This was a week of commemorations. The week began with the premiere of the biopic/documentary Kaifinama on the poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi at the Asian Film Festival. Shabana Azmi, his daughter, has been working hard on his commemoration — with books, events and now this very moving film.
The event was held at Bafta, where filmmaker Sangeeta Dutta conducted a dialogue between Shabana and Sudeep Sen, a poet himself, who has translated Kaifi’s poems into English. It was like a jugalbandi with Shabana reciting the original Urdu poem and Sudeep reading his English version. We also saw the same poems feature in the film, so it was poignant. The large audience was full of Urdu afficionados and film buffs. It is a special film for me too as it contains excerpts from a documentary I had shot on Shabana at least two decades ago. This was used in the film specially as it depicted a building in which Kaifi and other progressive poets lived together in Mumbai. This was an example of communal living, under the strict rules of the Communist Party — so that all the residents shared what they had — with limited money and limited space. But Shabana remembered it as being a very happy space where children grew up securely — in and out of homes where they were welcome. Poets like Ali Sardar Jafri also lived there — but unfortunately now, like so much else of our heritage it has been erased from memory and that building has been pulled down. So this footage was some of the last remaining memories of that time — as Shabana walked us through “Red Hall”.
The rest of the week has been occupied by Jallianwala Bagh commemorations, and we are really satisfied that all the lobbying and pushing for recognition for this day, despite the preoccupation of the two governments in the UK and in India, has worked. India is in the midst of elections and the UK is in the midst of Brexit — but the event was not forgotten.
Last Tuesday there was a debate in the Westminster Hall — a forum for MPs to have open-ended debates away from the main chamber. But this debate obviously does not have the same meaning and importance than if the debate were held within the House of Commons main chambers.
Bob Blackman, an MP with a large number of Indians in his constituency, introduced the topic, expressing his own sorrow over what happened a century back and many MPs took part. There was a helpful statement by Mark Field, a junior minister in the FCO about the UK’s awareness of the horrific event. But then on Wednesday, in the midst of all her Brexit troubles, Theresa May made a statement just before Prime Minister’s Questions about the UK’s “deep regret” over the massacre. While many were disappointed that she did not give a full, wholehearted apology — the signs were apparent that this was not going to happen. For it has been often discussed that an “apology” would carry financial implications or payouts. For me this entire reluctance by the British government seems a little strange: none of the descendants of the massacre’s victims that I spoke to during my research on my book on the massacre ever said they awaited any financial benefits from the apology. But while Britain missed an opportunity to prove significantly that it was no longer the same racist regime it was in 1919 — it was reassuring to see that they were, in other ways, trying to make a special effort to remember those who were martyred in 1919.
On Friday, the Indian high commissioner, Ruchi Ghanashyam, opened an exhibition, Punjab Under Siege: Jallianwala Bagh, 1919 (put together by the Partition Museum, Amritsar and the Manchester Museum) at the Nehru Centre, London. This was followed by a panel discussion on it moderated by Lord Meghnad Desai in which the discussants included Esme Ward, the director of the Manchester Museum and Satnam Sanghera, a well-known journalist who has made a film for Channel 4 on Jallianwala Bagh which was shown on the anniversary date. (And incidentally I was also interviewed for the film).
The previous day, a much larger version of the exhibition had opened at the Manchester Museum also in collaboration with the Partition Museum, Amritsar. Over 400 people attended and the exhibition was well covered by the Indian and the British media. This is an exhibition which has been curated in India and then worked upon by the team at the Manchester Museum — who have supported the project wholeheartedly. They are expecting large crowds through the year — especially since this is a story of undivided Punjab — and both Indians and Pakistanis are likely to visit since Manchester is neutral territory. Incidentally, those who visit should also pick up the khadi marigold to wear anytime through the commemoration year — made in memory of the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh and to honour Mahatma Gandhi whose 150th birth anniversary it is this year. A capsule exhibition on this has also opened at the Birmingham Library.
And by the way — Britain is slowly learning about the pains of Partition. Do you think we will ever Brexit? The jury is out on that…...