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Bracing for closure

on November 10 | in Political Economy | by | with No Comments

Much has been written about the partition of India and the trauma of violence and displacement resulting from it. The worst affected region of British India in terms of human casualties was the Punjab. Not only was Punjab partitioned, it also suffered from mass exodus of Muslims from East Punjab and that of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab. This suddenly ruptured the link of the people with a thousand year shared history and composite culture.

Despite such catastrophic developments, the Punjabis from both sides of the border do not seem to come forward and confront the violence episodic change which took place in 1947. There have now been numerous accounts of partition stories. These are individual accounts and reminiscences of the days gone by, nostalgic recounting of life in pre-partition Punjab and the violence which changed these individual and family lives.

What I propose in this article is the idea of setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Punjab. This idea is not a novel one — especially in the South Asian context. It has been proposed by proponents of peace between India and Pakistan. It has been suggested that both the countries should admit of their failures and atrocities of the past and work towards a lasting peace which can be beneficial for the entire region. My focus is a narrower one. I only propose such a commission for the Punjab.

This particular commission should be an informal one and serve as a reconciliatory forum for the Punjabis of India and Pakistan. It should provide a platform where Punjabis must confess to atrocities committed in 1947. There will be those who actually committed those atrocities and those who may not have had any direct role in those crimes but feel a moral obligation to atone for the sins and wrongs of the past. The governments would have nothing to do with it. In fact the modalities of such a commission can be worked out later by those who are better qualified to talk about such issues and arranging of platforms which focus on people to people contact.

It is, however, more important to justify the necessity of such a commission.

Is the memory of partition and its violence still relevant?

Many people believe that the ‘refugee experience’ has now become irrelevant.  The Punjabis affected by the partition have moved on. They have been absorbed within their host societies. They are no longer referred to as muhajir and sharnarthi. In the case of Punjab, the ‘absorption’ was easier because theirs was an internal migration from one part of Punjab to another. More importantly, it is believed that the bloodshed of partition and the trauma it caused does not reflect in the bitterness in interactions – limited as they may be – between Indian and Pakistani Punjabis. I would take a different position on this.

The Punjabis from the refugee families continue to be haunted by the memory of partition. I was once told by Dr Tahir Kamran – a noted historian – that on a visit to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to submit visa application, he came across an old man who was pleading to the visa officials to grant him visa for Indian Punjab. He, instead, had been given a visa to visit Delhi and Agra. The old man lambasted that he did not have any desire to see Taj Mahal; he only wanted to visit his ancestral village one last time before his death. I am sure that there are thousands of such individuals living in India as well who have to suffer in a similar fashion because of the trust deficit between the two governments.

I am also one such ‘victim’. My family – both from my father and mother’s side – migrated from Amritsar. My father and mother were born in Amritsar and were infants at the time of partition and their migration from Amritsar to different parts of Western Punjab before settling down in Lahore. I was born and raised in Lahore. But being an Amritsari is still a very strong aspect of my family’s collective identity and memory.

I have grown up listening to my elders (includes my parents and my maternal and paternal aunts) talk about Amritsar. I have been told by my father that my grandmother (she died years before I was born) used to miss “the way it rained in Amritsar as it does not rain the same way here”. My maternal aunt told me about the marriage of my maternal grandparents which took place in Amritsar. At the time they were forced to leave, my maternal grandparents glanced one last time at the showcase with all the crockery and dinner set which had come as part of the dowry. Someone from the family suggested that this should be smashed into pieces so that the ‘Hindu and Sikh plunderers’ cannot use it. But my grandparents could not just do this!

Again, there must be plenty of even more heartrending stories from the other side of Punjab as well where Hindu and Sikh families would have passed on stories about how the fear of ‘Muslim plunderers’ deprived them of their cherished possessions and, may be, poignant memories associated with those possessions.

Apart from its relevance in individual lives, the experience of migration continues to be relevant in the political arena as well. Dr Elisabetta Iob’s doctoral dissertation on the rehabilitation of refugees looks at the continuity of partition experiences at different microcosmic social and political levels. The ‘refugee’ as a category ceased to exist in census figures from 1960 onwards. It was thought that General Azam Khan’s efforts at rehabilitating the refugees have been successful and that the ‘refugee problem’ has been solved.

While it is true that members of the erstwhile refugees no longer recognise or identify themselves as refugees anymore (or at least in the same way as it has become a loaded political term in the urban politics of Sindh), it does not mean that this term with its long history has slipped away completely. Part of Dr Iob’s work charts the relevance of ‘refugee identity’ in the contemporary politics of Punjab. It might come as a surprise for many that that the PML faction led by Nawaz Sharif – especially in central Punjab – largely comprises of leaders whose background is that of a refugee family. In this sense, he does not only represent and safeguard the interests of a Kashmiri Amritisari migrant community (in addition to trading interests) but migrants from East Punjab in general.

The emotional scars of the partition have not healed either. It can be argued that it is not just violence which begets violence but also the memory of violence. This  needs to be modified by using Elisabetta Iob’s words that it is not the memory of violence which generates violence; it is the practice of international relations at grassroots level which does that. So, for example, it is no coincidence that some of the most militant organisations in India and Pakistan are led by members of refugee families. Arundhati Roy once gave the example of A. K. Advani and Hafiz Asad Saeed — the former from Karachi and later from Simla. Similarly, leading members of Sipah Sahaba — such as Azam Tariq and Zia-ur-Rehman Faruqi — were from migrant families. It can — at least partially — be attributed to their upbringing in families which had experienced violence during the partition and had passed on these experiences and memories to their later generations.


But then, on the other hand, leading proponents of peace are from migrant families as well. The major breakthrough in India Pakistan relations was achieved when Nawaz Sharif and Indar Kumar Gujral were prime ministers. Again, in this case too it can be argued that the impulse for peace is partially derived from the experience of partition and the suffering it caused. I am sure the Sharifs have grown up listening to stories about their ancestral village of Jati Umrah and the deep longing their father must have had to visit it and, hence, realised the need for taking people out of such misery and facilitating their visits.

Whether it is in its manifestation in the form of militancy or drive for peace, the experience of partition has not wholly become irrelevant.

I am not trying to argue for a generally applicable theory. There are a host of factors which have shaped the emergence of different kinds of violence in South Asia and it will be naïve to singularly point out one particular aspect. But at the same time it will be equally naïve to suppose that the ‘refugee problem’ has ceased to exist. The ‘refugee problem’ was caused by many factors and it was reflected (and continues to be reflected) in many different ways.

Without any doubt the whole experience of witnessing mass murder – especially those of loved ones – abduction of women, loot and plunder of properties and forced evacuation under fearful circumstances left the most painful scars on the minds of successive generations. But there was, I believe, a deeper sense of disappointment and disillusionment as well. The Punjabis shared the same land and neighbourhood for many centuries; they shared the same cultural habitat and spoke the same language; they even celebrated the same religio-cultural festivals. And yet this was not enough to ensure a peaceful, harmonious co-existence or to allow for transfer of population to take place without such massive human suffering.

In oral narratives so assiduously collected by Ishtiaq Ahmed in ‘Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed’, one can clearly see the deep emotional link which the victims still feel with their erstwhile neighbours and friends. They have such strong bonds with them that despite all that has happened, they do not want to recognise or blame these old friends as the ones responsible for violence. In most of these accounts, the victims have reported that the killers or looters came from the outside and that the immediate neighbours were not involved in such acts.

I wonder if this is some way for the victims to cope with the barbarous acts of those who shared their language, culture and customs.

These lingering memories of violence, bloodshed, trauma and disappointment have been responsible for manipulation by rival states to use it for furthering enmity between the people. In order to take this away from them, there needs to be a closure. The truth and reconciliation commission will provide such a closure.

How would the commission work?

I want the Punjabis living on both sides (leave the governments aside) to form a commission and set it as a platform where people confess to their violent and shameful acts at the time of partition and apologise for it. The number of people who witnessed partition may not be numerous. Even lesser would be the number of people who actually committed such acts and are willing to come forward and confess. Part of the job will be to convince those involved that what they did could not be justified under the garb of retaliation or revenge killings.

Thanks to Ilyas Chattha’s excellent work, it has been possible to identify locations where most violent killings took place in Western Punjab. Chattha uncovered First Investigation Reports (FIRs) from different police stations in Lahore and Gujranwala. Chattha has particularly focused on the Lohar community of Gujranwala.

He, in fact, interviewed dozens of offenders a couple of years back and recorded their accounts. They admitted to various acts of loot and plunder. But interestingly no one confessed to any crime relating to rape or abduction of women. As pointed out by Andrew Whitehead in a recent lecture, one finds people admitting even to mass murder but not to sexual crimes for some reason. This evidence can be collected from the Indian Punjab as well.

There cannot be any sanction of international law for such a commission to be setup. The idea is not to penalise anyone. Only the literati tried to atone for these sins by penning short stories and poetry about this human catastrophe. But the common folk who suffered and who also carried out such brutal acts have kept quiet. It is time to rectify this. This initiative has to come from the people.

Without this healing process, I do not think there can be any enduring peace between India and Pakistan.

The Author teaches at LUMS and tweets @AU_Qasmi

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