It is estimated that nearly a million people were killed, and more than 10 million people were displaced by the cataclysmic Partition of India in 1947. My family was just one among these millions, uprooted from their village near Rawalpindi, and like the many million inheritors of this blood-drenched shared history, we grew up hearing stories of unbelievable brutality and unbearable loss.
What is extraordinary about these accounts, passed down from generation to generation, is that the Partition is also of collective memory, through partial remembering and partial forgetting. We recall what ‘they’ did to ‘us’ — the cruelty, the rapes and abductions, the bodies dumped in wells, the desecration of shrines, the betrayals; but never what ‘we’ did to ‘them’, which in fact mirrors the same stories. Similar folklore built on selective amnesias follows the trail of every new communal and caste riot, every mass uprooting, each contributing more bricks to construct ever-taller fortresses of public rage and hate.
But there are, there always have been other stories — not just of what ‘they’ did to ‘us’; not even of what ‘we’ did to ‘them’; but also of lives saved, of courage, compassion, loyalty and forgiveness. Ashis Nandy led a team which recorded memories of Partition from people who had themselves lived through those tumultuous times. They found — on both sides of the religious divide and both sides of the border — that more than a quarter of the people reported that their lives were saved by people of the ‘other’ community.
One remarkable story is recounted by an old woman in Pakistan. Decades earlier, in the Partition carnage, she was abducted by a young Sikh man who tried to rape her. The boy’s father intervened, demanding that he release the woman. When he refused, a deadly scuffle ensued; the old man shot dead his own son, and saved her life.
These stories, though not uncommon, are rarely recounted or celebrated. In Indore in 1984, where I served as a young district officer during the anti-Sikh carnage, a 22 year-old Jain shopkeeper took into his home his terrified Sikh neighbour. When murderous mobs still tried to force their way into his home, he resolutely stood between them and the Sikh family. They attacked him with knives, and he died saving the family. In my work for over a decade among survivors of the Gujarat massacre in 2002, I have found many more Hindus who saved lives than took them.
Public rage also surrounds those who commit heinous crimes. For the rapists and killers of the student in a bus in Delhi last winter, we will settle for nothing less than hanging, even for the boy perpetrator. When one of them allegedly hangs himself, people feel cheated that he was able to slyly slip away, evading the public satisfaction of his punishment. When I, or most recently actor Rahul Bose, suggest that everyone, including even the rapists, should have the chance to reform, this is bitterly attacked. Some ask: what would you have done if your own loved ones were attacked? Would you then have spoken of forgiveness and reform?
Amitava Kumar writes of one such couple, the Grosmaires, who were confronted by just such a choice. In March 2010 in Florida, their 19-year-old daughter Ann was killed in a moment of blind rage by her boyfriend Conor of the same age. The boy was sentenced to spend his entire life in jail. The appeal against this order was filed not just by the boy’s parents, but also by the parents of the girl he had killed. They wanted the boy to spend no more than 10 to 15 years in jail, and Conor’s father agreed.
They didn’t forgive Conor for his sake, but their own, Kumar writes; this is what the Grosmaires said to New York Times reporter Tullis. Ann’s mother’s words were: “Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.” For his part, Conor told Tullis, “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Kumar adds that if Conor ‘‘had simply been turned into an enemy, he could have escaped the human contract, but by accepting him, the Grosmaires had drawn him into the circle of obligation. He was going to have to do good enough for two”.
Closer home, after her husband, a missionary who had served leprosy patients in tribal Odisha for more than three decades, was burnt alive with her two young sons,
Gladys Staines forgave the killers, declaring: “It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed.”
The last act of the Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand in 1883 was to forgive his killer, and to help him escape. He was poisoned by a cook, part of a conspiracy of persons opposed to his Hindu social reforms. The cook confessed, and Dayanand gave a bag of money to help him escape before he died.
The time has come when people the world over are challenged to discover new ways to respond to people we believe caused us grave harm. Punishment is important to deter and discourage crime. But we may also find that rage, revenge and hate trap us no less than those who have caused us suffering and loss.
If the survivors of Partition violence, of innumerable communal and caste riots, of terrorist attacks, of displacement from their homelands like the Kashmiri
Pandits, and of heinous crimes of rape and murder, are ultimately to find closure and healing, we need to find public spaces for both justice and forgiveness. Justice is critical, but if we learn to temper justice with compassion, the world may become a kinder, fairer and safer place for all.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal