The Problems of Victimhood

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Somewhere near the town of Renala Khurd in Pakistan is a patch of land (a morabba to be exact) that once belonged to my family. In lieu of this land, through a series of land transfers, complicated but no more complicated than the history of the division of the subcontinent, my family now owns land, far less than a morabba but land nonetheless, on the outskirts of Amritsar. More or less 64 years ago to the day, a series of such transactions and the forced movement of millions of people, created the two countries of India and Pakistan.

My father, barely ten years old, was then staying in our native village of Sathiala, not far from the banks of the Beas and a short distance from the main railway line from Jalandhar to Lahore. Sathiala, like most of the villages in that area, was dominated by the Sikhs who owned much of the land. The Muslims were mostly from the artisan castes, dependant on the Sikh landlords. As the date set for Partition, August 15, 1947, approached, a large number of Sikhs from these villages began gathering together night after night to organize `tiks’ (attacks) on the Muslim processions headed to Pakistan. They would come together in large numbers, some carrying firearms, other armed with spears and daggers, often led by the local police inspector. Every night they would head out on their journey of murder and pillage, every morning they would divide the spoils.

Each day, my father and his elder brother, just out of school, would carry food for the Sikh and Hindu families travelling by train who had made it safely through similar massacres on the other side of the border. When the violence was but beginning, they made an attempt to offer some food to the Muslims in the trains headed in the other direction, no less famished, no less thirsty. Only the intercession of some men from their village saved them from the swords of their fellow Sikhs now drawn against them.

Such incidents ensured that it was only a rare few who stood up against the violence. A family living just a few houses in the village away came to the rescue of a few Muslims left alive after an attack on their procession. It was late at night and they brought them back to their home. They fed them and led them up to the roof to sleep where they would be safe. When the rescued Muslims awoke early in the morning they could still hear the sounds of violence, and see the fires burning in the neighboring villages. Afraid to step down from their relative safety, they urinated and defecated on the roof. The hosts took this as a provocation, these men, they believed, had deliberately exposed themselves to the women of the household. In their anger they marched the same men they had rescued the previous night to the edge of the village, where they beheaded them.

From my father I learnt the somewhat obvious but neglected fact that the events of Partition did not bear out an easy or convenient retelling. It was as much the story of those who carried out the violence as it was the story of victims, and even these categories were not so clearly demarcated. In most accounts of Partition there is a continued attempt to create a palatable version from the facts, to portray violence as an aberration, the people responsible for the violence an exception. Much of the literature of Partition that exists today has focused on migrants into India, easy as it has been for academics to interview men and women who have settled in places in cities such as Delhi. The stories they relate, true as they are, only offer a partial picture, but this picture is what has come to dominate the popular image of what transpired during Partition. The victims have individual faces, the violence belongs to the mob.

Entire ideologies of hatred have been built around such assumptions of innocence. Perhaps, it is difficult to directly connect ways of remembering with actual events but it is still interesting to look at India’s right wing opposition, the Bharatiya Janta Party or the BJP, which has made a kind of radical Hinduism its main plank. A number of senior leaders in the BJP come from communities that migrated during Partition. The senior most leader of the party L.K. Advani is a Sindhi, leaders of opposition in the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj are Punjabis as is the case with Arun Shourie, a leading right wing ideologue.

In a larger sense, the manner in which the subcontinent recalls the history of violence between Hindus and Muslims, of which the story of Partition is only one part, seems to follow much the same pattern. I personally believe that it is no coincidence that Gujarat is the state which has the worst record of Hindu and Muslim coexistence in recent times. In the pantheon of popular history, figures such as Shivaji, a Maratha ruler, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs, and Rana Pratap, a Rajput ruler, are seen as symbols of defiance to Mughal rule. Not a single Gujarati appears on this list, the history of Gujarat in popular memory is the history of victimhood and is taught as such to Gujaratis.

As an aside, it seems to me that some of the problems of Pakistan with regards to India are born of a similar if inverted view of popular history. I have no awareness of Partition narratives from Pakistan or if any attempt has been made to compile them. The truth of my supposition in a wider sense can only be validated or denied by Pakistani readers of this column but I can only recount a personal anecdote. While at graduate school in the US, I landed up at the university squash courts without a booking and ended up playing a student from Pakistan. After I defeated him over five tough sets his curiosity over my origins left me baffled. I did not understand where his questions were leading till he asked me whether I was a Sikh. When I said yes, he visibly relaxed and said, “That is why.’’ He could not possibly believe that a Hindu could defeat him. This belief in the enfeebled Hindu, I believe has contributed as much to adventures such as the border war in Kargil, as any real strategic thinking or lack thereof.

As far as Partition goes, and the need for more nuance in how it is remembered or studied, the fact remains that in less than decade almost all who carry a direct memory of Partition will no longer be alive. Some years ago I travelled through a block of Punjab villages settled by Sikhs from the villages around Lahore. This was not the journey of individual migrants from one town to another but of entire and intact village communities from one place to another. These villagers even today are still called Lahoriyas but there are very few left alive who can recall the journey across the border and the early years of settling the land. Again I know of no attempt to document their story. In my own case I put off noting down much that my father had recounted, with his death earlier this year some of it is now lost forever. Something similar I fear is transpiring each day in the villages of Punjab on either side of the border.