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The Memories of Partition That Still Haunt Us

Partition as memory is still an oral world embedded in silences, caught in a language of despair that refuses to heal 70 years later.

Stories of Partition can linger inside you, festering in silence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stories of Partition can linger inside you, festering in silence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.


A friend of mine once told me history is like a cuticle, a crest, where violence has congealed and language is no more impersonal. Memory however, he claimed, is like a skin, raw, open to pain. It is a lived reality and a reality we live again and again. He used this difference of metaphors to talk of Partition. He claimed Partition as transfer of power belongs to history books, while Partition as memory claimed is still an oral world embedded in silences, caught in a language of despair that refuses to heal 70 years later.

I was reminded of my friend’s distinction when I heard a series of stories from Chandrika Parmar, the political sociologist. She told me how her friend Shafali Vasudev was intrigued by a man, an old man who went and saw the movie Border over 50 times. Poor though the movie was, it provided a kind of intensity, a surrogate companionship to a lonely man. He eventually took his grandchildren to see it because he wanted them to experience what he lived through everyday, events he could not exorcise nor narrate. He felt Border gave a meaning, a thick description to his silence over the years.

I remember another time we had gone to interview a businessman, who built efficient plants. Instead of discussing pollution, he got interested in memory as he discovered our interest in Partition. Large tears flowed down his tired cheeks as he took out a handkerchief to wipe them. He told us, “I was on a train from Amritsar”. He gave us vivid descriptions of the massacres that followed – how he hid in the bathroom with his grandmother to escape the violence. He was even more concrete as he told us about searching for a house in Daryaganj and discovering houses full of dead bodies. The narrative was startlingly authentic. It was only in the seventh interview that we discovered that he was four years old during the Partition. He had internalised his grandfather’s memory. Ersatz memory, Chandrika pointed out, plagued the Partition. It was, she claimed, a problem of the second and third generations, which had not gone through the experience but insisted on possessing the memory.  Many of these people became a rabid part of the BJP.

Partition as a memory is still problematic. Few talk about the enormous incidents of rape that took place. Memories linger in numerous ways and haunt society, while history seems less problematic. One senses a whole generation haunted not by displacement and violence but the thousands of everyday choices it forced on them. The questions they ask is about their choices, not of the decisions of politicians. In many ways, Lord Mountbatten appears in their heads in the role of an extra. Their autobiographies are full of village events and the poignancy of everydayness. That memory haunts in India and even wraps its character. I remember a similar incident at IIT Delhi, where a professor was recalling 2002 with distress, till a student said, “At last 500 years of Mughal misrule has been settled.” Warped memory, silence, the despair of choices made – Ersatz histories haunt India, reminding us that the narrative of Partition can never be linear.

The Mountbattens with Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Mountbattens with Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stories of Partition can linger inside you, festering in silence. I remember the artist of junk, Nek Chand, was silent, almost mysterious, about an empty space in his rock garden. He told us excitedly how he had gone to the World Punjabi Conference in Pakistan. Nek Chand rushed to see his  village. Ironically, it had been bombed to rubble by the Indian Air Force in 1972. Years later, Nek Chand collected huge sacks of waste to create his remembered village. He enjoyed the poetics of junk as creating the stuff of memory, strutting around like a trickster who had cheated history. I keep feeling memory haunts India in a way history does not. We think history is built by nation states and NCERT history books, forgetting it is communities and memory that determine behaviour.

I have heard people talk of a museum for the Partition, a memorial for the martyrs who died. I think these institutions are too event-centric for the kind of memories that live amongst us. Partition and the memories of Partition can only be confronted as a new kind of ethical experiment, an experiment in reconciliation and storytelling where survivors, the few left, tell their stories. For me the closest equivalent is the South African Truth Commission, which is a theatre of storytelling and truth telling. The survivor has to return as witness and India as a community has to listen. The BJP as a regime lacks the imagination or the courage to do this. It balked at apologising for its role in the 2002 riots. It does not have a leader like Willy Brandt who fell on his knees and apologised to the victims of Auschwitz. But more than a Brandt, what we need is a Desmond Tutu, who works his way into the unconscious of pain and allows both victim and perpetrator to unburden themselves of their stories. Reading the records of Partition, one realises nation building is a crass word. What we should have looked for is reconciliation, an avenue for apology, repair and storytelling. Memories need therapy and as memories of Partition haunt us, let us resolve that anniversaries do not recreate events like a taxidermist’s dummy but as lived realities. A Truth Commission on Partition, no matter how modest, could be a great ritual of healing for an India which treats a lynch mob as an act of citizenship. I quote the learnings of the Truth Commission, a Gandhian invention which has eluded India, so that reconciliation becomes the word around which we heal ourselves.

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University.