Anis Kidwai belonged to the illustrious Kidwai family of Barabanki. The family has made more than a signal contribution to the making of India. Not only in politics and governance but also in diverse fields of creative endeavour. This short piece, though, is not about her or about her family but her most remarkable record of the unfolding tragedy in the Capital of India and in its surroundings in the aftermath of independence and partition.
Anis Kidwai, though extremely politically aware with sharp and clear views on what she saw happening, was not a political activist and would have probably continued to lead a well settled, almost sedentary life in Mussoorie, had the unthinkable not happened. Her husband, Shafi Ahmad Kidwai, the administrator of the Municipality, who had almost single handedly tried to keep peace in Mussoorie when everyone else had either given up or joined the rioters, was murdered.
A distraught Anis reached Delhi and in the hope of finding solace went to meet the Mahatma. Everyone seemed to be running to him and he had something for everyone. He listened to her and asked her to work among those who had lost everything. Working for them, he said, will give you a reason to live.
Anis began working at the Purana Qila Refugee Camp, shifting later to the Humayun’s Tomb Refugee camp and then fanning out in the city with young students from Jamia, trying to prevent people from fleeing, trying to stop riots that threatened to break out every moment. She worked with Sushila Naiyar, Subhadra Joshi and many others in a desperate fight to restore sanity among a people who seemed, suddenly, to have taken leave of all decency and compassion.
Throughout all this she kept a diary of her daily experiences, the madness, the cruelty, the greed, the depravity, the unspeakable horrors that humans inflicted upon other humans. She also saw and recorded instances of great love, great courage shown, great sacrifices made and great risks taken by ordinary unarmed people to help and save others like themselves.
In Freedom’s Shade – Aazaadi ki Chhaon Mein, originally written in Urdu is based on those diaries – a recollection of what she saw and also a record of her observations between 1947 and 1949. The book, written in ’49, was eventually published by the Quami Ekta Trust run by D.R.Goyal and Subhadra Joshi in 1974. The National Book Trust published the book in Urdu in 1978 and in Hindi in 1981. The English translation under review is more than the QET publication or the NBT’s Urdu and Hindi versions. Ayesha Kidwai, the translator and granddaughter of Begum Anis Kidwai, has gone back to the original diaries and has included, in the main text, portions that were either left out or had appeared as footnotes, in the earlier publications.
Ayesha has been able to maintain the flow of the Urdu original and that is no mean achievement. I have dabbled in this activity and have some idea of how difficult it is. Except for a few minor problems in translating poetry, this is an excellent effort.
Having read the NBT publication in Urdu, and having heard about the conditions of the two camps from my mother, who had also spent time at both the places with her siblings and old parents, I can only welcome the present publication because this book fills a big gap in our collective memory of what actually happened in Delhi in the aftermath of the partition.
We have many records of the immense sufferings of the Hindu survivors who streamed into the new India from the newly created West Pakistan. This discourse has almost totally overshadowed the descriptions of four other tragedies that coincided with this migration from west Punjab: the migration of the West Bengali, Bihari, and East UP Muslims into East Bengal, the migration of the Bengali Hindu refugee into West Bengal and Bihar, the migration of the Muslim into Pakistan, and finally the plight of the Muslim in India who had chosen to stay. To Prof. Papiya Ghosh, whose life was so cruelly cut short by goons in Patna in December 2006, must go the credit of initiating studies about the migration to and from East Pakistan, one can’t think of too many other contributions in this area and except for the book under review there is precious little, not at least in Hindi and English, that records the tragedy of the Muslims who were in India, those that chose to leave and those who chose to stay.
Anis Kidwai’s personal account, conversational, first person singular, talks to you and reaches out to you. You travel with her and witness first-hand the horrors of those cataclysmic times. You hear of the Muslim refugee seekers at the Purana Qila Camp, who had chosen to go to Pakistan, being left at the mercy of the Pakistan High Commission, of the camp managements cornering beds and blankets for themselves while expectant mothers, infants and dying old people shivered under the open skies, of people trying to carry orphans with them, for they would work as servants in their new homes, of five year olds dreaming of growing up to kill the killers of their parents. Of the government of India virtually washing its hands off the affairs of the camp, of succor being provided by well to do Muslims and by no one else, reminds you of Gujarat 2002, but even this aid came selectively, the Nawab of Rampur sent blankets, but only for refugees from Rampur.
As you read one chilling account after another of perfidy and deceit, of official connivance with the killers, of doctors’ refusal to treat Muslim patients, of government offices telling their Muslim employees, even those who had chosen to stay, to leave and go to Pakistan, of pre-teen girls speared through their vaginas, of infants being chopped to pieces, of pregnant woman being stabbed through their wombs, of women, in their tens of thousands, on both sides of the blood-soaked border, kidnapped, raped and sold off, again and again and again, rioters, policemen, army men all joining in this macabre act of desecration of womanhood, your blood begins to run cold.
And all this in the capital of a nation that had announced to the world that she was home as much to the Muslim as it was to the Hindu, the Sikh, the Parsi and the Christian. Those upon whose shoulders had fallen the responsibility of steering its fate, were people who were either not capable or did not care and some, many of them were almost at the top, were complicit in the violence.
As you read all this, your mind begins to be flooded with images and reports of the recent past, events, pogroms, genocides – Nellie, Bombay, Gujarat begin to flood your mind. The same barbarities, the same callousness, collusion, protectors turning perpetrators, doctors refusing to treat patients, suckling infants being beheaded, neighbours killing neighbours and all this amidst claims of a faith that was inherently tolerant, open, welcoming.
You also think of this frail woman, a woman who has lost her husband to these killers and who still went out every day, trying to save one more life, unite one more family, buy sweets for a girl with half her skull stitched up, supervising rations for the refuge seekers, begging for blankets, setting up schools for children, organizing joint processions of Hindu and Muslim children, getting their parents together, getting into communally charged localities and asking people to stop the dance of death, if not for anything, then at least for the life of the fasting Mahatma, who had vowed not to eat as long as peace did not return to Delhi.
As you read you see this unsure, scared, confused, hurt, lonely woman, grow up in stature and with her rises your hope and your faith in the victory of the Human spirit.
Read this book if you want to understand where we went wrong and to see the fault lines, to see how we need a secular state and not sarv dharm sambhav. Read this book also if you want to understand the falsity of the self image that we have created of ourselves and of our nation, but read it most importantly to understand the fragility of the premise upon which is built the idea of India and the need to protect and nurture this premise and to make it real. Because this premise is India and it is people like Anis Kidwai that made it possible.
(First published in The Book Review, Vol XXXV, Number 8-9 August September 2011.)