By Saanya Gulati:
15 August 1947, like most Independence Days, is a celebration of national triumph and pride – the day that India awoke to life and freedom in the famous words of Jawaharlal Nehru. But less often is it associated with the mass violence, abduction, and looting that occurred in one of the largest communal massacres of the 20th century: the India-Pakistan partition.
I am from a family of partition refugees. 3 out of 4 of my grandparents lived in present-day Pakistan prior to the partition. Growing up, I watched the Independence Day Parade on television every year. I heard successive Prime Ministers’ grand speeches about India’s potential. I learned about the freedom struggle in school. Yet, I knew little about partition apart from the fact that it happened.
For partition survivors, it is painful to recount their memory of the incident. This dawned on me when interviewing my nani (maternal grandmother) for the 1947 Partition Archive, a global movement to preserve life stories shaped by Partition. The nervous pauses and the unnaturally long moments of silence made me uncomfortable.
Is it better to let bygones be bygones? Talking about partition forces one to recollect painful memories. Yet it’s powerful for two reasons. Firstly, it gives individuals the agency to retell history from their perspective. No longer are political leaders and their decisions the subjects of history; rather it is the ordinary man. Secondly, recounting these experiences evokes themes that are often absent from the conventional narrative of Independence Day.
My nani grew up in Lahore and was on a family vacation in Malakpur during the time of partition. At the time they left Lahore there were rumours circulating of the city being handed to Pakistan post-partition. She remembers armed mobs coming to attack Hindus outside her house and hearing bullets at night. As an 11-year old girl, she wasn’t afraid because she didn’t fully comprehend the situation. After partition, my great-grandfather drove to Lahore to search for the rest of his family. No one heard from him for ten days, after which they returned with horror stories of cities burning and communal massacres. After living in Malakpur for three years, they finally resettled in Amritsar, modern-day Indian Punjab.
Fear and uncertainty, dispossession and a sense of hopelessness, run deep in the eyewitness accounts of partition. These accounts also challenge the conventional logic with which history is narrated. Partition is often justified as a means to an end, with the end being the creation of a nation-state. In individual accounts, however, it is depicted as a breakdown of co-existence. “Hindus and Muslims were in the grip of madness. Lunacy” is how a survivor recounts it in BBC’s documentary, ‘The Day India Burned.’
Enabling individual accounts to become a part of history also creates a shared language of violence, which partition survivors can identify with. Amidst immense pain and suffering is the sentiment of nostalgia in the memories of partition survivors. My nani recalls: “There were many differences between the two communities, but still they were living together…as one nation.”
Questioning the logic of partition forces us to come to terms with the reality of violence rather than justifying it on ideological grounds. While revisionist historiography recognizes this in theory, the practical challenge that we face today is that the number of partition survivors is continuing to decrease. As we celebrate India’s 69th Independence Day, let’s pledge to sustain the dialogue until we can. Because, as partition historian Urvashi Bhutalia beautifully puts it, by not being able to talk about it can we put it behind us at all?
This post was originally published on Saanyagulati.com.