India PM Modi's move to remember Partition trauma stirs old wounds

The choice of Aug 14, Pakistan's Independence Day, as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day has already proved controversial. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - A balm aimed at healing Partition's trauma has managed to also gnaw on festering wounds around the cataclysmic event in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement that Aug 14, the eve of India's Independence Day, be henceforth commemorated as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day (PHRD) has drawn praise but also criticism.

"Partition's pains can never be forgotten. Millions of our sisters and brothers were displaced and many lost their lives due to mindless hate and violence," Mr Modi tweeted on Saturday (Aug 14) to declare that day as PHRD "in memory of the struggles and sacrifices of our people".

British-ruled India was bifurcated into two independent nation states in 1947: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The former, however, rejected this two-nation theory and became a secular state.

The decision to cleave erstwhile India sparked one of the greatest migrations in history, with the displacement of 10 million to 20 million people. This was accompanied by savage violence, including massacres, arson and rape, on both sides of the border. Estimates of the number of those killed range from 500,000 to as many as two million.

"May the #PartitionHorrorsRemembranceDay keep reminding us of the need to remove the poison of social divisions, disharmony and further strengthen the spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment," PM Modi added.

While the decision to accord a separate day to remember Partition has been widely welcomed, even those who have done so have laid emphasis on the need to be careful about how this is done to ensure old wounds are not reopened.

The choice of Aug 14, Pakistan's Independence Day, as PHRD has already proved controversial, dashing any hopes that a decision to memorialise Partition could spur reconciliation between the two South Asian rivals.

Mr Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, the spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said marking Aug 14 as PHRD was an attempt to "one-sidedly invoke the tragic events and mass migration" of Partition.

An ongoing online petition by Ms Saaz Aggarwal, an Indian biographer and oral historian who has worked on Partition, says to name Pakistan's Independence Day as PHRD is "to deeply dishonour every Indian of Undivided India who suffered the catastrophic trauma of Partition".

Her petition seeks to revoke the designation of Aug 14 as PHRD. "Doing so is to retain Independence Day as a pristinely joyous event," she told The Straits Times, suggesting that any formal remembrance of Partition should ideally happen on the same day as India's independence.

"People who celebrate independence should know it was on the same day that people who fought for independence also lost their home. Why can't we just acknowledge that?"

Her petition seeks to honour those who underwent the shock of displacement and loss as well as the memories of those who suffered but have since died without "reliving the horrors".

The choice of the word "horror" - an intrinsic part of Partition experience - has been questioned because it obscures other aspects of the period, such as hope - when members of one faith risked their lives to save those from another faith - as well as sacrifice and resilience displayed by displaced communities who successfully rebuilt their lives from scratch.

"Horror makes the whole thing so unidimensional," added Ms Aggarwal, a descendant of a family that came to India from Pakistan during the Partition. "It's too provocative. It's trying to upset you. It's trying to make you indignant. It's trying to make you hate somebody."

Well-known Hindi writer Krishna Sobti had once said that Partition was difficult to forget but dangerous to remember, which underlines how blame and responsibility for what happened during Partition lies with all parties. People from both communities - Hindus and Muslims - on both sides of the border committed atrocities and also suffered.

Instead of PHRD, which risks prioritising victimhood, some have suggested nomenclatures such as National or South Asian Reconciliation Day as a better approach to bring about closure.

Indian's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announced that Aug 14, the eve of India's Independence Day, be henceforth commemorated as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. PHOTO: AFP

Dr Rituparna Roy, a Partition scholar, told ST the discourse around the event has to now move beyond an "exclusive focus on rupture" and highlight other narratives. She is the managing trustee of the Kolkata Partition Museum Trust, which is setting up a museum that seeks to further this goal.

"While it is pledged to memorialise the specificity of Bengal's Partition experience, its aftermath and afterlives, in the most comprehensive manner, it is equally committed to emphasise cultural continuities between West Bengal and Bangladesh - our common living heritage, that is - in terms of food, fabric, language, literature and the performance arts," she said.

Dr Roy suggested Aug 17, the day the Radcliffe Line was officially announced and published, is better suited as a separate day of remembrance for Partition. The Radcliffe Line formed the border between India and Pakistan in 1947.

"And 'commemoration' is the more appropriate word to use for that remembrance - instead of 'horror' - because when you commemorate, you 'honour' a memory," she added. "Successive Indian governments have failed to 'honour' the memory of Partition. Otherwise, its 'horror' - communal violence - would not have been endlessly repeated in every decade."

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