THE DEATH OF AN EMPIRE
[Published in Sarai Reader, no. 2 (2002), pp. 14-21.]
For a commentary, see Vinay Lal, “Partitioned
Selves, Partitioned Pasts”, on this website.
Independence did not come to South Asia as a single, identifiable event
in 1947, though that is way most South Asians like to remember it. The
slow, painful process of dismantling British India began with the great
Calcutta riots and ended with the genocide in Punjab.
I was nine in 1946 and relatively new to Calcutta. Even at that age I
could sense that the people around me had had enough of ‘shock’
and trauma. First, there had been the fear of Japanese bombing in the
last days of the war, which had taken my mother, my younger brother and
myself to a quieter city in the nearby state of Bihar, while my father
had stayed back to work at Calcutta. The bombing was nothing to write
home about, but it created tremendous panic all around and there was an
exodus from Calcutta. Now we were back at the city, the war was over,
and freedom was round the corner. But for a small outbreak of plague in
1946, Calcutta was limping back to normal.
Then there was the famine of 1942, precipitated by British war-time policies.
Its memory was still fresh and Calcutta wore the scars of it. People no
longer died of hunger in public view, but begging and fighting for food
with street dogs near garbage bins was not uncommon. The memory of thousands
of people slowly dying of hunger, without any resist¬ance or violence,
often in front of shops full of edibles, was still fresh in the minds
of the Calcuttans. Most victims were peasants, many of them Muslims. They
died without ransack¬ing a single grocery, restaurant or sweetmeat
shop. Whoever thought they would fight like tigers when it came to religious
nationalism? A religious massacre was the last thing we were prepared
My father was a secretary of Calcutta YMCA and we stayed in a YMCA campus
that had enormous lawns. Right in front of the building was a slum of
poor non-Bengali Muslims from UP and Bihar, part of the large immigrant
work force that kept the Bengali city alive. Everyone used to call them
upcountry Muslims then. We could look into the households in the slum
from our third floor apartment windows and see housewives cooking their
meals and children playing. Beyond the slum were a couple of lower-middle
and middle-middle class Bengali Hindu localities and, beyond them, another
large slum of upcountry Muslims, Raja Bazaar. But unlike the next-door
slum—modest, nameless—that slum was notorious as a den of
criminals. In our slum, we used to know many of the residents by face.
Some of the welfare work of the YMCA were meant for them and that also
made them obsequious and friendly.
As the tough negotiations for transfer of power began to heat up and
communalise the political atmosphere, in front of our eyes the slum dwellers
turned into active supporters of the Muslim League. They began to fly
the green flag of the party and, some¬times, take out small processions
accompanied by much frenzied drum beating . Many of the enthusiasts were
middle aged and looked very poor and inno¬cuous in their tattered
clothes, even while shouting aggressive, martial slogans. Their new-found
politics did not change our distant but friendly social equation with
them. We, the child¬ren, were not afraid of them, and when we teased
them, they smiled. They would passionately shout their slogans and we
the kids would reply in our tinny voices: Kanme bidi, muhme pan, Ladke
lenge Pakistan. In any case, their fierce slogans seemed totally incongruous
with their betel-nut chewing, easy style.
On August 16, our domestic help told my mother that while walking to our
place through the slum, she had seen some of the residents assembling
and sharpen¬ing knives and sticks. As this was not as uncommon sight
during Mohurram, she felt they were preparing for some religious procession.
She did not even know that the Muslim League had declared a Direct Action
Day in support of its demand for Pakistan. No one took the declaration
seriously till, suddenly in late morning, before our unbelieving eyes,
Calcutta exploded. Mobs that had collected in front of the slum began
to beat up Hindus; in the distance we could see houses being set on fire
and looted. That was my first exposure to the politics of slums in South
Asia and rioting as a crucial component of that politics.
The YMCA building had a high wall separating it from the middle-class
Hindu localities to its right. The workers at the YMCA—gardeners,
guards, cooks, both Hindus and Muslims--quickly put up ladders there and
brought in the frightened resi¬dents. In no time, there were about
200 families on the lawns. The main door of the building was closed. That
effective¬ly contained violence in the immediate neigh¬bour¬hood.
But the streets belonged to the mobs. I could see in the mobs familiar
faces, now trying to look very heroic. But they also seemed to have found
a chance to give petty greed a new ideological packaging and a new, a
more ambitious range. They would beat up the Hindu passers-by, depriving
them of their money and watches and, in one or two cases, even knifing
The radio worsened things. Being govern¬ment-controlled, it gave censored
news. Though even that was fearsome, few believed what they heard. They
relied on even more fear¬some rumours, specially since, in other respects,
the information given over the radio did not fit what they themselves
were seeing. These rumours further intimidated the residents of mixed
localities, and minorities began to move out of them, ghettoising the
city even more. We also found the police openly partisan.
Within two or three days the Hindus had organised themselves and begun
to counter-attack. Earlier they were a majority but only theoretically.
Thanks to the riots, they began to see themselves as part of a larger
formation and, for the first time, we were treated to the spectacle of
a Hindu nation emerging in Calcutta. The lower caste musclemen and the
criminal elements, apart from castes with low-status vocations such as
butchers, blacksmiths and fishermen, and even up-country Hindus, Sikhs
and Nepali Gurkhas, previously consider¬ed social out¬casts or
outsiders, became the heroic protect¬ors of middle-class, seden¬tary,
upper-caste Bengali Hindus. What the Hindu national¬ists could not
do over the previous one hun¬dred years, the Direct Action Day had
done. Many years later, when I read that inter¬national wars created
nations, it did not sound a cliché. I knew exactly what it meant.
There was a neighbourhood football club, Badurbagan Sporting Club, which
occasion¬al¬ly used to visit the YMCA to play friendly matches
with us. Usually it was football, but sometimes cricket and basketball,
too. They always were a much better team and defeated us virtually every
time, except in basketball. We had a natural advantage in basketball,
because they did not play it much. But they were also an exceedingly friendly
lot and we used to love their company. The members were mostly in their
teens and they all belong¬ed to the Hindu neighbourhood diagonally
opposite our home and sandwiched between two non-Bengali-speaking Muslim
communities. The riots turned the club into a new kind of formation. They
became the protectors of their community and some of them openly and proudly
turned into killers. The community, too, began to look at them as self-sacrificing
Such new heroes mushroomed all over Calcutta, The reprisals they visited
on the Muslims was savage. We saw an old Muslim driving a horse-drawn
carriage being literally stoned to death. It was a devas¬tating experience.
Even when such gory events did not take place, we were not allowed to
forget the riots. I remember that for days an old woman sat every day
for hours on the footpath in front of our home and cried for her son who
had died in the violence. The YMCA building now had to house, on another
floor, a huge number of Muslim families. Strangely, there was no hostility
between the communities within the building, among either the riot victims
or those serving them.
My father, showed remarkable courage all through those days. A couple
of times he even faced was threatened with death. Twice, he was shot at,
once when he had aggres¬sive¬ly asked the police to be firmer
with the rioters. Indian police had not yet been toughened up by their
en¬coun¬ters with militants of all hues and could still be relied
upon to miss.
The family, however, was traumatised. The bloodshed and the cruelty affected
everyone, but above all my father and younger brother Manish. They did
not eat for days and were visibly depressed. My mother proved sturdier.
She cried a lot but also kept life going. On the other hand, when my father
fell seriously ill after a few weeks, the doctors diagnosed the illness
as induced by that depression.
Ours was not the only family so affected. We were Christians and could
perhaps, to that extent, take a slightly more distant, non-partisan, moral
position. But our names did not give any clue to our faith and my parents
used to be very nervous when we brothers walked to our school just round
the corner. Later on, when I heard accounts of the riots from my friends,
they sounded roughly similar. Only most of them sounded terribly partisan.
They claimed on behalf of their newly-defined community, simultaneously
and incongruously, that they were the worst victims as well as the clear
victors in the battle of faiths.
The riots would not have stopped easily in Calcutta but for Mohandas
Karam¬chand Gandhi. He undertook a fast unto death in one of the worse-affected
localities of the city. No one thought the fast would work. Some of our
elders in school were openly sarcastic. But it did work. In fact, it electrified
the city. The detractors, of course, conti¬nued to say that had he
not fasted, the Muslims would have been taught a tougher lesson. But even
they were silenced by the turn of events.
One person who moved closer to Gandhi at the time was H. S. Suhrawardy,
leader of the Muslim League and Chief Minister of Bengal. In many ways,
he had precipitated the riots, not perhaps because he want¬ed a blood
bath, but because his consti¬tuency was mainly immigrant non-Bengali
labourers, the lower-middle classes, and the lumpen proletariat. This
support-base was a potent political force but always volatile and uncontrol¬lable,
always waiting to be hijacked for violent causes. Suhrawardy had to depend
on them and on his populist and dema¬gogic skills because he was an
aristo¬cratic, Urdu-speaking Bengali leader coming from an illustrious,
cultivated family that had no knowledge of the predomi¬nant¬ly
peasant community of Bengali Muslims. His credentials for being a leader
of Bengali Muslims were never foolproof. Bengalis may not like this, but
he had picked up some of his mobili¬sa¬tional strategies from
the mili¬tant nationalist leader and Bengal’s mythic hero, Subhash
Chandra Bose. My suspicion is that he wanted a controlled mayhem, to show
his political power to the British authorities, the Indian National Congress,
and the Muslim League leadership. It turned out to be a full-scale massacre.
Suhrawardy, however, was a man of courage. Journalist Nikhil Chakravarty
once told me how, once he joined Gandhi's peace effort, Suhrawardy confronted
rioting mobs unarmed and single-handed in his distinctive patriarchal
style. I remem¬ber him visiting our place once or twice to meet my
father who also was a part of the peace effort.
Just when the riots began to subside, came in reports of communal violence
from East Bengal. Once again, rumours and hear-says made matters worse.
Whatever sem¬blance of sanity had survived the Calcutta massacre,
disappeared after the stories of Noakhali and Sylhet reached other parts
of eastern India. Calcutta was too tired to react, but parts of Bihar
Looking back, Calcutta riots reconfirmed that while the poor as a class
may not be prone to bigotry, urban slums are often the first to embrace
compensatory or defensive ideas of a generic community offered by fanatics
and demagogues. The slums are the natural bastions of people with broken
community ties and nostalgic memories about faith grounded in such ties.
When they develop new loyalties in the cities, there is touch desperation
in these loyalties and a different kind of ardour associated with them.
These new loyalties are, then, systematically endorsed by fearful, prosperous
members of the same community, themselves unwilling to risk their lives,
but willing to fight for their faith to the last slum dweller.
The great Calcutta riots, everything said, could not match the communal
carnage in Punjab. The eastern Indians were not martial enough to push
things to their logical conclusion. After the first few frenzied days,
the battle of faiths in Calcutta took the shape of communal riots one
sees in South Asia nowadays. It became a dirty war of attrition in which
the slums and the criminal gangs began to play an increas¬ingly larger
role. Stabbing an unaware member of the other community became the preferred
mode of warfare. I still remember the widowed mother of two teenaged school
children who were Calcutta being an impersonal, diverse city, there was
lesser scope there for neighbours turning against neighbours as happened
in Punjab. (Though even in Punjab, we are now finding out in the course
of a study, the breakdown of neighbourhoods and communities was not complete
as many previously suspected.)
In Punjab, communal violence reached the interstices of the villages society,
some¬thing that had happened in Bengal only in pockets, in places
like Noakhali. There is now enough evi¬dence to show that while the
frame¬work of violence in both Bengal and in Punjab was supplied by
religious nationalism, it allowed enough play for various forms of anomic
and psychopathic behaviour. In many instances, old foes settled scores
and greedy relatives exploited their own families.
Once the Punjab violence begun, all other instances of violence paled
into insignificance. The violence in Bengal and Bihar were brutal, but
it had taken place partly outside span of vision of the media and middle-class
consciousness. The up¬heaval in Punjab—with its forty-mile long
caravans, thousands of abducted women, spectacular self-destructiveness,
and large-scale ethnic cleansing—was something for the whole world
to see. Urvashi Butalia, a feminist publisher who herself belongs to an
affected family, has recently described, in painful detail, instances
of self-destruction that would have done credit to hardened Samurais.
Gandhi’s India had dominated the news channels for more than two
decades during India’s struggle for freedom. Now, that freedom was
being born in a blood bath that retro¬spectively justified the imperial
theory of the likes of Winston Churchill who believed that India, left
to itself, will dissolve in anarchy and violence.
On a conservative estimate, half a million died in Punjab, another half
a million in Bengal; ten million were uprooted. But the victims did not
find a voice in even some of the most sensitive writers of their community.
In Bengal, one of the two main kill¬ing fields, there is only a defensive,
nostalgic return to the idea of less violent, ecumenical East Bengal.
Except in a couple of films of Ritwik Ghatak--where the tragedy is recog¬nised
but fitted in a rather pathetic, pre-war version of Marxism--there has
been no effort to confront the depth of the tragedy. In Pakistan, the
parti¬tion is offi¬cial¬ly seen as a victory and the uprooted
as mohajirs, those who have left their home¬land for the sake of their
faith. But even there few have actually talked of the sacrifice; it is
seen as a ‘natural’ by-product of the division of spoils after
the demise of British India.
The only person to break through the massive wall of silence and capture
something of the culture of violence, particularly the element of necrophilia
that had crept into it, was Saadat Hassan Manto, a writer who had been
for years a script writer for popular, commercial cinema at Bombay. In
his bitter, self-mocking short stories one senses the true dynamics of
the tragedy—the near-complete breakdown of communi¬ties and
neighbourliness, the psychopathic and sadomasochistic components in the
violence, and costs of violence paid not only by the victims but also
by the perpetra¬tors.
In the aftermath of the carnage, the millions of ordinary people caught
in the hinges of history and pushed into new and, in many ways, strange
countries, acquired a new identity. The 1940s introduced into the South
Asian public life a new actor, the refugee—the uprooted, partly
deracinated, embittered victim who knew suffering and had seen the transience
of social ties, betrayal of friends, and the worst of human depravity,
his own and that of others. Politics in South Asia was never to be the
The South Asian refugee, like refugees everywhere, retained and trans¬mitted
to the next generation something of the personality and style of the exile.
That personali¬ty and style has allowed forms of creativity of which
only the psychologically homeless are capable. But they have also brought
into the region’s public life the shrewd, ruthless entrepreneurship
of robber barons and the politics of anomie.
There is almost no systematic psychological study of survival and homelessness
produced by the partition in South Asia. One of the very few available
is a modest Ph. D. disserta¬tion turned into a book, Uprooting and
Social Change, by an American socio¬logist, Stephen Keller. It suggests
that those uprooted by the partition riots are not only more aggressive
in their professional and public life, but also within their fami¬lies.
They are more distrustful of others and, having a greater sense of invul¬nera¬bility,
more willing to operate at the margin of law.
Perhaps here lies a clue to the apparent success with which the Punjabi
refugees, as com¬pared to their Bengali and Bihari counterparts, have
picked up and re-arranged the fragments of their splintered lives, in
India as well as Pakistan. They seem to fulfil all the psychological preconditions
of the entrepre¬neurial person, as psycho¬logists like David C.
McClelland used to define the personality type in the 1960s. The Bengalis
in most cases had not seen the worst; for most of them, Noakhali was hearsay.
The ex¬change of population in eastern India was a slow bleeding wound;
it was not a one-time ethnic cleansing which affected each and every family.
Half of the pre-Partition Hindu popula¬tion still remains in Bangla¬desh
and in West Bengal the Muslim popula¬tion is now higher than what
it was in pre-Partition days. On the other hand, the propor¬tion of
Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan’s Punjab and of Muslims in Indian Punjab
is nearly zero today.
South Asia has many things to celebrate fifty-five years after its de-colonisation.
Strangely enough, one of them is the reasonable amity in which religious
communities have lived in the region. Pakistan cannot take much credit
for that, for after 1947, there is virtually no minority left in that
country. But Bangladesh and India, despite all ups and downs, have not
done too badly, despite the record of the partition riots. In India, where
more data are available, this is easier to demon¬strate. The total
number of persons killed in the country since independence is less than
one-seventh of those killed in car accidents and one-twentieth of those
killed urban crime in the United States during the period, a country which
has one-third the population of India. Five months after the sensational
destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, by a party claiming to speak¬
on behalf of all Hindus, the party responsible for the destruction lost
eight out of the nine State assembly seats in the district in which the
mosque was located. All the consti¬tuencies had a majority of Hindu
voters. A recent all-India survey shows that a majori¬ty of Hindus
opposed that vandalism.
But South Asia still seems unprepared to face the genocide that accompanied
the birth of Independent states in the region. And these memories, disowned
and carefully banished, regularly return to haunt the political culture
of the South Asian societies. The past can be historicised and, thus,
anaesthetised. But that is no guaran¬tee that it will not return,
like Sigmund Freud’s unconscious, unless the new genera¬tions
of South Asians are willing to painfully work through it. Partition violence
cannot read only as a record of what some people did to others, for it
is the repressed record of what the South Asians did to themselves. The
region will have to learn to give that violence priority over even the
moment of freedom, for only by ‘working through’ the memories
of that violence can it acquire the right to celebrate its de-colonisation.
See also on MANAS:
Nandy, Colloquially: excerpts from “The Defiance of Defiance
and Liberation for the Victims of History: Ashis Nandy in Conversation
with Vinay Lal”, in Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple
Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy, ed. Vinay Lal (Delhi:
Ashis Nandy: An Intellectual Profile
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