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Seeing Partition Through a Different Prism to Liberate Ourselves From Its Trauma

The self-reflexive and ethical perspectives of the second and third generation of witnesses to the catastrophe of 1947 may help in healing the wounds of Partition.

Partition refugees. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Partition refugees. 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.


“…but museums and commemorations institute oblivion as much as remembrance…”
∼  Claude Lanzmann, The Sobibor Uprising

About a year ago, Ravinder Kaur raised an ironic but pertinent question in her article titled ‘We Best Remember Partition When We Connect the Dots from 1947 to 1984 and 2002′. Kaur expressed legitimate skepticism about the modes of memorialisation of Partition at work in the present (she mentioned the ‘1947 Partition Archive’ and ‘Partition Museum’ project in Amritsar in particular), which in her view seems to focus exclusively on a depoliticised, even sacralised notion of human suffering rather than a nuanced sense of political history, or the continuing history of communal violence (Kaur flags 1984, 2002 and Muzaffarnagar 2013 in this regard).

While referring to Urvashi Butalia’s pioneering efforts two decades ago, in The Other Side of Silence to come to terms with the silence around the fiendish violence during 1947-48 and also to re-examine the many partitions within, Kaur underlined the need for a return to critical history and a deeper understanding of the continuing political and social impact of the partition, rather than simply focusing on its psychological after-effects. Even as the 70th anniversary of Partition approaches, we can see that her critical question remains relevant.

Since then, in the domain of scholarship, Amritjit Singh, Nalini Iyer and Rahul Gairola’s edited volume Revisiting India’s Partition (2016) has remedied some of the blind spots in Partition historiography, including area studies of neglected regions such as the Northeast, Burma, Sindh, Jammu as well as transnational perspectives from Bangladesh and Pakistan, following Vazira Zamindar’s conception of a ‘long partition’ while investigating cascading effects of the 1947 debacle in society and the polity.

Meanwhile, the effort to garner individual stories and objects has gathered momentum; the Partition Museum opened in Amritsar, unilaterally declaring August 17 as ‘Partition Remembrance Day’. Earlier in the year, Pierre Nora’s conception of sites of memory was given an ironic twist with fridge magnets carrying the Partition Museum logo being hawked at the Jaipur Literary Festival (hinting at a grotesque banalisation and commodification of memory, which is more likely to induce oblivion rather than historical awareness). In contrast, the Partition Archive project has demonstrated a more self-critical outlook and greater sensitivity in its initiative of garnering stories from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the South Asian diaspora, training its ‘citizen historians’ to ask searching questions of respondents and holding seminars where theoretical perspectives relating to history, trauma and memory could be debated (such as the workshop at Delhi University on February 22, which I attended).

Feminist historiography

Any negotiation of the traumatic memory of unprecedented levels of collective violence and forced displacement in 1947-48 does need to reckon with the persistence of affects like humiliated fury and narcissistic rage, which as psychiatrists have discovered, remain with us, besides redemptive emotions such as contrition and remorse. Equally, the modulation of such psychological affects over time requires greater attention. For instance, there was an interregnum between 1948 (after the assassination of Gandhi) and 1961, when the first major post-independence riots took place in Jabalpur, as Asghar Ali Engineer points out.

Later, as he shows, it was the eighties that came to be known as the communal decade, with terrible massacres at Moradabad, Nellie and then Bhiwandi, Bombay, and the catastrophic anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984. It was also during this decade and the nineties that important work on Partition came to the fore by feminist and subaltern scholars of the second generation like Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin (Borders and Boundaries), Gyanendra Pandey (Remembering Partition), Veena Das (Critical Events), Joya Chatterjee (Bengal Divided) and Shail Mayaram (Resisting Regimes), often highlighting the brutality of gendered violence predicated on narrow versions of identity politics during 1946-48.

Besides recounting the deeds/mistakes of the political leadership, whether of the Congress, the Muslim League or lesser entities such as the Unionist Party or the Krishak Praja Party in Bengal, the story of near-genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing (not only in Punjab), including attacks on women and children with fatal intent received new critical attention. The situation of abducted women and the silence surrounding them became the focus of research projects using innovative methodologies and motivated by a strong sense that that the lessons of the past had not been learned. As William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Space for such revelations by oral historians/social scientists with a feminist/subaltern perspective had been created by writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Amrita Pritam, filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and M.S. Sathyu, artists such as Satish Gujral and Somnath Hore and memoirists such as Anis Kidwai, among others. Even at the time of Partition, there had certainly been attempts to resist the current of blood-lust and restore a sense of insaniyat, as documented by Ishtiaq Ahmad (in The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned, Cleansed) and Rajmohan Gandhi (in Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten), as people risked their all to save lives across the communal boundary line, despite the prevailing ‘poisonous wind’.

A gap in the memories of 1947

Beyond retelling political history (as attempted recently by Nisid Hajari in Midnight’s Furies, without reference to feminist historiography), and the rhetoric of blame (largely abandoned by historians, except those touting hard-core ideological interpretations) lies a universe of popular narrativisation, not all of which takes a salubrious turn. The moral quicksand resulting from many victims becoming perpetrators, and the grey zone that emerged also on account of the absence of trials of killers (for the most part) may have contributed as well to the amnesiac turn in the decades following the Partition.

It was a critical consciousness of such lacunae in private and public memories of 1947 (despite many important anthologies/studies that have appeared) that prompted the assembling of perhaps hitherto insufficiently noticed short fiction, poetry, memoirs, an excerpt from a play and critical essays for our co-edited anthology Looking Back: India’s Partition, 70 years On (with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta, to appear in August 2017). For unless we adequately come to terms with afterlife of the sixth river of blood that came to flow in Punjab and elsewhere (Fikr Taunsvi’s image, from his memoir Chhatta Dariya, excerpts translated afresh by Maaz Bin Bilal for this volume), history is likely to repeat itself, albeit with contemporary variations (such as internet trolling and the lynch-mob).

For me, as co-editor, it was the witness sensibility that was most notable, whether in memoirs like Taunsvi’s (pen-name for the Urdu writer Ramlal Bhatia, who migrated after Partition from Lahore to Delhi), or short stories by Syed Ahmed Ashraf, Meera Sikri and Selina Hossain, poems by Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaiser Haq and Shankha Ghosh, or Vidya Rao’s insightful piece on the partitioning of music and the third generation point of view in the essay on material memory by Aanchal Malhotra, even the opening scenes from a play like Asghar Wajahat’s ‘Those Who Haven’t Seen Lahore Haven’t Lived’ ( Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Nai), translated afresh by Alok Bhalla and Nishat Zaidi for this anthology.”

After the first generation of witnesses to the catastrophe of 1947, such as Ghatak, Manto, Faiz, Taunsvi and Kidwai, it is as if the second and third generation of witnesses have carried forward the difficult task of reckoning with the events of 1947, bringing to bear an often self-reflexive and ethical perspective that may help lift us out of the morass of unending bitterness and rage. Though an anthology can only do so much, the attempts to bear witness by the various contributors, we hope, might lead to a critical testing of historical memory, a healing of the wounds left behind by the Partition, and eventually, liberation from the cage of traumatic memory.

This article draws on the introduction to Looking Back: India’s Partition at 70, co-authored with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2017.

Tarun K. Saint is an independent scholar and author of Witnessing Partition (2010).