More than six decades later, the debates around partition of India show dichotomy: while some prefer to delve deep into the culpability factor for the violence, others choose to rather neutrally research the trauma factor that resulted from it. While a book on partition and a recent column by a historian put India’s architect Jawaharlal Nehru in spotlight for extreme myopia and culpability, a 2010 novel and a recent Hindi movie go on to explore the terrible cost of partition.

“Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries — slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity.”

These words of Saadat Hasan Manto, the legendary short story writer who arguably depicted the horrors of partition of India most comprehensively, probably capture the essence of the tragedy that followed the much awaited independence of India, and also Pakistan, from Britain.

One of the massive human tragedies of the past century, the event of partition continues to invite debate to date in the subcontinent and even elsewhere, particularly among the historians, sociologists and psychologists. Was the horror and nasty bloodletting inevitable? If it was not, then who precisely was responsible for the tragedy? These questions have been variously debated even though no infallible conclusion can be reached as such.

As the newly independent states of India and Pakistan pursued their own, albeit diverse, fates after partition, most of the physical wounds of the cataclysmic violence gradually subsided even though a recovery to pre-partition status was an impossibility. This, however, was not the case with the mental trauma forced upon millions of people: those who had not participated in the violence had witnessed it and at the end, there was no answer to the question as to how the people in the subcontinent could live in peace, as evidenced by the lingering tension between the two states that flares frequently often.

Who was the culprit?

One line of argument about culpability for partition of India goes like this: the British as the colonial power had so finely sown the seeds of internecine conflict in the subcontinent in their attempt to strengthen their hold of the territories that some kind of mass confrontation between the religious communities was inevitable; that it came in the form of partition-related violence was only a manifestation of an inevitable development.

While this argument does have merit and partially explains the state of perpetual tension between religious communities in colonized India, it would be well off the mark to conclude that the violence of that scale was inevitable and that it was impossible to avoid it. Also, this argument injudiciously absolves the then leaders of India, to-be-born Pakistan and the then government of Britain of any responsibility towards avoiding the violence.

For decades after partition, as India under Jawaharlal Nehru fared comparatively better than Pakistan, it was implicitly believed in India that the partition was the result of the intransigence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (ML) who were ready to go to any length to realize their dreams, rather vested interests, of a separate Muslim state. By implication, the historic culpability for inciting one of the gravest human tragedies in recent human history thus fell more or less squarely on Jinnah and ML. Leaders of new India, particularly Nehru himself, were thus depicted as having been rather unsuccessful at preventing the bloodletting nevertheless not directly responsible for the same.

Many scholars and historians, however, have had objections to the narrative from the very beginning. Moreover, the issue of culpability, negligence and myopia of the then leadership of India came further into scrutiny after some recent outspoken critiques of Nehru and his brand of politics in India before, through and after partition. In ‘Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence’ the Indian politician-turned-biographer Jashwant Singh has chronicled how Jinnah was relentlessly pushed to the position by Nehru-led Congress from where it was impossible to demand anything but independent Muslim state.

In a recent column, historian Zareer Masani has come up with an all out criticism of Nehru, the then British Viceroy for India Mountbatten and the then PM of Britain Attlee for colluding in a terribly myopic arrangement whereby partition was hastily ‘forced’ into India. While the imaginary scenario of avoiding partition sketched by Masani in the article could be debated for merits, he has substance on arguing that any provisional arrangement for the time being, akin to an unhappy marriage, would have been far better than the hastily executed plan to sever the territory at the terrible price.

This reference to two statements of Nehru in the article speak a lot about why exactly Nehru cannot be absolved of the responsibility for being instrumental to a situation which led to bloodletting:

As for Nehru, he first crowed about the mangled Muslim state that emerged from the cutting up of Punjab and Ben­gal, saying, “The truncated Pakistan that remains will hardly be a gift worth having.” But a year later, he said, “Per­haps we acted wrongly…. The conseque­nces of that partition have been so ter­rible that one is inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable…. Ultimately, I have no doubt that India and Pakistan will come close toge­ther…some kind of federal link…. There is no other way to peace. The alte­rnative is…war.” Even as he spoke, the two new states were already at war over Kashmir.

Implications for today’s politics

 Today, the contentious border between the two countries, particularly in the Kashmir region, acts as the festering sore in the development of any kind of intimate and durable relationship between India and Pakistan. Having fought three major wars and reaching the brink of nearly as many more, India and Pakistan live in a state of perpetual tension. Beside the economic cost of stationing troops in extremely inhospitable mountainous region, this state of perpetual animosity has its own socio-political and cultural ramifications.

So, how does the perception of one another matter in today’s Indo-Pak relationship and how is it affected by the historical narrative of the partition?

As such, the furor created in India by publication of the book on Jinnah by Jashwant Singh in 2009 shows the dynamics with which the leading political powers in today’s India view the partition and Pakistan. While the ruling Indian National Congress had all the reasons to be dismayed at the debunking of many myths about Nehru, the towering figure who prevailed even over Gandhi to dictate the course taken by the Congress then; the opposition BJP had to penalize Singh with prompt expulsion from the party for entirely different reasons: he had dared explore the birth of Pakistan as something not entirely a result of ‘evil’ design of non-Hindus.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the rivalry with India has been shaping much of the national discourse. During the cold war, the two countries were members of the opposing poles and three full-fledged wars within three decades of independence did a lot to develop mutual suspicion and hatred. While Pakistan today faces a far more acute problem of insurgency born on religious extremism, spats with India draw a more passionate attention of people and many analysts have been pointing of late that the recent border tensions between the two countries may be the result of the Pakistan army’s attempt to foil the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempts at reconciling with India.

Artistic and literary portrayal of partition

In this backdrop, some literary and art works related to partition deserve special mention. In his 2010 novel ‘The story of my assassins’, the veteran Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal vividly narrates the tale of butchery during partition with help of a character.

In the recent Hindi movie ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’ directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the trauma of partition is depicted poignantly with help of a narrative based on the real life of a Sikh child who somehow ends up in India after losing most of his family in the violence and then proceeds to become a celebrated athlete.

More than the primary events of partition itself, this movie explores the secondary and tertiary manifestations of those events, say for example, the sexual exploitation of the displaced girls and women by the people from the same community and the toll taken by those events in the psychology of young people.

This is where the writings of Saadat Hassan Manto related to partition deserve special mention: exploring the extent of mental and social trauma suffered by the people. In a particularly poignant short story titled ‘Khol Do’ or ‘Open it’, a Muslim father who has reached Pakistan grieves for his daughter who gets lost in the mayhem in India. After the acute bout of violence is over and displaced people start settling in their new refuge, a search for their missing relatives goes on. This father also seeks help of a band of young ‘volunteers’ who promise him to get back his daughter if she is alive. During a rigorous search, they spot the girl based on the details of her facial features provided by the father and take her along. They, however, fail to deliver her to the father for many days and keep the bereaved father waiting.

Finally one day, the father spots an apparently dead body of a young girl in a hospital ward and falls into a spell of inconsolable cry after finding out that the body was his daughter’s. Meanwhile the doctor enters the room and shouts ‘Khol Do’ asking to open the window for light so that he can examine. The body of the girl then shows movement and she proceeds to lower her under-waist clothing with her hands.

This moment when an unconscious girl goes on to obey the orders of her supposed rapist, without resistance and even probably failing to think anything about it, probably represents the essence of the trauma of partition related violence and the methods with which people coped with the barbarity.

To conclude:

While any rational debate today on culpability of a leader or a party for the violence depends on threads from history, a much more robust research of the consequences of the partition can be done on platforms that are far less controversial. Manto’s fictional accounts, for example, tell a harrowing tale of human insanity that prevails at such moments of turmoil. Both the Indian Muslim boy trying to cross border in Tejpal’s novel and the Pakistani Sikh boy crossing border to India in the Mehra’s movie provide a spectacle of the man-made tragedy from a rather neutral position and give a rare insight into the vulnerability of human minds to criminal instincts.

Even though the damage done by the partition-related violence cannot be undone, the lessons learned could potentially help us better understand the DNA of the communal hatred and violence that erupts every now and then in the subcontinent. In theory, we may well move forward using that insight to lessen the intensity of such eruptions if not to entirely prevent them.