While textbooks teach us of isolated moments of disruption and plunder, the memory of pre-partition India for many is of inter-religious unity, religious freedoms and co-existence. To look between the cracks is to see different religious communities sharing food, celebrating festivals and embellishing their traditions with those of others.
“Communalism and communal riots happened in India only during and due to colonialism.” argues Aligarh Muslim University Professor Mohammad Sajjad
Azan Pir/Shah Miran, a highly revered Chishti Sufi saint of the early seventeenth century, composed zikrs (Islamic remembrance chants), influenced by and influencing the borgeet and naam, written by the Hindu Vaishnava leader, Shankardeva.
The traditional dance form of Shankari Vaishnavas, Satriya, is still common today, drawing reference from Sufi whirling, whilst the costumes are an amalgamation of traditional Islamic, Manipuri and Burmese culture.
Music has continually been a source of unification beyond religious boundaries. So much so that, until inter-religious tensions began in 1922, Muslim musicians played in the Ramleela processions throughout Allahabad. In fact, Muslim rabbabis played at the Golden Temple in Amritsar until 1947.
Religious festivities were enjoyed together, with Muslims doing patakhe (fireworks) on Diwali and Hindus distributing sweets on Eid. The two regions worst affected by Partition violence, Punjab and Bengal, had extremely rich Sufi practise – a vivid culture full of visits to dargahs (tombs), prayer, Qawalli, and a mutual reverence of saints amongst Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Haidar Shaykh’s dargah in Malerkotla is to date attended predominantly by Hindu communities, with regular attendees every Thursdays and large festivals held during the Hindu/Sikh month of Jeth.
The politics surrounding linguistics and the battle over vernaculars was also not present. Devanagari, Gurmukhi, and Persian scripts beautified identities but did not signify political or religious allegiances. For example, The Urdu fortnightly, Akhbaar-ul-Akhyar, from Bihar’s Scientific Society was edited by Ajodhya Parasad Bahaar, a Hindu individual. Following the forced distinctions enforced by Partition rhetoric to separate communities under the banner of religious-linguistics, locals acted to preserve unity. In 1914, Hafiz Rahmatullah Ahqar founded the Urdu Sahityik Sabha to promote good relations, celebrating Hindi and Urdu laureates.
Honest portrayals in fiction are key to understanding the intricacies of pre 1947 society. Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’ provides an effective example of an author’s focus on communal harmony despite the conflict. Singh emphasises the fluidity of communities by placing a mosque next to a gurdwara, and showing his main characters, Jugga and Nooran’s, love form despite religious boundaries. Such voices show us a side to history that neither politicians, historians nor the media traditionally explore. A Malerkotla resident puts it plainly:
“Our forefathers lived together, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. If some small quarrels occur later on, we all become one”.