Speaker’s research shows how people remember violence

by Kane Loukas

A half-million people were killed in 1947 by riots and mobs in the Punjab, a flat, fertile region occupying the northwestern portion of India.
When an academic lecture opens with this kind of statistic, one can easily foresee an uncomfortable and all-too-graphic learning experience.
This was exactly how anthropologist Gyanendra Pandey of Johns Hopkins University opened his lecture Friday afternoon at the Carlson School of Management.
Violence was the topic, but Pandey concentrated less on its horrors than on how people recollect their memories of violence.
While researching in the Punjab, Pandey found that people never admitted murders and mob violence happened in their own village.
In his lecture, Pandey himself affirmed witnesses were “plainly false” in their recollections.
People, he said, would talk of rivers of blood and the abduction of women who were eventually sold or murdered. Yet, as tears fall down their cheeks as they speak and their hands tremble in pained recollection, people told Pandey one thing again and again: “Nothing happened here.”
In 1947 the largely Muslim area of what is now Pakistan was being torn apart. The violence was touched off when Muslims were forcibly driven west from their homes in India into Pakistan. On the other side, Hindus were being driven out of Pakistan and into India.
Between the two groups was another group, the Sikhs. Their religion was contested between Muslims and Hindus. As a result, the Sikhs were caught in the middle of the two warring religious groups. Pakistan and its borders were later established under a 1949 cease-fire agreement with India.
Heavy rains have long since washed away the rivers of blood. Piled bodies no longer lie rotting in the fields. No austere granite memorials commemorate the dead. Grave markers are absent, as well as any record of those killed or abducted.
Because of the lack of physical remnants, one would have to turn instead to the remnants of human memory to reconstruct the partition of India.
Pandey dredged up recollections from some of those who witnessed the violence and many who participated in it.
People, said Pandey, recalled rapes, murders and frequent riots, but the emphasis was always the same: “The violence is situated somewhere else, not here not with us,” he said while talking about his interview with a retired civil servant in the small village of Gharuan.
Although he’s an anthropologist, Pandey approached his findings as a historian. In doing so he didn’t attempt to unravel exactly why people almost universally externalized their violent past.
He did say, however, that communities have different ideas of violence. The Punjab villages, after having been tempered by years of murder and riots, might have developed a thick skin and a method of coping with their past.