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An Identity Of Independence

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For the longest time, the only English-language books (outside the not-so-informative history texts one was made to read at school) that were our guide to the Partition of India were Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, and, in fiction, Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan and Bapsi Sidhwa's classic Ice Candy Man. And they all focused on the experience of Partition – on the violence, the displacement, the abductions, the painful memories. It is only with Anis Kidwai's In Freedom's Shade, published in translation 37 years after the original in Urdu (Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein), that we learn about what happened after – how the new Indian state, struggling to find its feet after centuries of colonial rule, dealt with the exigencies of maintaining law and order in the face of anarchy, violence and dislocation; and the few people who struggled to heal the country and make it a kinder, safer place.

Anis Kidwai was born in 1906 to the illustrious Kidwai family of Awadh. It was only after the murder of her husband, Shafi Ahmed Kidwai, in Mussoorie in October 1947 that she entered the socio-political arena of Delhi, grief-stricken, she ran to the only source of solace she could think of, Mahatma Gandhi, in the hope of coming to terms with her tragedy. Under Gandhi's guidance, she began working with refugees and displaced persons in the camps set up at Purana Qila and thus began her journey as a social worker and activist. A journey that would take her to refugee camps, hospitals and shelters, and to a knowledge of the depths to which a human being could sink as well as to the goodness that resides in the rare heart.

In all her humility, Anis Kidwai tells us to not look to this book for "intellectual discovery or analytical brilliance" as it is the narrative of a woman who has "lived her life in villages and qasbahs … and cannot transcend her immediate context'. Despite these assertions, In Freedom's Shade is a remarkable narrative, not least in the precision with which the author details events, her astute insight into every situation, every character encountered, and the objectivity that she brings to bear through it all. The book fills a huge void in our history, one that has been glossed over and ignored; it brings to the fore characters, ‘important' and ‘unimportant' – Subhadra Joshi, Mridula Sarabhai, D Sushila Nayyar, the dedicated students of Jamia, the apolitical social organisation, the Shanti Dal, dedicated to ‘Man and humanity' – all of whom played a critical role in the most crucial years in the history of independent India.

A large part of the book deals with that most complex of issues – abducted women, and their recovery. In her capacity as a social activist and, later, member of the Shanti Dal, Anis Kidwai was an integral part of the recovery and rehabilitation of abducted girls and women, who would then be returned to their families in India, and even to those families who had settled in Pakistan. She recounts in heart-breaking detail the trauma these women – some of them little more than children – underwent, not just at the hands of their abductors but – at the moment of recovery – at the hands of their rescuers; moved to tears by the anguish of the girls refusing to leave their new families, new husbands, she cannot help but ask if they, the rehabilitators, are doing the right thing: ‘My sense of duty amputated my hands and feet and good sense.' Possibly the most striking aspect of this memoir is how, through all the turmoil and heartbreak she witnesses, Anis Kidwai does not once lay the blame at the door of any one religion; while admitting that her heart bleeds at the sight of Muslim suffering, she is quick to state that atrocities occurred on both sides, and that it is man, not God who is to blame. In fact, her memoir makes apparent the state collusion in the violence of 1947–48 – she speaks time and again of the corruption of government officials; of the inaction on the part of the police; of the fact that police officers, in league with the local government, drove out Muslims from villages whose Hindus were only too willing to have them stay on; and that powerful ministers and functionaries took away, or re-abducted, the women recovered from their houses the very next day after paying out bribes. It is always the common people who are the casualties of war waged by greedy politicians – the Partition was no exception.

While Ayesha Kidwai's translation certainly does justice to her grandmother's memoirs, one suspects that a lot of the linguistic beauty of the original Urdu has been lost in translation; there are parts, which would undoubtedly have been poignant and poetic in Azadi…, that veer dangerously close to the melodramatic. Perhaps the best part of the book is the affectionate biographical note penned by Ayesha Kidwai – she sketches in loving detail the story of her grandmother's life, her politics and ideology, her continued activism and tenure in the Rajya Sabha. (Along with Savitry Devi, she tried, and failed, to get a bill passed to end the sexual harassment of women – the Punishment for Molestation of Women Bill, 1958. How different life might have been had they succeeded in their efforts!)

The only desire of Anis Kidwai and her fellow activists was to build a new India, one free of hatred, violence and corruption, one in which the ideals of her beloved Bapu lived on. She was too intelligent, however, to not realise that this could well be an unrealised dream – ‘We have to serve the sentence for our crimes. If we don't appreciate the urgency of addressing this degeneration … the thorns we have sown will continue to rend the fabric of humanity for years.' Nearly 64 years after independence, reeling as we are under the disillusionment wrought by decades of corruption, political indifference and communalism, it wouldn't hurt us to let this ‘recovered treasure' part of our history goad us into a re-examination of ourselves, and the direction which our country seems to be taking.