by Rachel Dekom, Garrett Gooden, and Ronnie Ludwin
The religious identities of disparate groups shaped the “troubles” of partition in both India and Ireland. Though many of these religious groups may have been peaceful and well-meaning, feelings of mistrust and violence among previously friendly neighbors catalyzed during and after these regions’ periods of partition. This art piece, entitled Spirits and Shadows, captures the essence of this struggle through religious imagery and a visual exploration of the removal of individual personhood.
The background of Spirits and Shadows is a church, with people filling the pews and facing a large stained-glass window. This religious background symbolizes that partition not only drove individuals to act out violently against others’ religions but also forced them to search for peace and meaning within their own faiths.
Nowhere is this conflict more evident than in Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, where Mano Majra’s peaceful Muslim villagers are forced to evacuate. The remaining Sikh villagers go to pray at the gurdwara; however, they are interrupted by a soldier who demands that the villagers join him in killing Muslims: “For each Hindu or Sikh [Muslims] kill, kill two Mussulmans…That will stop the killing on the other side. It will teach them that we also play this game of killing and looting” (149). The peaceful Sikhs, who went to their temple to mourn the loss of their Muslim neighbors, are galvanized into brutality. The placement of the shadowy figures in the church is thus symbolic of the struggles faced by otherwise peaceful people as they grapple with the meaning of their religions and, in the case of Singh’s characters, to violent actions against members of other faiths.
Thus, the artwork’s human silhouettes filling the pews and aisles of the church represent partition stripping away individual identity until only a person’s religion is left. Indeed, after partition, people were identified primarily through their religion rather than other national factors and personal characteristics. Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City explores this disappearance of individuality through the character of the judge, an unfeeling British official investigating the deaths of three Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland. As the judge examines the incident, he states, “Our only function is to form an objective view of the events which occurred…when after a civil rights meeting British troops opened fire and three civilians lost their lives” (109). Although claiming objectivity, throughout his examination, the English judge strives to find incriminating evidence against these civilians to justify the protestant police force’s brutal and ultimately fatal actions against these three Catholic characters. Michael, Lilly, and Skinner are seen as Catholic enemies rather than unique individuals.
However, this villainization was not true only for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Muslims in India also faced this erasure of self, as described by Gyanendra Pandey in his essay, “Can a Muslim be an Indian?” In the essay, he studies how Muslims were treated by Hindus in India. Because “The ‘Muslim League mentality’ was…pronounced as being unacceptable” (the Muslim nationalist group), many Muslims were assumed to serve as “spies” involved in “plot[s] hatched by the Muslim League and the leaders of Pakistan” (Pandey 618). Thus, even those Muslims who renounced support of Pakistan were often mistrusted due to their religious association. Just like the silhouettes in Spirits and Shadows, these Muslims were reduced by the authorities and Hindu majority to a suspicious and shadowy form of their religious identity.
The focal point of Spirits and Shadows, however, is the stained-glass window at the back of the church. The window exhibits alternating images, including murals from Northern Ireland and photographs from India and Pakistan during the period of partition. The murals are showcased in Valeri Vaughn’s documentary, Art of Conflict.
One mural depicts Bobby Sands, a Catholic hero who went on a hunger strike in response to internment, while another is an illustration of the Red Hand of Ulster, a Loyalist rallying sign. The remaining murals showcase respective Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries. As the film explains, these murals were and are an integral part of both national and religious expression in Northern Ireland. They reinforced Protestants’ and Catholics’ differing politics, histories, and values. David McKittrick and David McVea argue in Making Sense of the Troubles, “Although there was some intermarriage between the Catholic natives and Protestant settlers, the two communities…continued down through the years to regard themselves as separate entities” (2). Murals typified the depth of the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
The black and white images within the window display the diverse ways in which religion affected individuals during the partition of India. The top depicts a “ghost train” packed with refugees escaping their homes to seek safety and religious freedom in the newly divided nation (AP). The left portrays “an aged and abandoned Muslim couple and their grandchildren sitting by the roadside…‘The old man is dying of exhaustion. The caravan has gone on’” (“In Pictures: India’s Partition”). This family was not only left behind by their country, but also abandoned by their own people who moved to Pakistan without them. The right shows a boy “with the tragic legacy of an uncertain future” sitting atop Purana Qila, which was “transformed into a vast refugee camp” (In Pictures: India’s Partition”). Previously peaceful places were swarmed by refugees who could not seek protection anywhere else. At the bottom, a touching scene from M.S. Sathyu’s 1973 film, Garam Hawa, in which an old woman is forced from her ancestral home due to the conflict surrounding partition. The image illustrates the harmful effects of death amidst the wider struggles of partition. The middle picture, a piece of shattered glass, the shattering of both countries and the individuals within them. Each picture shows how religious differences shaped the experience of partition.
The banners located on either side of the window are lines taken from W.B. Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916.” The line, “Minute by Minute They Live,” exemplifies the violence faced by both Protestant and Catholic individuals and innocent bystanders of the conflict. A second line from the poem, “A Terrible Beauty is Born,” indicates that while both sides felt they were fighting for a noble cause, the violence and carnage surrounding the Troubles marred their lofty idealism. These lines exemplify the inner struggles of both Northern Irish and Indian individuals as they confronted the implications of their ideas and actions.
While the influence of religious identity during the partition of India and Ireland is more far reaching and complex than represented in Spirits and Shadows, the issue of religious affiliation nonetheless tore families and friends apart and brought violence to previously peaceful individuals and groups. While today it may seem unlikely that people’s lives can be drastically changed by a singular difference, the conflicts surrounding partition in India and Ireland illustrate the damage done when ideals overshadow individuals.
AP. “Murder, Rape and Shattered Families: 1947 Partition Archive Effort Underway.” DAWN.COM. DAWN, 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2017. Web.
Art of Conflict: The Murals of Northern Ireland. Dir. Valeri Vaughn. Netflix, 2012. Film.
Friel, Brian. The Freedom of the City. Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1973. Print.
Garum Hawa. Dir. M.S. Sathyu. Film Finance Corporation and Unit 3mm, 1973. DVD.
“In Pictures: India’s Partition.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017. Web.
McKittrick, David and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2002. Print.
Pandey, Gyanendra. “Can a Muslim Be an Indian?” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 41, no. 4, 1999, pp. 608–629. Print.
Singh, Khushwant. Train to Pakistan. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Print.
Yeats, W.B. “Easter, 1916.” The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Wordsworth, 1994. www.poetryfoundation.org. Accessed March 1, 2017. Web.