We read our histories, especially the chaos and tragedy, to make sense of where we are and what brought us here. As witnesses to its reflection, we find space to recognise the wrongs and those wronged, and seek retribution for them, a recovery and healing. For who can defend the dead, if not the living?
The least we owe to that which is lost is remembrance.
We become part of history, through the things preserving collective memory. Museums, memorials, records and texts – institutionalised attempts at honouring the past, at remembering. But here’s the bitter irony in what I am presently writing, for it is in the light of the recent news of the renovation of Jallianwala Bagh memorial. The entrance to this site of the 1919 colonial massacre, in Amritsar, Punjab, is now adorned with smiling sculptures, and will also be host to a light and sound show. This glib ornamentation of a site of violence, where people lost their lives in a manner inhumane and horrific as they gathered in resistance to the colonial law of preventive detention (the Rowlatt Act), is telling of a number of things. Trivialising an event of grave violence and glamorising massacred lives, it is one of the many State-sponsored attempts to distort and mock history. A clear indication of how official narratives and the monuments of their evidence will always be flimsy when forces of power get to decide what gets preserved and in what manner. As well as the ways in which events, especially those of violence, should be looked at and remembered. This approach fits what Jacques Rancière in his essay, Figures of History, wrote: “To deny what was, as the Holocaust deniers are still showing us, you don’t even need to suppress many of the facts; you only need to remove the link that connects them and constitutes them as a story.” Une histoire – the story of a past – he says, cannot be told without its configuring elements that make it a whole. But the worry isn’t only of the fragments that are slowly being destroyed but also of those that were never collected in the very first place.
What parts of the story have we missed in the larger picture of official National narratives? That which has remained hidden in the negative spaces – the lived experiences of people, the personal histories that did not become part of national documentation. These lives, trapped in the scuffle between politics, religion, and territory, remain – to borrow from Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight's Borders – “unacknowledged casualties”. Lives, generations, still within the grips of trauma, a continuum of violence.
Three days after the memorial’s inauguration, I came across a twitter thread displaying photographs and personal accounts of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh incident from the book called Eyewitness at Amritsar. A reminder of how, as we witness the demolition of tangible evidence of histories and its partisan recollections, the memory of events as they happened to people will be all that we will be left with to understand the truth, in all its ugliness and brutality. The fragments that don’t make it to the annals of history, the unfocussed figures of the story.
“If the story of human civilisation is about the creation and destruction of various walls, boundaries, frontiers and fences, what story does the present map of the world tell us?”
– Suchitra Vijayan, Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India
Borders make countries official, but do they mark a home for all people living within its territories? It was the experiences of migration, displacement, and violence that laid the first bricks of a new nation for millions of people, fixed by a great divide of the ‘this side, that side’* after the 1947 Partition of British India. Between 1947 March to January 1948, estimates suggest 1 million deaths happened in the wake of Partition violence. Mobs of two religious communities targeting each other, riots and massacres became the grotesque underbelly of the celebratory freedom from three hundred years of British rule. A country born in the shadow of this carnage, seventy years past, there are still its reverberations. Our present attests – our country has had violence written in its inheritance.
In Midnight’s Borders, which captures the travels of Suchitra Vijayan along the borders of India through vignettes, real stories and haunting memories of real people, two sections that follow the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan drive a haunting point home. That 12 miles of border in a village was drawn from the notes and memory of a blind old man is a tale that runs through that village. The irony, however, in how the two countries have fought for the smallest bits of land based on official borders of historical arbitrariness, has had only violent manifestations. The next section from Fazilka, Punjab begins with headlines from 2016, of the mobilisation of army convoys to lay landmines on the border, an exercise that has happened often in the last seventy years, everytime displacing people off their lands, homes and fields in the wake of army occupation. Now, small, empty bunkers from that war effort make part of many plots and fields, such as that of Sari Begum whose story Vijayan cares to pen down even as it is difficult to bear. A child of kidnapping and rape, she was born in 1948, and her mother was ‘recovered’ back to Pakistan, when she was a year old and left behind, at the price of a small piece of land. Her father, who had been part of the ‘hunting gangs’ days before the Partition, was murdered when she was 10 by people ‘exacting justice’ for the killings that he was part of committing. Sari Begum’s whole life became a mark of the violent years of Partition, her only inheritance a necklace given to her by her grandmother, and this small land which was now host to an unused bunker. Vijayan then asks, “Whom did Sari belong to? India or Pakistan.” It is a sad realisation that her story, like those of many women who bore the brunt of gendered and communal violence, is buried in a no-man’s land and continues to exist in its shadow. Recalled for us to hear only because of the chance instance of this book.
The seeds of communal hate that began the cycle of violence as the country moved towards independence have only developed with a horrific force ever since. With the many defining incidents of communal violence that have made national news, from the 1984 Sikh riots, 1992 Babri Masjid incident, to the 2002 Gujarat rights and the 2020 Delhi Pogrom, we have constantly returned to the country’s violent beginnings in many ways. A year before the 1984 riots, on 18th February, more than 3000 Muslims were massacred in Nellie and other surrounding villages in the Nagaon district of Assam. The anger that led the mobs to kill did not just have the angle of religion but also territory. In the light of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and reports of Bangladeshi Muslims illegally migrating to Assam, a general sentiment of viewing all Muslims as foreigners and immigrants became prominent. Vijayan’s account of the incident through the memory of Nobin Hussain, who lost his sister and two nieces to the violence, who buried 350 bodies of children after the carnage, is painful. Not just for the horrifying loss of life but also in what followed. The incident, which barely received any coverage, is only remembered and silently commemorated by the people of the village. Vijayan writes, “When Nobin’s generation is gone, there will be no proof.” No one was convicted for the murders of 3000 people. No records survive, only unmarked and unnamed graves spread across the land that has been both the cause and effect of politics and its subsequent injustices. The dead are forced to be forgotten while those alive are forced into exile. Vijayan records how between 1985 to 2019, the Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, setup to identify undocumented immigrants, declared 117,164 people foreigners. Nobin Hussain has been left out of the final NRC list like 1.9 million others, mostly Muslims.
There is a line in a Bertolt Brecht verse which goes: “As crimes pile up, they become invisible”. How many bodies have we lost to religious intolerance in the last seventy years? That has only increased in the present, as we witness a constant rise in hate speech, lynchings, and xenophobic nationalism of the State-backed majoritarianism. As the world's largest democracy veers towards fascism, the question of what we remember and what we forget becomes of the most defining consequence. It is worth questioning, for a country birthed by communal genocide, that had the Partition violence been given a space for recognition and recovery in national memory, would the present be any different? This is not to say religious intolerance had only one origin and only one solution. But, like the Holocaust, had the idea of ‘Never Again’ also been realised in the context of Partition riots in India, perhaps the events would have been etched in National memory with the gravity that they deserve. So when we stood at this edge of a present regressing towards a more conservative future, we would have had better lessons to carry from the past. The beginning of which could have only happened by recognising people’s history of the events and their aftermath – a building of a memory-memorial of the unvoiced stories of unnamed individuals.
Because when you come to the nature of things, it is people who make nations and their histories, not borders or territories.
*This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition by Vishwajyoti Ghosh
Chakrika Pandey is an emerging writer currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi University.