Despite the sadness around partition, I am always drawn to the history, and more importantly the narratives around it. So much of partition history is buried alive and reduced to politics that it is very rare to really hear from the people who actually saw it and lived it. Living in North America and in the comforts of our lives, it is not always easy to truly understand the negative effects that partition left upon our grandparents, parents, and all the way up till today’s generation in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
My grandparents experienced the first South Asian partition in 1947 between India and Pakistan, and my mother experienced partition between Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan). Listening to two waves of partition stories really revealed the amount of violence and hatred my family experienced, an amount I can never even imagine. Sure, I hear about it in the news and in narratives, but I preferred to keep myself detached. I did not understand the patriotism around Pakistan, and honestly I used to be annoyed when I heard people having to make the difference known or becoming offended when someone would ask (with no intention of being racist) if they were Indian (for which I still do not understand the offense, because honestly it is not the easiest distinction to make). Of course that has changed, as I got to learn more and I appreciate the South Asian aspect of my identity.
I have a great uncle in the family who many times has his criticisms about Pakistan. His livelihood was in India, particularly in Jaipur. As a teenager on a visit to Pakistan, I would hear have rants about the idea of Pakistan and how pointless it was, and many times other family members ignored it. Perhaps, they had heard it too many times, but fortunately, I was his first listener and was willing to lend an ear. From how I understood it, he had no incentive to leave India, other than the ensuing mistrust that occured among neighbors. He was a well-thriving business man. He loved economics, and from what my mother has told me, even taught it at a local university. However, the pressure to leave was quite imminent, and for the sake of his family, he had to give in.
While my family was lucky to not be part of the bloody stories we hear about at the borders, on the trains, and in other unspeakable places, it intrigues me to know that there was a life left behind in Jaipur and parts of Gujurat (on my dad’s side). We still have some family members, in fact, who stayed back in Gujurat whom I have never met or heard only about in passing. I wonder, and perhaps I may never know the answers, what motivated some to stay and what motivated others to go to Pakistan.
And then, there are the many horrid stories of the second wave of South Asian partition in 1971, a civil war between people of the same religion, at worst. One group (Pakistan, for those not familiar with the conflict) felt it was “more Muslim” than the other and justified a sense of superiority because the other (the Bangladeshis) leaned “too Hindu”. This may seem like a bit of an oversimplification, but it would be just as much of an oversimplification if one claimed that it was all language differences and economic differences (though those differences were huge and the inequality was gross). Anyway, my mother was about ten years old when it was happening, still a bit young to decipher everything behind it, but still old enough to remember the images of genocide – images she actually refuses to repeat or tell me about to this day.
The thing is the negative effects of partition are still prevalent, but in more subtle ways. I truly felt them here in my comfortable “Melting Pot” culture of convenience as I was waiting three and a half months for a visa to India due to my parents’ birthplace. No, I have never lived in Pakistan nor was born there, and my parents have been US citizens for a long time. When I applied for my visa the first time, I felt annoyed and frustrated that the wait was so long, but when it came through my second time, I was extremely thankful. Thankful to the point that when I would hear someone not be so excited about their business trip to India, I had to resist the urge to say “Goodness! At least you can get your visa quickly and be on your way!” Of course I resisted such a urge.
On the flip side, a friend of mine reported to me that her Indian-American friend had to wait almost seven months with the Pakistani consulate holding her passport. Eventually, she gave up on the visa because no progress was made. So, while I was annoyed the first time, I understood that this problem is not one-sided after hearing a couple of cases from Indian friends. During the second time, I understood that while it does seem unfair, it is the world we live in, and the only way to deal was to sit back and in some ways, let fate intervene.
Finally, in reference to a micro-level incident in relation to the Pakistan/Bangladesh partition, my aunt’s nanny for her children was flying with her and my uncle to Pakistan, only to have to go to a police station for intense questioning. Why? Because the nanny was from Bangladesh. Not only was it a headache for my aunt’s nanny, but also for my aunt because then she was regarded with unnecessary suspicion. Although everything turned out to be okay, it was a very nerve-wracking, unnecessary situation for my aunt’s nanny and for my aunt herself.
In all of these instances I state here, especially around visa and entry issues, I began to truly understand the meaning of the concept “history shapes policy” (and that policy is a discourse of national security, as unfortunate as it may be). I began to understand why historians are a huge part of policy school and why their classes are taught.
While all of these cases may be extremely small anecdotes in the web of much more serious, negatively implicated policies that are based on partition, my point is not to tell readers the obvious. My point is to shed light on how history’s role in policy really has the potential to impact our everyday lives, goals, dreams, and cultural consciousness. For many South Asian-Americans, maybe partition will not play such a direct role in our lives, but it is important to critically think about the way it culturally shaped the thoughts of our parents and now us. More importantly, our thoughts being shaped for harmony between the countries can make a difference.
The other day I attended a talk by the Indian ambassador to the U.S. in Houston, where she talked about how U.S. and India relations are strong in major part because of the role of the Diaspora. I thought about something else, however. When she said “diaspora” she mostly meant our parents’ generations that came straight from South Asia, but what I think is even more interesting is the level of harmony that many of us have in our friendships with other Desis who may be from the “forbidden other side”.
Many South Asian Americans – regardless of which country their parents are from – say that they could care less about any of this or that it does not cross their minds everyday, but unfortunately, there are also many people who hold some pretty ugly partition sentiments (religiously and culturally) even after being born and raised in the U.S. They may not be blatant about them or do anything harmful with them, but they hold such views. Nevertheless, in college, at home, and in the workplace, our struggles with our parents’ and society’s traditions are relatively quite similar, regardless of what part of South Asia we are from. While we remain connected to the land of our parents and the things that make us different in culture (in a good way), we, in a sense, are very lucky to be able to create such harmony through our shared “first-generation” struggles.
I may sound overly optimistic here. However, as first generation sons and daughters of South Asian diaspora populations, we have the potential to show that despite how much history shapes the current policies and ideas in the “Motherland” (and while efforts are heading towards better directions, although not in the near future), we are are able to put aside, at least on a political and cultural basis, our South Asian differences as part of our “Melting Pot” mentality. Of course, there can be friendly rivalries and debate, but there does not have to be hate. We can silently prove that despite the painful history of partition, race truly is a social construct and that ethnic and religious borders do not have to tear us apart as much as we think (insert a John Lennon song here, with complete pride). Understandably, the memories are still very fresh, and reconciliation is still necessary. None of it should be forgotten, but that does not mean conduct and mentality cannot, at the very least, begin to shift in terms of our own prejudices – as well as our families.
*Note: Most of the stories I have listed about my grandparents/parents definitely go beyond what I have stated. Unfortunately, my grandparents died before I was at an age of understanding and curiosity about partition, so a lot of what I state here is anecdotal and based on what my parents knew. That may of course have some bias, but it is the best I could do.