Under the Same Sky
Recollections of a Subcontinental Persona (1947-1987)
Very little has been written on the Partition of 1947 even though it changed and created a new nation of different political and religious ideology. This is the first installment of a series of articles by activist, researcher and writer, Parveen Ahmad who provides an insight into a part of history which she has witnessed. It is a human story about the ordinary people who were caught up in the storm of geopolitical shifts.
I was born in 1937 in Allahabad, United Provinces of Brithish India and experienced the culmination years of India's Partition in 1947. At the impressionable age of ten years I migrated with my parents to the newly created West Pakistan where I schooled went to college, university and received a broad education. I finally made my home in Bangladesh with my Bengali husbad, the well known playwright Sayeed Ahmad. The ebb and flow of geo-political shifts that developed during and after the Second World War had taken their toll in so many ways on the lives of so many millions worldwide. I had become an alloy of several cultures not only because my parents belonged two different provinces of undivided India but because national identity was the sine qua non of the new generation in Pakistan's new milieu, be it East or West Pakistan. As a little school girl in Loreto Convent School in Calcutta, I had full throatedly sung "God save the King" (George VI, present Queen Elizabeth's father). Later I learnt with some difficulty the verses of Paksar Zameen Shad Baad a Persio Arabic ode to national pride, and finally came to rest on the lyrical and lilting strains of Amar Sonar Bangla.
Migration is part of human history, occurring sometimes because of natural calamities or warfare, sometimes in search of food, in recent centuries for geo-political upheavals and compelling economic enhancement. From that point of view migration is sometimes and or tragic and off times full of hope. The process carries with it many difficulties, pain and pathos. In my case it was traumatic, as I was still quite small. My parents had taken care to protect us children, keeping our feet on the ground while reaching for the stars, in the midst of frightening conditions.
The mid twentieth century, after World War II had brought about radical shifts in power politics in the subcontinent. National identity was darkened by the forces of communalism. Power hungry and corrupt men brought untold sufferings to the peoples of their countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Mankind had been subjected over decades to the savagery and injustices of dictators, autocrats and tyrants in the form of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin and even the seemingly sauve Britsh Crown. My generation got its share of those upheavals and the common people strained under the yoke of deprivation and injustices. Murmurings of discontent were rising, protests on the streets and anger in the press. The reaction of suppressed communities led to mass uprisings in towns and villages. The seeds of political consciousness which had been sown by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s grew and took final shape. The people were ready for sacrifices.
The babies of the 1930s and 1940s in India were born to the clamour for national identity, even as the sounds of World War II air raid sirens were wailing in the background. As a loyal British colony, India had been geared to fight for the crown against Germany and Japan. The radio blared propaganda and martial music, battle speeches thundered and the cries of people for self-rule and democracy echoed back. No more could nationalism be stemmed. I was growting up in a most significant time, which later came to be known by the media as the "peoples century". When the last act of a drama is being played there is a tension in the proceedings. Movements must be so conveyed that the coup de grace impacts the story. So was it in post war India. Those of us who opened our eyes on the unfolding historic post war times had something to gain and certainly a great deal to lose. Those were significant times because we were witnessing not only societal upheavals, but acts of ruthless ambition, political greed and the universal cry for human rights. The events struck deep chords of conscience among thinking people, the deprived were awakening. Issues of national identity and freedom from oppression were buffeted by the demon of communalism and religious bigotry, making it difficult to uphold ideals.
Even at that young age, the significance of the times was memorable because we had in our midst, saw with our eyes and heard with our ears, the call and the radiance of a unique soul, Mahatma Gandhi. He walked with our elders in sun and rain, over dusty roads and slushy ditches, asking the masses of rural India and downtrodden of its cities to throw away their shackles and become truly 'swadeshi'. The younger generation saw him in cinema newsreels and followed his travels all over India and Europe in photo pictures, in daily newspapers. Everybody spoke of Gandhi, both foes and friends, for he was a man to be recknoned with. My parents were great admirers of his, and my father used to attend Mahatma Gandhi's day of silence whenever he visited the Belur Math temple premises near Calcutta. I remember my father would return very grave from such meetings. As children we heard our parents say 'Gandhi calls for freedom, we must not cave in to oppression by the British masters. The time has come to stand up and demand our freedom'. India's rebellion against the crown and clamour for independence was, by and large handled by the authorities according to British belief in democratic norms despite the notorious case of Jalianwala. The lathi-charges, arrests and trials I sadly admit, are not much different to the brutality meted out to demonstrators these days. Gandhi's pacifist ahimsa (non-violence) called for extraordinary sacrifices and he put his nation through a test of fire (agni parikhsha) demanding acceptance of physical pain, torture and self denial in the face of brutal beatings and even death.
It was from Mahatma Gandhi that the people of the subcontinent learnt to look at themselves in a new light and seek the path of goodness to achieve their ends. His eternal belief that all difficulties could be overcome by non-violent resistance, inspired people from the rugged North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan later known as the Frontier Gandhi, held the lamp of ahimsa high, down to the southern tip of India, led by Raja Gopalacharya, from Uttar Pradesh to Bengal, from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, everywhere people marched courageously for freedom.Gandhi's use of the charka spinning wheel as a symbol of national pride had far reaching psychological effects. From the 11th century poet Kabir, a weaver, to Allama Iqbal (one of the most intellectual poets of our times, who always, wore handloom clothes), the image of handspun cotton (khaddar or khaddi) has conjured up spiritual imagery. Kabir sang of the loom in which the threads unite, warp and weft, to weave a beautiful fabric. He spoke of the Indian belief that every religion was for mankind's good. How could one not believe him? The subcontinent stood at the dawn of a new life. Mahatma Gandhi's charkha and loom cloth carried the message.
Parveen Ahmad is Vice President, Women for Women Research and Study Group and founder member of Karika, the first handicraft federation in Bangladesh
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