I wanted to establish a museum on Partition soon after the creation of Pakistan. My purpose was to let the children of tomorrow know how the fabric of composite culture—Hindus and Muslims living together for centuries—had been torn asunder in no time. The mere slogan of Pakistan divided the two communities into two hostile camps, where they still live.

I began my journey in the 1960s from Lahore, where the resolution for the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims was passed on 23 March 1940. A city where Hindus and Sikhs once numbered 45% now had virtually no members of these communities. There had been an ethnic cleansing of sorts.

To my dismay, I found the wounds were too raw. The Muslims were not willing to forget or forgive what they had gone through. The narrative was no different on the Indian side, except that there was still a large population of Muslims all over the country.

Finding that people were still living in the past, I abandoned the idea of a museum. Instead, I collected the stories of killings—around one million were burnt or butchered on both sides—and wrote a book, Distant Neighbours. I tried to answer the questions: Why Partition, and why did we jump at each other’s throats as soon as the British left?

The people in the north on both sides, particularly the Punjabis who have borne the brunt of Partition, looked alike. They ate the same food, wore the same clothes and behaved in the same way when confronted with a problem.

Nearly seven decades later, I find people less bitter than before. Personal stories of horror have become faint memories. Another plus point is that an array of examples about how Hindus and Sikhs saved Muslims, and vice-versa, has surfaced.

After talking to a few people in the last few weeks in both countries, I feel the time has come when both sides can rise above the excesses they committed and look at the happenings more objectively than before. Rancour has lessened. One side does not put the entire blame on the other. A grey area is visible. In fact, there is curiosity about what led to the parting of ways.

People on both sides, however, recognize that the migration that followed after the British drew the dividing line on the basis of religion, caused fear among the minorities, who forced their way to the other side despite the rulers not having agreed to this.

It was the biggest movement of people in human history. Roughly 30 million people, including women and children, walked for miles to seek shelter on the other side, where the majority of their community lived. As I mentioned earlier, an ethnic cleansing of sorts. The worst part was that the hatred between the two communities got institutionalized in the shape of India, where more Hindus live, and Pakistan, home to more Muslims.

True, New Delhi has retained the pluralistic ethos. Yet Muslims count for very little in the affairs of governance. On the other hand, fundamentalists in India are strengthening their hold under the pressure of the Taliban on the one hand and maulvis on the other.

One hopes that even the limited democracy that Pakistan enjoys will implement the undertaking of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah that religion and state should not mix. It is a welcome step that the Pakistan national assembly has re-endorsed Jinnah’s expectation that people in the subcontinent would cease to be Muslims or Hindus, not in the religious sense but otherwise, and would be either Pakistanis or Indians.

Hindus in Pakistan form less than 2% of the population. The population of Christians is slightly more, but still far from a number that would count in elections. Without pluralism, democracy is possible only in name. Pakistan should realize this and put its elected governments back on track.

Many Pakistanis suspect that India during the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will swerve from the path of pluralism and become a Hindu Rashtra, the dream of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party. What the fanatics in Pakistan do not realize is that India has settled down to an ideology which is pluralistic and secular. No purpose would be served by digging up the past, dominated by parochial thinking.

In the same way, nothing would be more futile than resurrecting an argument that was responsible for Partition. With the sequence of events stretching back for over six decades, such an exercise can only be an academic distraction.

To those who still regret the division, I can only say that the British could probably have kept the subcontinent united if they had been willing to ladle out more power in 1942, when Sir Stafford Cripps tried to reconcile the aspirations of the people of India with his limited brief. The Congress party could also have avoided Partition if it had accepted, in 1946, the Cabinet Mission proposals of a centre with limited powers, with provinces enjoying autonomy. But the ifs of history are at best hypothetical and, at worst, subjective.

Has Partition served the purpose of Muslims? I do not know. In Pakistan, people avoid the word “partition". On 14 August, they celebrate their deliverance not so much from British rule as from the fear of Hindu rule. During my trips to that country, I have heard people say they are happy that at least they have “some place" where they can feel secure, free of “Hindu domination" or “Hindu aggressiveness".

But I believe Muslims have been the biggest losers. They are now spread over three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Imagine the influence their numbers or votes would have commanded in an undivided subcontinent.

I do not see the subcontinent being reunited. But I do believe that one day the walls that fear and distrust have raised on the borders will crumble and the people, without giving up their separate identities, will work together for the common good. This is the straw many have clung to in the sea of hatred and hostility that has for long engulfed the subcontinent.

It is this hope, and not so much the nostalgia, with which every Indian and Pakistani over the age of 60 often looks back. I realize that the new generations on both sides of the border would like to know, “Why Pakistan?" It is a long story of frenzy and hatred that religious leaders and their sympathizers in politics unleashed. A museum on Partition can rebuild that history event by event. The beginning can be made from the time when Muslims started feeling that they must fend for themselves, and get what they could from the British rulers before they quit predominantly Hindu India.

Those who pursue the idea of the museum will have to be careful in showing the holocaust. Relations between Hindus and Muslims or, for that matter, between India and Pakistan, are too fragile. Rulers still indulge in rhetoric. Yet the museum can put things in the proper perspective and tell tomorrow’s generation how to avoid the mistakes committed in the past.

Kuldip Nayar is a journalist, author and human rights activist.

Also read | Taking Partition stories online: A website called the 1947 Partition Archive compiles personal accounts

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