Guest column: Partition, Covid-19 and a tale of two migrations

I grew up hearing tales of horror of the days of Partition. Our mohalla had a sizeable population which had migrated from Bahawalpur in West Punjab. “Those were horrible times and we pray that such a catastrophe is never repeated.” These words would invariably be uttered whenever the carnage of the Radcliffe divide was discussed. Driven out from the land where they had lived for centuries millions traversed hundreds of miles on foot, animals or carts to reach their ‘own country’.

Over seven decades later the nation witnessed yet another migration, this time caused by a different factor – Covid19. Compelled by loss of livelihood, migrant labourers left their workplaces where they had worked for years. Complete lockdown of all means of transport led to a situation when once again millions of migrants inched forward towards ‘their home states’ on foot, cycles or rickshaws. Though minuscule in comparison of the Partition mayhem, this migration also had many a tale to tell when heat and hunger took its toll.

During the Partition migration the idea of India was still in its infancy. The common people exhibited great compassion while lending a helping hand to alleviate the sufferings of the victims of the communal holocaust. They not only welcomed their brethren with open arms, but also accommodated them among themselves in villages and towns. This was when the government was already grappling with the challenges of handling the biggest ever human migration on planet; a parting gift by its colonial predecessors.

During the Corona induced migration the response of common citizens was somewhat indifferent. Compassion, the highest form of Dharma for us Indians, was at times conspicuous by its absence. The fear of virus being a convenient alibi, these migrants were left to fend for themselves. Little help came from common citizens who opportunely mortgaged their responsibility to the overstretched administrative machinery. The citizens of a self-reliant nation appeared to be more self-centered than what they were at that stroke of midnight when we got Independence.

History has demonstrated that calamities whether natural or man made will continue to plague the world from time to time. What matters is how responsibly our patriotic citizens deal with it and assist the unfortunate in ameliorating their distress. Who knows which calamity will befall us next and who amongst us would be at the receiving end. Calamity after all does not ask your religion, class or even status before intervening in your lives.

On the eve of our 73rd Independence Day it is time to introspect and revisit our concept of nationalism. It is certainly more than jingoistic war cries during surgical strikes and frenzy that marks the cricket matches. Nations are not defined just by manmade boundaries marked on the ground; instead, they are known by the ethos and character displayed by the populace. It is nationalism that engenders nations and not the other way round.

It took a few years after Independence for the ‘refugees’ of 1947 to get back on their feet. One hopes for a better deal for the refugees of 2020 once they return for work.

The author is Mohali based and a Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) awardee.

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