League had insisted on the creation of a separate Muslim nation.

This simplistic narrative, accepted as an indisputable truth by many Indians, brushes over the intricacies of pre-Partition politics, particularly the different attempts made by the leader of the League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to carve out space for Muslims in an undivided India. It ignores the fact that the Partition was a result of rising Muslim separatist politics and the growing strength of the Muslim League on one hand and Hindu communal politics and Congress’s desire to maintain hegemony on the other.

In India, the emphasis on the Muslim demand for Pakistan overshadows these other political realities. In the mainstream discourse, it is solely the Muslims who are seen to have “broken” the country.

The same narrative is also used in contemporary communal politics, where Muslims are told to “go back to Pakistan”, while conversions of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism under the guise of “ghar wapsi” (or homecoming) are carried out in an attempt to “purify” India. The idea behind such efforts is grounded in the notion that non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, cannot be loyal to the Indian nation.

Silence in Bangladesh

While the events of 1947 are regularly remembered in India and Pakistan, in Bangladesh, the third child of the Partition, there is almost complete silence on the subject. Even though Bengal suffered significant bloodshed during the Partition, the cataclysmic event appears to hold little importance in the country today. If at all, it is remembered as a delay in the realisation of “actual” independence, which was gained in 1971.

Textbooks gloss over the event, with the stories of 1971 overshadowing everything else. While the Muslim League was formed in Dhaka and the state of Bengal had played an instrumental role in the creation of Pakistan, in the post-Partition years the party and its politicians deprived those from East Pakistan of their economic, social and political rights. For this reason, today, the Muslim League is seen as an anti-hero in Bangladesh.

The story of the Partition, with all its perceived contradictions and complicated nuances, does not fit well into the simple and straight-forward national history of Bangladesh that is being promoted by the state. This is why the discussion about the Partition has come to be hushed and silenced, with the event only being remembered as an insignificant and even irritating footnote in popular history. 

Bangladeshis today prefer to focus on other parts of their recent history – parts that easily reinforce their feelings of national pride and unity. The 1952 killing of students demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as a state language, for example, currently holds more importance in the collective imagination of Bangladesh than the events of 1947.

These different perceptions of the Partition – of loss, triumph and discomfort – have continued to dominate and dictate national policies and strategic thinking in all three countries years after 1947. For instance, textbooks in Pakistan state that the 1971 war – which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh – was an Indian conspiracy to break up Pakistan because it could never truly stomach the Partition. It is treated as a bilateral Indo-Pakistani conflict with little regard to Bengali grievances and the long struggle for rights and emancipation in East Pakistan.

Indians see the 1971 war differently. The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for example, said once that the creation of Bangladesh proved the notion that Muslims and Hindus were two separate nations and needed their own separate homelands wrong, implying that the very idea Pakistan has adopted as its raison d’etre was mistaken. In contrast, for Bangladeshis, 1971 is not an Indo-Pak war but rather a war of liberation, popularly perceived as a culmination of a people’s struggle.

Similarly, the Partition is interpreted differently vis-a-vis Kashmir. In India, genuine Kashmiri grievances are ignored and the movement for independence in Kashmir is only seen through the lens of “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism” which is bent on breaking of an integral part of India just like it had broken up the motherland in 1947.

By contrast, the contested territory is perceived as the “unfinished agenda of the Partition” in Pakistan, another “triumph” in the waiting. Between these two competing narratives, Kashmir remains the greatest casualty of the failure of India and Pakistan to resolve their issues with the past.

Forgotten colonialism

Just as the narratives of the Partition remain contested in all three countries, so does the memory of the colonial past. In India, colonialism is remembered, but only selectively, to serve as a justification for the Partition. The famous “divide and rule” policy of the British remains central to the discourse and is used to explain “the exploitation of Muslims” by the colonial powers that pitted one community against the other, and thereby led to the creation of Pakistan. While the British indeed crystallised communal identities and exacerbated communal tensions, by focusing on the instruments of divide and rule and putting the blame solely on the British, Indian leadership’s failure in keeping the country together are conveniently sidelined as are the communal faultlines that existed prior to the arrival of the British.

In comparison, Pakistani discourse undermines colonial history and pays little attention to British efforts to divide and drive tensions in the multicultural society. The emphasis is on how Muslims and Hindus were always two separate nations and so the British did not need to “divide” the already divided communities. Focusing on the colonial period thus holds little relevance to national politics in the country today. In Bangladesh too, colonial history is subservient to the politics and history of 1971. Pakistan is the dominant enemy, the British a faded memory.

In all three countries, which were all once ruled and exploited by the British, the colonial legacy is yet to be explored in its entirety. There has been a whitewashing of history, the ruins of colonialism selectively used to reinforce each country’s Partition narrative or lack thereof but never fully comprehended. Seventy-two years after the Partition, at a time when the region is embroiled in conflict and violence, most recently in Kashmir, it is imperative to revisit the colonial past and its ongoing effect. Without an understanding of the British period and its role in dividing India in 1947, any discourse on the Partition and its repercussions will remain incomplete. A careful and comprehensive study of the British empire and the way in which it changed the social fabric of society could be a critical starting point for mending any fissures left behind by colonialism and the resulting Partition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.