ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Perishing Memory

The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First Person Accounts by Ishtiaq Ahmed (New Delhi: Rupa and Company), 2011; pp liv + 754, Rs 995.

Ishtiaq Ahmed was born in Lahore almost just as the “tragedy” that he so masterfully unravels had begun to unfold. As a child and young man he must have grown up with many versions of what transpired in those fateful months of 1947, the year of his birth. It is a remarkable feat that he did not attach himself to any single version. As he turned into an adult, he trained himself in the discipline of Political Science at the University of Stockholm, and decided to seek his own answers to the questions that had probably stayed with him from his early days. His career at the same university and citizenship of Sweden may also have opened some doors to him, both in India and Pakistan, which might have otherwise remained closed.

The process of the Partition of India and its aftermath has been examined in several scholarly and not-so-scholarly, i e, partisan, explorations. The outstanding feature of this book, however, is that it not only utilises secret reports of high British officials, like the governors of the Punjab, police commissioners, ministers, and occasionally the governors general. Far more significant, it also employs extensive oral testimonies painstakingly collected from the victims, sometimes the perpetrators, and often from eyewitnesses of the ghastly events that mark 1947 in the history of the subcontinent. Ahmed, helped by a small team of aides, went to meet virtually anyone and everyone anywhere in India, Pakistan and abroad who could recollect and recount their memories about what and how things had transpired. His account thus is not a narrative handed down by the great leaders in grandiose terms, but one that has the feel of the very blood-soaked earth. Ahmed retains a scrupulous impartiality in recording and reproducing the evidence thus collected from the commonest of common people, who, as always, paid the heaviest price for the decisions they had never taken. Even as his version of the Partition might get modified in the future as more confidential records are thrown open by the Governments of India and Pakistan, the oral testimony he has gathered so meticulously over some 15 years and presented so objectively will never be surpassed.

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