In the dark brilliance of Indian writer Sadaat Hasan Manto’s partition stories, one can glimpse the madness that was the year 1947. Take the story “The Assignment” in which a retired Muslim judge’s family is holed up in a non-Muslim neighbourhood. Communal violence has flared up in Amritsar, and with a house well-stocked with food, the judge is certain that it is a matter of time before the madness passes. Unlike many Muslim families living in Hindu majority areas and Hindu families in Muslim ones, he refuses to move. His seventeen-year-old daughter is less certain. It is the month of Ramadan, and the violence gives no signs of simmering down, when there is a knock on their door. Afraid, the daughter informs her now bed-ridden father, that it was a Sikh man knocking. Telling her not to be afraid, the judge reminds her that it must be his friend Gurmukh Singh, who every year, on the occasion of Eid, would drop by with a bag of desserts – he had once done the Sikh man a favour. When the door opens, it turns out, the man is Gurmukh Singh’s son, Santokh; his father had died, and he has been assigned to carry on in his stead. Hearing of the judge’s condition, Santokh says:
“Had my father been alive, it would have grieved him deeply. He never forgot Judge sahib’s kindness until his last breath. He used to say, 'He is not a man, but a god.' May God keep him under his care.”
The story continues:
“As Santokh Singh turned the corner, four men, their faces covered with their turbans, moved towards him. Two of them held burning torches; the others carried cans of kerosene oil and explosives. One of them asked Santokh, ‘Sardarji, have you completed your assignment?’
The young man nodded.
‘Should we then proceed with ours?’ he asked.
‘If you like,’ he replied and walked away.”
The story is typical of how Manto saw the communal violence preceding partition: Madness without any sense of proportion and when otherwise sane people, turned insane. Like his more well-known story “Toba Tek Singh” – where to a madman in a mental asylum the partition seems crazy, while in the outside world, carving up a country is perfectly normal – it shows the brutal dehumanisation of people when drunk on religion. The partition was neither the result of crazy, religious men suddenly unleashed, nor the culmination of historical animosities between two supposedly separate communities. It was common men, living together, who in a certain condition were seized with blood lust and greed – within this Manto still sought their humanity. Yet, for an event which casts its dark shadows after more than fifty years in the three countries that once was India, precious little is spoken about it in our national discourses.
If Manto’s partition stories reveal the senselessness of the violence of ’47, Joya Chatterji’s study, Bengal Divided
, shows how, in the span of a few decades, anti-colonial nationalism shifted towards communalism. Like Manto’s portrayal of communal violence in Amritsar, where in 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre united people of all faiths against the British, Joya Chatterji shows how political changes which led to a power struggle between Muslim and Hindu communities festered into communalism inciting rhetoric, and ultimately through violence, into a dividing line on the map of Bengal.
Communalism, as defined by Romila Thapar, is the mobilisation of religious identity for a political goal. Bengal Divided
is the study of this changing face of politics on the eve of the British departure. In 1932, the British introduced the Communal Award in India, which granted separate electorates for Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and other supposed communities of the subcontinent. This would give weightage to population, which meant that dominance of the cultural-elite Hindu minority in Bengal was threatened, as the Muslim peasant population were now likely to be the rulers. While Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party rallied the peasants against the Zamindari, trying to stay above the communal fray, the Muslim League and the Congress failed spectacularly. They squabbled over central and provincial interests, and the political atmosphere, because of the distribution of the religions, began to gain a religious hue. Earlier, saner minds such as Chittaranjan Das had tried to forge alliances across religious lines, which ended in failure. Instead, narrower interests coated in religious words proved more effective to curry votes. The distrust and power play appeared to both sides as evidences of irreconcilable differences. Bengal Divided traces this history of how the once cradle of anti-British struggle turned against itself in the name of religion. Through it, Joya Chatterji shows how the British-imposed division of India into Hindus and Muslims ultimately triumphed. The British left, leaving behind a fractured landmass and senseless hatred. She shows that it wasn’t Jinnah and the Muslim league that was solely to blame: The narrow political goals of the Hindu elite of Bengal and the hate-fuelled rhetoric from both Muslims and Hindus actually led to the partition.
We could talk about how easily communal violence, still, can flare up today in India – from Babri Masjid to today’s incidents of lynching. Or, we could remind ourselves of Pakistan – where political religion battles with human rights every day. But, let us rest content with Bangladesh – supposedly secular. One would have hoped that 1971 would serve as a reminder and an antidote to the poison of 1947 for us. One could still argue that changing our school textbooks to give it a more religious hue, lending approval to demands of removal of sculptures, or burning of Hindu villages are not motivated by religion, but political needs, and we remain secular and open to plurality. But we veer ever nearer to Romila Thapar’s definition of communalism. We can stir up communal violence today and loot property of Hindu families through rumours of supposed religion-insulting Facebook posts.
If Manto and Chatterji teach us anything, it is that when one gives in to these demands of religious allegiance, one succumbs to madness. The hatred and mistrust between Muslims and Hindus that resulted in partition lies all too close to the surface still, and even today, can be aroused with little effort. We conflate our own demons with the global Islamophobia, and in turn, give vent to the same madness. Manto’s words, commenting on what he witnessed, warned us. Of our incited selves, ready to die to defend faith, he wrote:
“When these leaders cry their hearts out telling people that religion is in danger there’s no reality to it. Religion is not something which can be endangered. If there is a danger, it is to these leaders who endanger religion to achieve their own ends.”
Maitreyi reviews books and writes essays on literature and culture for Arts & Letters.