Barj Dhahan is the founder of The Dhahan Prize, the world’s signature prize for Punjabi Literature, awarding $45,000 CAD each year to newly-published Punjabi novels and short stories.
Seventy-five years ago today, India and Pakistan were carved out of British India into independent countries. Regions of Punjab and Bengal were cut into parts of India and Pakistan. The Radcliffe Line drawn by the British as the new boundary sliced through the heart of Punjab. It led to the largest forced migration and displacement of people in history.
Nearly 14 million were forced out of their homes and villages, based on their religion. Upwards of two million lost their lives. Unspeakable horror of rape, mutilation, abduction and killings marked the days before and after Independence. It was a tragedy beyond comprehension. Punjabi Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, as well as Bengali Muslims and Hindus, suffered the most.
The long-term impact of Partition on Punjabis and Bengalis
On the one hand, every August we celebrate the independence of sovereign peoples from British rule.
On the other hand, no one with roots from Punjab, Pakistan or Bangladesh can escape the ripple effects that Partition had on our families. We are filled with mixed feelings of pride, and also regret, since unfortunately, the two events happened at the same time.
My own mother was a young, married woman nursing her first child when rumours of division spread. Violence erupted first in large cities. It then spread to villages. Our village of Dhahan was about 120 kilometres from the dividing line of what is now two separate countries. Punjabi Muslims in the region began to pack up and head towards Pakistan.
There were only a few Muslim families in our village. My father safely escorted them to a refugee camp at Bharam, as he did for other Muslim communities, while also protecting Sikhs and Hindus from attacks by Punjabi Muslims.
Some of our distant Muslim relatives in another village reached out to my father for help. They said they would become Sikhs to be able to stay in India. My father said that would be fine, but only if they truly wanted to become Sikhs. Otherwise he said, it would be best that they head for Pakistan. They chose the latter option.
The stories of Partition haunt us, educate us and, strangely enough, heal us
There are millions of stories of separation, loss, longing, betrayal and guilt surrounding the Partition.
Alongside them are incredible stories of resilience, determination, courage and compassion – people risking their lives to protect those of religions other than their own. Punjabi and Urdu literature abound with recollections of Partition’s memories.
Seventy five years later, trauma continues to impact those who survived the horror. It impacts their children and grandchildren.
Trauma of witnessing relatives butchered with no mercy. Neighbour turning against neighbour because of religion. Yet, for centuries, they had lived together and participated in each others’ religious festivals.
To quote Aanchal Malhotra in The Globe and Mail on August 12, 2022:
“As we move forward from the 75th anniversary, it is my hope that our young nations can look both outward at community and state, and inward within families in order to understand collective grief, generational trauma, divisive tendency, and how the legacy of Partition can serve both as precedent, but also tool to interpret and learn from the past, to make sure that such an event does not happen again.”
Aanchal Malhotra is a New Delhi based oral historian and writer. She says that Partition is not simply history, but a continuing event. Man-made borders continue to separate Punjabis and Bengalis along religious identities. However, dialogue, storytelling and writing – exploring the painful truths of separation – can be a compassionate vehicle for healing.
Literature can be part of our healing process
With the above in mind, on this day, as we celebrate the Independence of both Pakistan and India, we remember the importance of facing our collective, tragic history, so that we as a people can move forward to a brighter future.
The Dhahan Prize was founded with the recognition that through literature, we overcome borders and distances. We heal from trauma. We learn from our past. We listen. We understand one another.
We participate in that powerful act by awarding new novels and short stories from Punjabi writers, in the scripts of both Shahmukhi (primarily used in Pakistan) and Gurmukhi (primarily used in India).
We also maintain an abiding principle that both scripts are represented among our jurys’ selections.
We continue to advocate for the transliteration and translation of our Prize’s winning books.
Through these efforts, we hope to be a part of the mission to unify and strengthen Punjabi language and literature around the world.
In that vein, we find it fitting to mention literary and artistic works that touch upon the Partition, and its lasting effect on the communities it affects.
Literature and artistic work depicting the Partition of India and Pakistan
We encourage you to seek out and to read the following titles by Punjabi authors:
‘Grieving for Pigeons: Twelve Stories of Lahore’ (2022)
Our own two-time finalist, Zubair Ahmad, recently had his works published in English, in a collection titled, ‘Grieving for Pigeons: Twelve Stories of Lahore’ (2022). It explores the lasting impacts of the Partition on multiple generations. Stories take place in the city of Lahore, Pakistan. It can be read online for free, here.
‘Freedom at Midnight’ (1975)
‘Freedom at Midnight’ (1975), by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, is a non-fiction recounting of events starting with 1947 Independence Day celebrations, the Partition and all the way to the death of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
‘Midnight’s Children’ (1980)
‘Midnight’s Children’ (1980) is a Booker Prize winning novel by Salman Rushdie. The book tells a fictional story of children born at midnight between the 14th and 15th of August 1947, when Partition took place. As a result, they have magical gifts.
‘Lost Generations’ (2013)
‘Lost Generations’ (2013), is a novel by Manjit Sachdeva. It describes the massacres by the Muslim League in rural Pakistani areas as early as March 1947. It goes on to tell of massacres on the day of Partition in August, 1947. A Sikh family flees to Delhi, but then faces more violence decades later at the hands of extremists in a tense political environment, the result of which can be traced back to Partition.
For those who appreciate learning through filmography, Deepa Mehta’s ‘Earth’ (1998) tells the fictional story of a love gone awry as a result of the events surrounding Partition, and Partition itself.
‘Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu’
Finally, there is the famous poem by Amrita Pritam of India, entitled, ‘Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu’ (Today I invoke Waris Shah, Ode to Waris Shah or, I ask Waris Shah Today). In this poem, she points to the pain of the horrifying murders that took place during Partition, while calling out to an earlier poet. She herself had to suffer leaving Lahore for India in 1947.