As India turns 70 today, one cannot but help look back at the day when the country was officially decolonised. It is debatable whether a nation actually existed before 15 August 1947, but popular memory is constructed (as is the case with most states today) such that all of history is presumed to be that of the nation-state. In South Asia, and especially India, the obsession with independence tends to assume different moods and colours.
There are two main narratives of that day in 1947. The first of these is the official narrative about decolonisation: the day India gained her independence from the British Raj and all shackles on its peoples and lands were broken; the one-stroke solution to all ills. That is how the vast majority remembers India’s critical juncture.
However, there is a second narrative that may be called a narrative of silence. It is a subaltern account that in some ways is hushed up, but may prove to be of greater use if remembered. This is the bloody and brutal fracture of the Partition of India into India and Pakistan(s). But this is often swept under the carpet or even forcefully kept out of the picture. To understand why this is the case, one can begin by looking at what actually happens every year on 15 August.
Marking the occasion
Apart from the annual speech by the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, images of local celebrations by residential communities or village municipalities flood the Indian media. Children don kurtas (a traditional garment) and parents teach them the words to Vande Matram; occasional shouts of Bharat Mata Ki Jai (‘Victory to Mother India!’) and cars with miniature tri-colour flags taped to their dash boards roam the narrow streets. This is what urban, middle or upper-middle class India looks like every 15 August. Restaurants and shops have tri-coloured-themed decorations and products, news channels fly a pixelated flag in the corner of their screens all day long, and newspapers are full of flag-related graphics. This is how most of India celebrates the day.
Apart from swarms of kites, one may even be lucky enough to witness air force formations painting the sky with tri-colour smoke. This militarism is another feature of Independence Day celebrations, with huge amounts of airtime and ad-space devoted to the Indian Army. Many brands and companies choose to release advertising campaigns to salute the “brave men” who “protect our land” and “ensure that we sleep safely at night.” News channels air images of the borderland areas where soldiers hoist the flag and sing the national anthem. But nobody really talks about them. Nobody takes this opportunity to actually listen to what soldiers may have to say. Like other days, any voice of a soldier bringing an issue to light is silenced from public ears.
However, silence is a major part of what 15 August is about. As Ernst Renan once declared, “nations are made by remembering and forgetting certain aspects of a people’s history”. This remembrance and forgetfulness does in some cases manufacture certain truths, but most importantly it hides uncomfortable certainties that hamper the nation-making agenda. Partition seems to be one such truth.
Partition is the missing piece in the puzzle
Most people in India are vaguely aware of what happened during Partition. Millions died; people lost their homes; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs killed one another; there were many refugees and some who stayed behind. Children read about it in a sparse after-section in their history textbooks, but that is virtually the extent of their exposure to one of the defining phases of the nation’s history. Apart from those who were witness to it, and sometimes their children, Partition is largely a thing of the past. ‘Why should one remember it?’ it is often asked, ‘What can one possibly gain from peeling back the layers of violence and blood over and over again?’
Apart from a few articles very recently, little popular coverage has been devoted to remembering Partition. At most, people would write about it as a cautionary tale on the effects of communalism, but even this treatment has been shallow. Partition remains restricted to academic circles and a very small section of the English-reading audience as a subject for discussion.
But there are two key reasons why India should associate 15 August 1947 with Partition rather than Independence. On one level, it serves as a valuable lesson on the pitfalls of everyday biases and people’s presumptions. Many hidden prejudices that do not always come to the fore were on display in the violence of seventy years ago. But more importantly, on a second level, it is the case that for many people Independence never arrived.
15 August 1947 came and went, but their lives did not change as much as had been promised. Inequality in all its forms still reigns supreme over India. Poverty, hunger, lack of basic housing, poor health care, lack of education, insufficient wages and unemployment is everyday life for most of India. On 15 August, people are forced to un-see these issues; they gloss over them in patriotic fervour, shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, tri-colour in hand. Perhaps the best metaphor for this is the young homeless boy who sells cheap plastic flags along the pavement and traffic signals of India’s cities: for him too, Independence never brought what it promised.