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85 1 RememberingPartition At the famed midnight hour of 15 August 1947, Indians marked the end of two centuries of subjugation and humiliation at British hands. Expressions of joy tinged with anger and bitterness at the partition of the subcontinent periodically exploded in visceral rage against members of other religious communities. In Punjab at large, and Amritsar in particular, former slaves celebrated freedom by burning down the homes of their neighbors. Before anyone knew whether Amritsar would be included in India or in Pakistan, half the city had been gutted. Outside the Lawyers’ Colony was a mountain of rubble, including bricks and mortar from Saadat Hasan Manto ’s destroyed ancestral home. Casting a nostalgic look at his hometown in October 1951, Manto started “A Story of 1919” wondering what the events of 1947 had done to Amritsar—­ the center of the anticolonial struggle where British machine gunners had ruthlessly mowed down hundreds of freedom lovers. He wanted to remember those glory days. “Forget about recent events,” he wrote; “their memory lies heavy on my heart.” Some people blamed the British for the carnage at 86 II Memories the time of partition, but Manto could not “help seeing the blood on our own hands.”1 Recollection and forgetting are so intrinsic to the art of historical narration that disentangling the two can be a delicate 11 Uprooted people—­a Sikh family migrating to Indian Punjab, by Margaret Bourke-­White. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images 87 Remembering Partition and exacting exercise. There has been a near obsession with memory studies among recent scholars of traumatic events in modern history. Memory as a means of historical retrieval has its limitations. Apart from the problems inherent in selective remembering, there is memory’s intrinsic and complex relationship with the knotty issue of responsibility. The issue is knottier in the case of partition violence than in that of the Holocaust. In the latter, a totalitarian state orchestrated a genocidal campaign against a community for racial and supremacist reasons. By contrast, there were perpetrators and victims of a murderous orgy in 1947 among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in the midst of the abdication of all sense of responsibility by managers of a departing colonial state. A recent tendency to romanticize memory and nostalgia in antihistorical representations of the past has obscured the ways in which the manipulation of memories of trauma both reinforces and advances nationalist narratives of the postcolonial state. Even when the fracturing of national imaginaries allows memories to escape the statist imprint, personal and collective memories are rarely if ever immune from the persistence of the present in selective remembrances of the past. Memories of partition were ritually invoked by both participants and observers describing the brutal killings of Sikhs in New Delhi in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The same memory bank was drawn upon by those attempting to come to terms with the extensive violence that swept across the subcontinent after the destruction of the Babri mosque, in December 1992, by organized gangs of volunteers affiliated with right-­ wing Hindu parties and their equally rabid counterparts in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Urvashi Butalia admits that her study of women’s experiences during partition was 88 II Memories motivated by “an increasingly communal presence” in India after the razing of the mosque. She commented that “descriptions of practically all communal strife” in India “hark back to it (‘it was like Partition again’).”2 Attributed to religious communalism, an overarching category that obfuscates more than it reveals, these tragic incidents have been naturalized in narratives of social conflict in subcontinental conditions as periodic occurrences whose only certainty lies in their recurrence . This raises a necessary and profoundly historical question about memory that is often glossed over: have different moments of remembrance produced contrasting memories about social relations between religious communities? Pursuing this question may disturb the certitude conceded to anguished memories and spell out the extent to which partition, as an event, is “inexplicable,” as is sometimes claimed, in terms of the dominant historical modes of reasoning. Scholars of South Asia have been exposing the tendentious and limited nature of statist narratives. In recent years the personal side of the partition tragedy has become an especially popular genre of writing. While invoking the spirit of humanism , these works often end up reaffirming the equation of religious differences with conflict by ascribing the pain and suffering to an amorphous and ill-­defined notion of “communal” violence. Without in any way minimizing the trauma of...


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