What Is The Debate Surrounding ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’?

What Is The Debate Surrounding ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’?
The severely mismanaged partition of India led to what could only be described as carnage, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing what would soon be Pakistan, and Muslims fleeing in the opposite direction | Image source: The Wire

A year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to commemorate the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ on August 14 sparked intense debate across the political landscape. The backlash was swift as opposition parties such as the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)), and so on, slammed the PM and his decision. On the other hand, Pakistan’s Foreign Office had taken to Twitter and released a strongly worded statement in retaliation, calling this move a “political stunt”

The Horrors Of The Partition Of India

The partition of India was arguably one of the most tragic turning points in South Asian history, leading to an unprecedented outbreak of violence that not many could have anticipated while Delhi prepared to celebrate the country’s hard earned freedom from British Raj. The underlying tensions along secular lines became increasingly prominent in the years preceding partition, as a culmination of several factors, including the infamous ‘divide and rule’ policy of the colonisers. 

The two independent states were created along communal lines, with the idea of a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. A line was drawn in sand and ice, created by Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who was given five weeks to divide a country he had never set foot in, writing the future of millions of people at once. During the process of this division, regions like Punjab and Bengal that had nearly equal numbers of Hindu and Muslim population proved difficult. These regions particularly witnessed the most intense violence

Prior to partition, Hindus accounted for nearly 70 percent of the population, while Muslims only made up a quarter. As the country was moving towards freedom, on the political front, divisions between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League widened. While leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru wanted a unified India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, allegedly, publicly rejected the notion, as the latter party was concerned about the former party’s supposed representation of Hindu interests. Jinnah argued that the Hindu majority would control the Muslim minority, which is why the party demanded autonomy through the creation of Pakistan.

Radcliffe and his team, none of whom reportedly had any prior experience of India’s culture or political landscape, split the provinces in two roughly half, soon-to-be independent nations. This led to the creation of a split East and West Pakistan. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, refused to issue the maps until two days later, in an attempt to keep the international focus on Britain. However, this led to the largest human migration in history, as at least 18 million became uncertain of where the borders were, and left their homes to get to the “right” country. This led to hundreds and thousands of people ending up in the “wrong” nation, as they separated eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) from the rest of Pakistan, by thousands of miles.

This severely mismanaged situation led to what could only be described as carnage, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing what would soon be Pakistan, and Muslims fleeing in the opposite direction. The number of people killed during this time is estimated to be between 200,000 and 2 million. Houses were burned and looted, women were raped, and even children weren’t spared at the time. The trains carrying refugees would arrive at the stations full of dead bodies as passengers were killed by mobs on the way. These were called “blood trains”, as described by Nisid Hajari, the author of ‘Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition’.  

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits,” wrote Hajari in his book that describes the partition and its aftermath.

By 1950, when violence had slowly started to fade, it is estimated that 3.4 million people were missing or dead, and more than 15 million people had been uprooted from the homes they had known all their lives. Initially, the British would deliberately emphasise on the differences to maintain their dominance over the region. As geographer AJ Christopher told the National Geographic, colonial administrators would use religion or skin colour to isolate and segregate their subjects. In India, they created limited political roles, the process for which would pit Hindus against Muslims. This went on for nearly two centuries, creating animosity between the two groups. The result? Violence and bloodshed, the narratives of which are still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it first hand, and memories that still haunt them.

‘Partition’s Pains Can Never Be Forgotten’: PM Modi 

On the eve of the independence day last year, Prime Minister Modi declared that August 14 would henceforth be observed as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. He took to Twitter to make the announcement: “Partition’s pains can never be forgotten. Millions of our sisters and brothers were displaced and many lost their lives due to mindless hate and violence.” He added that this day would be commemorated in the memory of the “struggles and sacrifices of our people”.

PM Modi also tweeted, “May the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day keep reminding us of the need to remove the poison of social divisions, disharmony and further strengthen the spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment.” Subsequently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted, “The wound of the partition of the country and the grief of losing loved ones cannot be described in words. I am sure that Partition Horrors Remembrance Day will strengthen peace, love and unity by eliminating the ill-will of discrimination and malice from society.”

The Union Home Ministry had also issued a notification: “While at the stroke of midnight of 14th-15th August, 2021, the entire nation will be celebrating the 75th Independence Day, the pain and violence of Partition has remained deeply etched in the nation’s memory.” It added, “While the country has moved on to become the largest democracy and the third-largest economy in the world, the pain of Partition suffered by the nation can never be forgotten.” The notification declared August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ in remembrance of the people who lost their lives during partition, and to remind the present and future generations of Indians of the “pain and suffering” faced by fellow citizens at the time. 

BJP President JP Nadda also lauded this move and said that “appeasement” politics and forces of negativity took roots in the country because of partition. Echoing his words, Amit Shah and Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh called it a “sensitive” move by PM Modi, while others attacked the Congress and India’s first Prime Minister Jawarhlal Nehru’s legacy. “More than 2 cr people lost their life. Country lost a significant portion of its territory. Nehruvian legacy & its proponents tried to whitewash the tragedy fearing accountability. Country will always remember the tragedy & millions of sacrifices,” said Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak BL Santhosh. 

BJP national general secretary CT Ravi also took to Twitter and stated, “India was partitioned to fulfil the political dreams of two Incompetents. Ten lakh innocents were sacrificed so that these two Incompetents could become Prime Ministers in 1947.” He added that the sins of those responsible for “India’s worst genocide should be exposed”. There were no further details shared about any memorial events to be held on the day, last year. 

Backlash From Opposition

Heavy backlash followed the announcement of the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ in 2021, with Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala accusing PM Modi of congratulating Pakistan on their Independence Day on one hand, and indulging in Pakistan-bashing on the other as elections are close. He said that this exposes the PM’s “divisive duplicity”. Surjewala added. “When there are no elections, the prime minister exhibits his love for Pakistan and congratulates the neigbouring country, on March 22, the day Muslim League passed the ‘Partition Resolution’ in 1940 and congratulates it on every August 14. But when elections are near, he starts diversionary politics at home.”

Congress MPs like P Chidambaram and Shashi Tharoor also slammed the Centre’s move. Tharoor took to Twitter the following day and indicated that the government has “learned the wrong lesson from history”, alleging that the commemoration of this day is being used to “sow hatred” in the minds of people today, while “pitting Hindus and Muslims for base political motives”. He added, “If we were to have a Partition Horrors Remembrance Day for every day that the ruling party sows seeds of partition within our minds, we’d have horror all 365 days of the year.” Tharoor further called for the promotion of “amity and unity” in our daily lives and political discourse.

Echoing a similar sentiment, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP  P Chidambaram tweeted, “Horrors of Partition were not committed on one day alone.” He criticised the PM for designating August 14, which is also Pakistan’s independence day, as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. “What will India do if Pakistan designates August 15 as ‘Partition Horrors Condemnation Day’? Hostility apart, India and Pakistan are neighbours. India should behave as a mature and seasoned nation,” said the leader.

The Congress party was not the only one that criticised the prime minister for this decision.  In a strongly worded statement,  the CPI(M) alleged that the government appears to translate into a “reality mirror image of Pakistan”, negating our constitutional values. “Even as millions were displaced and killed, India refused to be a mirror image of Pakistan’s Islamic State to become a Hindu Rashtra. India chose to be a secular democratic republic to move ahead and repair the horrors of partition,” said CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, a year ago. He added that India’s choice was the answer to the horrors of partition. “Instead we see a destruction of our Constitution which means reliving these horrors,” he said, referring to the government’s decision.

In response to the criticism, the BJP later defended the commemoration of the day, and hit back at the Congress party. BJP leader and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that it is a “rightful tribute to the struggles and sacrifices of our people who were a casualty of the Congress’ ambition and tunnel vision”. He lauded the decision saying that the partition remains a “gaping hole” in the soul of India.

Statement By Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry

In light of PM Modi’s announcement, Islamabad also released a strongly worded statement slamming the Indian government’s decision, saying that “no modern state is so much in contradiction with itself as the Indian state – the so  – called ‘largest democracy’”. The statement added, “It is shameful that the practitioners of “Hindutva” ideology, and purveyors of hate and violence, would so hypocritically and one-sidedly invoke the tragic events and mass migration that occurred in the wake of Independence in 1947.” 

Furthermore, they accused the BJP-RSS for “distorting history and stoking communalism”. The statement also claimed that “they would go to any extent to sow further dissensions for electoral gains,” supposedly referring to the BJP. “We are sure that people of goodwill in India would completely reject this political stunt,” added the foreign office statement.  

How Is India Observing The ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ This Year?

Moving away from the backlash and criticism received a year prior for the announcement of this day, the Ministry of Culture has written to the Railway Ministry, as the government is set to hold exhibitions on the ‘Horrors of the Partition’. The Cultural Ministry has advised that other than railway stations, exhibitions highlighting the “tragedy of the partition” should be organised in key public places like banks, post offices, airports, shopping malls, educational institutions, petrol pumps, skill development centres and vocational training institutes. The exhibitions are going to be held between August 10 and August 14.

The letter written by the Ministry of Culture secretary Govind Mohan to Railway Board chairman and CEO VK Tripathi reads: “Your ministry has vast outreach through various railway stations across the country. Therefore, it has been decided that you may ask the railway stations to display this exhibition in 700 places.” Mohan highlighted the importance of the day, and how it has been envisaged to “bring to light the agony, suffering and pain of millions of people who were the sufferers of Partition”. He added, “It is to remind the country of the largest displacement of human population in the last century, which also claimed the lives of a large number of people.”

Furthermore, the Culture Ministry secretary also said that an exhibition to showcase the sufferings of the partition-affected people has been curated by the Indian Council of Historical Research (CHR) and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), which is available in English and Hindi on the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ website. The ministry also stated that “enough arrangements for security should be made for the exhibition”.

On the other hand, on August 6, the officials at the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked universities and colleges across the country to organise events to mark the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. “The commission is writing to the universities and colleges to sensitise students and on the sacrifices made by the people of India and their sufferings during the partition,” said UGC chairperson M Jagadesh Kumar. The chairperson also indicated that the UGC will not issue a list of events, and that it is upto the universities who can organise any programmes of their choice.


Read more: Does An Integrated Kashmir Remain An Ungranted Wish For India, 75 Years After Independence?

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