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Witness to Freedom

Ritu Menon

By Sukeshi Kamra
Roli Books, Delhi, 2002, pp. 414, Rs. 495.00


It’s always heartwarming to read that a book has been inspired by other books on the subject—it somehow makes all the labour and self-doubt that all authors go through worthwhile! Sukeshi Kamra, like so many others who have written on the Partition recently, was impelled partly by her family history of dislocation, but mostly by several books she read on the subject. Books of short stories, particularly Alok Bhalla’s edited collection; oral histories; autobiographies, memoirs and letters; fiction and prose; diaries and testimonies. As she wandered through libraries and books, she says, “the idea of writing one on the many meanings of the process of history which culminated in 14/15 August 1947 began to germinate”. The result is Bearing Witness, “an inductive study of texts” focusing on the “three groups most affected by the events of 1947: educated Indians, for whom the moment was a rite of passage; the survivors of Partition, for whom the event is inextricably linked with trauma and loss of home, family and community; and the British, for whom this heralded exile”. And the texts—or, if you like, those who bore witness—are made up of cartoons in the major newspapers, nationalist and opposition, of the time; fiction; testimonies of survivors taken from previously published sources; autobiographies and memoirs; and writings from the contemporary British press. The addition of political cartoons and writing from the British press promised a rich and unusual reading of otherwise familiar fare. Kamra provides us with a lively discussion of cartoon representations of leaders, people and events, delightfully supplemented with reproductions of some of the most telling ones from both nationalist and oppositional—i.e., Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha—papers. The former had a clear political agenda, which was advocating swaraj. This it did most effectively because it recognized the power of the visual to articulate news and editorial commentary otherwise censored by the British government’s gag orders. The Eastern Times, for example, carried a regular column entitled “Civil Disobedience News” followed by a blank space, from February 1, 1947!   Not surprisingly the nationalist press—The Hindustan Times, The Tribune, The Pioneer, and National Herald—held up Jinnah as a figure of ridicule. The author maintains that by 1947 his Othering was complete, and he became fixed in the stereotype of fascism through comparisons to Hitler. Post-August 1947, he was the scapegoat for the horror of Partition—a direct fallout of his ...

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