India and Pakistan’s independence day farce

Solemn remembrances, not celebrations, are a more appropriate way of marking the independence of both nations.

Pakistan celebrated its independence from British rule on August 14 [AFP]

“Two countries were born, men abducted women, fathers killed their daughters. Everyone said it was to save their honour. Some young girls died, others survived. People moved like the sea, leaving everything behind: broken memories, half-dreamt dreams, places of worship” – this is how the main character, Ayesha Khan, describes her memories of 1947 in the acclaimed film Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters).

I was reminded of this film a few weeks ago as Pakistan and India both celebrated their independence days, on August 14 and 15, respectively. The national conversation for both is dominated by jingoism, and geared towards celebration and achievements since 1947. Victory parades are common.

But this is a charade and a way for Indians and Pakistanis to make themselves feel better. Independence was more importantly about partition, and it involved millions of people being displaced, made homeless, being forced to travel thousands of miles or losing all their possessions.

Partition meant violent riots between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. It led to thousands of women being raped by men on all sides, to “take revenge”. It was shameful and a stain on our history. But all this has been conveniently forgotten and swept underneath the carpet. There is no remembrance for the people who died or faced immense hardships during partition.

Some say there is no point in re-opening old wounds and re-igniting the tensions of partition, but this misses the point. One of the reasons why there is so much tension between India and Pakistan is because there isn’t more acknowledgement of that history. Indians were once Pakistanis too, and Pakistanis were a key part of India.

By forgetting history we condemn ourselves into repeating it. Religious tensions between India and Pakistan are common even now, though being an improvement on the past.

Worse, women are still used as pawns in religious conflict all over South Asia. There were numerous documented cases of gangs of men raping Muslim women during the 2002 Gujarat riots, “in revenge”. Harsh Mander of Action Aid India said then: “I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence as in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat.” Even now, Christian women in some parts of India complain they are harassed by Hindu and Muslim gangs.

The subjugation of women isn’t one way of course. In Pakistan, there are many cases of Hindu women being kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam, while the government ignores their plight. This has led to a growing exodus of Hindus from Pakistan into India.

In a sense the partition of India and Pakistan is still ongoing, and the political and media establishment in neither country admit that the impact is still reverberating. They have conveniently forgotten history and therefore have no qualms about repeating it.

Not all is lost. Some independent projects such as the 1947 Archive project are doing a brilliant job of collecting stories and glimpses of history from both countries (I’m not involved in any way).

But there is no official acknowledgement or focus on this particular tragedy. The little remembrance there is in both countries India focuses on freedom fighters and the struggle for independence. That focus is very important too, but it is not enough. It leaves out a large chunk of people who suffered after independence.

Respective governments in both countries have made little efforts to rectify this and the victims of Partition are fading from history. But we cannot afford to forget them – people of Indian and Pakistani origins need to recognise that the horrors of Partition must be remembered and never repeated again. 

Sunny Hundal is author of the recently released e-book – India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women. He contributes regularly to the Guardian and New Statesman in the UK, and writes regularly on current affairs.

Follow Sunny Hundal on Twitter: @sunny_hundal