In his poignant, much-acclaimed short story “Toba Tek Singh,” Pakistani playwright Saadat Hasan Manto describes the plight of Bishan Singh, an inmate of the asylum in Lahore. In the story, set in a post-Partition era, the governments of India and Pakistan decide to exchange inmates: the Muslims among them are to stay in Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs are to go to India.
Singh, whose native town Toba Tek Singh now lies in Pakistan, is asked to go to India, as he is a Sikh. Unable to comprehend the new realities of home and belonging, Singh struggles with a crisis of identity. In the end, the “madman” dies at the no man’s land on the newly carved India-Pakistan border.
The ‘insanity’ of dividing the mentally ill
The no man’s land in “Toba Tek Singh” could be symbolic of the space that the mentally ill spend their lives in – between institutions that feel burdened by them and a community where they are seldom welcome.
But the division of the mentally ill was hardly symbolic. The farce described in Manto’s story, where governments exchange inmates, did actually take place. After the division, the largest asylum in northern India fell in Pakistan. There were no asylums under the government in Delhi. Patients and their bodies became assets to be divided between the two nations. Lists were drawn up, and hundreds of patients were exchanged – a history that my fellow researcher Alok Sarin and I have recorded in our work on Partition.
Non-Muslim patients were sent to India. The state of Punjab was divided between the two countries, and those who arrived from the area of the state that lay in Pakistan were housed in buildings and tents in the city of Amritsar in Indian Punjab. Others were sent as far away as central India, as no provincial government wanted to take responsibility of the new “others.” Several Muslim patients were sent to Pakistan from hospitals in India.
It is unclear how these persons were identified. Perhaps it was a bureaucratic response to make sure the burden was equally distributed. Thus attempts were made to arrive at somewhat equal numbers of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh patients to be shared across the new nations. Clearly, the new governments had not imagined the possibility that care might be delivered in a nonsectarian manner.
The unacknowledged trauma of Partition
The year leading up to Aug. 15, 1947, the day India gained independence, was perhaps one of the most violent in world history. Millions were forcibly moved, and at least a million killed or injured, because of the unimaginable atrocities that were perpetrated and experienced.
Before the Partition, in the late 1920s, a doctor conducting post-mortems on those killed in a communal riot noted that most injuries were on the victims’ backs, suggesting that the perpetrators’ sense of guilt made them avoid the victims’ eyes. By 1946, this sense of guilt had disappeared.
Doctors were shot dead at their clinics or on the road, a prominent hospital in Lahore was attacked, patients were killed inside hospital wards because of their identity, and more. This destroyed the idea of the hospital as a safe, secure, nonsectarian space.
Politicians on both sides of the border described the violence as “madness.” Eminent jurist N.H. Vakeel described the attempts at carving up the country and its people as the “political insanity of India.”
Doctors of the time felt that though the physical wounds could be treated, the “abyss in the soul” of the perpetrators would take decades to heal, if at all.