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The Forgotten Womb

Just half-a-century later, a collective amnesia reigns over the subcontinent

The Forgotten Womb
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SARDAR Patel once suggested that there was only one true nationalist Muslim in India: Jawaharlal Nehru. The nearest thing the Congress had to the genuine article in 1947 was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a learned if aloof figure who was frequently denounced by Jinnah and the Muslim League as the 'showboy' of an essentially Hindu organisation. When the All India Congress Committee voted to accept Lord Mountbatten's plan of June 1947, Azad seconded the resolution while asserting: "The division is only of the map of the country and not in the hearts of the people, and I am sure it is going to be a short-lived partition."

This was a commonly held opinion at the time, and was more than the optimistic dream of one man. It was assumed that the division of the Indian empire was temporary and that even if it was permanent, the border between Hindustan and the two wings of Pakistan would be fluid and permeable. People thought it would be like Canada and the US. They would come and go at leisure: Muslims from the United Provinces would do business in Karachi but keep their homes in Lucknow; Hindus from Lahore would nit to Amritsar and back in a day. Even when he was sworn in as Pakistan's first governor general, Jinnah did not sell his own house on Malabar Hill, Bombay. As a character says in Bhisham Sahni's short story We have Arrived in Amritsar: "Why should he leave Bombay?...he might visit Pakistan at will and return whenever he wants to.

Today as you watch the angry, strutting soldiers of the BSF and the Pakistan Rangers stamping and saluting on rival sides of the electric curtain at Wagha, it is hard to believe that such a hopeful dream ever existed. But in early 1947 nobody, on either side, thought things would change radically, decisively, permanently. For, both Nehru and Jinnah seemed to promote the creation of a secular state.

It is often forgotten that although his claim for a Muslim homeland was predicated on religious nationalism, Jinnah never believed in Islamic government. In a speech given just days before the formal creation of Pakistan, he said his ambition as to build a nation without distinctions of "colour, caste or creed...you are free, you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State".

The decline of Indo-Pak relations into aggressive antipathy stemmed from one major factor: the magnitude of the reciprocal genocide in late 1947. No major politician-whether British, Congress or Muslim League--foresaw that killings and migration would take place on such a huge scale. There had been communal slaughter in Calcutta in August 1946, and in Rawalpindi in Match 1947, but it never amounted to the full-scale 'ethnic cleansing' that occurred over the months following Independence. The only People who made predictions of doom were a handful of senior army officers, who were dismissed as scaremongers. Just months before Independence, Nehru naively told a journalist: "When the British go, there will be no mote communal trouble in India." Admits his biographer Sarvepalli Gopal: "He was wrong, but so was everyone else in a position of responsibility at the time."

The pogroms in Old Delhi, the carnage in Bengal and the terrible, squalid deaths in countless villages across Punjab destroyed any hopes of cheerful coexistence, and poisoned the already strained relations between Nehru, Jinnah, Patel and Liaquat Ali Khan. As Sikh jathas, ass backstreet stabbers and renegade Muslim soldiers went about their murderous business, all sides were convinced they were suffering the worst casualties. As Lord Wavell had written the previous year, India's serious politicians were at risk of being swept aside by "the small fry...rabid, ignorant and irresponsible".

If murder and migration marked the initial hostility, other stimulants over the years precluded any lowering of pitch. The anti-Hindu riots in East Bengal in 1950, the border war of 1965, the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, the running sore that was Kashmir, and the Ayodhya demolition all served to sustain the hostility. Politicians on all sides find it expedient to forget or ignore the shared culture, history and experience that preceded 1947. The result: it is now only the older generation in each country that is aware of what came before, or what they are missing, or how different the present is from the dreams of the founding fathers.

When I visited Rajasthan a few months ago, a middleaged woman told me some Pakistanis had recently visited her town. "I was really surprised," she said. "They ate the same food as us, wore similar clothes, they could even understand what we said. It was amazing--to look at their faces you would have thought they were Indian."

(Patrick French, historian, will publish his 'Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division' in July'97.)

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