August 17, 2018

On Partition and Remembrance

So many of us have grown up hearing of crimson harvests resulting from the forced poppy cultivation which destroyed both China and vast tracts of India, and of the millions who died, often begging for rice starch, in the Bengal Famine. This is, of course, the famine which prompted Leo Amery, once Secretary of State for India and Burma, to compare Churchill to Hitler given that it was, in no small measure, the result of British policies that were implemented in India while he was Prime Minister. Bhaator maar, the Assamese called starch water. Kani khai bohi ase: he's sitting around having eaten opium.

The abiding image of the famine, to so many, is one of children dying under the watchful, waiting eye of vultures. That image didn't fade by the time of Partition. In her autobiography, Margaret Bourke White, the American photojournalist, wrote:

"For years, Hindus and Muslims had struggled side by side for independence from the British Raj. With freedom finally on the horizon, Jinnah masterminded the game so adroitly that within months he was to win his Pakistan. Jinnah announced what he called Direct Action Day: a We will have," he insisted, "either a divided India or a destroyed India."
On the heels of this announcement, violence broke out in Calcutta. I flew there from Bombay and found a scene that looked like Buchenwald. The streets were literally strewn with dead bodies, an officially estimated six thousand, but I myself saw many more. Scattered between bodies of men were the bodies of their animals. Countless cows, swollen with the heat, were as dead as their masters. In Calcutta, a city larger than Detroit, vast areas were dark with ruins and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead. Like Germany's concentration camps, this was the ultimate result of racial and religious prejudice.
I did my job of recording the horror and brought the pictures out for Life, but the task was hard to bear. The terror in Calcutta set off a chain reaction which spread through the country and was equally devastating to both religious groups. Months of violence sharpened the division, highlighted Jinnah's arguments. On August 15, 1947, one year after the riots in Calcutta, a bleeding Pakistan was carved out of the body of a bleeding India."

The friction between Hindus and Muslims had been nurtured by the British through the divide-and-rule policy which they instituted for their own benefit. Unsurprisingly, it contributed to the August 1947 Partition which saw the country literally being divided along lines drawn on a map by an English lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had stepped on to Indian shores a month earlier and appeared to know nothing worth mentioning about the country.

The comparisons between concentration camps and Indian traumas are well worn. Unlike Germany though, we do not deal in remembrance half a much as we should. We have no Erinnerungskultur, a Culture of Remembrance, to our own disadvantage. Those who do not remember the past are always at risk of allowing it to be repeated, after all.

The Partition of India still affects our national and nationalist ethos. It marks those whom we now consider foreigners. Forgetting the trauma of Partition also allows us to forget that we were once one people. It allows us to dehumanise those whom we now consider outsiders. It allows us to create constructs which facilitate separation.

We now live in a world where some spend their time looking for the least offensive ways to describe children in cages. Where almost every migration ‘crisis’ is invariably caused by an uninviting government supported by a xenophobic people. Ecuador, for the time being, seems to be an exception to the rule: it recently declared an emergency due to mass migration from Venezuela. Its crisis, however, wasn't declared to keep migrants out but to help them as they come in.

Inhumane xenophobia doesn't have to be anyone's default state of being. There are other options which we could follow especially given that our own history, in living memory, tells us that xenophobia and communalism can be catastrophic for everyone in their vicinity. The Partition is proof of that.