In August 1947, a great struggle spanning over a century achieved its major goal as the British left India after almost two centuries of atrocities and subjugation of the Indian populace. The Independence of India, however, had dual implications as it not only meant the exit of the British but also the partition of the country into a Hindu dominated India and a Muslim dominated Pakistan. Partition is considered to be the culmination of a long process carried out by the British, focused on dividing the people of India. They created disharmony among the people by defining communities based on religious identities and providing political representation to them. This led to a gradual decline of the long-standing intermixed and syncretic culture of India. The case for partition was further aided by the political aspirations of communal groups, particularly the Muslim League, that did not see coexistence as a possibility.
Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has described the Partition as the “central historical event in twentieth-century South Asia”. Partition is one of the greatest migrations in human history, as Muslims trekked towards the newly formulated Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction towards India. According to estimates, more than 15 million people were uprooted and close to 2 million were massacred as a result of massive communal violence. Partition was not just a division of political territory but a division of the people as they were separated from their homes, livelihood, family and friends. At such a time in history where chaos and mayhem ensued, it was in poetry that the people found their voice. Ever since 1947, the poets of South Asia have tried to express, memorialize, and lament the legacy of Partition in their verses. It is through these poems that we can understand how the people felt about Partition and the atrocities that it brought upon them.
One of the greatest accounts of partition can be found in the form of Amrita Pritam’s poem “Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu” (Ode to Waris Shah). Pritam said:
Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu, Kiton Qabraan Wichon Bol,
Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa, Koi Agla Warka Phol
Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from inside your grave”
And turn, today, the book of love’s next affectionate page
Ikk Royi Sii Dhi Punjab Di, Tu Likh Likh Maarey Wain,
Ajj Lakhaan Dhiyan Rondiyan, Tenu Waris Shah Nuu Kain
Once, one daughter of Punjab cried; you wrote a wailing saga
Today, a million daughters, cry to you, Waris Shah
Uthh Dard-Mandaan Diya Dardiya, Utth Tak Apna Punjab
Ajj Bailey Lashaan Bichiyaan, Tey Lahoo Di Bhari Chenab
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving; rise! look at your Punjab
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab
As these verses indicate, the poem is a call to legendary Punjabi poet Waris Shah, to rise from his grave write about the bloodshed of the partition. The most intriguing feature of the poem lies in the fact that Pritam assigns the responsibility of writing on these atrocities to a poet of a by-gone era, more notably Waris Shah, the poet who famously authored the tragic tale of two lover’s “Heer Ranjha”. Pritam symbolizes Shah’s legendary work as the depiction of a tragedy, written as a result of Heer’s wailing grief, and draws a parallel when she calls upon Waris Shah now that millions of Heer’s are wailing Partition cries. Through this heart-wrenching poem, Pritam depicted the plight of the people, particularly women, who were faced with atrocities such as abduction, violence, rape, murder.
Dharti Tey Lahoo Warsiya, Qabraan Paiyan Chon,
Preet Diyan Shahzadiyan, Ajj Wich Mazaaraan Ron
Blood rained on our shrines; drenching them to the core
Damsels of amour, today, sit crying at their door
Ajj Sabhey ‘Qaido’ Ban Gaye, Husn Ishq Dey Chor
Ajj Kithon Liyaiye Labh Ke Waris Shah Ikk Hor
Today everyone is, ‘Qaido’ thieves of beauty and ardour
Where can we find, today, another Warish Shah, once more
Pritam goes on to describe the bloodshed that was witnessed as a result of Partition, and compares the attitudes of the people with those of ‘Qaido’, the villain of Waris Shah’s “Heer Ranjha”, she tries to communicate how people turned against each other and abandoned all values of humanity, by calling them thieves of beauty and ardour. Pritam ends the poem, just as the people were left feeling, with an inquisitive tone, wondering whether another Waris Shah will ever appear to handle the situation at hand.
Another work that has beautifully described the common sentiment of the people is Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan Agyeya’s series of poems titled “Sharanarthi” (Refugee), in one of the poems titled “Samanantar Saanp” (Parallel Serpents) Agyeya says:
kintu bheetar kaheen, bhed-bakri, baagh-geedad, saanp ke bahuroop ke andar
kaheen par raunda hua ab bhee padapata hai
sanaatan maanav, khara inasaan
kshan bhar ruko to usako jaga len!
But somewhere inside, sheep-goat, tiger-jackal, inside the polymorphic snake
Cramped somewhere, there lies a
Eternal human, True human
Wait a moment, wake him up!
Agyeya beautifully describes how Partition had turned people against one another. People slaughtered each other based on religious identity. The effects of partition were such that once friends, colleagues, neighbours were now divided into Hindus and Sikhs, and Muslims. As a victim of Partition Joginder Singh aptly noted “I feel that something happened to all of us. It's as if humanity had died. Everybody became a devil." Agyeya appeals that underneath there is still humanity left and that one only needs to take a moment to understand what they are doing, to come to their senses once more.
In another poem, “Hamara Rakt” (Our Blood), Agyeya says:
yah idhar baha mere bhai ka rakt
vah udhar raha utana hee laal,
tumhaaree bahan ka rakt!
bah gaya, mileen donon dhara
jaakar mittee mein huee ek.
Here it flowed my brother's blood
There it stayed equally red
Your sister's blood!
Swept away both streams went to the soil and became one.
In these verses, Agyeya tried to remind people of the brotherhood and the values of coexistence that once governed the conduct of people. He tries to make people realize that the people that are being massacred are their own brothers and sisters and that these divisions based on communal identities are only artificial. He tries to convey that these identities are insignificant as ultimately all of us are the same species. Agyeya conveyed a message of peace and tolerance that a large number of people had longed for.
Finally, one of the earliest and most memorable tributes to the Partition is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Subh-e-Azaadi” (Dawn of Independence). The poem, even though it faced a lot of criticism from political circles when it was written for being cynical, has best described the feeling of melancholy that Partition created. The poem begins with the lines:
Ye daagh daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda seher, wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher tau nahi
Ye wo seher tau nahin, jis ki arzu le kar, chaley thay yaar ke mil jaye gi kahin na kahin
This stained light, this night-bitten dawn; This is not that long-awaited day break;
This is not the dawn in whose longing, We set out believing we would find it somewhere
In the poem Faiz describes the fruits of labour of the people, he recognizes that what has been achieved is not what we had set out in search for. He described the Independence as a light that has been overshadowed by the horrors of Partition. The cause for Independence was one that was shared by all the people of India and they had struggled for the cause together, and now that the goal had been achieved, the same people found themselves to be on opposing sides. Faiz tried to remind people of the dawn they had started out in search for and how it was different from this stained radiance of Independence. Faiz ended the poem with these lines:
Abhi giraani-e shab mein kami nahin aai
Nijaat-e-deeda o dil ki ghadi nahin aai
Chaley chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahin aai.
Night’s heaviness is unlessened;
The hour of the heart and spirit’s deliverance has not yet arrived
Let us go on, that goal has not yet arrived.
The final lines of Faiz’s poem talked about how the burdens of subjugation are yet to be lessened, as people still suffer, the only difference being that the source of suffering is now their own people instead of the British. Faiz ends the poem with an urge to the people, he tries to make them realize that even though their fancy has become a reality, the main aims are yet to be achieved. There is a beautiful intermixing of the feelings of solidarity with the land and its peoples and the challenge of the oppressed against their oppressors. Thus, the poem ends with an urge to keep going and striving for the originally conceived goals.
Poetry served has served as a medium for a better understanding of Partition for several reasons. Firstly, its subject of focus is the people directly affected by these developments as compared to conventional histories that tend to focus on leaders, politicians and great men. Secondly, these poems are generally a result of direct experiences of the poets and thus present the closest to an accurate account of what had happened. Finally, poetry tends to represent ideas that are inherent in public opinion, which facilitates a better understanding of ground-level realities. The poetry of Partition highlights the inherent feelings among the people, it tries to depict the realities of violence, rape, plunder and murder that ensued. It highlights how the events of 1947 physically and emotionally scarred the people for life. The fact that these poems are still hauntingly relevant stands testament to the argument that the implications of Partition continue to unfold even 71 years later.
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Raja, U. (2015, April 6). Amrita Pritam – A Short Biography, Ravi Magazine.
Retrieved from: https://www.ravimagazine.com/amrita-pritam-by-u-raja/
Kumar, K. (2017, August 13). Revisiting Hindi Literary Records of Partition. The Wire.in.
Retrieved from: https://thewire.in/history/hindi-literature-partition
Hashmi, A. (2016, April 1). How Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s most famous poem came to be written. Scroll.in
Satia, P. (2016, January). Poets of Partition. Tanqeed.
Retrieved from: https://www.tanqeed.org/2016/01/poets-of-partition/
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