Why should we insist on ascertaining the facts related to the partition violence in their actual historical context? Some of the comments my previous column and its response from Mr Haider Nizamani received seem to express impatience with the necessity of carrying on a debate about the unpleasant — indeed horrendous — events that took place 65 years ago. Forget and forgive, they suggest, and move on.
We — as a nation state — seem to have actually striven from the very start to forget the details and replace them with a smooth nationalistic narrative convenient for the powerful. But our experience as citizens makes us feel that forgetting historical events does not really help, as events have a habit of influencing what follows them even at a distance of long years and decades. As for forgiveness, one could raise a simple question: who should we forgive and for what? Isn’t it necessary to know what actually happened, where and how, before we can identify those who were responsible and decide to forgive them?
I, for one, am not against acts of forgiveness and making amends. Also, when we are dealing with crimes and cruelties of such intensity committed by a large number of individuals, most certainly aided and abetted by a smaller number of those that could have had vested interests, ascertaining the facts alone becomes too long and eventually an incomplete process, rendering the exercise to find perpetrators and bring them to justice meaningless. As post-apartheid South Africa painfully learned, the only practical course left in such circumstances is to know the truth, so that a community of people could move on in an informed way towards reconciliation.
As a party to a bloody human conflict and dislocation that took place on such a great scale, when we forgive ‘others’, are we declaring them guilty and ourselves not only innocent but also generous victims? If, on the other hand, we forgive those amongst us who actually perpetrated the crimes, are we admitting to a collective guilt?
These are some of the questions that Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth centenary this year, provides a fitting moment for us to explore. If we want to understand what happened afterwards, we must try to understand what that conscientious, sensitive and deeply humanist creative writer was saying during the months and years following those traumatic happenings — massacres, rapes, abductions, individual and mass suicides, honour killings, forced migrations (uncontrollable at first, agreed and planned after mid-August 1947), relief efforts, recovery and exchange of abducted women, resettlement of dislocated communities and individuals, allotment and transfer of land and other forms of property and power to new owners, and so on.
The drive to suppress the truth, treat the whole thing as a closed transaction and silently accept the official line as the ‘national’ perception has been as old as Manto’s insistence on knowing and accepting the bitter truth. In his lifetime, one proponent of this delusional point of view was Mohammad Hasan Askari, the critic, who took a line exactly opposite to Manto’s view about most political events that took place early in the life of the new state — imposition of the gagging Public Safety Act, adoption of the Objectives Resolution, persecution of dissenting political movements such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Surkhposh Tehreek and the communists, banning of a large number of newspapers and periodicals, launching of a ‘holy war’, and so forth. Askari’s tribe has ever since been multiplying and getting more powerful and influential as our national Ghairat Brigade.
Unlike Manto, who saw the partition riots as a great injustice done to Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Askari defined them in the general and conveniently vague terms of ‘a great national tragedy of Muslims’ — which is so much less than the whole truth that it has to be called a lie. In the following years, nevertheless, it was destined to become the official truth greatly helped by the state devices of political and cultural suppression including writing of textbooks as well as efforts on the part of independent intellectuals like Askari who took it upon themselves to rewrite the past and spin-doctor the present to serve their individual and group interests.
There has, however, been a steady and unbroken line of individual researchers and academics who never abandoned the quest for knowing the truth and who tried to find, contexualise and analyse shreds of truths of our national life. Manto’s centenary is the time to remember and feel gratitude towards people like Eqbal Ahmed, Zamir Niazi and K K Aziz who furthered in their own specific ways what Manto had initiated.
Another such individual is the historian Ishtiaq Ahmed whose detailed work of formidable, objective research has recently come out as the book titled The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-person Accounts (Karachi: OUP, 2012). Born in the Temple Road area of Lahore, Ishtiaq Ahmed ‘grew up listening to elders who would describe some of the events that took place’ in that locality. The curiosity born in him during his childhood grew with him and in 1999, the invitation to a conference in the UK initiated the process of academic research that took him in subsequent years to interview the victims and witnesses of the partition riots residing on either side of the Wagah border and elsewhere and read and analyse a great number of secondary sources. His association with Stockholm University in Sweden freed him from the debilitating limitations imposed by a fiercely anti-academic environment back home on the one hand, and, on the other, made it possible for him to travel everywhere in India and Pakistan to conduct his research.
Ishtiaq Ahmed’s book is necessary reading for anyone who is interested in finding out what happened in the towns and villages of Punjab during those unfortunate months and understanding the significance of those events in their historical context. It deserves to become a part of our national discourse to make it more informed.
(To be concluded)
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2012.
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