Updated: Oct 9
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The Partition was the single most traumatic experience in the Indian subcontinent, both politically and emotionally, for people across cultural, religious and socio-economic divides. It is an event in history that continues to affect our present and determine our future. The 1947 Partition divided the British Indian empire along religious lines into the fledgling nations of India and Pakistan, and embittered the joy that independence from 200 years of British rule brought them. The Partition displaced between 10–20 million people, creating large scale refugee crises for the newly constituted Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It was one of the bloodiest and largest mass migrations of people in history.
The violence that took place during the Partition has scarred generations on both sides of the border, and in many ways is the cause of the strained relations between the two nations. The Partition impacted everyone, from common people to artists—the anxiety of separation and the fear of starting a new life in a landscape marred by violence was felt by all.
Human dimension of the Partition
Plenty of research material exists on the 1947 Partition but most of it tends to be concerned with the political developments around the event. According to these texts, the Partition had taken place in August 1947 and was preceded by a number of events on the political front among major stakeholders like Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and others. The widely popular understanding of Partition history without acknowledging its ‘human dimension’ changed with the publication of Urvashi Butalia’s seminal text, The Other Side of Silence, in 1998. Prior to Butalia’s book, narratives of human experiences of the Partition occupied a peripheral space within academic discourse. Butalia says,
Perhaps this was because they had to do with difficult things: loss and sharing, friendship and enmity, grief and joy, with a painful regret and nostalgia for loss of home, country and friends, and with an equally strong determination to create them afresh. These were difficult things to capture ‘factually’. Yet, could it really be that they had no place in the history of Partition? Why then did they live on so vividly in individual and collective memory? [i]
The personal meanings of Partition, the profound sense of rupture and separation find little mention in written history. Few books were written about the friendships that endured, the lovers who never united, the neighbours who helped each other, or even the ones who turned against each other. These micro-histories lived on only as stories in families and communities—they lived on as legends that were passed down through generations and remained etched in collective memory. Butalia says: ‘This collection of memories, individual and collective, familial and historical, are what make up the reality of Partition. They illuminate, what one might call, the ‘underside’ of its history. They are the ways in which we can know this event. In many ways, they are the history of the event.’[ii]
If one were to go by the larger political facts, then it would appear as if Partition was now over, leaving behind no impact whatsoever. Butalia, however, argues that this is far from the truth. Even today, we get to see ‘little partitions’ everywhere—communal riots, religious fundamentalism, continuing divisions on the basis of religion. The history of independent India is rife with examples of these ‘little partitions’, and the divide between communities seems to be growing farther with every passing day. Years after the 1947 Partition, we continue to witness violence, displacement and destruction for the same reasons for which Hindus and Muslims were at each others’ throats in the fall of 1947.
Individual oral narratives of the Partition curated and archived by the 1947 Partition Archive project. (https://in.1947partitionarchive.org)
Stories about family heirlooms and belongings from the time of the Partition curated and published by the Museum of Material Memory-
a. The trousseau that stood the test of time: http://www.museumofmaterialmemory.com/the-trousseau-that-stood-the-test-of-time/
b. From the memory of Partition: http://www.museumofmaterialmemory.com/from-the-memory-of-partition/
Activities for the Classroom:
Each student can interview one family member/ family friend who experienced the 1947 Partition and note down their experiences/memories of the Partition. The class can then have their own Partition archives where they can compile and preserve these stories.
Divide the class into groups. Each group must pick one incident that took place in India post-1947, where communal tensions and religious divide were prominent factors for the violence/displacement that was caused. The groups must then prepare a short presentation on this topic.
Reading the 1947 Partition through poetry
When it comes to capturing a place, a time, a people or a life changing event, conventional meta-narratives of history can only do so much. It is by opening up the discipline to being receptive of the literature at the time that reveals its fullest potential in understanding partition historically. It is the imagination that really comes through in such times, putting words, meanings and shapes to emotions that cannot be easily labeled or understood. For instance, no historical records can convey the sheer loss and trauma of the Holocaust the way Anne Frank’s diary did. While history shows us the broader picture, literature tends to focus on the individual and her private sphere, dealing with the personal responses to major historical events. When we study the Partition from the point of view of the individual, we understand the magnitude of suffering more closely.
Poets have articulated the pain of Partition in inimitable ways. Since 1947, poets across South Asia and the diaspora have been trying to put into words the loss and horror that the Partition inflicted upon them and their people. They have wrestled with, memorialized and lamented the legacy of the period in their writing. They have distilled in a few lines our complicated history and a whole range of complex emotions that we’re grappling with even today.
‘Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’, Amrita Pritam
One of the most famous poems that capture the loss of Partition is Amrita Pritam’s lament ‘Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ (Today I Ask Waris Shah), where she implores the Punjabi poet Waris Shah, who wrote the romantic tragedy of Heer Ranjha, to rise from the dead and put into words the bloodshed of the Partition. In Pritam’s lament, it becomes evident that the tragedy of Partition is too horrific for any living person to even put into words, let alone weave into poetry. Pritam hopes that Waris Shah will record and witness the miserable condition of Punjab and her people after the Partition, and will turn over a new page in Punjab’s history.[iii] In the poem, the river Chenab is bloody with the corpses of all those who lost their lives in the Partition. The poem also decries the violence against women in the communal riots at the time of the Partition when the warring communities abducted, raped, tortured, sold women or forced them to convert their religion. Pritam calls out to Waris Shah, who penned lyrics mourning the tragedy that befell Heer, to rise up from his grave and listen to the cries of thousands of brutalised women in Punjab.
A call to Waris Shah
Waris Shah I call out to you today to rise from your grave
Rise and open a new page of the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab had wept and you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab
This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere
Poisoned breeze in forest turned bamboo flutes into snakes
Their venom has turned the bright and rosy Punjab all blue
Throats have forgotten how to sing, the yarn is now broken
Friends are lost and the spinning wheel has gone silent
Boats released from the harbor toss in the rough waters
The peepul has broken its branches on which swings hung
The flute that played notes of love is now forever lost