Monday, August 20, 2012

Horror erased the joy of Independence in 1947. How valid is joy today?

Independence day can be an unsettling experience if you spend it reading about how it all began in 1947. Today we rejoice, we fly the flag proudly and say Jai Hind with confidence. All of which is right. But to forget the mass killings and horrendous human tragedies that marked the occasion 65 years ago would be unwise – because the mentality that led to the gory partition riots is still around as is clear from the Assam riots, the Mumbai violence and the sudden exodus of northeast people from places like Bangalore.

If mere rumours can spread panic today, we can imagine the scale of atrocities that accompanied independence. There are books and films that tell us about them. A book that many may not read is D.F. Karaka's Betrayal in India. That's because Karaka was seen as a social snob. In the 1950s-60s Bombay he and R.K. Karanjia were rival polestars, one editing Current, the other Blitz. Karanjia was the people's editor, identifying himself with popular causes. Karaka was a rich, British-educated, dressing-for-dinner kind of man, famous for throw-away sentences like, “at the luncheon table of J.R.D.Tata, I sat opposite Pandit Nehru”, and how “Madame Chiang Kai-shek did me the honour of asking me to tea”. In the course of the celebrated feud between the two editors, Karanjia called D.F.Karaka Damn Fool Karaka, and all Bombay laughed.

But Karaka was a gifted journalist. His contacts were unmatched and his columns were read. Betrayal in India is an account of what partition meant to the people of Punjab and how the masses felt let down by the new government that assumed power. On both issues his thesis is not new. We know now that partition brought out “not the surgeon's healing knife but the butcher's destructive axe”. We also know that freedom and power made patriots turn into predators. But Karaka said it in 1950, when the wounds were till bleeding and the masses still believed that Jawaharlal Nehru would lead them to justice and prosperity. Three generations later, we can say: Yes, what a let-down.

Memories of the “undeclared civil war “ in Punjab in August-September 1947 produce shocks even today. Calcutta had seen massacres earlier but at partition time Mahatma Gandhi lived in places like Noakhali and wrought what the British editors of The Statesman described as a near miracle. In Punjab there was no Mahatma. There were fearsome formations. The Muslim League had its National Guards who wore uniforms and “were reminiscent of the Nazi SS”. The Sikhs had their Shahidi Dal and the RSS had its armed wing. It was open war and there was no government machinery capable of controlling the warring groups.

Karaka describes the arrival of a refugee train from Pakistan at the Amritsar station. Later that same day a train going from India to Pakistan also stopped at Amritsar. The train from Pakistan had been savagely attacked three times and the survivors, as they reached Amritsar, said at least 2000 passengers had been massacred. The train to Pakistan was clandestinely shunted to an isolated track near the Khalsa College where its passengers too were attacked. Savagely.

In both trains “men, women and children lay dead in the most ghastly positions... Many a head and hand lay dismembered. Mouths gaped wide in horror, fear and pain.... Who were all these people dying like flies? They were poor, unarmed, defenceless peasants. They certainly had no political consciousness and had never been concerned with issues like partition and boundaries. They were only counted in hundreds and thousands as one counted heads of cattle”.

In the next chapter, Karaka recounts how “a new class of Indian now emerged on the Indian scene, the khaddar-clad, Gandhi-capped, black-marketeering patriot”. He talked of politicians and businessman who made a killing by illegally cashing 1000-rupee notes following their demonetisation. Karaka was lucky. He did not live to see Bofors, the Commonwealth Games and the 2G spectrum bonanza. The betrayal of India continues.