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Tales in search of listeners

Memoryscape in post-Partition Punjab

Ajay Bhardwaj (ajayunmukt@gmail.com) is a Delhi-based filmmaker whose documentaries include Kitte Mil Ve Mahi and Rabba Hun Kee Kariye.

This essay concerns two tales, narrated by two different people -- one a Sikh and the other a Muslim -- about the perpetrators of genocidal violence in east Punjab in 1947.

This essay concerns two tales, narrated by two different people -- one a Sikh and the other a Muslim -- about the perpetrators of genocidal violence in east Punjab in 1947.

The first telling dates to January 2003, when I was returning to Delhi from three hectic days at the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad where my documentary Ek Minute Ka Maun was screened. It was on that journey on an overcrowded train that I met Sidhu, a burly middle-aged Sardarji with a weather-beaten face, who ran Sidhu Refrigeration and was an expert at setting up entire air conditioning plants by himself. The train lurched forward, gently nudging us closer, the distance further bridged by our common mother tongue of Punjabi.

In the way strangers open up to each other, he rambled on about a lifetime spent in Hyderabad. It was inevitable that the conversation of two Punjabis would turn inwards to confront the ghosts of India’s Partition in 1947. Sidhu remorsefully told me about how his paternal uncle had killed Muslim children, holding them aloft on his spear.

“My father broke off all ties with him,” said Sidhu. After a long pause he continued his story. “My uncle was punished severely for his acts. None of his children survived. Born with some disability or the other each died within a few hours of birth.”

Echoes of Sidhu’s story surfaced almost a year later when I was shooting Kitte Mil Ve Mahi, a documentary bringing to light the deep bonding between Dalits and Sufism in Punjab. Roaming the villages of southern Punjab for local histories, I met Hanif Mohammad, who had a similar Partition story revolving around a mazaar near the village entrance.

Hanif Mohammad had retired as peon from a local high school. He was a tall frail man of around 60, with an unlined face, a flowing grey beard and a white skull cap. I realized with a shock that in my 40 years, this was the first time I had seen a Punjabi Mussalman. The story of the shrine turned into the story of Hanif Mohammad; Hanif’s story turned into the story of Partition, intertwined with the fate of Punjabi Muslims of East Punjab. Recounted without bitterness, it was a seamless blend of multiple tales, which began in 1947 when Hanif was five years old. Hanif wound up his narrative recounting that the local villagers who tried to desecrate the Pir’s grave in 1947 lost their mental balance and died of madness. It was an echo of Sidhu’s story.

These two tales, as different as they were, both invoked a folk morality. The perpetrators paid for their crimes in their own lifetimes; people were witness to this justice. These stories seemed familiar to me, because lodged in my memory was a narrative I had overheard in my childhood from a villager during a visit to our village Akal Garh in Punjab.

During Partition when Muslims in our village were shifting to a neighbouring Muslim majority village of Halwara to escape murderous mobs they often entrusted their valuables to their Hindu-Sikh friends who handed them back once they reached the camps. But one group of Rajput Muslims had their trust betrayed by a neighbouring family. They left for Pakistan empty-handed.

But the family which had cheated the Rajput Muslims, suffered badly for this misdeed. All four brothers in the family died young, in painful circumstances; their children grew up in penury. Villagers pitied the family but said with remorse that it was payback for the manner in which the family had cheated the Rajput Muslims.

Folk notions of justice?

In the 10 years that I traversed the countryside of Ludhiana, Patiala, Mansa, Bathinda, Sangrur districts, among others, in Punjab for my documentaries, I often encountered people, mostly the Partition generation, discussing the fate of those who perpetrated genocidal killings in 1947. Even after 60 years, they remembered the incidents vividly as if they had happened only yesterday. They warmly recalled the names of their Muslim neighbours, their classmates, childhood friends, the good times spent together. Then they recalled, with great pain and sorrow, how the neighbours had to leave, or were killed shamelessly.

Without waiting for a question, they spontaneously concluded their conversations by describing how the perpetrators, who were from their own community, had to pay for their misdeeds of 1947 in their own lifetimes. They never fail to describe the miserable ways their lives ended. Not once did I hear someone blame destiny for the plight of Muslims in East Punjab. Nor have I come across an incident where people eulogised the killers of Muslims or respected them for what they did, or termed the killings acts of valour.

These informal tales, almost like folklore, are strewn across the memoryscape of Punjab's countryside. These narratives of the people from rural East Punjab have become an inseparable part of the Partition narrative.

In the village, everyone knows everyone. People live together for generations. There is nothing they can keep hidden from each other. That is why who did what in 1947 is public knowledge.

The Partition generation especially, is the custodian of this memory, but this generation is fast fading away. It constitutes the vital link in the chain of Partition memories. Their judgment on the genocide of 1947 is extremely crucial for both history and society, one we can ignore only at our peril. It is a powerful testimony against all attempts to divide and kill people on the basis of perceived differences. This testimony becomes all the more important because in South Asian countries, precious little has been done to memorialise the one million innocent children, women and men who perished in the genocide of 1947.

The Partition narration till now has largely been cast in a mould where refugee Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, all fell prey to the brutalities and killings on the “other” side. However, this raises a question -- if everyone was a victim, then who were the perpetrators? Both nation states, India and Pakistan, like to believe in a myth of denial: people don’t want to talk about the killings that their own communities carried out.

This myth has suited the nationalist discourse of nation states formed on both sides of the divide. The perpetrator was always the other -- the other community, and by implication, the other nation: Muslims and Pakistan for Hindus/Sikhs in India, and Hindus/Sikhs and India for Muslims in Pakistan. As a result, the churning of hatred has been on auto-mode for 60 years.

That is as far as the public/political face of Partition goes. Behind it lie long suppressed experiential realities of those who were witness to the genocidal violence that the perpetrators from their own community carried out. And by expressing guilt and remorse , they are cleansing their souls. That perhaps is the only way communities can heal themselves of such traumatic pasts: ask for forgiveness as well as expect to be forgiven.

While dealing with the issue of Partition violence, perhaps it would be pertinent to remember that India and Pakistan did not experience anything akin to the Nuremberg trials, or the memorialisation of those who fell prey to genocide in post-Holocaust Germany.

Unlike post Holocaust Germany, in India, Partition genocide was never memorialized: no art-works were created in public spaces to remember it; no museums were built to ensure that we did not conveniently forget it. Therefore, people were never educated, cajoled, motivated and prepared in an organised manner and on a societal level to admit to, or to come face to face with, the killings committed by them or their own community in 1947.

Germany had its student movement of 1960s when children confronted their parents across the dining table about their role in the killing/disappearance of the Jews in the Third Reich. South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation Commission which brought people together, both as victims as well as perpetrators. In India, we have never had anything remotely similar to this experience as a society. On the contrary, we preferred to shut out the whole episode of violence with a wall of silence.

Devoid of all these societal experiences, vast sections of people still rejected the violence committed by their own communities during 1947. They did not forget their own acts of violence; neither did they condone or disown them. Instead, they admitted to their acts, repented, felt remorse and guilt. This they expressed in a language that is distinctly their own, in their unique tradition/cultural specific ways -- a language often ignored by the portals of academia. Yet this seems the most powerful organic response of Punjabi people against the genocide of 1947as also the silence of the state. 

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