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People, Partition and the Pain
By Rina Mukherji



Dr Jayanti Basu's book analyzes the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to migrate from East Bengal post partition.


1946 riots in Calcutta (courtesy: Wikipedia)

It is more than six decades since India became independent of colonial rule. The occasion also saw one of the biggest forced migrations in human history that left more than 3.5 million people dead. Communal riots left 18 million people uprooted while another 30,000 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women were abducted from their families by marauders. The raped and dishonoured, on a rough estimate, numbered 1,00,000. When the governments of India and Pakistan tried to rescue and rehabilitate these women, many had been married and had children, resulting in a tragedy twice over.

A hastily-drawn Radcliffe Line saw a single nation bifurcated, and later trifurcated into three different entities. It left millions confused about their identity as they were compelled to set up home in another part of the subcontinent, rootless and penniless, and struck numb by the loss of near and dear ones to cruel marauders who were themselves victims to religious brainwashing and propaganda. The land that had been home to generations became foreign land. It was beyond belief that fencing and borders would prevent them ever going back to where they had belonged.

Everything familiar was snatched off cruelly overnight; leaving confusion and the loss of identity in its wake.

Many Hindus had left their homes in the care of kindly Muslim neighbours, looking forward to returning back once things settled down. Nobody believed that visas and passports would be needed to travel to and fro, something which could be a denial, or an inability to believe that a country and the identity of its citizens would be split thus, despite many doctors and lawyers having already started efforts to build up their practice on the Indian side through the '40s.

The partition left a huge impact in a generation of people; their disturbed psyche would haunt many generations down the family line. It was a chasm that was buried deep, something that would perhaps open years later to show the gnawing wounds within.

Interestingly, unlike ethnic-cleansing pogroms in other parts of the world, the ruling government was not involved in it. The British rulers refused to get involved in their prevention or control. On the other hand, the native rulers in the princely states dealt with them decisively, preventing any escalation or loss of lives.

But was partition, and forced migration, all that bad? And was the feeling of hatred for the "other" for years all that justified?

The partition left a huge impact in a generation of people; their disturbed psyche would haunt many generations down the family line. It was a chasm that was buried deep, something that would perhaps open years later to show the gnawing wounds within.

Noted psychoanalyst and academician Dr Jayanti Basu's book, "Reconstructing the Bengal Partition-The psyche under a different violence" examines these and a host of related issues in the context of the violence and subsequent migration of the Hindus from East Pakistan through 1946 through 1952. Published by Samya, the book has tried analyzing the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to migrate under the shadow of a fear they could not fathom, much less comprehend.

A product of Ashis Nandy's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies' project aimed at documenting the oral history of violence during the partition, this is the second book in the series, and the first ever to look into the psychoanalytical inter-generational effects of partition on people and their families.

In East Pakistan the violence was characterized by "the prolonged threat of violence and terrifying fear for one’s life, with little if any sense of personal control, resulting in people fleeing for their lives and living with fear and insecurity within themselves for years," to quote psychoanalyst Alan Roland.

Unlike in the Punjab and other parts of north-western India, the violence in East Bengal was not that widespread. Since it was confined to Noakhali and Dhaka, the rest of East Bengal remained comparatively peaceful in 1947. This meant, many Hindus, who comprised the minority community in the new theocratic state, settled down to continue their lives in the new Pakistan. However, under Liaquat Ali Khan (following the death of the Muhammad Ali Jinnah), a soft terror was unleashed on the Bengali Hindu population post-48. The imposition of Urdu, followed by riots in many parts hitherto untouched by communal violence saw ethnic cleansing drive out most of the landed Hindu gentry into India by 1951.

 The average East Pakistani / Bangladeshi, with his comparatively higher literacy level and sensibilities, found this revolting. And yet, could do nothing. Today, after years of living under the shadow of fundamentalist elements, the common Bangladeshi has risen in revolt to demand a more equitable society and the restoration of the unique secular fabric that had always characterized the subcontinent, until it was rent apart.

Although none of those who faced physical violence have ever lived to tell their tale, the soft terror of an impending catastrophe which drove the survivors out, is still alive in their psyche. Dr Basu probes into this prevalent mental turmoil which guides the survivors’ lives to this day, and makes "soft fundamentalists" of many. Dr Basu, as a psychoanalyst with her roots in East Bengal, has expanded on the palpable fear that gripped those who escaped to India, and by explaining how "what was executed by brutality in so many places was accomplished in Bengal primarily by threat."

Going back to the Mahabharata, which had pointed to ‘fear’ being the "most powerful force on earth", Dr Basu has illustrated, through countless interviews, how fear-terror, fuelled through rumour, drove countless from their ancestral homes.

Today, after years of living under the shadow of fundamentalist elements, the common Bangladeshi has risen in revolt to demand a more equitable society and the restoration of the unique secular fabric that had always characterized the subcontinent, until it was rent apart.

The partition and its aftermath notably affected the very poor and the labouring classes the most. It was demanded and acquiesced to by the elite in the national capital, which was far removed from the actual focus of communal strife. Uprooted from their land and homes, the poor hardly had the means to flee by air or rail. They had to make their way by road on bullock-carts and the like as part of human caravans, risking life and limb on the way. Once direct action was called for, it was mayhem all over. Not only was it an opportunity for old rivals to settle scores, but for wanton looting by the have-nots (as Yasmin Khan has spoken of in her book-The Great Partition). Even little children did not let the opportunity slip by, and made do with whatever their little hands could carry off. Entire settlements were razed to the ground with the mere lighting of a match, a careless flicker here, or another there. The lasting impressions of a conflagration, however, are on the senses of an individual who must battle his/her ghosts within, and this is what Dr Basu sets out to investigate and understand.

Dr Basu draws on her experiences as a psychoanalyst, and tries to delve deep into the events of the greatest migration in history through the collective memories of her patients.

She finds, although each one of them talks of one fond Muslim chacha or Muslim school-friends and their families who helped him and his loved ones escape the pogroms that engulfed those troubled times, it has not helped overcome the feeling of the Muslim "other", who are painted as universally evil. "We came to dread the chanting of Allah-o-Akbar," confesses one survivor, although admitting that he knew it meant nothing beyond God is Great!


Crowds at the Howrah railroad station trying to escape from Calcutta
(courtesy: Life)

The book also tells us a great deal about the social circumstances that shaped the overwhelming hatred which was to shatter the peace between the two religious communities. A survivor tells her, about how the landed Hindu families treated their Muslim serfs worse than animals. Even talking of his mother, who loved his Muslim school-friend as her own son, he mentions the discrimination practiced. "She would never allow him into the house." The social chasm was complete, with Muslim mothers equally hesitant to invite Hindu children over, lest there be a problem.

The violence that broke out following the call for direct action was, perhaps, the defining moment for all. In the case of Shashanko, the scion of a wealthy family of Kshatriya ‘royal’ lineage who owned homes both in Noakhali town and its outskirts, the family fought back an attack by a Muslim mob with swords, daggers and firearms one night, with the help of two friendly Muslims, Rahamat and Keramat, who warned them of the impending danger. Following the incident, the children were whisked off one night on boats by these Muslims and their friends to Kolkata. The adults were attacked, and though not killed, lost their valuables when the home was looted. They managed to survive with the help of the army which took them to Noakhali town. Following independence, the children were united with their parents in India. The bitter experience lives on in Shashanko, who identifies himself with everything anti-Muslim, although he constantly qualifies his statements to indicate that he has many good Muslim friends who often drop over. He considers himself a 'conservative' Hindu who cannot tolerate the pro-Muslim bias of the government that will never finance Hindu pilgrims to Sagar, but continues sponsoring Hajjis.

The post-partition experiences of those from well-off families who had to live in temporary shelters or huts at the railway stations on the Indian side until they found better accommodation with friends or relatives was also very traumatic. This was not what they had expected from their ‘own’ country. The volunteers who catered to them made them feel like beggars when they served them food in dirty bowls. When a survivor, Diptendu, had refused to accept what was thus offered to him, the volunteer had sarcastically exclaimed, "Who cares here whether you eat or not?" The culture shock had hit them elsewhere, too. The "ghotis" (West Bengali natives) of Kolkata looked upon them as intruders, and made fun of their East Bengal dialects. Many abused them in the educational institutions they attended; this was in spite of them doing brilliantly at studies.

People like Diptendu and Shashanko, hence, look upon Muslims as "naturally ferocious and communal" and "non-trustworthy".

The post-partition experiences of those from well-off families who had to live in temporary shelters or huts at the railway stations on the Indian side until they found better accommodation with friends or relatives was also very traumatic. This was not what they had expected from their 'own' country.

But at the two extreme ends of the social spectrum, the attitude to Muslims remains rational and enlightened. Dr Basu tells us of a poor Hindu tailor, who migrated to India, and worked as a labourer in a mill and became a trade unionist, who admits to seeing nothing different in the status or conditions faced by the Hindus and Muslims. "I try to help all. We are all brothers, all in need of a peaceful life for our families."

Another gentleman, who retired as the CEO of a multinational corporate house, displayed similar feelings towards Muslims, despite belonging to a wealthy landowning family that had to escape to India when conditions deteriorated too far post-46. The family had helped many Muslim youngsters with higher education, enabling them occupy top positions in the civil service. Yet, in the late 40s, these powerful well-wishers could not help them survive in an increasingly sectarian East Bengal. Exposure to a wider world, in Dr Basu's opinion, saw the gentleman think more rationally than most other survivors. Neither of them had no problem if their daughters chose to marry Muslims. "It is important that the boy is honest and good."

There have been reams written on the human toll the partition and its aftermath took on people. But Dr Basu, perhaps for the first time, talks of the sea-change it brought into the lives of the migrants, particularly women.

The majority of the people who came in as refugees moved out of a sheltered life in remote villages, or mofussil towns, where women were confined to their homes. They had never seen a city, or ever travelled to one. Once they moved to Kolkata, they had access to the best education, and to institutions of national repute. Bereft of material wealth, the hard-working East Bengalis, particularly women, rose to positions of eminence in due time.

For the youngsters who moved out of the sheltered, protected care of joint families, the loss of parents or elders to communal violence, and consequent insecurity, made them mature overnight. The financial instability spurred them on to fight all odds and excel in life.

The events that led to partition, and the communalization that gradually cleansed East Bengal in the 1946-51 period have a strong bearing on the current turmoil in Bangladesh. At that point of time, the average East Pakistani / Bangladeshi, with his/her comparatively higher literacy level and sensibilities, found it revolting. And yet, could do nothing against a theocratic state bent on rewriting history. Today, after years of living under the shadow of fundamentalist elements, the common Bangladeshi has risen in revolt to demand a more equitable society and the restoration of the unique secular fabric that had always characterized the subcontinent, until it was rent apart.

Dr Basu's book also dwells on the anti-Muslim violence and the ferocity of Hindu anti-socials in Kolkata during the riots, and helplessness and guilt teenagers witness to the killing of innocent Muslims harboured for years. Even as it turns to look back objectively at an event that geographically redrew boundaries, and created divisions where there were none, this captivating document demands that we learn from history. It is also an appeal to recognize our common legacy in the wake of the myriad problems the partition created.

One only hopes that fundamentalist hardliners of all hues lend it an ear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reconstructing the Bengal Partition-The psyche under a different violence
Author: Dr Jayanti Basu
Publishers: Samya
Year of Publication: 2013
Price: Rs 650

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Rina Mukherji  |  rina.mukherji@gmail.com

Rina Mukherji is a writer, poet and journalist. She is a keen commentator on issues concerning marginalized communities, environment and development. She is based in Kolkata.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note
 


 
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Lead View
People, Partition and the Pain
By Rina Mukherji
15 Aug 2013

Dr Jayanti Basu's book analyzes the complex feelings of hatred and longing for the homeland that have contributed to shaping the personalities of a generation of people who were forced to ..
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