The literature on the Partition of India is driven by those who had to flee religious persecution, whether Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan or Muslims in India. In the Fifties and Sixties, the refugee experience resulted in a series of moving novels and stories, by writers such as Khushwant Singh and Bhisham Sahni in India and Saadat Hasan Manto and Intezar Hussain in Pakistan. The memories were too painful to set down in memoir or history, so they were camouflaged and perhaps made more evocative through the medium of fiction.
In subsequent decades, writers and poets continued to write novels and poems about Partition. However, they were now joined by writers of non-fiction. Historians wrote academic tomes based on archival research, explaining why and how the politicians failed to save the unity of India. Those with a more literary sensibility wrote books based on interviews, capturing the voices and sentiments of those who lost homes as well as loved ones in the bloody summer of 1947.
No event in Indian history has been so written about as Partition. And the books keep coming. Several very good books were published in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event. And some more good books have come out this year to mark the 60th anniversary.
Some writers have described Partition as India’s Holocaust. I would not go so far — for Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was a far more focussed act of State policy. And it claimed many more lives. Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II, as against an estimated one million who died in the riots in the subcontinent. Again, while colonial policy undoubtedly contributed to the violence, it was not as if the British divided India with an intent to murder. While they were callous and cynical in their dealings, they were helped along by the amorality of the Muslim League and the selfishness and shortsightedness of the Congress. And, in the end, it was ordinary Hindus and Sikhs who set upon ordinary Muslims, and were set upon by them in turn. Partition was a civil war, not a Holocaust.
Still, there are some parallels between the events in central and eastern Europe between 1938 and 1945 and in northern and eastern India in 1946-47. These parallels chiefly lie in how the events are remembered. Just as Jews themselves have contributed most richly to the literature on the Holocaust, the ‘first generation’ of Partition literature was mostly the work of refugees. And some of the best works in recent years have been authored by the children and grandchildren of refugees.
Another parallel lies in what is foregrounded and what mostly forgotten. There were other social groups whom Hitler also sought to annihilate — such as the homosexuals and the Gypsies. Yet far less has been written about them as compared to the Jews. Likewise, the literature on India’s Partition is dominated by the suffering of refugees from Punjab and Bengal. There is less work on the Uttar Pradesh Muslims who went over to Pakistan, and on the Sindhi Hindus who had to flee into India. The least written about are the Bihari Muslims, this despite the fact that they suffered not once but twice — first when British India was divided, and then again 24 years later, when East Pakistan became the sovereign nation of Bangladesh.
These forgotten victims of India’s Partition have, at long last, found their analyst and chronicler. The sufferings of the Bihari Muslims are the focus of Papiya Ghosh’s recently released book, Partition and the South Asian Diaspora: Extending the Subcontinent. Based on archival research in three continents, supplemented by many interviews and by the skilful use of evidence from fictional sources, this is an intensely human work by a very humane and empathetic historian.
The Partition of India became inevitable after the bloody riots of 1946-47. The violence began in Calcutta on August 16, 1946, sparked by Jinnah’s call for ‘Direct Action’. It then spread to the Bengal countryside, where the main victims were Hindus. This sparked a wave of retributive justice in the adjoining province of Bihar, where it was Muslims who had much the worst of the violence. As Ghosh explains, the riots in Bihar greatly strengthened the demand for Pakistan. For the province was run by a Congress government, some of whose members actively encouraged attacks on Muslims. The partisanship of the administration (mirroring, of course, the prior partisanship of the Muslim League government in Bengal) seemed to vindicate Jinnah’s claim that Muslims would never be safe in a united India where the Hindu-dominated Congress would be the dominant and ruling party. As one refugee wrote, “the blood of the Bihari martyrs provided the ‘foundation stone of Pakistan’”.
After the Bihar riots, there was a mass migration of Muslims into Pakistan. Those who were educated made for the towns and cities of West Pakistan. Others, usually from the lower strata of society, left for the new nation’s eastern wing. In all, about half-a-million Bihari Muslims made their home in East Pakistan. While their compatriots in Karachi and Lahore were able to adjust to their new surroundings, these Biharis still felt out of place. Ghosh quotes a character in a novel who says: “Pakistan held out such rosy hopes for us. It was our Eldorado. But there was no Pakistan here. Only Bengalis swarming in all directions.”
In 1971, these Bihari Muslims were rendered homeless once more. After the civil war broke out in East Pakistan, hundreds of Biharis were killed by Bengali freedom-fighters who viewed them as collaborators of the West Pakistanis. The Bihari Muslims, who had left India out of fear of the Hindus, now found that the Bengali Muslims were far worse. Tens of thousands fled back into India. As Ghosh writes, “Many Bihari Muslims grounded in Bangladesh after 1971… have made their way to the Metiabruz locality of Kolkata and taken up tailoring, embroidery, domestic and brick-field jobs.”
Strikingly, and shamefully, Pakistan washed its hands of the Bihari Muslims in the now sundered east. Those who could not get into India made their way into Nepal and Burma. Some even reached the United States of America. But the majority huddled in refugee camps; in the late Eighties, some 258,000 Biharis lived in camps in Bangladesh, fed and clothed by international relief organizations.
Most victims of Partition were abandoned once. But the Bihari Muslims were abandoned three times. Three sovereign nations had turned their back on them — their ancestral home, India; their new homeland, which later became Bangladesh; and their promised homeland, Pakistan, which moved west after 1971.
That it was Papiya Ghosh who finally did justice to the travails of the Bihari Muslims is entirely fitting. In her own lifetime, Dr Ghosh had seen a great deal of suffering. Her father was murdered; one of her closest friends died in a car accident. She was herself a chronic asthmatic. Experiences such as these would have made a lesser human being bitter and resentful. But this good lady rose above them. I knew her for 30 years; knew her as a fine scholar and a truly noble human being. She was caring and kind in all her dealings — whether with academic superiors or inferiors, students, workers, family, friends and, perhaps above all, children. And she was devoted to her native Bihar. She could have got an academic appointment in Delhi or the US; yet she chose to teach in Patna.
The last paragraph had, tragically, to be written in the past tense, since Papiya Ghosh died before her book was published. Late last year, she was brutally murdered in her own home in Patna. Those accused of the murder have been put on trial; but it is not known whether the political class of Bihar has the will and the courage to take the trial to its logical conclusion. Papiya Ghosh lived her life for and among the people of Bihar. Now, after she has gone, one hopes that the state of Bihar can do proper justice to her memory.