Saturday, March 28, 2015

Partition: The Day India Burned (2007)


Director: Ricardo Pollack
Narrator: Chiwetel Ejiofor


It is a BBC documentary about the effects of British withdrawal from India in 1947 after splitting the country into two- Independent India and a Muslim state called Pakistan. It triggered one of the biggest migrations in history with around fifteen million people displaced and more than a million losing their lives in the ethnic cleansing that ensued based on religious lines. The story is told through the accounts given by people who were living their entire life in what became the other side all pf a sudden, and were forced out of their homes as one of the largest and most ethnically diverse nations in the World was divided. 

The documentary serves as a recounting of what happened during the year leading up to the partition and its aftermath. The focus is more on the witness account rather than the politics behind the partition and this is understandable since it is a BBC production. In 1946, a British cabinet commission came to India to discuss its independence with Congress party and the Muslim league led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. At that point, Jinnah was ready to compromise on his demand of independent Pakistan provided that the provinces under independent India would be given more autonomy and power in the federalist equation. This was not acceptable for the Congress under Nehru, who had a socialist vision for independent India which according to him would need a strong central government. Any further hopes of non-partition was dashed with the Calcutta riots in August 1946 which began with Muslims killing Hindus. The violence escalated with Hindu reprisals and lasted for three days leaving around four thousand people dead, around equal body count from both sides. The communal violence spread to Bihar, to Noakhali in Bengal, in Garhmukteshwar in the United Provinces and on to Rawalpindi in March 1947.


Late in 1946, the Labour Governement in power decided to end British rule in India after finding themselves to be almost in a bankrupt state because of the second world war. In early 1947, they announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948. To oversee the same, Lord Mountbatten was appointed as the Viceroy of India in February 1947. He met with Nehru and Jinnah and formed a cordial relation with the former but found the latter to be very cold and adamant on his demands for an independent Pakistan. Seeing the situation on ground with all the communal tensions, Mountbatten advanced the date of independence to August 1947 which left them with only three months to prepare for the event. He didn't want anything to do with the highly probable civil war and left law and order to be handled by the emerging nations independently. The British army was withdrawn from India leading up to the independence and Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed to demarcate the boundaries between the two states. The main area of contention with great uncertainty was the province of Punjab where three communities of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lived together. The demarcation were made based on the population of communities in a particular area with several other infrastructural realities also taken into consideration, and since the boundary was only known to Mountbatten and Radcliffe, it led to ethnic cleansing in several places anticipating the demarcation. The two countries became independent in August 1947 without really having fixed their borders. This actually exacerbated the situation as people acted with impunity leading up to the independence and fixing of boundaries. 

I am quite used to watching people recount communal violence related atrocities, either being inflicted on them or by them, after recently watching documentaries on 2002 Gujarat communal riots, 1984 anti-Sikh violence and Babri Masjid demolition. So that part of the documentary didn't really strike that much for me even though there was this one Sikh person boasting about the kills he did during those days wielding his curved sword. One major drawback of the documentary is that it doesn't talk about the politics involving the demand for Pakistan which began in early part of 20th century. An early catalyst for it was the 1871 Census of British India which classified the people based primarily on their religion and made accessible the estimation of populations in regions of Muslim majority. The numbers were used by both communities for identity politics. The Muslim leaders pointing out that Hindus will always be in a majority in independent India and the condition of Muslims won't be tenable without adequate representation. As for Hindu leaders, they would point out the growth rate of Muslim population and ludicrously claim that in some number of years they would overtake the number of Hindus in the country. This is still being done in independent India. I really don't buy the claim that British followed a divide and rule policy in India and only because of that communal divisions became stark leading to partition. The people behave fundamentally in an idiotic fashion when it comes to religion and you don't really need to blame British for that. The communal faction of Hindus have never come to terms with the fact that Muslims are also Indians and part of this is to do with the inferiority complex borne out of Muslims ruling over India before the British came to power. It is as is if they regret the fact that they never got a chance to pay back for that humiliation since India became a secular democracy after gaining independence. 

Rating: 3/5