March 31, 2020
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The Partition Psychosis

The minds behind the statistics. A first-ever study sketches South Asia's biggest bloodbath...

The Partition Psychosis

PARTITION, says psychologist Ashis Nandy, froze public consciousness into silence for decades. Thus, besides a small number of individual accounts, there have been no scientific studies of the mental and physical 'Orgy'. Nor has anyone studied the implication of the 'Collapse Of The Moral Universe' as seen when a beautiful woman was left behind with the enemy in order to guarantee safe passage for her family. And hardly enough attention has been given to intra-community violence—which Nandy calls the 'Absolute Evil'—when Hindu killed Hindu for property.

In January this year, Nandy and his team embarked on the first-ever empirically-based study of the Partition refugees. Called Partition Memories, it is supported by the Committee for Cultural Choices, the Catholic Relief Services and the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

Three sets of interview-based studies are being carried out in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And data on 150 families is being collected. After which, psychologists Udayan Patel and Ashok Nagpal will sketch a psychological profile of the Partition refugee.

Several findings are emerging. Partition may have been violent, but there were several 'Self-imposed Restraints To Violence'. Also, Partition was not simply a conflict between Hindu and Muslim but between landlord and tenant, between business rivals in the same community, who took advantage of the chaos to settle old scores. "The refugee," says Nandy, "tends to be more aggressive, individualistic, sometimes operates on the margins of the law. They find elaborate justifications for moral transgressions and most importantly, don't want to talk about what happened to them. They recollect the past, but only in a certain way. That's why we called it Partition Memories." Several fascinating common patterns have emerged. One of them is what the team calls 'Memory Block'. When Meenakshi Verma, one of the researchers, interviewed a couple from Rawalpindi, the wife Rajindar Kaur said: "I do not want to speak about Partition.

The reason is that the murderers were not caught. Your world is very different from mine. You won't understand." Sarla Malhotra, a refugee from Jhang in Punjab province, says she never really talks about those days to her grandchildren. "They have their own lives here. What will they do with thoughts of those days?" Most of the respondents talked with difficulty, some not at all. When respectable people go through a time which can be described as an 'orgy', when they make choices that would seem horrific in their 'normal' lives today, they become, says Nandy, morally uncomfortable and try to convince themselves that they are not really that bad. So, far from recalling the days of horror, they have blocked off their memories in the determination to forget the past and start a new life in a new country.

Partition Memories has also found that among a large number of respondents there is what they call 'A Glorification of Self-destructive Violence', or constant references to the heroism of ordinary people. Malhotra recounts how a woman laid down her life to save her husband from a murderous gang. In one case study, a woman described how she killed her husband to save him from the mob. Malhotra says she and her female relatives carried poison when crossing the border since her father-in-law had told them they should commit suicide if threatened with dishonour by Hindu or Muslim.

There is also 'Utopianism', or repeated references to life in undivided India as flaw-less, rosy in every respect, a Utopia of nostalgia. Most respondents see nothing wrong with their life before Partition. It was the division of the country that started their problems, before 1947 they had nothing to worry about. Says Sardar Vasudev Singh Bindra, a refugee from Rawalpindi: "There was nothing wrong with our life there. We had everything, land, respect in the community, prosperity. Only after 1947 we suddenly had nothing and those who did not have anything got all our property."

THE study uses the term 'Absolute Evil' to describe what Partition meant within communities. The sense of betrayal among Hindus was strongest not just with Muslims but towards Hindus themselves. In some cases younger brothers took away property by using Partition as a pretext. Another family spoke of how betrayed they were when one of their daughters eloped with a Hindu—which they justified by saying that the girl had been spirited away by a Muslim!

The case studies of 'Violence and the Self-Imposed Restraint On Violence' are intriguing. Although there have been cases where a woman had her breasts cut off, in one particular village a marauding group of Pathans confronted the village with conversion to Islam or death. When the villagers refused, they killed the men but escorted the women honourably to camps. There are cases when Muslim families organised trucks for Hindu families in their own neighbourhood but resorted to violence in another locality. In most cases, neighbours hardly ever attacked each other. It was always a mob from the outside that attacked. Nandy speaks of 'The Exploding Slum' as an important focus of violence. It was the semi-urbanised rootless slum-dweller who often rose up in violence to grab whatever he could in the melee. Says Sardarni Jagjit Kaur of Rawalpindi: "The dai who worked in our house rampaged all over our property—because she used to live nearby, she knew what our house was like."

 Another important pattern that the study will highlight is 'The Collapse Of The Moral Universe'. The breakdown of civil society among people who had hitherto lived stable, conservative lives led them to make horrendous choices and face unimaginable situations. Malhotra describes how she would hang on to her mother-in-law's sari to prevent her from jumping off the roof. For the family which had left behind one of their women as hostage to guarantee them safe passage to Amritsar, the decision was traumatic. During the interview the family said: "It was her fault that she was so beautiful! It was her beauty which got her into trouble! It was not our fault...." It was a norm-less, law-less time, says Nandy, but the strange justifications for betraying a loved one speak of a troubled conscience.

Some of the refugees even have absurdly immoral fantasies. In fact 'Fantasy' has become an important feature of the psychology of those who lived in times when the unthinkable became routine. In some interviews families would say: 'Oh we have killed thousands of Muslims, we used to kill several Muslims every day,' but then they would later admit that they had not in fact killed anyone and had spent most of their time starving in camps, begging for clothes. Instances of suffering and indignity, rather than violence were an important feature of the study. Malhotra remembers how her dignified father-in-law, a renowned barrister would squat in the camps, cleaning excrement with his bare hands. Rajindar Kaur told Verma that she, who never showed her face outside the house, had to ride on top of a train in 1947 without a chunni to cover her head. In a culture which treasured social propriety, this 'nakedness' was such a psychological blow that it shattered faith in human nature. "The refugee," says Nandy, "is often naturally mistrustful...."

 Perhaps the most important finding of the study has been what it calls 'The Refusal To Condemn The Muslim'. In interview after interview, Hindus spoke of general breakdown, of reciprocal violence, of how Hindus killed as many as Muslims did. "At that time humanity itself had broken down, why talk of Hindus and Muslims?" is an oft-repeated response. Says Sardar Vasudev Singh Bindra: "Partition was not about any one thing, Hindu-Muslim conflict or violence. It was about many more things. What feelings had those who left their homes in Rajasthan and UP for that land? What feelings had we—from the other side—for this one? There is no single truth, what is true is also false and the other way around...."

Today, says Verma, the refugee seeks solace in community consciousness like being active 'satsangis', yet remain strangely individualistic. They are proud of their achievements yet somehow uncomfortable with prosperity, a prosperity for which they feel they paid too heavy a price, a paradox which the study will highlight.

Partition Memories has travelled deep into the psyche of the Partition refugee and mapped the minds behind the statistics of South Asia's biggest bloodbath. The study will be published in the form of a book next year.

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