The Kartarpur border opening gives us a glimpse into the inimical side of Partition

"On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan."

With the Kartarpur border opening, there is a widespread sensation of openness and inclusivity towards the Other. With both India and Pakistan growing older, and not so wiser, the link between Muslims and Sikhs has remained alive, lurking in the background. Both once had homes, belongings and places of worship where the other lives now. The prospect of independence has at times over-shadowed such similarities. The prospect – although coloured with excitement by new leaders, new states, and new structures – leaves out not only the honest brutality of partition, but how the dawn of independence blurred identities for people. Now might be the time to bring back Saadat Hassan Manto’s short story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ (1955). This story is about an exchange of patients in a mental asylum in Lahore, simultaneous to the Muslim-Sikh-Hindu population exchange during the 1947 Indian Partition. 

The partition was such that it designedly forfeit an individual’s right to what they believed home was, as experienced by the protagonist, Bishen Singh. He only spoke gibberish – twenty-one syllables – if asked anything: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the mung de dal of Guruji da Khalsa and Guruji ki fatehjo boley so nihal sat sri akal.” But one thing he undoubtedly knew was that he wished to go where his home is, Toba Tek Singh – “a piece of land that has no name.” 

Unfortunately, in the midst of this partition madness no one knew whether it is in India or Pakistan. “One Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, “Don’t you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors.” This predicament symbolizes the impalpability faced by masses during the time’s population exchange. 

What was happening around Singh and the mental asylum was perhaps truer than what Singh believed. What political leaders from the public sphere decided fatalistically determined Singh’s private life. Sadly but without surprise, Singh like many others – inside and outside the asylum –  had no control. They were forced to adapt to surrounding transformations in their environment. Another patient, a Hindu lawyer from Lahore “roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved as Indian and him a Pakistani.” This coercion, alluded with lack of control, created ambiguity for Singh. He entered a ‘hybrid’ space, forced to leave his old identity – even if it only equated to twenty-one syllables – and enter a new one, an unknown one. 

Instead of passively following this “rite of passage,” Singh – refusing his supposed new identity – becomes stuck in the middle stage, a stage of ‘liminality’. This refers to the disorientation that occurs in the mediating stages of a ritual where participants lose their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun their transition into the status they will hold once the ritual is complete. In this middle stage, the individual is stuck between their original ways of forming their identity – through the temporal state they were in, with the people around them, the meanings they attached to their ways of thinking and actions – and the new ways of forming a new identity, one they are unable to internalize organically. Thus, the expected notion of potential empowerment from nationalism and partition omits those liminal persons who may resist participation into the prevailing new social order. 

Saadat Hasan Manto

This resistance is clearly seen in the final scenes of the story when patients are finally transferred. When Singh asked an officer standing in line, “Where’s Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?” The officer replied, “In Pakistan, of course.” Hearing this he ran back and began to yell, “This is Toba Tek Singh!” and refused to move. For him, the source of empowerment and self-hood lies where Toba Tek Singh lies. He is not concerned with new outsider social structures coming into place where progress for a Hindu means to live in India and a Muslim in Pakistan. “It was explained to him over and over again that Tobe Tek Singh was in India, or very soon would be, but all this persuasion had no effect.” 

As Singh refused to be transferred from Lahore, his defiance clouded with uncontrollable vulnerability ultimately brought his end. “The man who stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” 

Singh’s death shows how he escaped liminality in his own way. His denial to super-imposed grand narratives by the public sphere meant he could not hold onto his past identity whilst unable to find a new one. Rather than escaping this liminality but accepting the new social order, he did so by dying. If he had not died, it is possible he would migrate to India and begin the process of creating a new identity. On the contrary, it is also likely that those – such as Singh’s fellow patients – who did transfer remained stuck in the liminal state of an identity crisis, unable to recover.

For many Sikhs, perhaps a part of their tradition and identity was left behind at the Gurdwara Darbar in Kartarpur. To have access once again would help them feel rooted. It can not only help complete their transitional process finally, but allow both us and them to revisit national narratives that were not always constructive but destructive for some. 

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