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Updated: Mar 11

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Some Facts and Perspectives on the Partition
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The Initial Days: Emergence of Religious Conflict

The policies by the British after the Revolt of 1857 underlined the separation of the Christian religion from the Queen’s rule. The British rule would not interfere with the personal affairs of the Indian population although the British maintained that Indians' traditions were ‘primitive’ and ‘abhorrent’. Therefore, ‘religious faith and observances would be left alone’.[i] The missionaries that were provided with subsidiaries were curtailed. In a sense, the belief that the new rule would convert the Indians to a new faith was undercut even though there were instances such as a Scottish missionary named Alexander Duff being under the impression that he had not done enough for the ‘Satan’s Empire’.[ii] On the other hand, new measures were taken to introduce Christian teachings through the classroom.

Divide and Rule ‘Divide Et Impera’

One of the major outcomes of the ‘Great Mutiny’ was the policy of Divide and Rule. The policy materialized through re-organizing the army. The earlier policy to mix caste, creed and religion was revised. This would fracture the unity that was being established in the states. For instance, it was important to break the growing solidarity in the Bengal regiments by introducing Sikh members. The policy was going to help strengthen the division that was already present between the groups. It would go on to see the formation of ‘class regiments’ and ‘class company’ and create fissures between the existing communities.[iii]

In short, the idea of division not only separated communities but also marked the root cause for the fracture between Muslims and Hindus. Much later, the final nail in the coffin came with the introduction of separate electorates.

Another important point that aligned with the policy of divide and rule was to ensure that the caste system continued to prevail which the British had earlier disregarded. The fear of christianization was also something the British dealt with. Fearing another revolt, the British rulers would also take into consideration the sensitivities of the Indian ruling class as it was this section of the society that had headed the Revolt. The agricultural class was also recognized as an important part of the imperial regime.[iv]

To know more about the policy of divide and rule:

To know more about the policies that developed in the 1857 Revolt:

Opposing views

Many would argue that the British were not entirely to blame for the Partition. The Muslim– Hindu animosity was arguably seething long before the British took over, for instance, when Aurangzeb reinstituted the jizyah tax that was imposed on non–Muslims.[v] The Marathas and other non–Muslim groups were opposed to such ideas although concrete identities such as the ‘Hindu’ did not exist back then. But this argument primarily condemns the romantic ideals of the Hindu–Muslim unity even if their battles were not on religious grounds but on the basis of gold, land and politics.

Moreover, acts of violence against non-Muslims in the Delhi Sultanate, for example, were not out of the ordinary. Religious violence was not an anomaly but a practice throughout history against the non-Muslim ‘infidels’.[vi]

To know more about Hindu–Muslim conflicts beyond the British rule:

Muslim as the Other

It is also important to note that there was an undercurrent of mistrust towards the Muslims from the government. They believed it was the Muslims who had much to gain from the Revolt of 1857:

It is interesting to note that a profound distrust was reserved for the Muslim community. Actually, as the events of 1857 ended, the British chose to throw the cover of responsibility on the Muslim aristocracy alone, notwithstanding the fact that the latter were not the only ‘culprits’. This is because the British assumed that the Indian Muslims were the bona fide fomenters and the main beneficiaries of the uprising. Commenting on this fact, Thomas R. Metcalf wrote: ‘As the former rulers of Hindustan, the Muslims had, in British eyes, necessarily to place themselves at the head of a movement for the overthrow of the British Government.'[vii]

Another important point to be kept in mind is that the Muslims were often treated as the Other. The East India Company, and then the British Government sought to justify their rule and marginalize the Muslim rulers as savage conquerors. [viii] This would help legitimize their rule and also divide the country. British scholars worked on the ‘orient’ in order to further probe into this narrative, insisting on the brutality of the Muslims and the role of the British in emancipating the non–Muslims from their reign. Chachnama was an Arabic text which was said to have been misinterpreted by the British in order to mislead and perpetuate hostility between the Muslims and Hindus.

To know more about the misappropriation in the History of Sind:

The Rate of Literacy in the Muslim community

The average literacy rate among Muslims was lower than the Hindus: 6.4 per unit as opposed to the 8.4 for the Hindus.[ix] This would be one of the major reasons for the rift between the two communities, although Latika Chaudhary argues that Muslims may not have encouraged literacy once the Mughal empire began to decline; teaching predominantly happened through Quran reading schools and Madrasahs.[x]

Another possible reason for the disparity was that the elite Muslims believed that education should have its basis in religion and that its medium should be Persian. This idea did not find ground in the British educational policy. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century, the Muslims desired separate educational institutions in Bengal. However, these institutions seemed to be limited to the elite Muslims. Hindus also continued to have traditional schools but as Peskin argues, there was also rampant demand for English education:

It would be misleading to suggest that the Hindus moved en masse out of their traditional schools, the tols and pathsalas, or out of schools for learning Persian, to English schools. Acceptance of traditional schools persisted. But by 1831 there was more demand for English education than the Committee of Public Instruction was able to meet. The demand grew. As a result, there developed a class of Hindus who turned more and more to the West for models in taste, dress, habits, speech, and values. They turned away from their customary sources of learning to models which were most alien to them, but with which they could not have identified more closely.[xi]

The education rate, therefore, continued to be unequal till 1947 and as a result, there were more Hindus in administrative and commercial positions than Muslims which would later become a point of contention between the groups. Much later, Fazl-i-Husain would rally for fair representation for Muslims through reservations in schools and colleges. However, the Hindus and other groups were opposed to it even though the British supported the move.

To learn more about the education disparity:

To know more about Muslim education and communal conflict in colonial Bengal between 1854 and 1947, read:

Rowlatt Act

Despite the conflict between the different religious groups, the protests against the Rowlatt Act brought about a HinduMuslim unity. It is at a site of protest against the Rowlatt Act that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was executed. The Act sought to censor the press and detain political activists, legitimizing their arrest without a warrant. Dr. Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, who were the chief voices against the Act, were thus arrested. A protest was held in Amritsar, along with which people were gathering for the Baisakhi festival, many of whom were unaware of the ban order against the right to assemble and had arrived from the surrounding villages for the fairs being held in Amritsar. The ground was enclosed on all sides and Dyer decided to open fire on the defenceless crowd in Jallianwala Bagh. This tragic event invoked solidarity between the Muslims and Hindus although this growing unity did not continue after the Non-Cooperation Movement was dismantled after three years. Rajmohan Gandhi states that 19191920 highlighted the firm unity that was evidenced by Lala Lajpat Rai who mentions Hindus preaching from the Badshahi Mosque during the protests.[xii]

The Lack of a Multilingual, Multi-Religious Party in Punjab

The lack of solidarity in the later years was due to the absence of a unified political party representing all religious groups. Congress was largely a Hindu, urban party; the Muslim League predominantly represented the Muslims and the Akali Dal represented the Sikhs. It is also important to note that all religious groups had their own internal divisions, according to Rajmohan Gandhi. The Muslims, for instance, were not a homogenous group and were divided by class, professions and biradaris. Therefore, representation was always a point of contention.

Moreover, the parties which developed after the three-year period of unity wanted to cater to the British sensibility. A man named Fazl-i-Husain took centre stage. He was a member of the Bhakti Rajput caste, a biradari. He played a key role in the Lucknow Pact. The Lucknow Pact established the formation of the separate electorate and also the need for self-government, which Husain spearheaded.

After the signing of the Pact, the British decided to support a party whose primary focus was on landed gentry. Fazl-i-Husain was one of the founding members of such a party, the Unionist Party, which was also supported by Chotu Ram—a Hindu. This party was primarily based in Punjab and represented all the majority religious groups there which also helped it slowly gain popularity—it didn’t hurt that it was also strongly supported by the British.[xiii]

In 1924, Gandhi tried to cultivate relations with Fazl-i-Husain. However, not all the members of the Congress were willing to compromise with their principles—Congress was largely a socialist party and to mingle with a party of landowners did not suit their interest. Nehru especially wasn’t keen on building a relationship with the Unionist Party. Therefore, this lack of unity in the nationalist movement became potent with time.

In 1928, Jinnah left the Congress and agreed to joint electorates on the condition that Muslim seats would be reserved in Bengal and Punjab which were both Muslim–majority states. However, this proposal was rejected which was another strike against the unity of the country.

In 1936, Fazl-i-Husain died. The Unionist Party was then headed by Sikardar and later by Khizar Hyat Khan. Khizar Hyat Khan later lost support from the British as the British decided to support the Muslim League rather than the Unionist Party as it better suited their interest to create tensions within the two leading parties.

The Question of Nation and Nationality

The prospect of self-governance was only possible if India proved itself to be a ‘nation’. However, the possibility of India as a nation during the time of colonial rule was contentious. For instance, Tagore’s view on nation-building remained in contrast with the rest. He argues:

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

The idea of nationalism, according to him, does not serve any purpose in India. The ‘organization’ of nationalism does not take effect if racial unity is amiss. Therefore, Tagore insisted that the western idea of nationalism should not gain vigour.

The inevitability of forming a nation was the only route to self-governance. B.R. Ambedkar refers to H.G. Wells’ argument that without a singular identity of a nation, self-governance is impossible. Ambedkar underlines the dubious nature of colonial India’s need to claim to be a ‘nation’ when it was far from it. [xiv] The ‘Hindu(s)’ according to him had already proclaimed themselves to be a nation and nobody dare contradict. What ensued was propaganda and the emergence of Hindu Nationalism:

The thesis was so agreeable that even serious Indian students of history came forward to write propagandist literature in support of it, no doubt out of patriotic motives. The Hindu social reformers, who knew that this was a dangerous delusion, could not openly contradict this thesis. For, anyone who questioned it was at once called a tool of the British bureaucracy and enemy of the country. The Hindu politician was able to propagate his view for a long time [ . . . . ] When it was about to succeed comes this declaration of the Muslim League—this rift in the lute. [xv]

But what did the Muslim League Declare?

According to Jinnah’s speech dated 1940, Muslim League would not partake in their claims of being a united nation. He said:

It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality; and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits and is the cause of more of our troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time.[xvi]

The problem with the Hindu ‘propaganda’ as Ambedkar asserts, lay in its rift with the Muslim League. He rightly points out that the Muslims of India were not in solidarity with the sentiment of a ‘nation’. Ambedkar adds: ‘If the Muslims in India are a separate nation, then, of course, India is not a nation. This assertion cuts the whole ground from under the feet of the Hindu politicians. It is natural that they should feel annoyed at it and call it a stab in the back.’ [xvii]

However, Hindu Nationalism was steadily becoming a reality and Partition was one of its key consequences. Mohammad Ayoob suggests that, ‘The division of British India on the basis of religious majorities was the principal factor that reinforced and legitimized the ideology of Hindu nationalism, which had remained marginal during the freedom struggle.’[xviii]

To read more about the rise of Hindu Nationalism:

To read about Tagore’s idea of a Nation:

What is the Nation?

The idea of a nation according to Ambedkar, is a ‘social feeling’. He calls it the ‘longing to belong to a group’. Benedict Anderson much later would call it ‘an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’.[xix] Aimé Césaire states in the context of colonization: ‘It is a fact: the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon. Exactly; but if I turn my attention from man to nations, I note that here too there is great danger; that colonial enterprise is to the modern world what Roman imperialism was to the ancient world: the prelude to Disaster and the forerunner of Catastrophe.’[xx] The idea of a nation is a discourse in itself which can be looked at in great detail. However, the surficial conceptions by Ambedkar and the rest drive home the fact that India was not a ‘nation’.

Now apply this test to the Muslim claim. Is it or is it not a fact that the Muslims of India are an exclusive group? Is it or is it not a fact that they have a consciousness of kind? Is it or is it not a fact that every Muslim is possessed by a longing to belong to his own group and not to any non-Muslim group?[xxi]

However, Ambedkar argues that there exist several points of commonality that could foment into a ‘nation’, and that religious unity need not be the sole point of focus—other integral facts also need to be taken into consideration.

Reliance is placed not only upon racial unity but also upon certain common features in the social and cultural life of the two communities. It is pointed out that the social life of many Muslim groups is honeycombed with Hindu customs. For instance, the Avans of the Punjab, though they are nearly all Muslims, retain Hindu names and keep their genealogies in the Brahmanic fashion. Hindu surnames are found among Muslims.[xxii]

Although Ambedkar argued for different kinds of unities, he also acknowledged the ‘antagonism’ that brewed between the two communities, stating that if they truly desired the Partition, it should not be contested. According to him, the present ‘antipathy’ that exists between the two communities cannot give way to ‘unity’, thereby Partition may be a reality; which it was.

Link to Ambedkar’s book:

A United Bengal

Furthermore, the fear of Partition gave way to the suggestion that Bengal remain united but independent from India, becoming a sovereign state although the proposal did not gain momentum due to Nehru’s reluctance towards the suggestion. Sarat Bose rallied for a united Bengal, unwilling to divide the state on religious grounds. However, his attempts were largely unsuccessful.

To know more about the proposition of a ‘United Bengal’:

To read more about the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan:

The Two-Nation theory

It is largely believed that the Divide and Rule policy gave way to communalism between the Hindus and the Muslims. When the theory was developed and by whom is a matter of debate. Recently, Shashi Tharoor in his book Why I Am a Hindu claimed that it was Veer Savarkar from the Hindu Mahasabha that developed the theory.[xxiii]

Ambedkar on the other hand stated that there are differences between the two theories propagated largely by Jinnah and Savarkar. He stated that Savarkar believed that the two nations should dwell under a single constitution, adamant in his proclamation that these are two nations and that Hindus will enjoy a dominant position. The realisation that Savarkar and Jinnah were in agreement of the idea of two nations surprised Ambedkar, predominantly because they were in opposition with each other and ideologically disparate.

The idea that India would be divided on the basis of religion was contested by many. Gandhi was not in support of a division based on religion. Maulana Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgar were strongly opposed to the idea.

The Election of 1946

The election of 1946 was a game changer. Although the idea of a separate state had long before laid its foundation, any hopes of a united India were dashed. In the beginning of the election the Congress party had 55 out of 102 elected seats, or 88 per cent share in the general constituencies, while the Muslim League won 100 per cent of the Muslim constituencies: 30 out of 30. But election was yet to be held in the provinces. Both the parties were optimistic about the outcome. In Punjab, where the Muslim majority was slightly higher, the Muslim League won 75 seats out of 178, while the Congress won 43 seats. The Muslim League had a majority support in Bengal.

Punjab had a coalition government after the elections. However, the party was overthrown as the Punjab Muslim League (AIML(P)) cited that it was ‘non-representative’. Riots ensued and as a result, Governor’s rule was imposed till the Partition took place although Master Tara Singh, the Akali leader, was strongly opposed to the Partition. The violent riots which began on 3 March 1947 were said to have continued till Pakistan was formed.

A major fact remains that Pakistan would not have been a reality if Jinnah’s demand for majority electorates in Muslim-majority states, namely Punjab and Bengal, was conceded. However, that proposal was rejected by the majority party.

Another important turn of events took place when Mahatma Gandhi offered to Jinnah the position of Prime Minister of a united India. The proposal was rejected by the cabinet.

The Proceedings of the Partition

Radcliffe Commission

Sir Cyril Radcliffe was to chair the two Boundary Commissions of Punjab and Bengal. The Commissions had four members each, two representatives nominated by the Congress and two by the Muslim League. Internal conflicts led to the Commission members reaching a deadlock, leaving Radcliffe with the task of deciding on a border in a period of five weeks. Radcliffe had never even been to India before.

Did you know that Lahore could have been a part of India? Read about it here:

Direct Action Day

Although this incident took place during the transfer of Power, it is the outcome of the announcement in purview of the possibility of Partition. The Muslim League announced a hartal in 1946 to demand the Partition of India. After the strike was announced by the Muslim League, riots ensued. It is difficult to say who the instigator was. There are two plausible sides to the event. The instigator could either be Hindus or Muslims but the degree of violence implies that it was in most probability both the groups. The incident instilled the idea of a separate nation in many, fearing the communal turmoil if the two groups were forced to stay together.

The Direct-Action Day was believed to be the outcome of the 1905 Partition of Bengal. The Partition of 1947 gave way for a national identity for both communities. Moreover, the emergence of separate electorates for the minorities also inculcated a feeling of separation from the majority Hindus.

To know more about the incident:

The Bangladesh Genocide of 1971

In 1971, the Pakistani military launched a widespread ethnic cleansing of the people in Bangladesh. Popular leaders in Bangladesh were killed and Hindus were forced to flee from Bangladesh. Many Hindus were killed in the Jathibhanga massacre, Chuknagar massacre and Shankharipara massacre. The central point was to eradicate any Indian influences in Bangladesh, which dominantly included Hindus.

This would eventually lead to the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan as its dominion. The Bangladeshi Liberation was proof of not only the violence between two communities but the difference present within a single community.

Babri Masjid

The destruction of the sixteenth century mosque in Ayodha in 1992 triggered mass violence that led to the death of approximately 139 people.[xxiv] This incident also led to the violence in 2002 in the same area. Smita Tewari Jassal and Eyal Ben-Ari state:

In India, Hasan rightly points out that it was the Babri Masjid–Ramjanmabhoomi dispute in the 1980s that became the defining moment for interrogating the recent past to understand the contemporary turmoil over religion and to question ‘why we didn’t set up a museum to preserve the memory of Partition’ or ‘why we chose to live with communal hatred, rather than to objectify it’. [xxv]

One of the major concerns for these disputes is in the assumption that the Partition is an event that is in the past. However, the intermittent outbursts of communal violence are a reflection of the violence of Partition and how it continues to threaten the secular identity of independent India. This in a sense underlines that the Partition was an immediate solution for the communal discordance and lacked longevity.

Azaadi or Batwaara?

In the wake of Partition, both the communities saw violence. There was a great ‘parity’ in the number of killings on both the sides. But those who protected their fellows were larger in number than those who killed them. Many families gave refuge to the communities that were under threat—so Muslims helped Hindus and Hindus helped Muslims. One of the major realisations that developed after seventy years of Partition was that many people who were attacked did not know who their attackers were, and a lot more people sought to help the people of the ‘other’ religion out.[xxvi] Violence was therefore instigated by the extremist political factions. Guneeta Singh Bhalla writes:

With time, the lack of separation between religion and politics led to religious ideologies having representation in local political parties. We hear reports of local political leaders igniting violence through proxies like gangsters and dacoits for economic gain—the chance to grab land, businesses, homes, or family jewels (a sort of savings account in those days) belonging to religious minorities in their constituencies.[xxvii]

It is also important to note that although animosity does not prevail for most of the immediate victims of the Partition, feelings of communal hatred have since percolated into the later generations due to a certain narrative of the Partition. Bhalla writes about these jingoistic feelings amid the younger generations stating that our inherent lack in the understanding of the history of Partition is the root cause.

To know more about the help that the refugees received:

Partition, it is essential to note, predominantly impacted the lower sections of the society. Gandhi states that although the upper classes were affected, most were able to escape the brutalities of the Partition.[xxviii] Therefore, it was the weaker sections that bore the brunt of the event. The class difference became even more evident when people from Lahore arrived in India and stated that they hadn’t witnessed any killings.

On another note, demobilized soldiers that had returned from the Second World War also became perpetrators of the violence. Rather than protecting the displaced, they took part in the carnage. This violence therefore wasn’t limited to any religious groups but true for all. Rajmohan Gandhi states:

The train filled with dead bodies became the enduring symbol of 1947 Punjab. Such trains arrived on both sides of the new border. A tree trunk or a boulder blocked a train loaded with refugees; the engine-driver often fled; armed attackers entered the train… The attackers, many of them demobilized soldiers, were familiar with railway time-tables as well as with guns.[xxix]

Moreover, the history of Partition is convoluted. It does not have a single historical narrative, but many histories. Partition developed multiple ideological perspectives. However, one predominant view was its simultaneous ability to both lament a lost home and celebrate the prospect of freedom. Many authors celebrated the Partition and many wrote about the traumas of the same. However, the question of Azaadi or Batwaara remained.

To know more:

Absence of a Memorial

The Partition of India in 1947 was marked by communal violence and killings of an unprecedented scale. The approximate deaths were somewhere between 200,000 to 2 million in today’s record although the exact estimate is difficult to gauge and the figure given is often found contentious. It was also one of the largest population exchanges with around 16.7 million people being displaced during the first four years of Partition.[xxx] According to the research article ‘The Big March: Migratory Flows after the Partition of India’:

Using the 1931 and 1951 population census data we find that by 1951, within four years after the Partition, 14.5 million people had migrated into India, Pakistan, and what later became Bangladesh. While outflows are not directly reported, we use region specific population projections to estimate total outflows of 17.9 million people during the same period. This suggests there were 3.4 million people ‘missing’ or unaccounted for during the Partition.[xxxi]

Another intrinsic point lies in the violence meted out on women. Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence mentions that nearly 75,000 women were raped and abducted during the time of Partition. The figure is probably higher according to Butalia, as it does not account for the 100,000 Kashmiri women who went missing.[xxxii]

These figures that signify the atrocities meted upon the people across the border are devoid of any memorabilia. The absence of a memorial site is a point of dispute for many. Some historians believe that the scale of migration, with its inability to distinguish the victim from the perpetrator, may impede the construction of a memorial site.

For a Partition museum is—notwithstanding the good intentions that lie behind it—a somewhat unworkable idea. To understand why, pursue the comparison with the Holocaust a little further, just so far as to realize that the two situations were radically different. In the case of the Holocaust, it was very clear who were the perpetrators, and who the victims. In the case of Partition, on the other hand, the victims were also the perpetrators.[xxxiii]

William Dalrymple says a memorial will ‘be counter-productive because they get caught in nationalistic jingoism’.[xxxiv] However, he believes a ‘totally apolitical’ memorial would serve some purpose. Therefore, the idea of commemorating the event is steeped in ambivalence.

After seventy years, attempts have been made to conserve the event of Partition through the Partition Museum in Amritsar. A museum and a memorial have a stark difference in establishment, however a museum is an institution that is used to conserve, educate and interpret objects that have historical, scientific and cultural value, while a memorial serves as a remembrance of someone or something.

Kishwar Desai, the Chairperson of The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust that set up the Partition Museum in Amritsar argues,

I felt we needed to confront the horrors. It would be unforgivable if we pretended amnesia and allowed a huge chunk of history to be wiped out. While the idea has been brewing in my head for more than two decades, it is only in the last couple of years I could actually do something about it. And the 70th anniversary of the event seemed a good deadline to work towards.[xxxv]

The museum has personal artefacts, public announcements, newspaper clippings, recordings of oral narratives, photographs and government documents to preserve the history of Partition.

A memorial was erected in 1996 near the Wagah border, which had two plaques with poems of Amrita Pritam and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. However, the memorial was demolished in 2020 much to the dismay of the Folklore Research Department in Amritsar. [xxxvi]

Therefore, attempts have been made to commemorate the event of Partition, even though they are different from the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington DC or the Holocaust Memorial, both of which include the names of the victims who passed away. The primary reason for the difference is the complexity of commemoration in context. As Florence Vatan and Marc Silberman state:

The commemoration of a difficult past raises challenges related to historical, political, and sociocultural contexts. It also raises challenges inherent to the process of memory making. Unlike heroic struggles, military triumphs, and revolutionary victories—privileged hallmarks of national celebrations and grandiose commemorations—traumatic or infamous pasts do not lend themselves to smooth or self-aggrandizing narratives. Nations are reluctant to exhume a past that is perceived as divisive and detrimental to their official self-image or national mythology.[xxxvii]

In a sense, the methodology and the process are deeply centred around the specificity of the historical context. The attempt to preserve one’s culture can take dynamic shapes. However, the inability to adequately conserve the violence of one’s past is also a point of contention.

For instance, Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence acknowledges the silence that pervades across those families that were reluctant to acknowledge their missing daughters, sisters and wives. Moreover, as Rajmohan Gandhi asks, which deaths are to be recorded as ‘Partition deaths’? The ones who died during travel? The deaths of those who died in the refugee camps, or the ones who were murdered? How does one remember the violence that was meted out on women, the abductions, sexual violence, death and honour killing?

To disregard the trauma due to the enormity of the task risks the eventuality of erasure. However, comparisons to other projects of preservation discount the disparate historical context that may ascertain projects of preservation.

To read more about the reluctance to build Partition memorials:

To read more about the memorial that was built:

To read more about the removal of the Amritsar memorial:

To know more:

Witnessing, Testimony & Memory through Partition

The Partition of India saw the displacement of approximately 16 million people across the border. For Bengal this continued till the 1970s. It is often seen as a necessary evil for independence in the historical trajectory. Another point to be kept in mind is that the violence of the event was more potently felt by the lower classes. Partition of India is often dubbed as an elite step and also believed to have given rise to a ‘territorial undertaking’. Therefore, there are multiple perspectives through which the Partition of India can be viewed.

Women’s bodies, one could argue, were viewed as property during the Partition. By violating their bodies, the perpetrators seemed to be establishing claim over the territory. Smita Tewari Jassa and Eyal Ben-Ari state: ‘Ironically, even the self-congratulatory emphasis of Gandhi’s nonviolence and the euphoria of Independence became a contributory factor in reinforcing the stance of silence about Partition violence. More complicated is the link between Partition as forgetting and as a cause.’ [xxxviii]

Despite the ‘silence’, efforts were made to find the abducted women due to the alarming numbers of missing women. These efforts of ‘recovery’ were however met with complicated results; sometimes the women were not viewed as ‘spoiled goods’ and in other instances they did not want to return. However, despite their reluctance they were forced to return to their own homes—another instance where women yet again did not have control over their own bodies.

Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence also attempts to uncover the silence that follows the Partition. It acts as a testimonial for recording the history of women, their memory and honour. For instance, she states that the image of India as a secular country became debatable as it disregarded the agency of women; all Hindu women were said to be abducted by the Muslims even if it wasn’t the case. A similar stance was taken by Pakistan. In the end, women’s bodies as battlegrounds continued both during the Partition and after it. The recording of their testimonials was the only method of reclaiming the gendered perspective of Partition.

Two more efforts at recording the oral narratives of Partition are:

Partition Archive:

The Museum in Amritsar:


Classroom Activity Ideas:

Activity 1:

One could look into a film like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) and examine it with the original narrative of Boota Singh in the Other Side of Silence: this may open up questions about the ‘master narrative’.

Activity 2:

One could also compare the partitions of India with others such as the partition of East/West Germany or Israel/Palestine: this could help examine the politics of partition and attempt to assess if there is a similar trajectory behind such events.



[i] Belkacem Belmekki, ‘A Wind of Change: The New British Colonial Policy in Post-Revolt India.’ Atlantis 30(2) (2008): 111–124; here pp.118. (Available at; last accessed on 20 May 2021). [ii] Belmekki, ‘A Wind of Change’: 118. [iii] Belmekki, ‘A Wind of Change’: 118. [iv] Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative, Rajmohan Gandhi, ‘Some Forgotten Realities of the Partition Story’, 19 August 2020 (available at; last accessed on 12 April 2021). [v] Ajay Verghese, ‘Did Hindu-Muslim Conflicts in India Really Start with British Rule?’, Scroll.In (5 June 2018) (available at; last accessed on 20 May 2021). [vi] Verghese, ‘Did Hindu-Muslim Conflicts in India Really Start with British Rule?’. [vii] Belmekki, ‘ A Wind of Change’:115. [viii] Belmekki, ‘A Wind of Change’:115.

[ix] Latika Chaudhury, ‘What Constrained the Expansion of Education in British India?’, Ideas For India ( 22 July 2013) (available at:; last accessed on 20 May 2021). [x] Latika Chaudhury, ‘What Constrained the Expansion of Education in British India?’. [xi] Alan Peshkin, ‘Education, the Muslim Elite, and the Creation of Pakistan’, Comparative Education Review 6(2) (1962): 152–59. (Available at: ; last accessed on 20 May 2021). [xii] Rajmohan Gandhi, ‘Some Forgotten Realities of the Partition Story’. [xiii] Rajmohan Gandhi, ‘Some Forgotten Realities of the Partition Story’.

[xiv] B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan Or The Partition Of India (Bombay: Thackers Publishers, 1945) (available at:; last accessed on 20 May 2021).

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