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Note: This article was originally published on August 15, 2016 and is being republished on August 14, 2021 in light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’.
Urvashi Butalia in her acclaimed work The Other Side of Silence (1998) recounts how partition came alive for her in the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. In the refugee camps where she volunteered, she often heard the older people say ‘this is like partition again.’ She writes, “it took 1984 to make me understand how ever-present partition was in our lives too, to recognise that it could not be so easily put away inside the covers of history books. I could no longer pretend that this was a history that belonged to another time, to someone else.’
The human suffering of partition has been documented extensively since Butalia’s work was published nearly two decades ago. An entire generation of younger scholars was inspired to look to the human experience of brutal violence, loss and displacement to make full sense of the event of partition. That partition was not just a timeline of political decisions and confabulations among the elite leaders – Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten – was homed in forcefully via oral histories and personal accounts of those whose lives were violently disrupted by high level politics. The effort to put individual trauma at the heart of partition history has by now become a vastly popular project – both within and beyond academy. Examples include the California based ‘1947 Partition Archive’ and the ‘Partition Museum’ project among others that seek to memorialise partition by collecting and exhibiting memories and objects that we are left with. These are laudable projects. To underline non-partisanship, these efforts are even publicised as ‘apolitical’ that solely focus on what is popularly called the ‘human dimension’ of partition.
Yet there is something deeply unsettling in this increasingly depoliticised notion of human suffering in this memorialisation project. And more so when the memorialised past stands in isolation from the present. This wish to remember and memorialise partition inevitably invites parallels to memorialisation projects in the USA, Japan and Israel among others. The 9/11 memorial in New York, the Hiroshima peace memorial, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem are some notable examples of public remembrance of human tragedy that mass violence inflicts. The idea is not only to honour the dead, to heal the wounds and to give voice to those silenced, but also to serve as a deterrent for future generations, as a reminder of destruction that human beings are capable of unleashing. In short, choosing to remember or forget, to publicly speak or remain silent are always deeply political gestures.
A quick look, however, at hundreds of personal testimonies amassed by now shows that the complexities of partition politics have been ironed over within this highly affective albeit simple narrative of human suffering. The human subject in this project is a free-floating agent disconnected from the realm of ‘politics’ – a word almost invoked with disapproval– where politics is largely understood as state or national level negotiations by big leaders. That personal and collective negotiations, transgressions and compromises underpinning messy social relations in everyday life also constitute politics is barely acknowledged. The subject of memorialisation we increasingly meet is mostly a passive victim of circumstances and almost never a willing participant in the events that unfolded. In other words, the space for complexities and contradictions is steadily erased once the affective project of memorialisation begins overshadowing the project of critical history.
The question that interests me concerns the work of public memorialisation in refashioning specific histories. Or put differently, the kind of remembrance of human suffering that is shaped within this depoliticised space, and its secession from the messiness of everyday life. One might argue that memorialisation precisely entails sacralisation of suffering, an acknowledgement of the wound inflicted on the victim, and therefore beyond debate. In the context of partition history, we are yet to make full sense of this unfolding moment when the wound, the suffering is not only publicly acknowledged but also memorialised. A few trends, however, are already visible.
For one, partition memorialisation now marks it as a unique event set apart from other events of communal violence. Indeed, the scale of violence and the historical background of India and Pakistan’s independence from the British colonial rule make it distinct. Yet, on the ground, the stories of organised mass murders, sexual violence and loss of property sound familiar. This quest to mark partition as a unique event reminds one of the debates on Holocaust that stress on its uniqueness, its difference from other events of genocide in the world. To be sure, all histories are unique and context specific, but the claims of uniqueness are essential to any mobilisation of collective identities.
What work, then, does the discourse of partition’s uniqueness perform? To begin with, it readily disconnects partition from Delhi 1984, Gujarat 2002, Muzzafarnagar 2013 and many other instances of mass violence that have occurred in postcolonial India and Pakistan. This is ironical given that it was the 1984 pogrom that generated widespread interest in the partition violence. Yet partition memory projects remain silent, and almost never connect the dots between 1947 and 2013.
Two plausible reasons underpinning this silence might be considered. First, any acknowledgment of the human suffering of 1947 together with that of 1984, 2002 and 2013 would mean recognizing the inherently political and contentious nature of violence – the political patronage, police complicity, the organized operators on the ground, the otherwise decent people who decide to overlook brutality, and delayed justice in court rooms. This would also take away the cover of ‘apolitical’ from human suffering. After all, it is not human folly, but state machinery that fails to protect its subjects. To bring partition out of the covers of history books would require taking a stand for not all violence is reciprocal or equally weighted.
Second, the memorialisation of partition allows us to collectively project our anger and despair away from the present instances of collective violence. The partition testimonies enable us to talk, and put in the public domain the horror of mass violence but without the intense contentiousness of 1984 or 2002. After nearly seven decades, partition has come to occupy a safe zone where horror at mass murders and rapes can be expressed aloud without attracting retaliation. This is what probably makes it unique in some ways.
Perhaps the project of memorialisation can be turned around and pressed forward – to document, record and speak of ‘our partitions,’ as Butalia had originally suggested. After all, once we have stripped the partition memory project of its historical uniqueness, what we are left with is brutal violence and loss that speaks of our times.
Ravinder Kaur is the author of Since 1947: partition Narratives among the Punjabi Migrants of Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2007.