‘Oral Histories, Conflict and the Human Dimension’: A report

A short report by Nirajana Chakraborty on a webinar- “Mezzaterra: Conversations Sans Borders” with  Anam Zakaria, Oral Historian and Author, as the speaker,  organized by the Department of English, History and cultural Studies, Christ (Deemed to be University), Bannerghata Road Campus on 10th June 2020. 

The second in the series of webinars titled ‘Mezzaterra: Conversations Sans Borders’ organized by Christ (Deemed to be University) focused on the human dimension and alternate narratives that uphold the humanitarian above all. The idea behind these Webinars takes inspiration from the Egyptian Novelist Ahdaf Souief’s incisive collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004), a text that attempts to explore the shared space for diverse experience of individuals from all communities and cultures. The talk tried to emphasize on polyphonic voices and their narratives that attempt to revisit and retell a history of violence, trauma and displacement with a nuanced subjectivity. The speaker of the session was Anam Zakaria, Oral Historian and Author of several books, including 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, Into the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir (2018) and Footprints of Partition (2015).

Zakaria began by explaining her two main observations as an oral historian on interviewing individuals from different generations, essentially residing in conflict zones of all the three countries- Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The first was the difference in the language of terming socio-historical events, naming movements and the distinct rhetoric of passing history within families, across borders and among communities. A simple example of this would be Bangladeshis referring to 1971 as the year of ‘People’s Struggle’ while Indians and Pakistanis would not hesitate to view it as the ‘bilateral power struggle’. The second is the tactic to preserve this division, by complete suppression of accounts that disfavored the directives of State history.  Having worked for opening communication channels between schoolchildren of India and Pakistan, she recognizes the necessity to bring forth experiences of harmony and peace to challenge the triumph-loss or treachery-glory narratives elevated by most school textbooks. The existential need of nation-building that drove Pakistan, with a shift to democracy and the sensitive loss of East-Pakistan in the 1970s led to a problematic re-writing of its own ideology, a reflection clearest in school textbooks. In India what followed was not much different, painting Pakistan in the light of the enemy in all spaces of fiction likewise fed to cater to a feeling of animosity, at least on an ideological level. The demonisation of the other in popular imagination along with strategic elimination of minority identities, Zakaria notes, throughout the 70 years of post-partition, independent years has been a prerequisite for both India and Pakistan to preserve their own identity as ‘Nations’. She problematises this idea of pushing back any nuanced understanding, as attempted by her own method of historiography, as the example of a kind of extremist nationalism.

Zakaria classifies her stock of people’s narratives into stories of ‘Dissent’(1971) and ‘Rescue Stories’(throughout post-partition years)  which is suggestive of a pool of shared experience between different religious and cultural communities, people on the two opposite sides of borders. Although a pre-march 25th narrative is till date predominant in what was East- there are stories of Punjabis supporting the struggles of Bengalis by resisting state violence. Informed by the peace-attempts of the literary circles, including Faiz Ahmed Faiz at that point, Zakaria mentioned the case of a general who refused to fight against East-Pakistan for which he resigned and suffered a complete mental breakdown. The following years brought upon him uncountable hardships including losing his father and resorting to shock therapy. This acknowledgement of the other’s cause brings us to question our judgments about charged moments of communal disharmony throughout history; a questioning Zakaria insists seeks greater representation in literature and media.  The Rescue stories which speak of people having survived the brutality and bloodshed of Partition only with the help of the ‘others’, people from other communities, bring out a sense of gratitude and nostalgia, but are constantly deemed insignificant by the narratives promoting the two-nation theory and jingoism.  This pool then becomes the ‘Mezzaterra’ we seek, a narrative that opposes the heightened bi-polar patriotism promoted by nations, essentially “defying the human cause”.

Zakaria explained how a large fraction of the people on both sides view the Kashmir partition as ‘ongoing’ rather than a completed political event in their life’s history.  Even though leaving their homelands was an act of extreme trauma, anger and inexorable loss there is a pulsing desire of looking back and crossing-over to rejoin the lands, spaces and relations left behind. This longing constantly pushes aside the otherization narrative, because their ‘home’ as a space and geography remain invaluable to the people, the associations with neighbors and the environment of familiarity do not perish overnight due to mere temporal or political circumstances. There are multiple records of instances where on the natural border formed by river Ravi people from both sides would come to meet on narrow boats, and until a few years ago people from the two nations would gather at Punjab Melas to celebrate, although under moderate surveillance.  

The impact of violence was very dissimilar for different genders and the minorities, mentioned Zakaria. Remembrance, narration and appropriation of history by women are “layered with the notion of shame, punctuated by silence”. The canon of history built-up by state and later by historians have their obvious social bias, the constant dismissing of women as mere bystanders have made their notion of themselves as devoid of any agency. The problem she points to is primarily in the grand glorification-demonization duality, which enables us to overlook the major local grievances. For instance, during the shelling at places like Zaffrabad, Lahore and Karachi the restrained mobility of women as the primary caregivers to children and their obligation to cattle rearing and domestic safe-keeping made them the most affected victims. The Pakistani-held side of Neelam Valley has seen intensified shelling since August last year, forcing people to cramp into bunkers for hours but women refuse the safety from the mortars for self-preservation against sexual assault in the dingy quarters of refuge. So for women the struggle is desperately multifold. The documented history of the time attempted to weaponize the pain to serve the national purpose, a pattern which hasn’t changed even since rooting itself at the interplay of politics of recognition and denial. To imagine being raped by a member of one’s own community in the midst of what is perpetually sold in society as a national-communal war is beyond   However women’s responses to violence was more rooted in hope and continue to be so, remarks Zakaria, as peace marches and protests in the following decade were mostly led by women.

Before concluding her talk she mentioned her last visit to Dhaka and its tremendous obsession with rewriting history each time a new party forms the government and shared an anecdote that she finds to be a true reflection of our times of the incomprehensibility of extremist politics to the common people. It goes so that a young girl questions about the arrest of a poet to which her mother replies how he has been composing verses that insults a person of authority; confused, the girl innocently asks why the person can’t instead write in response another poem to insult him back.

 The discussion session that followed brought up questions about the contemporary state of autonomous organizing of movements in Kashmir by the people and their understanding of these continually changing policies, to which no answers were affirmative. Still struggling with limited internet, extremely weak communication challenges the structural limitations continue to be far greater for any reaction of resistance by the people, especially across Neelam Valley.  When questioned about her research challenges Zakaria pointed to the most pertinent ones being alteration, distortion and exaggeration of memory which complicates the possibility of always extracting a consistent narrative. Nevertheless this helps bring out the ontological differences in speechifying where words like ‘free’ or ’occupied’ are marked by a certain fluidity on ground, with the constantly changing policies for Kashmir. The versions of oral history and even visual arts there are always four for Kashmir, the Indian, the Pakistani, the Bangladeshi and the Kashmiri itself of which the Kashmiri has the least reach and attention.  Finally, the lack and suggestion of training in counseling, sensitization and a secure way of interviewing without triggering the interviewees as a major challenge was also addressed, as a student of psychotherapy herself with her keen interest in dealing with trauma healing.

The welcome address and closing remarks were delivered by Paul Mathew on behalf of the English, History and Cultural studies cluster of Christ University.

Nirajana Chakraborty studies English Literature at Jadavpur University and is an intern with Refugee Watch Online. She can be reached at nirajanachakraborty@gmail.com.

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