Magazine 2013
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
Re-writing Partition Violence With Special  
Focus On Bhisham Sahani’s “Tamas”  
Sheena M. Sajith  
The partition of India in 1947was a significant event in history that caused immense pain and  
suffering to millions of people. There are numerous instances of women who drowned themselves in  
wells, children separated from parents, religious intolerance, loss of property and distrust between one  
human being and the other. Violence, bloodshed and insecurity were the order of the day. Even today the  
effects of partition in the form of communal riots and deteriorating Indo- Pak relations are a living reality. In  
such a scenario it is essential to be sensitive to the political development and ‘human dimension’ of this  
epoch- making history. My paper examines the mindless violence and ‘collective insanity’ experienced  
during partition riots. The novel ‘Tamas’ captures the absurdity and confusion of the large scale violence  
and mistrust, that existed among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It probes into the birth of ‘religious nationalism’  
and how it creates rifts and ‘imagined communities’. The construct of a ‘nation’ unleashes violence and  
mayhem among communities. The paper asserts the need to re-write partition violence, discuss and  
exorcise the evils that the partition of the country brought about so that peace and harmony prevail.  
Keywords - Partition, Suffering, Political Development, Collective Insanity, Nation.  
This mottled dawn  
This night-bitten morning  
No, this is not the morning  
We had set out in search of’ \  
Faiz Ahmed Faiz  
The role of violence in shaping national histories has been largely marginalized in Indian historiography  
in general and early partition historiography as well. Seen as an ‘aberration’ and not the ‘real’, the history of  
violence has concentrated over the happenings around violence and not the ‘violence’ itself.  
Gyanendra Pandey in his essay ‘The Prose of Otherness’ notes how historians history of partition has  
been a history of the machinations that lay behind the event and not the history of the lives and experience of  
the people who lived through that time. Urvashi Bhutalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence’ questions ‘why had the  
history of partition been so lacking in describing how partition had impacted the lives of ordinary people what  
it had actually meant to them’.  
Postcolonial studies question grand narratives written by colonists and nationalists who have tended to  
erase significant parts of history like the violence during partition.  
Postcolonial studies have also examined how British Colonialism in India represented ‘native’ as the  
primitive ‘Other’ prone to violence. Violence (crime, cruelty) was a product of the absence of goodness. The  
Colonial view was that the real answer to the problem of fanaticism and ignorance lay in western education  
which was “superior to anything that came from the East”.  
Indian nationalists have also represented certain kinds of violence as the work of backward people who  
were unfortunately ill educated and insufficiently enlightened.  
Fiction writers like Sadat Hasan Manto, Krishna Chander, Qurratulion Hyder, Khushwant Singh, Chaman  
Nihal, Intizar Huzain, to name a few, have dealt with the ‘human dimension’ of the harrowing experience of  
millions of people whose lives changed following the vivisection of India.  
Bhisham Sahni’s, Sahitya Academy winning novel, Tamas, 1 published in English as ‘kites will fly’ in 1981  
examines the voices of men, women, Dalits, bureaucrats, and leaders involved in the politics of communal  
violence. Set in a small town, frontier province in 1947, just before partition, Tamas questions and scrutinizes  
the power -play in propagating mindless violence in a community that was relatively peaceful.  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
Tamas explores the caste politics where Nathu belonging to a low caste ‘Chamar’ involved in skinning  
and tanning of leather products is deceitfully drawn into the gamut of killing a pig, to display in front of a  
mosque by Murad Ali, a local Muslim politician. Murad Ali in order to fulfil his own ambitious desire imposes his  
power, status and money on the vulnerable Nathu. Nathu though wishes to break free from the ‘dominant force’  
is trapped to persevere and after a long trial fulfils his masters wish of killing a pig.  
The guilt and fear that Nathu experiences for no real fault of his, is symbolic of political forces that target  
innocents for their own selfish desires. This event is countered by rumours of the incident of the cow, “holy to  
Hindus” slaughtered and its limbs thrown outside a dharamshala of Maisatto. There is distress and mayhem that  
follows in the form of mob violence of burning the grain market, looting shops, rape, forceful conversion and  
lack of trust and faith in one another.  
The violence depicted in the novel is akin to violence and fear experienced in any riot, may it be the  
violence on Sikhs in 1984, riots that followed demolition of Babri Masjid or the riots in Gujarat in 2002 or the  
Godhra Carnage.  
Members of all the three communities in the novel, Hindus, Muslim, Sikhs residing in the district attempt  
to prove their heroism and religious ideology by outdoing one another. Religion became a contested site for  
constructing national identities. Colonial dichotomies between East and West had now shifted to religious  
dichotomies between ‘Us’ and ‘Other’  
Violence became a means of expressing one’s religious ideologies. Ranvir who had never dared to kill,  
is trained to be part of the violent struggle by passing his initiation test of learning to slaughter a hen.  
Weapons were used not merely for self protection but as a powerful tool to take revenge and express  
one’s religious superiorities. The scene where Inder, a young boy who discreetly kills the scent seller from the  
other community, who was in fact protective towards Inder, and was advising him to be cautious, is a sign of  
strong communal divide.  
Shahnawaz in the novel appears secular and is helpful to his friend Raghunath from the ‘Other Community’,  
yet he too is drawn to become a part of his larger religious community. He does not hesitate to attack Milkhi,  
when he sees the funeral procession of an unknown member belonging to his own religion and thus establishes  
his loyalty and specific religious identity. Mark Juergensmeyer in his essay ‘The Logic of Religious Violence’  
observes that religion is exploited by violent people.  
Those who want their use of violence to be morally sanctioned, but do not have the approval of an  
officially recognized government, find it helpful to have access to a higher source: the meta morality that  
religion provides. By elevating a temporal struggle to the level of cosmic, they can bypass the usual moral  
restrictions on killing.’  
Richard, the deputy commissioner of the District is representative of the power of the Raj who considered  
the natives or the Indians as the ‘Other’ and their problems as ‘others problems’. He was fed on the stereotypical  
opinion that “All Indians are quick tempered, they flare over trivial things. They fly at one another’s throat in the  
name of religion”. He revealed the white man’s ego when he says that “natives know only what we tell them”.  
His wife, Liza fails to understand his policies of ruling the state when he cleverly says, “Rulers have their  
eyes only on differences that divide their subject not on what unites them”.  
The “Statistics babu” who at the end recorded the facts and figures of violence is an example of the stereotypical  
historian who is only concerned with ‘numbers’ and not the ‘human dimension’ of this painful period.  
Violence inflicted on women, children and innocent people are mere facts for the Deputy Commissioner.  
The ‘well of death’ into which Jasbir kaur and others jumped is only seen as “yet another violent incident”.  
Richard is in fact pleased to take his wife for a drive around the burning villages and show her ‘the lovely  
stream with orchards that flows just near the well that was the suicide spot for many women who jumped or were  
pushed into it to protect their ‘honour’ .  
Women’s bodies symbolized a ‘nation’ or a ‘community’ and dishonouring a woman from the other  
community meant conquering or a victory over the other community. Tamas has a scene where there is a rape  
committed even on a dead woman.  
The body became a privileged site for subjecting the ‘other’ to indiscriminate violence and disfigurement.  
In the case of Iqbal Singh in the novel, markers of personal identity such as his turban led the members of the  
other community to torment him and finally forcefully convert him.  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
Yasmin Khan in her book “The Great Partition” observes that rioters sought political legitimacy wherever  
they could find it, imagining blessings from omniscient national leaders and seeking the green light to kill from  
members of local party hierarchies.  
There was a also a small section of people in the novel who believed that violence in the district was  
triggered by the colonizers politics of divide and rule.Jarnail, reminiscent of Manto’s powerful character Toba  
Tek Singh believed that the politics of dividing people and even placing the pig in front of the mosque was the  
Englishman’s doing .Jarnail is representative of the voice of individuals who did not want a partition of the  
country. His patriotism for a united country of Hindus and Muslims residing together is revealed when he  
courageously expresses ‘Pakistan over my dead body.’  
The violent past of the partition period evoked through Tamas in its cinematic representation has been  
dismissed by some as being highly inflammatory, simplistic, irrelevant distortion of history. The famous judgment  
given by Justice Bakhtawar Lentin and Justice Sujata Manohar of Bombay High Court ,in support of Tamas  
notes that Tamas is in equal measure against fundamentalists and extremists in both communities and not in  
the favour of hatred towards any one particular community……………… is against the sickness of  
In an interview dated September1, 2008 in the Times of India, historian Bipin Chandra observed that our  
education system was full of communal ideas; hidden or otherwise. He noted that NCERT books didn’t even  
have communalism as a topic. He suggested the need to devote one week every year to an all Indian campaign  
against communalism.  
It is education and a study of the human dimension of partition that would eventually help one understand  
the enormity of the tragedy and the consequences of a war fought in the name of religion.  
Years ago the poet Iqbal had urged both Hindus and Muslims to build a ‘naya shavala’or ‘a new altar of  
unity with its columns touching the skies.’ His poem was translated into English by Prof.V.G.Kiernan’.It is a  
poem of hope and trust that harmony will prevail in the years to come.  
Come let us lift suspicion’s thick curtains once again,  
Unite once more the sundered; wipe clean division’s stain.’  
Saadat Hasan, Manto. Partition Sketches and Stories. New Delhi: Viking, 1991. Print.  
Pandey, Gyanendra. ‘In Defense of the Fragment:Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today.’ In  
David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds.), Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, New  
Delhi: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.  
Pandey, Gyanendra. ‘The Prose of Otherness.’ In David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds.), Subaltern  
Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, pp.194. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1994. pp.194 Print.  
Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Penguin, 1998,  
Pandey, Gyanendra. “The Prose of Otherness.” In David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds.), Subaltern  
Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha. NewDelhi: Oxford UP, 1994. pp.188-221 Print.  
Juergensmeyer ,Mark.’The Logic of Religious Violence’In Religion in India. Madan T .Oxford, 1991 .pp  
83. Print.  
Sahni, Bhisham. Tamas (English tr.). New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt.Ltd, 1988. Print  
Zakaria, Rafiq. The Man Who Divided India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt.Ltd, 2001. Print.