WITNESS TO PARTITION: A MEMOIR By B.R. Nanda, Rupa, Rs 250
Partition is by far the most traumatic and enigmatic part of the modern history of the Indian subcontinent. It not only left a divided legacy for future generations and precipitated dislocations and dispossessions for a large section of people over a wide tract of land, but also signalled a process which ruptured the subcontinental history itself. As Ranabir Samaddar observes in A Biography of the Indian Nation (1947-1997), “against a history which had never anticipated Partition, we now have a history...created by Partition and a history that lives under it”. These histories, far from being mutually exclusive, have several points of convergence. Unrests caused by the likes of the Bangladesh Freedom Movement of the Seventies or the Khalistan or Bodo movements of the Eighties have their root in the identity politics embedded in the histories of Partition.
B.R. Nanda’s memoir was first published under the name, Punjub Uprooted, in 1948. Its republication in 2003 throws up certain possibilities of reading and interpretation. Reading the memoir enables a reader to relive a torrid past on the one hand, while on the other, it helps him understand the ways in which the past conceptualized itself and anticipated the present.
Moreover, with Nanda’s strong ideological orientation, the book also throws light on how personal biases operate even when an author is trying to write a history objectively. The following quote would illustrate the point: “If Pakistan Murdabad was provocative to the Muslims of the Punjab in March, the slogan Leke rahenge Pakistan in February…was equally provocative to the Hindus and Sikhs; but Hindus and Sikhs had not been provoked by slogans to shed blood.” (italics mine)
Although it is a racily written, well-documented account of a highly charged political drama, the arguments in Nanda’s memoirs are predictably loaded against the Muslim League, which under the leadership of M.A. Jinnah had allegedly attempted to make up for its growing marginalization in the electoral politics of undivided India by forwarding “the two-nation theory”. Nanda spares no effort to depict Gandhi as the tragic hero of Indian politics, whose methods of patience, persuasion, concession and resistance to prevent Partition and to quell riots made him unpopular to Hindus and Muslims alike. In Nanda’s analysis, Partition offered a career option to under-qualified and unemployed Muslims and therefore, suited the designs of ambitious and power-hungry politicians and officials.
Nanda’s memoir thus forms a part of the dominant discourse on Partition since 1947. His description of the flight of refugees has strong echoes of Khushwant Singh’s description of the event in his novel, Train to Pakistan. The sensationalism apart, there are though-provoking sections in the book, particularly where Nanda prescribes methods for economic rehabilitation of the people based on the “joint village management” policy proposed by Tarlok Singh.
The most pertinent question here is: will the republication of Witness to Partition be able to stem communal tensions in the country, or prevent Gujarat-like carnages from recurring' Unlikely. The “ghost from our stammering past” is yet to be exorcised.