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A line on the map: Partition through the eyes of a refugee

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By Gaurav Sharma

partitionWe all celebrate Independence Day with much gusto and elan. Draping ourselves with the tricolor while waving the tiranga, bonding with family over warm breakfast while being eager-eared audience to Dada’s epic tale of partition, the Independence Day is the celebration of the unity of people. Unity of all people pledging their allegiance to the idea of nationhood, that is.

Our ancestors are the eyes into that history of nationhood. The gory, murky and inglorious history which is reproduced in front of the youth through the realism of  their verbosity. Their herculean memory is living proof of the evils of demarcated boundaries. The perils of nationhood. And yet it is the very same nationhood that we celebrate and glorify on this day. Some swear their lives by it, and so they die for it.

On this Independence Day, NewsGram brings out freedom and splintering into two, in all its eclectic scope through the empirical lens of an Indian refugee GD Taneja.

GS: You were born under the unified India. Do you consider it as a privilege or a bane?

GD: I was born in Karachi in 1926. During that time, Hindus and Muslims used to live peacefully, considerate of each other’s belief systems. It was beyond toleration, it was a recognition of our understanding of brotherhood. Living by that principle made life more enriching. It was indeed fortuitous of me to be born in a unified India.

GS: What was the prevalent behavior of Hindus and Muslims?

GD:  At the time the partition was announced, the region around Karachi constituted a meager 5 per cent of Hindus, the vast majority comprised of Muslims. Hindu festivals like Baisakhi and Janmashtami were celebrated with equal zeal by both the communities. We respected Allah, the Muslim idea of God.

GS: How did the camaraderie change so drastically?

GD: We were not persecuted by the immediate Muslims of Karachi. Religious zealots from the mountainous region of Waziristan mercilessly attacked our homes, our places of worship and thus began a sinister chain of violence. They had weapons against which we could not retaliate. Sikhs were attacked relentlessly, and we were taken in as mistaken-identity.

GS: How did you manage to escape the onslaught?

GD:  A Hindu SHO (Station house officer) gave us refuge in the police station at the behest of our Muslim brethren. Had it not been for them we would have been slaughtered in the precarious passage to the station.

GS: Keeping in mind the religious massacre during the partition, do you believe that religion splinters humanity?

GD:  India was, and is kept united by religion. It gives hope to people, a wanting to move forwards in life. It is only due to some fanatics that religion gets a bad name. Religion gives knowledge, one that is aimed at uniting people rather than segregating them into kafirs and mlecchas. Politicizing religion further exacerbated the problem.

GS: How do you reflect on Independence Day today?

GD: I look at Independence Day with hope and a touch of sadness. That we had to undergo a vicious war in which scores were killed and raped to realize our ‘freedom’ goes to show that religion has to be tolerant of multitudinary interpretations, in order for it to bring out real transformation.

Current situation of Pakistan is a testimony to that fact. We have to be extremely careful in treading the fine line between religion and fanaticism. Secularism is not the solution because it breeds ignorance of other people’s knowledge and faith.

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“Ants Among Elephants” by Indian-Origin Author Sujatha Gidla is Creating Waves in the US

Interview with Sujatha Gidla, who recently wrote a memoir capturing the life of Dalit community in India

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Dalit Women protesting against exploitation
Dalit Women protesting against exploitation. Wikimedia
  • Many instances of discrimination and humiliation that she and her family were customarily subjected to
  • This Independence was not real independence, it was only transfer of power
  • Caste-based discrimination is uniquely cruel

New York, USA, August 27, 2017:  The nation has just celebrated Independence Day with great pomp and fervor but does this special occasion evoke similar sentiments among the Dalits living in the country? No, contends an Indian-origin author Sujatha Gidla, who was born an “untouchable” and is now creating waves in US literary circles with a provocative memoir capturing the life of her community in India.

Until recently, Sujatha Gidla was just another New Yorker, working as a conductor on the City Subway. But her recent memoir, “Ants among Elephants: : An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India”, which not only details her memories of growing up as a Dalit woman in India but also lists the many instances of “discrimination and humiliation” that she and her family were customarily subjected to, has thrust her into the limelight.

On how she responds to special occasions like Independence Day, the author said that, as children, they would admire iconic figures like Gandhi and Nehru, and celebrate the day but things changed gradually as they become more aware.

ALSO READ: Religious minorities, Dalits face discrimination in India: A report by US Commission on International Religious Freedom

“When I joined the RSU (Radical Students Union) we were told that (this) Independence was not real independence, that it was only transfer of power. And now we don’t feel anything because we are not made to feel that we are Indians like other Indians.

“It is the same thing in the universities where I studied. I don’t have that pride of my alma mater because we were not treated as equals. None of us have that pride, not even my mother,” Gidla told IANS in an email interview from New York.

The author further quipped that, by and large, “this is not independence” for members of her community.

“There have been many types of discrimination in various parts of the world. As far as I know, caste discrimination is uniquely cruel. There is racism in America, but I will never compare it with caste and rather say that caste is much worse.

“I will also say this: Blacks here are murdered, they have been lynched. But I have never read about another place where untouchables are fed excreta, made to drink urine and paraded naked. Even under slavery, the slave owners took care to feed their slaves in order to keep them fit to work. Untouchables in India never even had that,” Gidla said.

Sujatha Gidla reiterated that untouchability is neither a religious nor a cultural problem. It is rather a social problem and that there has to be “some sort of fundamental change”; otherwise the Dalits will “continue to suffer”.

Elaborating on the “suffering” that she repeatedly mentions in the book, Gidla said most Dalits in India, particularly those trying to fight against the caste system, live under constant duress due to verbal attacks and the threat of physical violence.

“Our neighbors in India have been actively trying to kick my mom out of her apartment. Her (upper) caste colleagues hate the fact that her daughter wrote a successful book.”

“That is the irony; we cannot even celebrate the publication of the book because we are afraid that it will make people around us unhappy. Even fellow untouchables are not posting it on social media for fear of being exposed to their colleagues and (upper) caste friends as untouchables,” she elaborated.

Also Read: Dr. Kallol Guha: Anglophonic Education will not uplift Dalits

Gidla’s grandparents converted to Christianity at the onset of the 20th century and were educated at Canadian missionary schools. She too, with the help of Canadian missionaries, studied physics at the Regional Engineering College in Warangal, in what is Telangana today. She was also a researcher in applied physics at IIT-Madras.

Gidla initially worked as a developer in software design, then moved to banking but lost her job in 2009 during the economic crisis. Finally, she took up the job of a conductor at the New York Subway.

This book, Gidla said, initially began as an investigation into the caste system but finally took the shape of a memoir as her family members also enriched its pages with their personal experiences and reflections.

So what would bring “freedom” in the true sense to Gidla and her family, as also to over 300 million Dalits in India?

“True freedom is equal access to everything in society -education, jobs, etc. When that is achieved, the prejudices will begin to disappear, but only gradually, not instantaneously. Without having equal access to economic betterment all these words about caste being an evil practice or we should treat untouchables with respect are meaningless,” she maintained.

The book has been published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan publishers, and is yet to hit the Indian market. (IANS)