The first thing that comes to mind about Gurinder Chadha’s Partition-1947 is why does a film need two English names even though one is for its Hindi version.
Chadha has based the film on two books – Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s much-popular Freedom at Midnight (1975) and another lesser known book by Narendra Singh Sarila – Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold story of India’s Partition (2006).
Although Sarila’s work is lesser known among popular books, it is valued more in academic circles and was translated in Hindi by reputed publisher Rajkamal, which published it in 2008 (even before Harper Collins published its Indian edition in 2009).
Its first edition was published by Carroll and Graf publishers New York in 2006. There are a number of books on Partition and some much more important than these two, but Chadha wanted to make a feature film and not a documentary. So, she perhaps chose the text which has some dramatic elements in it, just as Freedom at Midnight.
Gurdas Maan earlier made a film on this book’s narration of Boota Singh’s tragic story, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat in 1999.
Chadha’s film was released in the UK in March 2017 as Viceroy’s House and in India as Partition-1947 in Hindi in August this year to mark the 71st year of Partition and to coincide with the opening of Partition Museum in Amritsar on August 17.
The film begins with the arrival of Lord Mountbatten in India to oversee the grant of Independence under the new Labour government of the UK which came to power following the defeat of Conservative Winston Churchill in 1945.
Churchill was considered diehard anti-India and critical of even Mahatma Gandhi, generally a favourite of British rulers. Churchill had made nasty remarks even on the 1943 Bengal famine, which had killed lakhs of people.
Sarila was the secretary (or ADC) to Lord Mountbatten and the film is made in a way from Mountbatten’s perception.
The film portrays Mountbatten as a humanist and pro-Indian person, but his role to divide India at breakneck speed without bothering about consequences (of massacres among communities) does not make him the person in history as has been shown in the film and related books, which have been written on the testimony of Mountbatten himself.
Mountbatten was related to British monarchs and has no political experience, he remained a high navy officer before and after being the last viceroy and first governor general of post 1947 India.
The film is otherwise moving and brings tears to the sensitive viewers as has happened with Fatima Bhutto and myself and another Sikh gentleman watching the film in Chandigarh during the same show.
But dispassionate analysis of the events in the film and in history does not absolve Mountbatten, Congress leaders and Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Nearly one million Hindu, Sikhs and Muslims killed each other in communal clashes, more than 14 million suffered the worst conditions of migration in the scorching heat and rainy weather of August, not to mention the untold tortures and crimes against women of all three communities.
Chadha’s own ancestors suffered during Partition and her concern is well taken, but her sense of historical depiction of events is flawed.
In fact, the man Cyril Radcliffe who was asked to divide India and Pakistan by drawing just a line on the map felt guilty himself and did not charge any fee for the “dirty work” he was asked to do.
It is “revealed” in the movie that the plot was already hatched by the Churchill government and the boundary lines were drawn by him in 1945 itself – the same were to be drawn by Radcliffe, it was ensured. The secret papers were shown to both Radcliffe and Mountbatten, who is being shown to be devastated by the conspiracy of Churchill and yet fulfils the colonial design to keep Soviet Union away from the post-partition political game. To create Pakistan as the new colony of US imperialism since Nehru was showing pro-Soviet tilt in his thinking.
But a feature film needs a story and a hero and heroine. So, Partitionhas Jeet, played impressively by Manish Dayal, and Aalia, played equally well by Huma Qureshi. A Hindu boy and a Muslim girl, who fall in love and meet in the end like most films with happy endings.
But all that come after lot of Partition-related pain.
Interestingly, Raja Samar Singh Sarila, son of Narinder Singh Sarila, has played the role of his father as Mountbatten’s ADC in the film.
A lot of creative literature, paintings and films have been dedicated to Partition and will continue to be done. Perhaps Indo-Pakistan joint venture in Punjabi, Khamosh Pani or Garm Hawa, may have scored better than any other films on the subject till date.
Partition-1947 could have been more impressive, had it focused more upon the last five years. The film fails to bring to notice the one positive attempt to avoid Partition made by the Cripps mission, first in 1942 and then in 1946 as Cabinet mission led by Stafford Cripps, who was a leftist among Labour leaders and had offered the federal scheme of India. If one looks at it after 70 years, the federal India proposed by Cripps was the best option in those days to avoid Partition. It could have saved million lives and many millions suffering.
The Mountbatten’s biggest criminal act was to force Partition in just two-and-a-half months – from June 3 partition plan of Mountbatten to August 14, 1947 (birth of a new nation Pakistan).
He had time till June 1948 and there was no need to rush through. The best time, if at all there were any, could have been November 1947 or April 1948 – the weather conditions would have improved and the armed forces too would have been properly trained to stop massacres.
In fact, Dr BR Ambedkar was in favour of Partition but with peaceful mutual migration of communities. Alternately, Jinnah and Nehru could had been stricter in not allowing any mass migration of communities and both countries could have lived with minorities in more peaceful manner after 1947.
But a film is a film and it must have a story. So, Viceroy’s House has communal tensions in its own staff, who fight in front of him, though may not be to that extent as has been exaggerated in the film, making an excuse for Mountbatten to hasten the Partition process.
He did it, but history can not absolve him of shirking away his responsibility of not controlling violence under his command. Most of the violence took place from August 1946 – Muslim League direct action call to August-September 1947.
Ironically, Mountbatten did not die naturally as he was assassinated by Irish nationalists at the age of 79. And they claimed it to be just revenge from British colonialists.
Chadha though has an eye for detail, which she uses in this film effectively. The film was not allowed to be shown in Pakistan on the pretext that Jinnah has not been shown in a good light, which is partly true.
But the film shows the human urge for love and empathy despite all the hatred generated by religious or other divisive tendencies, and gives a message that the “heart cannot stop beating even during a bloody partition”.
The biggest ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on education, Dinanath Batra, recently came out with a proposal to remove Avtar Pash’s only poem ‘Sabse Khatrnak’ from the class XI Hindi textbook Aaroh. The poem by the revolutionary Punjabi poet – who was killed by Khalistani terrorists on March 23, 1988 – was first published in 2006.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) revised its textbooks for all subjects under the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. History and Hindi are the two subjects that had invited the ire of RSS. The expert committee in Hindi was led by professor Namvar Singh as its chairman and professor Purushottam Agarwal as chief advisor. For history, professor Neeladari Bhattacharya was the chief advisor.
On August 18, 2006, BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad (now the law minister) raised the issue of the publication of “objectionable” material in NCERT books in the Rajya Sabha. Interestingly, the whole debate was in Hindi and I had gone through it in 2006, before writing an article titled ‘Issues and Facts about NCERT Books‘.
But now, one cannot find Devanagari script on the Rajya Sabha website in order to read this page. There is a good record of the Rajya Sabha Official Debates, but little record of Rajya Sabha Verbatim Debates – this particular issue was part of the latter.
I remember a comment by Sushma Swaraj in which she had labeled Pash a ‘Naxalite’ poet. Even Abani Roy, the leader of Revolutionary Socialist Party, made uncharitable remarks on Pash in that debate. Since we used to exchange views, I had contacted Roy to express my resentment at his comments, from which he tried to wriggle out by saying that ‘He wanted Pash not to be taught in the lower classes, he may be taught in higher classes.’
Roy apparently did not know that Pash’s poem was included in class XI textbook and not for younger students.
Now, Batra, who retired as a Hindi teacher from a school, has not only objected to Pash’s poem, he has also targeted Rabindranath Tagore, Ghalib, Urdu phraseology in general, writings on M.F. Hussain, etc. Whatever BJP MPs had said of Hussain in 2006 in a Rajya Sabha debate has been repeated by Batra now.
Just as the reference to Tagore being omitted from NCERT books created a stir in Bengal and even in the the parliament, Punjabi writers too have vehemently come out against Batra/RSS’s recommendations.
Incidentally, Akka Mahadevi and Pash are the only two non-Hindi poets included in the class XI textbook.
Pash’s poem – included in an anthology – veers towards the philosophical. While talking about oppression in society, the poet muses on the significance of dreams and he finds ‘the death of dreams’ as the ‘most dangerous’ human predicament. Perhaps the RSS and its cohorts are afraid of dreams, as dreams lead to inspiration, which further lead to transformational ideas of better humanity – which is dreaded by RSS like often by religious fundamentalist bodies. So the dreamer poet, who was assassinated by religious fundamentalists, now must be kept away from young minds in school.
But why has Pash offended the RSS so much? Read his poetry and the answer immediately becomes clear.
Pash is one of the major Punjabi poets whose works are a part of the syllabus of several universities. Pash’s works have been translated into major Indian languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi etc. The University Grants Commission, in its model course designed during earlier NDA rule, had recommended teaching Pash.
His poetry has been compared to that of Pablo Neruda and Lorca, and he was murdered for confronting Khalistani terrorists directly through his poetry.
The Pash Library in Karnal, which was established in the memory of policemen of Haryana slain by Khalistanis, has now been closed by RSS chief Manohar Lal Khattar. Pash, in one of his poems, has referred to ‘the critics with red turbans.’ Had he listened to the interpretation of his poetry in Rajya Sabha and by Batra, what term would he have coined for such literary critics? Perhaps ‘literary critics with red turbans and bhagwa (saffron) minds.’
Born on September 9, 1950, Pash’s first collection of poetry ‘Loh Katha’ (Iron Tale) came out in 1970 and earned him instant recognition. His 1974 collection ‘Uddade Bazan Magar‘ (After the Flying Hawks) and 1978 collection ‘Sade Samian Vich’ (In Our Times) immediately made him one of the major Punjabi poets of his generation.
Translations of his poetry got him recognition throughout India. After 1978, till his assassination a decade later on March 23 – a day of his own hero Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom – he published a few poems in journals, but not in any collection. In this period, he brought out journals, set up a school and challenged the Khalistani interpretation of Gurbani.
He then moved to the US due to threats from Khalistani terrorists, but continued writing against both state and Khalistani terrorism in poetry and prose. On a visit to India in 1988, the day he was supposed to return to US with his village friend Hansaj, both were assassinated in his village Talwandi Salem near Jalandhar. His complete poetry was published in different volumes after his assassination and recently his complete prose collection ‘Talwandi Salem nun Jandi Sadak’(The road going to Talwandi Salem) has been published.
Out of Pash’s nearly 200 poems, T. C. Ghai has translated 102 poems in English as well. Two films have also been made on Pash. Rajiv Kumar, the internationally renowned director of Chamm and Nabar, made Apna Pash and another director made Chauras Chand.
Pash’s very first poem is titled ‘Bharat.’ It announces his own sense of nationalism, which is based on working people’s India. And the rejection of Indian nationhood comes in a poem titled ‘A Petition for Disinheritance’, based on the misbehaviour against Sikhs traveling on the Ambala-Delhi highway during the time of the 1982 Asian games.
If Pash attacks the Indian state for its oppression, he does not spare Bhindranwale followers for their cruel acts as well. Were he alive today, he would have definitely written about the murders of intellectuals and dissenters.
Chaman Lal retired from JNU as Professor in Hindi Translation. He has translated poetry of Pash in Hindi and edited documents of Bhagat Singh in several languages.