How Pak is using language to deny the horrors of Partition
The word taqseemis commonly used by Partition survivors to refer to the events of 1947. A division, a split, a rupture that gave birth to Pakistan. In English, the word Partition is part of the established vocabulary that gives voice to one of the most significant events in recent history.
As an oral historian and researcher, I have interviewed hundreds of Partition survivors over the past several years.
These words are uttered often in interviews, allowing people to share their memories, to in some way express what they had endured during the cataclysmic division.
And just as these words are present in all the interviews I have conducted, so too are the horror stories of Partition. Bodies chopped up, breasts cut, throats sliced, figures mutilated.
Regardless of the volume of work conducted on Partition on both sides of the border, perhaps not even a fraction of the bloodshed and violence endured by survivors has been captured in its essence. Many of these survivors continue to live in the trauma of Partition, its journey ongoing, interjecting their dreams, their thoughts and their everyday lived experiences.
Yet 70 years after Partition, the Pakistani state has devised its unique way of referring to 1947; these official versions have their own ontology, removed from the context of the survivors.
The politics of recognition of certain events, or certain version of events, and the politics of denial of other episodes is at the heart of these policies.
Partition or Independence?
I was recently invited to speak about Partition at a literary event. The students who were putting together the event had wanted me to share the Partition narratives I had collected, particularly focusing on the violence that the survivors had experienced. I wasn’t surprised for it is often assumed that the only experiences of 1947 are the violent ones. It serves to justify separation, the creation of Pakistan that ‘liberated’ Muslims from the ferocious ‘infidel’ perpetrators they had left behind on the other side.
However, days before I was scheduled to speak, there was a subtle change. I was no longer meant to talk about Partition; rather, I was supposed to limit myself to talk about Independence. While 1947 indeed marks both Partition and Independence, one cannot talk about Independence without addressing Partition.
However, the organisers, I was told, believed that there was no Partition but only Independence that had taken place.
Moreover, they rejected the idea of discussing the bloodshed of 1947. Instead, they claimed there were no horrors.
1947 was Pakistan’s triumph, its victory. After all, if there was no Partition, how could there by any bloodshed?
Today, Partition has metamorphosed into Independence. And it is not Independence from the British but rather from ‘Hindu’ India.
The colonial past receives little attention in Pakistani textbooks and the Divide and Rule Policy is often sidelined. Using the Two Nation Theory to inculcate the idea that Hindus and Muslims were always separate nations, the two communities are shown as divisive throughout history.
A common phrase found in textbooks is, “Hindus can never be the true friends of Muslims.” August 14 then is a cause for celebration because it gave Pakistan independence from India. What the actual survivors feel, those who had fought tooth and nail to create Pakistan, those who had suffered the loss of family members and friends, of childhood, properties and their homeland, does not matter.
No taqseem, no Partition, no horrors took place. By depriving them of the language to express these sentiments, the state can erase any memories of longing, of remorse, of nostalgia. It can impose the official understandings of a tumultuous ‘victory’.
The use of selective language, of particular words and symbols, is a powerful way to mould memories and understandings. By imposing or depriving citizens of specific words, of the tool of language, states are able to construct identities, meanings and experiences that fit national projects.
Interestingly, while Pakistan insists on referring to the events of 1947 as Independence, when it comes to the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh, terms such as “The Fall of Dhaka” or “Dismemberment” are openly used.
This is in stark contrast to the use of the word “Liberation” by the Bangladesh government. To call it anything else in Bangladesh can invite charges of anti-state behaviour, just as calling it Liberation or Independence in Pakistan would.
In India, it is unacceptable to refer to the part of Kashmir under its control as anything but Jammu and Kashmir. Titles like “Indian-administered Kashmir” are deemed objectionable on the ground that they challenge the notion that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the country, that they challenge India’s sovereignty over the territory.
The open and ongoing resistances against the Indian state by Kashmiris who challenge Indian rule and view India as an occupying force are dismissed. By insisting that the territory is referred to as Jammu and Kashmir, the apparatus to express this view is snatched away. Publishing houses and media outlets too are expected to abide by these ‘guidelines’ laid down by the state, undermining freedom of speech and denying Kashmiris freedom of expression.
In Myanmar too, there has been an active effort by the state to deprive the Rohingya community of their ethnic identity and their claim to the land by insisting that the Rohingya people should not be referred to by that name.
In 2016, it was reported that Aung San SuuKyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, had advised that the term not be used. Foreign Ministry official, KyawZayYa, further reasoned that, “We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognised as among the 135 official ethnic groups” in Myanmar.
By making the community nameless, the state can deny them the right to the land, the language to express their grievances, and the world recognition as a persecuted community, facing genocide.
The forced use of particular terms or the silencing of certain other terms like Partition, taqseem, Rohingya, Indian-administered or Occupied Kashmir successfully suppress indigenous voices, sentiments and aspirations.
States are able to reign in elements that may question state policies, histories and ongoing violence perpetuated in the name of security.
Through this politicisation of language, attempts are made to try to reconstruct national identities, sidelining the very citizens that often helped create and sustain these nation-states.