The morning after we began our tryst with destiny we thought we will reinvent our traditions in contemporary contexts and live new lives. We never did. The Partition of the subcontinent had driven a wedge through the hearts of people who shared a common history. It uprooted a whole generation. However, the division, and the bloodshed, had started a year before independence dawned, when Jinnah made the call for direct action, triggering of communal violence across the subcontinent. Ever since, the spectre of sectarian violence has stalked the people of the subcontinent. Competing interest groups leaned on myths to invent histories, but the ghosts of Partition were never exorcised. In fact, they assumed new forms and threatened to rupture the fabric of the new Republic that in its soul carried the Nehruvian vision of a liberal, secular and socialist nation and built on the rock of Vallabhbhai Patel’s idea of no-nonsense nation building. That edifice, we now realize, is no monolith.
Why was our freedom followed by a spate of violence, pain and hostilities? The communal massacres that followed even after the traumatic episode of Partition are something I am yet to comprehend. I realize I was not alone in failing to understand the logic of people killing people. In her latest book, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, historian Ayesha Jalal, discusses in depth his non-acceptance of Partition in his writings and the communal narrative that divided India. New India was jolted out of its smug belief that the ghost of communal politics was laid to rest with Partition when a Hindu chauvinist and a proponent of Hindutva, Nathuram Godse, shot the Mahatma. Godse’s was a warning shot about the future that awaited the Republic.
The legacy of a fractured society has been the basis of my quest as an artist to understand the nature and texture of prejudice. In Stoned Goddesses I have attempted to capture my understanding of independent India’s history through important events that scarred its history and, in the process, shaped my identity. It is an identity that has presented me with several moments of anguish but has been at the heart of much of my work.
In two of my important shows, Faith Accompli and Related List, I have tried to come to terms with that identity. Coming from Kerala I am someone who has admired the legacy of Raja Ravi Varma, perhaps the first practitioner of visual arts to migrate from Kerala. In many ways Ravi Varma was a pioneer. He was the first to master the European medium of oil painting and make it very Indian. He was the first to make visual arts accessible to the common man by doing several series of oleographs. The use of litho blocks in this work is my way of paying homage to Ravi Varma. It is a reading of our history in reverse.
As Mushirul Hassan says in the introduction to his book, Making Sense of History, my attempt with this work is also to capture the concerns, anxieties and dilemmas of an individual born in independent India. It is a complicated exercise. To go back to Hassan, he argues India’s history is based on three contradictory themes: Colonialism, Nationalism and Communalism.
Three other landmark events -- the Emergency in 1975, nuclear explosion in Pokhran in 1974, and economic liberalisation in 1991 -- do not have a direct communal face but may have sharpened other divides and destroyed many beliefs about modern India. In terms of historical significance, for instance, Pokhran in 1974 was India’s big break with the pacifist ideal that formed a core of the new nation’s world vision.
There are, of course, other events that shaped the course of modern India’s history. The death of Nehru was really the end of an era and the beginning of a new India. Similarly, the Communist Party of India gaining office in Kerala had ramifications that went beyond even India. Ambedkar embracing Buddhism with his follower’s in 1956 was a reassertion of the Dalits.
The Mandal Commission in the late 1980s triggered a radical shift in the political trajectory of northern India.
The 1980s saw the narrative of communal politics dominating the political discourse nationally. Hindu communalism riding the Ayodhya movement shook the secular core of the Republic. The early years of this decade was marked by the Khalistani movement and the terror it unleashed in Punjab and its neighbourhood. It culminated in Operation Bluestar and the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The anti-Sikh killings that followed were a reminder that people and the State had learnt little from the harrowing experience of the violence that preceded Partition.
The 1980s was subsumed in bloodshed as politically sponsored and State-sponsored violence wrecked social peace in the north, west and eastern parts of India. The macabre dance of death was witnessed in Bhagalpur, Nellie in Assam, Kashmir valley and many small towns. If it was anti-Muslim in some places, it was anti-Sikh or anti-Hindu elsewhere. L K Advani’s rath rode on the Ayodhya Movement initiated by the Hindutva forces to polarize the country in communal terms, according to many, in a manner never seen since the days of Partition. The destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, the Mumbai riots and many such catastrophic events were the outcome of the communal mobilization that the Rath Yatra achieved.
Umebrto Eco in his essay, Inventing the Enemy, writes: “Having an enemy is important not only to define but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we invent one.”
Could that explain the spate of communal riots since the first big one since independence in Gujarat in 1969? Eco further adds that from the very beginning, however, the people who become our enemies are not those who directly threaten us, but those whom someone has an interest in portraying a true threat even when they aren’t.
In the bloody history of India there have been several bouts of violence whose genesis was the assertion of an identity or suppression of another. In a place, say Keelvenmani in Tamil Nadu and Laxmanpur-Bethe in Bihar, the victims were poor, landless, dalit farm workers. Class and caste were at the core of the violence and Keelvenmani or Laxmanpur-Bethe were not exceptions. When the Indian nation state flexed its muscle ahead of the merger of the Hyderabad state or in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur or Jammu and Kashmir, the victims were those marked as enemies of the state. When an insurgency broke out in the Kashmir Valley, Hindu Pandits were identified as targets, in Assam ‘outsiders’ suffered. Gujarat in 2002 saw a section of the society and the State administration collaborate to target Muslimresidents of the state.
Gujarat riots, as Mushirul Hassan points out, were the second Partition of India. Now there are two sets of people: those permanently scarred by the incidents in Gujarat and others dismissive of those scars and living in a permanent state of denial. British poet Kapka Kassabova in her Patriots of Gujarat recounts the suffering of those who lost in Gujarat:
She has extinguished eyes. She folds
and unfolds her hands, then
pulls a photo from a plastic pouch.
Samira and Salma, she says,
Engaged. University students.
Their fiancés gave me this.
Salma and Samira. I could do nothing.
I couldn’t watch, how could I watch.
I had to watch. Why do I live now?
The men came with big knives
laughing while they did it.
They were laughing.
I could do nothing. I couldn’t watch.
I had to watch. I couldn’t help them.
Why do I live now?
She puts the photo back into the pouch,
And smooths it carefully, a sheet
Over a sleeping child.
We pretend that the nation has moved on. Politicians unapologetic of their crimes seek the people’s mandate to rule. And, the crowds cheer them on. “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore. The poet, as always, was prescient.