This time, the basis is class, not religion
Staggering scenes of desperation are playing out across South Asia this week, amongst millions of migrant workers stranded by the coronavirus emergency. Caught between lockdown and transport bans, huge numbers have set off on foot towards the security of home.
The mass exodus uncannily recalls Partition, especially the indelible images photographed by Margaret Bourke-White.
We all know the political rationale for what occurred in 1947, and again in 1971. But the human cost lingers. As the great Gulzar wrote in his debut novel Two (originally written in Urdu): “This arrogant, conceited history strides with her head in the clouds and never looks down.
She does not realize how she crushes millions of people beneath her feet. The common people. She doesn’t understand that one may cut a mountain in two, but people? It’s a hard task, Bhai, to cut one people in two. They bleed.”
An unforgettable memoir of those catastrophic times, The Sixth River by Fikr Taunsvi was recently published in translation (also from Urdu) for the first time. In it, the author, whose actual name was Ram Lal Bhatia, writes in anguish: “People -- they have become indistinct dots. Aimless, whom no one sees. But whom everyone is claiming to see. The people are only being used to serve different aims and motives. What are the people? Only sheep! That powerful shepherds are shoving along their own paths.”
This haunting, forceful translation is by 33-year-old poet and academic Maaz Bin Bilal, who is currently in isolation with a couple of colleagues in New Delhi. Via email, he told me: “The parallels between Partition and the ongoing crisis are incredibly striking. The lesson that should have been learnt is that you do not create boundaries of any sort without adequate preparation. [In 1947] people were forced to migrate without adequate preparation and provisions for their food or personal security. This should never have been repeated.”
Bilal pointed out another troubling fact: “The government arranged for flights to bring in international travellers (who were possibly the original virus carriers, especially as many broke quarantine), but there were no transports, food, or shelter arranged for the poor, who were then often beaten up by the police for trying to walk on the streets. The original Partition was along religious divides, and this one seems to be on the basis of class.”
It’s an important insight. While there are signs that opportunistic communalization is stirring, which could bring out familiar sectarian hatreds to vitiate the virus emergency, what’s already compellingly present is the oceanic divide between privileged haves and everybody else. This time, we are partitioning our own body politic, right to the bone. The knock-on effects will last forever, just like what happened in 1947 and 1971.
Everything about the way we live our lives is going to change.
The wildly popular Israeli intellectual wunderkind (he’s 44) Yuval Harari recently wrote: “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our health care systems but also our economy, politics, and culture … Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes.”
Some of these sped-up decisions will be to the good. For instance, earlier this month, India “indefinitely suspended” its updating of the National Population Register, which has been hotly opposed by people’s movements across the country, as well as states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal, and Bihar. It’s hard to imagine that potentially exclusionary exercise will ever be revived.
But other moves will exert incalculable human costs, especially the draconian controls being imposed on entry to urban enclaves, and relatively well-off regions. Countless vulnerable people on both sides of the barricades will suffer even more than they have. We are accelerating at warp speed to becoming full-blown Apartheid states, complete with institutionalized segregation.
Make no mistake, that scenario is only a hair-trigger’s distance.
Maaz Bin Bilal writes exactingly beautiful verse -- his debut collection Ghazalnama is one of my favourites -- and his first lockdown poem is called Who did it? Here’s an excerpt:
A plague is afoot sifting through humanity,
Who spread it? Where’d it come? -- Isn’t it trite: Who did it?
Where we go from here may scream to the skies
of the bravery of all those who fight who did it.
Nature’s self-correction, the sins of the fathers,
Did a god will this to set aright who did it?
I am drunk on wine, and they are on power,
Who’ll adjudge who is wrong, who is right, who did it?
The rich live in isolation in large bungalows,
Abdul who built that house must fight who did it.
Deserts of loneliness, and ghettoes and camps,
Who put them there and set them alight, who did it?
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.