Partition: What does the prime minister want us to remember?

What is the purpose of remembrance? Revenge? Remorse? Restitution? Reconciliation? Rekindling the dying embers of mindless hate? Reapportioning blame? Remembering? Or, reminding oneself, “never again”? Before asking our prime minister to explain what he wants to be remembered, let me, as a displaced Midnight’s Child, briefly recount what I recall as a six-year-old at partition.

My father was in Lahore where he had sought refuge and a career 20 years earlier, in 1927, from anti-Brahminism in his home province. Do I recall the glistening blade of the dagger aimed at him as dawn broke on August 17, 1947, or the kindness of the Muslim grocer, who held the knife without plunging it in, after keeping my father well-supplied over the previous awful week? And, what am I to do with the image that haunts me—of my father watching from his brother’s Panchkuian Road flat in New Delhi a Muslim boy begging and pleading, “I will say Ram, I will say Krishna, but please do not kill me”, followed by the mob brutally slitting the throat of this innocent thirteen-year-old, as if he were an Eid ka bakra?

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Or, do I recall the fury of a jatha of Sikhs banging at our door in Simla demanding to know where the Muslims were hiding? Or, the bravery and compassion of my mother, all alone in the house with four little children, telling the jatha that the Muslim family had “gone to Pakistan” when, in fact, they were cowering behind locked doors on the ground floor?

The consequences of the dreadful partition massacres—the hunting down of innocents, the displacement of millions, the rape and rapine, the looting and land-grabbing—are still with us. We see it in the thrashing of a bangle-seller in Indore who sported a Hindu name while holding a Muslim name on his Aadhaar card. We also see it in the nearby ‘Bombay Bazaar’ where a Muslim mob thrashed a Hindu because he had married a Muslim girl. We see it also in the brutal misuse of blasphemy laws against religious minorities in our “distant neighbour”. We see it, above all in the hostility and mistrust fostered at inter-governmental levels to keep the neighbours distanced.

Should I use Modi’s Remembrance Day to go back to the Pakistani-origin historian, Ishtiaq Ahmed, who has meticulously documented every atrocity perpetrated by the Muslim majority on the Hindu/Sikh minorities in west Punjab, or the Government of Pakistan report on the atrocities perpetrated by the Hindu/Sikh majority on the Muslim minority in east Punjab? Or, should I take recourse to literature and read the Muslim author, Saadat Hasan Manto, or Khushwant Singh, the Sikh writer of Train to Pakistan, or Bapsi Sidhwa, the Parsi author of The Ice-Candy Man?

Or, does Modi desire us to remember only the Mahatma’s padayatra in Noakhali to stop the madness afflicting the Muslim community, or also his visiting Bihar immediately thereafter to stop the madness afflicting the Hindu community? Does he want us to recall the Mahatma ordering the restoration to Muslims of mosques in Delhi taken over by Hindu refugees from Pakistan? Or of Modi’s bete noire, Jawaharlal Nehru, plunging into Hindu crowds to stop them from assaulting Muslims? In short, Modiji, should I be selective in remembering Partition—or comprehensive?

Or, would the Prime Minister also like to declare February 27 to March 3 as Remembrance Week for the 2002 pogrom that took, in vengeance, the lives of at least one thousand blameless Muslims, including Muslim women who had their unborn children gouged out from their wombs?

Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.