A history we must confront

From the World Wars to Partition, there is a need to fill in the big gaps in Indian history textbooks

Two days ago, I watched my children being introduced to a parcel of their history — a tightly bundled up piece of the past that is difficult to confront. They were watching a Doctor Who episode on Partition called ‘Demons of the Punjab’. My son has just turned nine, roughly the age that my father was when Viceroy Mountbatten announced the results of Cyril Radcliffe’s red pen slashing through the map of imperial India. With that announcement, both my parents lost their ancestral homes, but they were the lucky ones for their nuclear families happened to be on the right side of that cartographical red line. Some of their extended family were not so fortunate.

From the poppies of remembrance to the frenzied blood of communal hatred, that one day was emotionally draining. India, too, observed the centenary of the Armistice. It is finally acknowledging a part of its history that it has had an uneasy relationship with. For too long, India’s contributions in the two World Wars have been ignored. After all, India sent more than a million troops to fight for freedom in the Great War: at least 74,187, by one count, made the ultimate sacrifice. Indian soldiers fought and died in German East Africa and mainland Europe. ‘Vipers’ entered the Punjabi lexicon, without us honouring the soil at Ypres that soaked up Indian blood. Two decades later, almost two and a half million Indian soldiers would serve again in another bloody global conflagration. Indians fought with great bravery and distinction in north Africa, continental Europe, south and southeast Asia. Though this was not a war of India’s choosing, we sometimes forget that the war came into our country through the northeast. Some of the deaths of the Second World War were of Indian solders defending Indian soil. To ignore their deaths because this was not ‘our’ war would be a grave dishonour. We are finally rectifying what has been a gap in our observance of the contributions in blood and treasure that India has made in the two World Wars.

History in school

I never studied these wars in school. We studied ancient Indian history, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, etc. Back on the subcontinent, we worked our way up to the 20th century, and then to the freedom movement, eliding the Great War. We spent more time on the Khilafat movement without actually studying the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and using the Second World War as a prop for the last push towards Independence. Yes, the Quit India Movement was vital, but we cannot continue to allow the sacrifices of India’s soldiers to be merely supporting structures in our history. Surely, we can honour both.

Of course we did not study Partition in school. As a nation, we have chosen to look away from the horror of the savagery we visited on one another in the name of religion. Yes, the British played their part with ruthless efficiency in their policy of divide and rule, assiduously visited on the nation as they consolidated their hold after 1857. But the knives and bullets and the hands that wielded them and other weapons were our own. That is the conversation I will have to have with my children tomorrow. That is my history that we must confront.

Priyanjali Malik is a London-based independent researcher focussing on politics and nuclear security in South Asia

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