Partition, 1947: My most brutal tryst with history

Many people ask me why my eyes well up with tears when someone talks about India’s partition with Pakistan in 1947. They don’t well up in the spirit of nationalism. I cry because 15th August 1947 is the day my grandparents, with millions of other refugees, moved to India from East Pakistan. With the declaration of Independence, in a flash, their land was divided; one land became the land of the Hindus, the other became a refuge of the Muslims. They spoke the same language but were divided on the lines of religion. It is estimated that nearly 2 million people were killed in the ensuing partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

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We tend to take history very lightly and never realise how ever-lasting an impact it can have, on our lives. My grandparents grew up in present-day Bangladesh, spending the majority of their youth in an era where there was no distinction between a Hindu and a Muslim. Partition changed that. All of sudden, that Jafar or Sayeed or Mohammad was your enemy, not your friend. It’s funny how drawing an invisible line can divide people so much.

My grandparents each faced different scenarios during partition. My maternal grandparents moved with their family to Calcutta, without facing much bloodshed or violence, but heard many stories during their stay in refugee camps in Tollygunge. They met India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who promised them a better future post-Partition, but being the youth of the 1940’s, all they got was a brutal displacement from their home; a forced uprooting from their own country, that suddenly came to be called East Pakistan. They picked up the ruins of their lives and started life from the beginning, from stark poverty, with unemployment and homelessness staring them in the eye. Being accepted as Indians was the first big task for them, which it shouldn’t have been.

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My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, saw bloodshed. My grandmother was a zamindar’s daughter, and zamindars were known to be wealthy and oppressive back in the day. So, it was no surprise that the first thing that happened after partition was the burning down of their house. Peasants drove them out of their home, ran after them with knives, almost killed them. Violence shouldn’t be meted out to anyone, rich or poor, for it leaves a lifetime of scars, that never, ever heal. My grandfather, on the other hand, was lucky. He was in Calcutta at the time of partition and was just heading back home, when he saw people heading to the border with knives, shouting Hindustan zindabad. He went back to Calcutta and never looked back, ever again.

Violence was there on both sides of the border in 1947. Hindus killed Muslims, Muslims killed Hindus. My maternal grandmother once narrated an incident of a Hindu girl in her locality who was kidnapped by her Muslim acquaintances during partition. She was raped and put on a charpai (bed) outside their home, naked, and was raped by every man coming into the house, whenever he wanted.

Many women disappeared during the partition, were raped, maimed or killed. Those of my grandparents’ Hindu friends, who decided to stay on in East Pakistan after partition, faced an even greater amount of violence during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. It seems like violence refused to leave their generation.

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I feel saddened that the 1947 partition of Bengal finds little mention in our school books here in India, as compared to the 1905 Bengal partition, which we all know about, as it gives us an opportunity to diss Lord Curzon, a rather temperamental and racist British Governor-General. Unfortunately, even in popular discourse and in history courses in college, the 1947 partition of West Bengal is given lesser importance as compared to the partition on the Punjab border.

Narratives on partition need to be told, for they show the extent of brutality humans can reach in the name of war, and its discussion might motivate many of us to not repeat the same in the future. Bengal went through two partitions – 1947 and 1971, and both need to be documented to give voices to those people who faced grave injustice.

When I was a kid, I heard a distinctive term in West Bengal for people like me – Bangal. People who migrated to India from East Pakistan. In passing jokes, I was referred to as a ‘non-resident Bangladeshi’ by some people. I was even asked by many if I truly ‘felt’ Indian and felt any attachment towards my grandparents home in present day Bangladesh. It’s absurd that I can be expected to feel attachment for a place that may very well be submerged now.

In the present day, I have even been asked whether my grandparents ‘migrated’ during the Bangladesh Liberation war, even though I have told these very people that my father was born in the 60’s in India. Somehow, there still seems to be a doubt and disbelief in some people till date as to whether those who came to India as refugees do harbour a sense of nationality. As if living across the border all of a sudden demoted us from Indians to refugees, who were given asylum in India. The truth is, we do feel ‘Indian’, because we know at what cost we got it, as compared to other people.

Yes, I did feel that pang of pain when my maternal grandfather talked to me about his home in East Pakistan, about how beautiful it was, and how he flew kites there with his friends. I did get that feeling of despair when my paternal grandfather talked about his friend in Bangladesh and lamented not being able to meet him before he passed away.

My dad once narrated a story to me about his grandmother, well into her 40’s during the partition, who recollected so much violence on a daily basis that she used to wash her clothes even if the shadow of a Muslim fell on them.

I don’t hate Muslims. But I hate that period of history that divided us to the extent that we killed our own friends. I hate that independence that wrought so much conflict onto my family. I hate having paid the price for it, and for still paying the price for it, through the weird fear that arises in me whenever someone mentions Pakistan or Bangladesh.

No, Independence didn’t come easily to my family and millions of others. We paid a price for it. Many in the mainland of India don’t understand that, and it’s saddening that our discourse of history fails to address the unheard voices of 2 million people killed and displaced in this brutal event.

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As a child, whenever I asked questions about partition, my grandparents never answered. I only got access to any information in their mental archive when they spoke about the event themselves. Recollecting the good memories, they never let the bad ones overpower them. Sometimes, I felt very sad that they couldn’t go back to their hometown. Now, I am even more saddened by the fact that they died with their last wish unfulfilled – to re-live their childhood in their homeland once again. I always dreamt about growing up and taking my grandparents to Bangladesh, seeing those streets they grew up in, those stores where they got their food, that beautiful sight of the river Brahmaputra that they grew up being mesmerised with.

It could never happen.

There was an ad brought out by Google around three years back. About two grandchildren in India and Pakistan who got visas for their grandfathers to unite the two friends many years after partition. The ad may have touched many, but it failed, like so many other discourses, to address the violence both grandfathers must have faced while crossing the border.

If you ever meet any senior citizen from Bengal or Punjab, remember one thing – we Indians owe our Independence to their sacrifice, for what they gave up for their country. Till date, many of them and their children are asked if they feel ‘Indian’ enough. Acceptance into their own country, earlier just another state; but after 1947, a whole new country altogether, was an injustice inflicted on them. We should never forget the service they did for our country and always remember the sacrifice of those who died on both sides of the border.

Debates on genocide in India surround those events that took place in the 21st century. It is time we accept the price paid by so many people for our freedom today, so that every child, like me, knows the brutal tryst with history we all had. The Partition Museum project in Amritsar is one step in that direction, but it still needs to incorporate the voice of the Bengali people.

This article isn’t meant to be a treatise. And I know my experience in a household that faced partition is different from most people. But I also know that I grew up in a country for which my grandparents paid a price. And I can never forget that. And I am no lesser an Indian just because my grandparents were refugees. Because without their displacement, India wouldn’t have existed. The creation of India demanded their sacrifice, a price they shouldn’t be paying for, even today, by being asked for their loyalties towards the country.

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One comment

  1. aspiringauthor8411 · January 4

    I agree with you that the events of the 1947 Partition need to be discussed more and brought into light. Somehow it seems that Northwest India has been more open about the topic than Bengal. I find it peculiar that people ask you if you feel Indian considering that East Bengal was very much a part of British India, and considering that your family never lived through the formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. I myself am a child of parents who both hail from ‘zamindar’ families in former East Bengal. My father was born there in the late thirties and my mother was born in Calcutta in the early forties. Both families however left their homes to come to Calcutta and they still talk about the little childhood memories they have of the place.

    Like

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