India-Pakistan partition remains a political chasm


Before they granted In­dia its in­de­pen­dence in 1947, Brit­ish lead­ers di­vided the coun­try into ma­jor­ity Hindu In­dia and pre­dom­i­nantly Muslim Paki­stan. The par­ti­tion of In­dia was one of the ma­jor geo­po­lit­i­cal cat­a­clysms in his­tory.

In its im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple were killed. An es­ti­mated 8 mil­lion — no one knows the ex­act num­ber — were forced to flee their cen­tu­ries-old an­ces­tral homes to the safety of newly drawn bor­ders.

Although most In­di­ans and Paki­stanis are too young to have ex­pe­ri­enced those fate­ful events, the nar­ra­tive of the par­ti­tion still res­o­nates with peo­ple in both coun­tries. Po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious lead­ers as­sign blame for the car­nage to the other side.

In that hy­per-charged, par­a­noid cli­mate, writ­ers on both sides of the di­vide have looked at suf­fer­ing through the prism of hu­man­ity. To­day, a large body of par­ti­tion lit­er­a­ture in English, Urdu, and Hindi helps us see events be­yond clichés, la­bels, and par­ti­san self-righ­teous­ness.

One such writer was the late Saa­dat Has­san Manto. His short sto­ries, writ­ten in Urdu, pro­vide a hu­man face to im­per­sonal statis­tics of the par­ti­tion. He brought them to life in vivid and com­pel­ling prose.

Aye­sha Jalal, an ex­pert on the par­ti­tion, di­rects the Center for South Asian and In­dian Ocean Studies at Tufts Univer­sity in Boston. She has pub­lished a num­ber of schol­arly books on the par­ti­tion.

In a re­cent pub­lic lec­ture at the Univer­sity of Toledo, Ms. Jalal ex­plored the par­ti­tion through Mr. Manto’s short sto­ries. She used the im­ag­ery cre­ated by Mr. Manto to un­der­score the enor­mous hu­man trag­edy that the par­ti­tion brought in its wake.

In a story ti­tled Khol Do (“Open Up”), a gang-rape vic­tim, miss­ing for days, is dis­cov­ered by her father in a hos­pi­tal. The girl is in a daze and barely breath­ing.

To get more air in the room, the doc­tor points to the win­dow and says: “Open up.” The girl stirs, reaches for the draw­string of her pa­jama bot­toms, and pulls them down. Thou­sands of sim­i­lar other sto­ries were scat­tered in the de­bris of the up­heaval.

In­dia and Paki­stan have fought three wars sin­ce1947. Rela­tions be­tween the two coun­tries have had their ups and downs.

Yet there has not been a uni­fied ef­fort by both coun­tries to con­front the demons of the par­ti­tion and come to terms with each other’s ex­is­tence. Sur­pris­ingly, there still is a ground­swell of good­will be­tween peo­ple on both sides.

There is talk of more trade, re­laxed visa pol­i­cies, and ex­change vis­its. But noth­ing much comes out of it.

The peo­ple of In­dia and Paki­stan have much more that unites them than that di­vides them. In ad­di­tion to a mil­len­nium-old his­tory, they share mu­sic, arts, food, and cul­tural tra­di­tions.

Per­haps they should con­sider some­thing in the spirit of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion of South Africa. In­dia and Paki­stan could ask each other for for­give­ness.

One of Mr. Manto’s short sto­ries re­volves around a man in a men­tal asy­lum who is sent to In­dia be­cause he is a Sikh. The man does not com­pre­hend the sea change around him. He dies sprawl­ing across the no-man’s-land at the cross­ing be­tween In­dia and Paki­stan.

On a sab­bati­cal in Am­rit­sar, In­dia, some years ago, I was in­vited to speak to the Rotary Club. I spoke about par­ti­tion. I sug­gested we should erect a mon­u­ment where Toba Tek Singh, the char­ac­ter in Mr. Manto’s story, died.

It should show a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh stand­ing with their heads bowed in shame. The in­scrip­tion would read: We are ashamed of what we did to each other at the time of the par­ti­tion. An art­ist friend of mine later pro­vided an il­lus­tra­tion.

Despite a friendly au­di­ence, my sug­ges­tion was re­ceived in to­tal si­lence. We have a lot more work to do.

Dr. S. Am­jad Hus­sain is a re­tired Toledo sur­geon whose col­umn ap­pears ev­ery other week in The Blade.

Con­tact him at: aghaji@bex.net

This illustration of a suggested monument has, from left, a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim with an inscription: ‘We are ashamed of what we did to each other at the time of the Partition.'
This illustration of a suggested monument has, from left, a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim with an inscription: ‘We are ashamed of what we did to each other at the time of the Partition.'