Updated: Mar 10
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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.’
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 harbour 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
Brothers of Ranjha have lost the hero’s devotion, his charm
Blood rains on the earth, even the graves are oozing red
The princesses of love are now weeping midst the tombs
Today all have turned into Qaidon, thieves of love and beauty
O where on earth do we go to look for a Waris Shah once more
— Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt.[iv]
Listen: Amrita Pritam reciting ‘Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVO14VdgdSI)
Amrita Pritam wrote this poem when she was only 28, while traveling to Delhi from Dehradun in search of work, just a few months after she had migrated to India.
Amrita Pritam herself was not spared the horrors of the Partition. In the darkness of the never-ending night, she sat holding her two children as she left her hometown of Lahore behind. She had to flee the city literally in the clothes that she was wearing when communal riots broke out in August 1947 during the Partition. She recalls the journey in her autobiography The Revenue Stamp:
Uprooted from Lahore, I had rehabilitated myself at Dehradun for some time. I went to Delhi looking for work and a place to live. On my return journey in the train, I felt the wind was piercing the dark night and wailing at the sorrows the Partition had brought. I had come away from Lahore with just one red shawl and I had torn it into two to cover both my babies. Everything had been torn apart. The words of Waris Shah about how the dead and parted would meet, echoed in my mind. And my poem took shape.[v]
‘Subh-e-Azadi’, Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Faiz is regarded as the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century and is best remembered for his revolutionary verses that decried tyranny and dreamt of a just and fair society. In ‘Subh-e-Azadi’, Faiz questions if we really achieved the freedom we wanted. He is dismayed by the price we have paid for our freedom from British rule. Faiz wrote this poem on the occasion of Pakistan’s first birthday but his tone here is in contrast with the air of celebration that one would expect on such an occasion.[vi] Instead, Faiz uses his lyricism to highlight the problems that the new nation was facing. This poem was criticized by both sides of the political spectrum—the Right scorned Faiz for not celebrating Pakistan’s independence enthusiastically while the Left protested that the poem was too vague and that its romantic imagery reduces the trauma of Partition.
‘The Dawn of Freedom, August 1947’
This light, smeared and spotted, this night‐bitten dawn
This isn’t surely the dawn we waited for so eagerly
This isn’t surely the dawn with whose desire cradled in our hearts
We had set out, friends all, hoping
We should somewhere find the final destination
Of the stars in the forests of heaven
The slow‐rolling night must have a shore somewhere
The boat of the afflicted heart’s grieving will drop anchor somewhere
When, from the mysterious paths of youth’s hot blood
The young fellows moved out
Numerous were the hands that rose to clutch
the hems of their garments,
Open arms called, bodies entreated
From the impatient bedchambers of beauty—
But the yearning for the dawn’s face was too dear
The hem of the radiant beauty’s garment was very close
The load of desire wasn’t too heavy
Exhaustion lay somewhere on the margin
It’s said the darkness has been cleft from light already
It’s said the journeying feet have found union
with the destination
The protocols of those who held the pain in their
hearts have changed now
Joy of union—yes; agony of separation—forbidden!
The burning of the liver, the eyes’ eagerness, the heart’s grief
Remain unaffected by this cure for disunion’s pain;
From where did the beloved, the morning breeze come?
Where did it go?
The street‐lamp at the edge of the road has no notion yet
The weight of the night hasn’t lifted yet
The moment for the emancipation of the eyes
and the heart hasn’t come yet
Let’s go on, we haven’t reached the destination yet
—Translated by Baran Farooqui[vii]
‘Partition’, W.H Auden
Cyril Radcliffe is the infamous British lawyer and Law Lord who was responsible for drawing the borders for the new nations in the 1947 Partition. He was tasked with the chairmanship of the two boundary committees that had been set up under the Indian Independence Act 1947. Radcliffe, who had never visited any land east of Paris, had to draw the boundary lines in such a way that would leave Hindus and Sikhs in India, and Muslims in Pakistan. When a panel of four judges from the Indian subcontinent failed to arrive at a consensus, he had to come up with this plan in a matter of weeks. He submitted his Partition map on 9 August 1947, thereby splitting Punjab and Bengal almost into two halves. Auden, in his poem titled ‘Partition’ (1966), offers one of the sharpest critiques of Radcliffe’s disastrous move which left millions dead and homeless. Auden’s satirical poem shows the mundane nature of the bureaucratic proceedings of the Partition plan even though it turned out to be one of the most disastrous and traumatic events in history. Using outdated maps and incorrect census data, it decided the destiny of millions and shaped the future of two fledgling nations.[viii]
Partition[ix] Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And about of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
Listen: ‘Husna’, a song about the Partition composed by Piyush Mishra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivpu_IpRn1w
Divide the class into groups. Ask each group to look up two poems on the Partition, written in different Indian languages. They can then have a discussion on the poem, its meaning, the particular historical context of the poem as well as the poet’s experience of the Partition. The students can even attempt to translate the poems into English.
Ask the class to write a poem or prose piece about the Partition expressing their own thoughts on the subject based on their impressions from the reading and listening suggestions and activity in this module. Having not experienced the Partition personally, how are their expressions different from the emotions in the material they read?
For inspiration, share with the class these poems written by present day writers as they ‘write back’ to poets who wrote about the Partition, and reflect on the fractured history (and present) of the Indian subcontinent: https://aaww.org/this-is-not-the-dawn-poetry-of-partition/
‘70 Years of the Radcliffe Line: Understanding the Story of Indian Partition’ –Akhilesh Pillalamarri: https://thediplomat.com/2017/08/70-years-of-the-radcliffe-line-understanding-the-story-of-indian-partition/
‘Reading Partition poetry’ – Onaiza Drabu, Prachi Jha: https://www.dawn.com/news/1499501
[i] Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 10. [ii] Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, p.10. [iii] Nirupama Dutt, ‘When Amrita Pritam called out to Waris Shah in a heartrending ode while fleeing the Partition riots’, Scroll.in (14 August 2017) (available at: https://scroll.in/article/847004/when-amrita-pritam-called-out-to-waris-shah-in-a-heartrending-ode-while-fleeing-the-partition-riots; last accessed on 23 September 2021). [iv] Dutt, ‘When Amrita Pritam called out to Waris Shah in a heartrending ode while fleeing the Partition riots’. [v] Amrita Pritam, The Revenue Stamp: An Autobiography (Krishna Gorowara trans.) (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977). [vi] Ali Madeeh Hashmi, ‘How Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s most famous poem came to be written’, Scroll.in (1 April 2016) (available at: https://scroll.in/article/805932/how-faiz-ahmed-faizs-most-famous-poem-came-to-be-written; last accessed on 23 September 2021). [vii] Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘Subh-e Azadi’ (Baran Farooqui trans.) (available at: https://penguin.co.in/subh-e-azadi-an-anguished-evocation-of-the-pain-of-partition/; last accessed on 23 September 2021). [viii] Dr. Crispin Bates, ‘The Hidden Story of Partition and its Legacies’, BBC (3 March 2011) (available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/partition1947_01.shtml; last accessed on 23 September 2021). [ix] W.H. Auden, ‘Partition’, RAIOT (13 August 2017) (available at: https://raiot.in/partition/; last accessed on 23 September 2021).
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