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Understanding why some events are kept alive in our collective consciousness and others interred

By PRANAY SHARMA (Published October 17, 2011 in Outlook India)

As people across the world sniffled at the poignant ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, beamed live from Ground Zero in New York, few would have remembered the significance this date holds for the people of Chile. It was on September 11, 1973, that the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende was dislodged through a coup, organised, ironically, at the behest of the CIA, an incident more or less effaced from the ‘globalised memory’. Few, too, would have muttered a silent prayer for the thousands who have perished in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries turned into veritable killing fields because of the war on terror that the Americans unleashed as retribution for the terror attacks.

Truly, power is about determining what people remember and what they forget. It’s a striking asymmetry.

Those who accuse America of reordering the collective memory should be warned; the phenomenon of selective remembrance and forgetting is as much part of India’s political landscape as America’s. Worse, this malaise of selective remembering determines why perpetrators of certain collective sorrows are punished and those of tragedies similar in nature are not. As the nightmare of 26/11 unfolded, we were all Mumbaikars. Yet we have been relatively indifferent to the plight of people in Kashmir, the 50,000 who have died in the Northeast for the nation-building project beginning 1947, and even the hapless tribals caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the state.

The politics of remembering and forgetting sorrow pervades India. In 1984, Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated the then prime minister. In less than five years, her surviving assassin, Satwant Singh, was hanged. In contrast, those who fomented riots against the Sikhs in the assassination aftermath remain largely unpunished, barring a few lowly Congressmen. Ditto the post-Babri Masjid riots and the bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1992-1993, the Godhra train burning incident and the riots that followed it in 2002. The power to reorder public memory is perhaps why Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi believes India can be made to forget his alleged role in the grisly Gujarat riots. Celebrated novelist Milan Kundera puts it best, “The struggle for power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

“The state is always the main actor in the process. It creates and recreates some tragedies and sorrows to consolidate its position.”
Ashis Nandy, Political psychologist
“Cultural memory is of sorrow and defeat due to the construction of the human brain which reacts more intensely to negative experience.”
Sudhir Kakar, Psychoanalyst
“Be it violence against Dalits or tribal dispossession, collective suffering is justified as being in the interest of backward communities.”
Anupama Rao, Author, The Caste Question

Who chooses from the receptacle of accumulated tragedies what should constitute public memory? Says political psychologist Ashis Nandy, “The main actor in this process is always the state. It creates and recreates some tragedies and sorrows to consolidate its own position. Simultaneously, there is always an attempt to whitewash some sufferings.” This whitewashing is what exposes the hypocrisy of the Indian state, which, Nandy says, criticises genocide in other countries, yet is most reluctant to discuss what its own army does in Kashmir or the Northeast. “There is constant fear that unless history is monitored or created, it would weaken the state’s position,” he argues.

Others divide collective memory into two kinds: an everyday memory which has a limited time horizon of a 100-odd years, and a cultural memory that makes a group aware about its “specialness” and identity. This cultural memory is usually organised around events of intense sorrow dating back to centuries. “Cultural memories,” explains psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, “are often of sorrows and defeats because of the construction of the human brain which reacts to negative experiences more intensely and lastingly than positive ones.” In constituting its cultural memory, a group then chooses to mythologise, psychologically internalise and constantly dwell on a selected great sorrow from its history. “The event is often reactivated (and recreated) to strengthen a group’s cohesiveness,” says Kakar. This is perhaps why the bjp’s Ayodhya movement had such resonance, harping as it did on the defeat and humiliation of ‘Hindus’ at the hands of ‘Muslim invaders’.

It is a conundrum why the Indian state hasn’t commemorated the Partition, the horrific memories of which have been kept alive mostly through literature and film. This is perhaps because the process of creating public memory, says cultural historian Tridip Suhrud, entails a collection of private grief that requires the interaction of three actors—community, civil society and the state. Since Partition affected different communities at different places in many different ways, the state as well as civil society couldn’t piece together a meta-narrative which wouldn’t offend one social group or the other. No wonder then, as Suhrud puts it, “the loss of life has remained a part of community memory and private narratives”. Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, a historian at America’s Brown University, offers another reason. “It’s a trauma that is always in danger of being buried under an Indo-Pak politics of fear,” she says.

"With the tragic legacy of an uncertain future, a young refugee sits on the walls of Purana Qila, transformed into a vast refugee camp in Delhi." Margaret Bourke-White, 1947.

However, Oxford historian Faisal Devji feels the absence of public memory on Partition violence stems from the fact that its victims have been denied justice. “In some sense, memory without violence is possible only once justice has been done,” says Devji. Thus, public recollection of violent memories is suppressed because of the fear of its impact on the present. Perhaps Gandhi understood the politics of remembering sorrow better than others. The mahatma, says Devji, had been very clear that as long as there was no restitution of property and granting of the right to return to all those displaced during Partition, there could be no peace between India and Pakistan.

Gandhi was indeed prescient; the suppression of memories about the Partition have failed to bridge the chasm between India and Pakistan. Not only has this deepened with terror attacks originating from Pakistani soil, but the politics arising from Partition has also had a particularly inimical impact on the Muslim in India. As Yacoobali-Zamindar says, “Every day anti-Pak politics bleeds into anti-Muslim politics, and vice versa. As a community, they can never forget and, in some sense, must bear the sorrow of Partition most painfully.” She feels the Muslims in India have not only had their citizenship questioned, but have always had to insist that they belong to India, as well as apologise for and conceal their familial ties in Pakistan.

Suppressed memory about Partition is perhaps an important factor why communal riots in independent India have been directed mainly against Muslims. In cases where they have retaliated, they have been punished severely, in contrast to the immunity their assailants seem to enjoy. Muslims are thus ghettoised not only physically but also in the country’s memoryscape. Just as suppressed memories return to haunt individuals, individual Muslims have come to remind the nation about their past suffering through the pathologies evinced in terror attacks. All this breeds a vicious cycle of anger, hatred and violence.

Babri Mosque Demolition by Congress Party

And this cycle has become difficult to break largely because of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the politics of which itself was guided by the cultural memory of Hindus as well as the violent remembrance of Partition. This, in turn, further reinforced memories of injustice among Muslims. Not only do those responsible for the demolition remain unpunished, some of the accused have risen to hold prestigious posts and even nurture prime ministerial ambitions. The date on which the Babri Masjid was demolished—December 6—is no longer treated as the day of national shame, as it was described in 1992, but as an occasion on which terror strikes are feared.

The politics of sorrow and forgetting explains the state’s uneven quest to bring to justice those who fomented the Mumbai riots in Dec 1992-Jan 1993 and those who masterminded the Mumbai blasts a couple of months later. Says Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, “People offer comfort to victims of bomb blasts but tell me how is the terror of the mob different from the terror of the bomb?” Engineer’s question can perhaps be reframed in the context of Gujarat circa 2002 as well—how is the suffering of those who died in the Godhra train fire different from those who were killed in the riots following it?

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