Events around the 15th of August, 1947

Puducherry 2006

Partition, W. H. Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The Independence of India came with its partition. The maps were drawn up by the colonial power in 7 weeks. The new frontiers mainly passed through the former provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Kings of nominally independent states within the former colonially governed India were given a choice of which country to join, a process that was not yet completed by independence day. The colonial administration withdrew 75 years ago on August 15, leaving the yet unformed governments of the two countries to oversee the process of division.

The Dawn of Freedom
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

(translated from Urdu)

This light, smeared and spotted, this night‐bitten dawn
This is not that dawn we waited for so eagerly
This is not that dawn whose desire we held in our hearts
 When we set out together, friends all, hoping
That we would find the final destination
Of the stars in the forests of heaven,
That the slow‐rolling night had an end
That the boat of our afflicted heart’s grief would drop anchor somewhere.

When, from the mysterious paths of hot blooded youth,
We sought that world,
Many were the hands that rose to clutch our garments,
Open arms called, bodies distracted us
From the impatient bedchambers of beauty—
But the yearning for the dawn’s face was too dear
The hem of our radiant beauty’s garment was very close.
The load of desire was not too heavy,
Exhaustion lay somewhere on the margin.
It is said that light has removed the darkness now
It is said that journeying feet have found their destination
The pain in our hearts have gone now
Joy of freedom—yes; agony of separation—forbidden!
But the fire of our blood, the eagerness of our eyes, the grief of our heart
Remain unquenched by this cure for disunion’s pain;
From where did the morning breeze come?
Where did it go?
The street‐lamp at the edge of the road has no notion yet
That the weight of the night has not lifted
The moment for the freedom of our heart has not come yet
Let us go on, we have not reached the destination yet.

Swathes of the country had been depopulated when indentured labourers were transported to European colonies across the world in the 19th century after slavery was abolished. Freedom came a century later, after 74,000 Indian troops died WWI and 87,000 in WWII to protect the interests of its colonizing power. During WWII, the war-time prime minister of the colonizer reserved grains in India for troops, precipitating a deadly famine. Counts of civilian deaths due to famine were first placed at 1.5 million, but by 1947 had crept up to about 2.5 million. Attempts at more accurate counting later found significantly more deaths, not a negligible fraction of civilian deaths in Russia in the same war, or the number of Jewish people killed in the “Final Solution”.

I speak to Waris Shah today, Amrita Pritam

(translated from Punjabi; Waris Shah wrote a Punjabi poem about star-crossed lovers Heer and Ranjha)

I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love

Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;
Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:

Arise, friend of the afflicted; rise and see the state of Punjab,
Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenaab flowing with blood.

Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this water now irrigates our soil.

Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?
And all Ranjha’s brothers have forgotten to play the flute.

Blood rained on the soil, graves ooze with blood,
The princesses of love cry their hearts out in graveyards.

Today all the Quaido’ns have become thieves of love and beauty,
Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?

Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love.

75 years is a lifetime. The only living survivor of the partition in my extended family is an old aunt who remembers herself at 17 years of age, staying to finish her school exams before leaving home by a train out of a country which was now no longer hers.

Old children and daughters, Annadashankar Roy

(translated from Bengali)

You scold your daughter
Because she broke a bottle of oil
But you overgrown children
Break and divide India!

Break provinces, break districts
Land, home,
Bedstead, rice heaps,
Factories, railways!

Tea estates, coal mines,
Colleges, police stations, offices,
Chairs, tables, wall clocks,
Peons, police, professors!

Warships, tanks,
Cannons, planes, horses, camels,
Breaking and dividing
A festival of loot!

You scold your daughter
Because she broke a bottle of oil
But you old children
Break and divide India!

The Partition Museum

The Partition Museum is part of Amritsar’s old town hall, a British era structure built a little more than half a kilometer away from the Golden Temple. It had been in our bucket list ever since work started about six years ago. In the five years since it opened it has quietly become one of the must-do places in town. The concierge at our hotel chatted with us as we waited to check in. “What do you plan to visit?” he asked. The Family reeled off the three obvious anwers, “The Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, the Wagah border post.” “Don’t forget the Partition Museum,” the Sikh concierge suggested. Perhaps his family is one of the many in which the grandparents still tell you that Amritsar is one half of the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar, their axis precisely bisected by Wagah.

We asked Anil to drop us a few hundred meters from the Museum and walked the short distance, past a statue of Ranjit Singh, through the ceremonial archway of the Town Hall, and into the forecourt. No mistakes. Signs told us that we were at the right place. There were no queues at the ticket counter, but there were many people inside. We found that those who choose to come here spend a long time on the exhibits, lingering, reading, listening to audio clips, watching oral history on video. It is put together with great thought and definitely worth a visit if you want to put the Golden Temple, Wagah, Jallianwala Bagh, and the wonderful food of Amritsar in its historical context.

A section of the exhibits deals with the musical tradition of Gurudwaras, and the role that muslim musicians, rubabis, played since the time of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s rubabi. This tradition has withered: atrophied in Pakistan as Sikhs were persecuted by the state, and in India from the migration of musicians to Pakistan. The syncretic nature of early Sikhism meant that there was a whole stream of what we now call Sufi music which became accultured to Sikhism. There were record albums on display, some of the music available on audio. I examined them; perhaps one can find more of the music on YouTube or personal collections.

Pigeons perched on an unnamed warrior’s upheld sword outside the Museum. When the Aga Khan met the Viceroy, Lord Minto, in 1906 and pleaded with him, successfully, for a separate political future for muslims in the country, he released a demon. Netflix has a short documentary on Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize winning expatriate Pakistani. The persecution of his sect, the Ahmadiyas, deemed heretics in his country, forms a recurrent theme in the documentary. As I watched it I realized again that a country based on religion quickly embraces the most dogmatic forms, purging repeatedly those people who do not conform exactly to the central dogma. Ironically, the Aga Khanis are also persecuted in Pakistan today. I’m more simpatico with the lawyer, Ambdekar, whose statue stands in the circle outside the musuem, because he was one of those who argued for a universal and common electorate in the Constituent Assembly after Independence.

The shape of Amritsar

We spent a lot of time walking around the old walled town of Amritsar. That brought us again and again to a part of the city called Hall Bazaar. This has a strangely uniform architectural style, which does not harmonize with the rest of the old town. Eventually it struck me that this look was the result of an act of the British Parliament passed in 1909 called the Indian Councils Act (aka the Minto-Morley Act). This was a response to the resolution of the Indian National Congress in 1906 calling for Swaraj, an India governed by Indians.

In retrospect the Act is exactly the kind of facade that dictatorial governments across the world now use as a democratic window dressing. The Act created seven regional governments (the Legislative Councils of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, the United Provinces, Punjab, Burma, and Assam) and a Central Legislative Council. Two thirds of the membership were either ex-officio (read British) or nominated by the Viceroy’s government. The rest were elected by a complex and indirect process designed to prevent coalitions of different interest groups.

Separate electorates were set up for different communities: muslims, trading communities, landlords, Chambers of Commerce, and universities. Each electorate voted indirectly for seats allocated to it. Each body elected an electoral college which would then elect members to the council. Even so the council’s decisions could be over-ruled by the Viceroy and his government. The separation of electorates remained through all the successive “reforms” made by the British Parliament. In fact the reform of 1919 carried the process of division further by creating a separate Sikh electorate.

This complete division of politics on communal lines strengthened political parties divided along communal lines, and prevented the normal political manoeuvres which eventually produce compromise. Four decades on this led to the partition of India. The subsequent riots led, among many other things, to the complete destruction of Hall Bazaar, and its wholesale reconstruction after the Independence. The constitution of free India created an unified electorate in which every adult over the age of 18 is allowed to vote. Just as the uniformity of the appearance of Hall Bazaar is a response to a fractured past, the universal suffrage guaranteed by the constitution is a response to the fracture abetted by a colonial empire.

How the Wagah border crossing came to be

Watching the ceremony of beating the retreat at the Wagah border, I wondered how Cyril Radcliffe had decided on the precise point at which the Grand Trunk Road should be divided into an Indian part and a Pakistani. No pithier account of the arbitrariness of the Partition, the drawing of the Radcliffe Line, can be found than the verse written by W. B. Yeats. But the story of its translation on the ground is worth a volume.

A chapter in this voluminous book must be devoted to (then) Brigadier Mohinder Singh Chopra. Posted to keep peace on the border, he signaled to his old comrade in the British Indian Army, Nazir Ahmad, now his counterpart in the opposing force, to a negotiation on the exact position of the border on the Grand Trunk Road. I found a more detailed account here, and a mention of date of the setting up of this check post (October 11, 1947), now the Wagah border post, in a tweet by the Border Security Force.

Moments, Monday

Tucked into an album that my mother filled with my photos over years, I found an envelope. It contained a few photos. One was of her from a time just before I was born. I have to guess, but she looks younger than I remember her, and I can recall the brown and beige checked woolen coat, with a deep green silk lining. How you find a thing is as important as what you find. “… that particular [medieval] manuscript has five copies, and one is in the Rampur library, two copies are in the British library, and two copies are in the Berlin library. The scholars get grants and go to Rampur and London and Berlin, read these manuscripts and they write the book. What I mean by post-colonised is that the condition of postcoloniality is in the dispersal of this manuscript. When we visit these archives, we cannot write that out of the story” explains the historian Manan Asif Ahmed in a recent interview. Our telling of the past is mediated by all the things that happened since then.

An album starts with a cover. As a child I’d admired the matte gleam of the silver ash pattern of this cover as it stood in a little shelf built in below the bedside table next to my mother’s bed. Now it is a battered looking thing, which will be trash in thirty years. The album preserves an ancient technology, black and white photographs. In high school I learnt to make a small dark room and develop and print my own photos. The technique remained useful even when I was in college, exposing and developing X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals in a lab, learning the techniques that had been used nearly thirty years before to unravel the structure of DNA. As I developed those X-ray plates, the first charge coupled devices had been built. CCD cameras were soon to become common on space probes. The photo album had outlived its time, and I was still preparing to start my life.

“Societies, not states, are the social atoms with which students of history have to deal,” this sentence from Toynbee’s first volume of A Study of History could apply to my family. In this album I find people whose history transcends that of my young country. My grandmother was born in what today is Odisha, in a house a few doors down from where Subhash Chandra Bose lived as a child. Her elder brother kept up the correspondence with his childhood friend until the war. As a child I listened to her stories of her brother trying to hide the letters, and their father discovering the cache and burning it. The British Intelligence of the day was raiding houses of Bose’s known friends, and would have considered those letters evidence of treasonous terrorism. How times change! My grandfather lived through a momentous time. As an employee of the colonial Indian government, he had a choice of citizenship. He brought his family to India, leaving his land and ancestral home in what is today Bangladesh. My grandmother’s brother in law was in Rangoon as the Japanese invaded. He walked to India through the forests of erstwhile Burma and Nagaland. I couldn’t believe that an old man dozing in an armchair had had such adventures. This old man told me of his meetings with Justice Radhagobinda Pal, who, through the Tokyo Trials after the war played a role in shaping modern international law.

I played cricket, dreamed of being a Gary Sobers, learnt to bicycle, went to school. This photo of me (center) and my cousins probably comes from a time between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. I became a long haired teenager, wearing bell bottoms, watching Amitabh Bachchan become a bigger star through movie after movie. I listened to The Beatles, King Crimson, Dire Straits, and (of course) Kishore Kumar. I left home. There are no photos in the album of the times that I remember. After we were married, my mother showed this album to The Family. She found that the photos were beginning to fall out. The old black photo corners were coming unstuck. In the 90s black corners were no longer available, people had moved to albums with plastic pockets to hold prints. The gold corners were all she could get to help my mother repair the damage. The daughter of the young girl in the photo who can’t quite stay away from her mother became a one girl fan club for The Family at the same age.

One of the few photos from my angsty teenage years is this one of me with my brother. I looked at it after a long time, and realized that his eyes have been passed on to my niece. The same quizzical look! “When a word is properly defined it loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a banner or as a hostile slogan; it becomes simply a sign, helping us to grasp some concrete reality,” wrote Simone Weil. Sibling is such a word; it takes a lifetime to move beyond expectations to a place where we can create our own definition of the word. Then there are the fictions inside all our photos, of which the biggest is that a photo is a slice of life. The photographer is always unseen, but always present through his or her arrangement and framing of the subject. I cannot remember who took any of these photos, why we were asked to stand or sit in a particular way, and why we agreed. My mother created another fiction by choosing and preserving some moments, not others. History is just such a record of the past. So much is lost, the documents that we have were written by people with agendas. That immense hole which has to be mended and reconstructed is where contexts and interpretations slip in.