Grandma’s Partition Tales and the Communal Challenge in Contemporary India

Grandma’s tales were always engrossing, taking us to a world of vivid images and emotions. Her narration of the story of Dhanna Jatt (a peasant saint of Punjab) would create the picture of a farmer in tahmat, and kurta squatting in front of two rounded stones without food for days and imploring ‘Thakara, if you wont eat my parsad (offerings), I too will go hungry’. The moral of the story was the bhakti message of devotion without rituals; and persistence in devotion, even if the act signifying devotion appeared meaningless. Her other tales dealt with the fable of Heer-Ranjha, different characters from Mahabharata, and with Sharwan from Ramayana, one of her favourite characters. However, her most engrossing tales were about her leaving Lahore in the August of 1947. These were tales of loss, sadness, stoicism, kindness to others and from others, and also, of extreme bitterness.

One tale was about an old widow from tarkhan (carpenter) caste from a neighbouring street, living alone since her only son had gone to another city for making a living. When the big riots start with fires and killings everywhere, the old woman, all alone, leaves her house with her most prized possession, her sewing machine, on her head. She reaches another house a few streets away, on the main road where a number of Hindu families have gathered to be taken to the safety of the refugee camp. The head of the gathering, another woman, looks at the sewing machine and scolds the old woman for carrying a useless of piece of iron, but not bringing a seed to grain to see her through the uncertain journey ahead. The simple old woman starts walking back to her house, through streets full of smoke, and burnt houses, with not a soul in sight. A young Muslim man of the neighbourhood (actually a half man- half boy, only a mundah in grandma’s vocabulary) pounces upon her from a corner with an axe in hand. The axe blade cuts through her dupatta and grey hair, splitting her skull in a fountain of blood. We kids shudder, look at our own grandmother, and her dupatta. She does not appear overwhelmed by her memories, and is already moved ahead with her narration. Actually, the point of her tale is not the violence, the horror of a helpless old woman being killed so clinically, nor hatred for a Muslim boy of the neighbourhood, who actually remains faceless. It is the vileness of the other woman, the head of the Hindu gathering, who sends the old woman back, instead of offering her comfort and care. Grandma would tell us this story to express the deep bitterness of her Partition experiences, for in her tale that other woman was her own elder sister. The bitterness towards a close sibling came out even more strongly in the narration of her personal experiences. Like when the time came to leave Lahore, the elder sister who had many sons and a support network left without taking note of the younger one living nearby alone with a seven year old daughter. This betrayal of kinship responsibilities could only be attributed to bad intentions. She would also claim that during their journey from Lahore to Delhi through a series of refugee camps, her sister eyed the gold she had managed to bring with her. We never got to hear tales of Partition from grandma’s sister. But it was well known in the extended family network that the two sisters, powerful matriarchs of their households, did not see eye to eye.

It was not that all of grandma’s tales about Partition were bitter. One in particular was of extreme generosity and gratitude. The hero of this tale was the son in law of the same sister, the husband of her niece. This gentleman was employed in a government office in Lahore. When grandma was trapped alone with her daughter in her house in a Muslim majority neighbourhood, it was this gentleman who arranged for and came with a military truck to move her to the main refugee camp of Lahore, no doubt with considerable threat to his own life. He appeared as no less than an angel when he knocked on the tightly bolted door of the dhyorhi (arrival porch) of her house and announced his arrival. This uncle would visit us later in Delhi too, and we kids would notice with curiosity the high esteem grandma and he held each other. The generally serious face of grandma would beam up in happiness. She would grasp this uncle from his shoulders, as he bent down to do her peri paina (touch her feet). While the kindness of this uncle was eventful in grandma’s tale, the trust put in another man came out of routine life. This gentleman was Rahmatullah, her immediate neighbour. When riots, fires, smoke and killings broke out, and only stray dogs howled in streets emptied of everyone except killer gangs, Rahmatullah religiously supplied grandma with essentials of everyday life; milk (from his own cows), vegetables, salt, and oil over the wall separating their two houses. Grandma’s relatives would tell her not to trust the Muslim neighbour. ‘What if he poisons the milk, and occupies your house!’. Not accepting helplessness even in those trying circumstances, grandma would reply ‘Let it be so, if God so wishes,’. In the event, when grandma left Lahore, keys to her house, No 45, Dharampura, were left with Rahmatullah, who while bowing said, ‘Bebe, (familial address of respect to elder women), khyaal rakheen (take care)’.

Saraswati Devi

Partition Sans Politics, a Tragedy of Personal Lives

In hindsight, it seems remarkable that gandma’s Partition tales did not have any political coordinates. She never mentioned Gandhi, Jinnah or Nehru. Two of her tenants in Lahore were RSS activists, young men who organised shakhas for Hindu boys of the neighbourhood. Her own teenager son attended these shakhas. But the RSS message of greatness of Hindus, viciousness of Muslims, and the necessity of Hindus to organise to counter their evil deeds, never entered her tales. The entire plan and politics of Partition was premised upon two abstract categories of a Muslim and a Hindu community; a conceptual map of the Indian society shared by both Muslim League and Hindu communal organisations, as well as by the colonial regime. It seems grandma’s understanding of society did not have any place for such categories, which meant that even the Muslim boy of the neighbourhood who kills an old woman in Dharampura, is not seen as an Other, an object of communal hatred.

A sort of reversal of Rahmatulla’s neighbourly act in Lahore was enacted later in Sahibabad across Delhi border in September 1947. After migrating from Lahore grandma was living with grandpa in an oil mill under his management. A train ferrying Muslims to Pakistan was stopped on the railway tracks behind the factory and many passengers were killed. Grandma’s phrase for this form of violence was ‘gaddi kat ti‘ (a train was cut). Around that time a Muslim family, who lived in a big house across the factory was given shelter in its premises. In grandma’s tale, to maintain secrecy, the family was lowered onto a shelf inside a well in the factory compound, and food was supplied discretely after dark.

Grandma did not make even a figurative connection between Rahmatullah of Lahore supplying her essentials across their shared wall, and she giving shelter to a Muslim family in the Indian side of the border. It was as if these two were separate incidences, in which the only act that counted was neighbourly duty. In her mental world no community identity linked a Muslim in Lahore to another Muslim in Sahibabad. There is no doubt that her mental world was local, and it remained local even when epoch defining large scale events were buffeting it. She did not let the external shock of Partition unhinge her every day morality. This resilience was as much a consequence of her personality, as her circumstances.

A number of clarifications are in order. It would be grossly misleading to call grandma’s mental map of her social world as syncretic. This map refused to categorise others in terms of trans-local categories, and confronted the world face-on. People however were recognised separately as Hindus and Muslims. Any transgression of the community boundary, in food or personal relationships, was a taboo. At a superficial level her world seems Gandhian, in the sense of two communities living side by side. However, she did not derive her moral bearings from any universal principle. Her morality worked and made its way in the thickness of her immediate social networks. Actually Gandhian morality too was compromised by its community commitments. Till very late he valorised the Hindu varnasharam, and found it hard to openly challenge caste prejudices of upper caste Indians, which in a way formed his community.

Map of Grandma’s House 45 Old Dharampura, Lahore

It would also be wrong to attribute the localised moorings of her moral world to the constricted agency of a caste Hindu woman bound to domesticity. Actually in many ways grandma was any thing but domestic. It appears that a division of labour existed between grandpa and grandma, as far as the worldly affairs of their family were concerned. Both were first generation rural migrants to Lahore. Grandma was illiterate, grandpa had attended village school and could read and write a bit of Urdu. After a number of small jobs in Lahore he moved to Western UP where his employment with a family of Bania seths proved reasonably rewarding. His earnings were sent back to Lahore, where grandma single handedly oversaw the construction of their house. Till the end grandma remained very proud of her house and the work she had put in getting it built. She carried an ammonia print map of it with her from Lahore, and would show us how the number of every room, kitchen, store, bathroom, etc in the map added to thirteen. Grandpa’s earnings were also used to strengthen the position of the household in their kin network, through material help to others and through buying gold. These ventures too were largely a result of grandma’s agency. Grandpa was in Sahibabad near Delhi in August 1947, so grandma faced the Partition on her own.

The localised social world of grandma was not idyllic. It had many stress points; some of these were accentuated by Partition. As already noted, grandma did not hesitate to transfer the morally shocking aspects of Partition on to her elder sister, thereby severing an important kin connection. The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship was the other one which got severely disrupted in her case. As Paul Hershman notes in his study of Punjabi kinship, this relationship is especially fraught. The initiation of a young woman into this relationship as a daughter in law, and then her later transition into a mother in law, are important markers in the life of a Punjabi woman. Grandma was fortunate in her case as grandpa lost both his parents while only a child and was brought up through the kin network of his village. None of the women of that network could assert the authority of a mother-in-law on her. Partition problematised her own transition to the identity of a mother-in-law. Control over the household and its property is an essential lever of power in this relationship. Grandma lost her house in Lahore. Grandpa passed away within ten years of Partition. They could not get down to build another house, and lived in rented properties in India. The next house in the family was built by her son, so the last two decades of her life were spent in her son’s household. She clearly felt that the fate had been very unkind to her after Partition, and this loss clouded her moral judgments. If grandma’s agency in her local world flourished in Lahore before Partition, the post Partition realities of her life atrophied this very agency.

Failures of Indian Secularism

Secularism is claimed to be India’s response to Partition. Grandma’s refusal to hate Muslims can be seen as a similarly secular response to it. In the light of the contemporary successes of Hindu communalism in India, it is necessary to have a deeper look into this kind of secularism. Localised kin networks and communities formed the actual content of grandma’s world. Its morality was directed largely inwards, towards her own network and community, and hesitated in judging others. A benign ‘live, and let live’ motto guided relationship with others outside that network. Indian secularism shares many features with grandma’s social imagination. It is premised upon a community based map of society. Secular safe guards are seen as given to religious communities, not to citizens, who are entitled to them as part of their fundamental rights.

Unfortunately for her, and for millions of other Indians like her, the actual reality of India was determined by social and political forces much greater than them. Partition was the crime of these forces. Like millions of others she was a pure victim of that crime, who did not even understand who the criminals were. Partition was a ‘hawa’ that came and uprooted millions. They had little chance against it, and had little choice but to accept their fate. Interestingly, even non-communal political forces in India, Congress, Communist Party, and also Ambedkar accepted the inevitability of the Partition. Political groups often have to confront forces much greater than their own abilities, so acceptance of an outcome dictated by others is part of political life. However, there was something deeper at work here. All of them shared a common failure to imagine the violence which Partition would bring to ordinary lives like grandma’s. ‘Population Transfer’ was seen only as an administrative exercise. Gandhi was the sole exception. He was ideologically closest to the bulk of Indians than any other politician, and sensing the impending devastation even refused to celebrate freedom of the Nation. The work of his last few months, in Naokhali, Calcutta and Delhi, kept the Gandhian moral lamp glowing in an otherwise dark scenario. The Partition however was a result of the defeat of the Gandhian politics too. What explains this universal failure of Indian politics?

Notice another fact. If communalists view Partition as a war, and assess it in terms of their achievements (WE managed to get Punjab free of Hindus and Sikhs (in Pakistan), and Muslims (in India)), non-communalists view it largely as a tragedy, not as a crime. Even if heroically, tragedies are suffered. Societies try to prevent crimes, create public morality that disapproves of criminals, and a criminal justice system to punish them.

Partition shook the foundations of grandma’s social world, turning her bitter about her kinship network. However, as her personal life in post independence India showed, she also failed to overcome limitations of this very network, for instance by freeing herself from the straight jacket of the daugher-in-law/mother-in-law framework of Punjabi patriarchy. Secularism in India suffers from a similar failure. Like grandma after 1947, it has remained stuck to a community framework. This has confused Indians about the actual content of secularism, and has helped strengthen communalists of all communities. As a counter corollary, a secular public life in which all citizens irrespective of their caste, gender, ethnicity, or religion participate equally has remained weak. Grandma’s generation that suffered Partition seventy years ago had little idea of modern democratic practices and concepts. Citizens of a republic have no excuse.




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Sanjay Kumar Written by:

Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen's College, Delhi

One Comment

  1. Satinder Mullick
    July 15, 2018

    Sanjay , Did grandma tell u her address in Dharampura ?
    I remember Dharampura where I completed 5 years of education before moving to Delhi .
    One of my friend attended St Stephens College in 1954 and he took me to see it . I studied after higher secondary in BHU for engineering .We lived near India Gate .

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