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Speaking of Asia: Letting Asia's bygones be bygones

Seven Decades After Some Of The Continent’s Great Upheavals, It Is Time Perhaps To Bury Bitter Memories, Not Revive Them.

Pakistani Rangers (in black) and Indian Border Security Force personnel during the daily Beating Retreat ceremony at the India-Pakistan Wagah border on Aug 15, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

One of the most poignant moments in my professional career came when I dropped in at the House of Sharing in Gwangju city, an hour's journey from Seoul, to meet a few of the surviving "comfort women" of South Korea.

There were fewer than half a dozen or so at the home, all tended to with a love and care denied to them during the years that Imperial Japan's occupying forces abducted them, just before and during World War II, for sexual slavery.

Today, these women prefer to be called "halmoni", which is the respectful Korean term for grandmother.

Outside the House, the temperature was freezing. Inside, it was warm. Spending the afternoon chronicling the story of one halmoni, I could not help noticing, aside from the crucifix over her bed, a bedside picture of a young woman radiant in a white wedding gown.

It turned out the picture was of herself, which surprised me. I wasn't aware that you'd married, I told the old lady.

"I was not," she responded. "I borrowed that gown just for the picture. I wanted a feel of what it would be like to be married."

It's hard to escape a lump in the throat every time I recall those words, or think of the exhibits at an adjacent museum depicting the cruelties the Japanese imposed on the women. The horrors were real.

Even so, a year ago this month, I read with dismay that the local authorities in Busan, South Korea's second biggest city, had permitted the installation of a comfort woman statue outside the Japanese consulate. Until then, the statue had been an illegal installation placed there on Dec 28, 2016, like a late-born sibling to the one that has sat for years, hands in lap, staring through the gates of the Japanese Embassy building in Seoul.

On winter days, you can sometimes see the Seoul statue, erected by a civic group called the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, touchingly draped with a cardigan around the shoulders. Mostly, there is a knitted scarf around the neck. As a perennial reminder to Japan of its atrocities, no matter how long back they were perpetrated, the Seoul statue has its purpose. The Busan statue, I thought, was mere aggravation - deliberately placed there to put sand in the wheels of attempts to improve ties between the two nations.

It had been put up on the first anniversary of a "final settlement" that then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterpart at the time, President Park Geun-hye, had negotiated. It had been a difficult decision for Park given the passions that Japan arouses in her country, but she had taken the bold step with a view to the future.

Marking the horrors of Partition

It is for this same reason that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent announcement, that his country would henceforth mark Aug 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, is cause for unease.

Pakistan marks the day as its National Day, when, cleaved out as a Muslim enclave from India, it emerged into freedom in 1947, with the rest of India following a day later as colonial Britain surrendered its jewel in the crown.

The birth of a new state as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims - what now is Bangladesh was then the eastern wing of Pakistan - roused unimaginable passions, in part because millions of people would be uprooted to begin an arduous and fraught migration to the other side.

From what was to be the new Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs fled towards what they considered the relative safety of a mostly Hindu India. From northern India, millions of Muslims went the other way to settle in and around cities like Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Dhaka.

They left on foot, on bullock carts, in cars. Many went by rail and there were times when an entire trainload of people arrived at their destination dead, killed on the way by marauding bands of people from the other faith.

No one knows for sure how many Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs perished in that upsurge that began in 1946 and lasted until 1948. Scholars suggest that between 15 million and 20 million people were uprooted and possibly a tenth of that number suffered violent deaths.

Research also suggests that while it was commonly thought that neighbours of different communities turned on one another, this was not really so and perhaps no more than 5 per cent of the population participated in any criminal activity.

Stories of savagery were mixed with tales of great sacrifice to save or assist members of the other community.

Three decades ago, when I travelled in Pakistan to garner oral histories of that experience, the late Akhtar Ali Qureishi, who ran a taxi fleet from offices in Lahore's Mall, told me he had been stranded in the Indian town of Hissar and was shoved into a train to Pakistan by a Sikh police constable who was a fellow soccer enthusiast.

The constable's superior, Sub-inspector Baldev Singh, had taken many Muslim scalps but constable Jiwand Singh issued his boss a warning: "If you take Akhtar's life, I shall take yours."

Mr Qureishi told me: "People here say Sikhs were killers. I remember them a little differently."

Other scholars have suggested that the violence was worst in areas where the district administrator was British, whose colonial smarts were famously based on the concept of divide and rule.

Local-born officers were more diligent about preventing violence and bloodshed in the community.

The Partition experience has been seared in the public consciousness of both nations, which have struggled to get past the resultant prejudices.

This has not only come in the way of a flowering of ties but also periodic wars and mutual accusations of fomenting terrorism on the other's soil.

Mr Modi's announcement, in an Aug 15 speech marking India's 75th Independence Day, that Aug 14 would henceforth be marked as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, was pitched as an attempt to honour the pain and suffering faced by Indians of that era.

Separately, he tweeted that "#PartitionHorrorsRemembranceDay... will not only inspire us to eliminate the poison of discrimination, animosity and ill-will, but it will also strengthen unity, social harmony and human sensibilities".

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in memorialising the ghastly events of the past. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked on Jan 27, the date Soviet troops liberated the German concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1945.

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Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima

At Pearl Harbour National Memorial in Hawaii, oil still leaks from the USS Arizona battleship that was sunk in shallow waters in the Japanese attack of December 1941. Some 1,100 lives on the ship were lost and Pearl Harbour triggered America's decision to enter World War II.

Locals in Hawaii call the leaking lubricants the "tears of the Arizona". In pre-Covid-19 times, thousands of Japanese tourists used to visit the site daily, to stand respectfully at the memorial.

In 2015, when I interviewed a few surviving veterans of Pearl Harbour, to a man they said they bore no ill-will towards the Japanese milling around. Indeed, they were deeply welcoming of them. The war, they explained to me, belonged to another era and its own circumstances.

The Japanese themselves, I noticed, were the best behaved visitors to the shrine.

Mr Modi's decision to mark Aug 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is a bit more complicated, however. For one thing, Aug 14 is Pakistan's Independence Day and it would seem to serve no purpose to mix up the two dates, unless this is the whole point of the move.

Secondly, Mr Modi is at the midway point of his second five-year term and will soon settle fully into re-election mode. Usually, that is a period when his Bharatiya Janata Party's majoritarian Hindu instincts are on show. All too frequently, this descends to dog-whistling about Muslims, the country's biggest minority group, and sly suggestions that they are less than patriotic citizens of India.

Such worries have roused concern. For instance, Ms Saaz Aggarwal, an Indian oral historian whose family migrated to India after the Partition, has started a campaign to revoke the decision to mark Aug 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.

In an e-mail note, she explained to me that while she believes Partition should be commemorated, the date for doing so should not be Aug 14.

And if at all Partition Horrors Remembrance Day needed to be marked, it would be more appropriate to do so on Aug 15, India's Independence Day. Others think a more appropriate day would be to make the day in June 1947, when the British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India to draw up the Partition map.

Unless it was acknowledged that all communities suffered, says Ms Aggarwal, there can never be peace and stability.

"People who suffered the Partition had fought for freedom too, then lost their land, made the best they could of their lives and thereafter celebrated Independence Day happily along with everyone, year after year, and without the tiniest moan! Hats off to them!"

What then is the best way to cope with immense loss and deliberately inflicted suffering of a colossal nature?

How to respect what happened without passing the bitterness of a fading generation to those too young to remember? It is a tricky dilemma and ideally, it should come through forgiveness, even as you do not forget.

Four years ago in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, I spent some hours interviewing Mrs Yoshiko Kajimoto, a sprightly 86-year-old grandmother of eight who experienced first-hand the American bombing of her city - the world's first atomic bombing.

Mrs Kajimoto was a secondary school student when the Pacific War, as the Japanese know World War II, broke out. The atom bomb, whose epicentre was 2.5km from where she was, would rip the skin off her flesh and her eyes were saved only because she had pressed her fingers into them before the shock wave arrived. Mrs Kajimoto suffered gastric cancer in later years and had two-thirds of her stomach removed.

To my surprise, I found no rancour towards the Americans who inflicted this terrible punishment on Japan. Instead, Mrs Kajimoto's ire was directed at nuclear weapons - "an absolute evil that cannot exist without human beings".

If Mr Modi's idea of Partition Horrors Remembrance Day is meant to promote reflection, restrain the worst impulses of communal ideology and seek a common humanity with neighbours, it is praiseworthy and must be endorsed.

If, though, it contributes to demonising the breakaway nations or the Muslim community whose insecurities triggered Partition and the birth of Pakistan on Aug 14, it must be reconsidered.

Sometimes, it is best to let bygones be bygones.