Tragedies and Testimonies(#5)

The legacy of the Partition of British India has transformed the conscience of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even today, the Partition continues to fuel passionate debates in our living rooms and is often referenced in harangues by political leaders. The history of this event however is also unique. Stories of the Partition have been passed down to many South Asians. These memories are heirlooms that continue to constitute our intrinsic identities.

My family’s history too is steeped in the Partition. These memories however have been shunned away with time, recollected in hushed voices and with bitter hearts. The truth eludes me even today. The stories I hear are gross generalisations. Personal accounts are hidden away behind hatred and prejudice.


Why do people continue to guard these memories with such a passion? The events of the Partition were unprecedented in their occurrence. Millions of people crossed borders- often on foot. Bloodshed and violence raged through streets. Armed militias carried out planned attacks. Raids and arson attacks wiped out entire villages. These memories are painful. Many have lost loved ones to the violence while others perpetrated the bloodshed. For several survivors however, the most agonising memory is the loss of a homeland. Concealment becomes particularly evident when one seeks to analyse the Partition through the perspective of gender. The experience of women has vanished from the public discourse. Women’s trauma has not been limited to religious adherence. Countless women have been victims of sexual violence, forced conversion and honour killings. For their families, these women have ceased to exist. Like Pinjar’s Pooro, these women have been forgotten by their own loved ones.


Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Museum in Israel aims to record and archive the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. The Hall of Names seeks to preserve the memory of every victim of this horrendous tragedy. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan seeks to record the experience of the people who survived Hiroshima. No such collective archive exists to tell the story of India’s Partition.


Why has it been so hard to record testimonies? One can give several answers to this question. The political hostility between the governments of South Asia has hindered collective efforts. While several individual initiatives have tried to revive memories of the Partition, their progress remains slow. The Partition caused the transfer of over 12 million people across the borders of India. Finding these survivors and their descendants is an arduous challenge. While experiences are beginning to be shared, there still remains unwillingness to revisit this painful part of history.


Most essentially however, we need to ask ourselves- why is it necessary to record and archive these testimonies? As historians, these stories will help us better understand the history of the Partition. We need to archive these records because in its essence, the history of the Partition is the history of people. The study of the Partition has been restricted to Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten. Through anecdotes, we can gain an understanding of Partition that isn’t strictly limited to seminal figures and one that exposes the experience of the common man. These stories will help prevent careless labelling of history as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. A researcher of this epoch will soon come to realise that no community was the only aggressor or the sole victim, for history is more complicated than that. We need to study these stories to understand the consequences of propagating religious politics. We need to learn from this history so we can ensure it never repeats itself.


The Partition of India was a reality over 70 years ago. Some survivors are too old to recollect their memories. Many others have already perished. We need to permute and promulgate the stories associated with this tragedy before history disappears in front of our very eyes.

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