Partition was the most defining event in South Asian history, leading to the creation of India and Pakistan, and fuelling sentiments that later led to Bangladesh being a separate nation, independent of Pakistan. It is estimated by some that over two million people were killed during the communal riots that characterised the Partition and a further 14 million people were displaced, making it the largest mass migration in human history.
Many historians have pointed out how the events of Partition continue to shape post-colonial South Asian politics and culture. The hurriedly drawn Radcliffe Line, which was published two days after the Indian Independence Act came into being, divided lands, railway lines, library books, and also deeply cut through hearts and memories. Due to its mass scale and callousness, the event has often drawn parallels to the Holocaust in which 11 million people were killed. It included Jews, homosexuals and persons with disability. They were also tortured in gas chambers during the Nazi regime. However, while the Holocaust is remembered across the world on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27), the remembrance of the Partition has been masked in obscurity. Similarly, while the memories of the Holocaust have been permanently recorded in museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, such a structure hasn’t yet been established to remember the Partition. However, recently, almost 70 years after the event, “The Partition Museum Project”, established in June 2015 is closer than ever to the dream of creating a museum for remembering, commemorating and healing.
Even almost 70 years after the Partition, the events of the tragedy and the veil of silence that continues to surround it, shape the subcontinent’s identity and politics. The communal and gendered violence that characterised the Partition has seeped into the post-colonial societies of India and Pakistan, erupting into both inter-state and intra-state conflicts. The creation of two nations amidst the backdrop of destruction allowed violence to raise its head from time to time and also be justified in the goal of nation-building.
While the memory of the Partition has persisted, it has taken the form of more or less informally told narratives. The representation of the Partition in art, cinema and literature from both sides has often been accompanied by jingoism and unilateral narratives of victimhood. The differing experiences of men and women, of people in Punjab and Bengal, of the rich and poor, have failed to come out in the ‘mainstream’ narrative of Partition shaped by binaries.
Psychologists around the world are acknowledging the desire for memorialisation as a universal need – both from the perspective of the person who is memorialised and those who do the memorialising. A permanent place to honour the lives lost in conflict is increasingly being closely linked to the dignity of communities and providing a space for healing. Museums, with their physical space for the collection of objects and memories, play a significant role in remembrance and commemoration. They serve as an instrument for reconciliation, a mechanism for nation-building and political legitimacy, and a pedagogical tool to inform successive generations about historical events and inculcate preventive lessons.
Recognising this need, the Partition Museum Project team, aims to bring together brilliantly motivated minds from various disciplines, drawing three actors that shaped and were affected by the events – India, Pakistan and Britain. A sincere effort has been made to collaborate and collect narratives from multiple perspectives and angles. The location of the museum has been carefully chosen as the iconic Town Hall located in Amritsar, which was one of the worst-hit cities during the Partition. The timing of the project has been questioned by many. While some see it coming “too late” to make a difference, others see it as a premature decision, owing to the continued animosity between the two nations. However, the decision is a well-thought of and consciously chosen one, due to several reasons. It has almost been 70 years since the event and the generation that has seen it will wither away. The task of recording their experiences and sharing with the successive generations is thus, a race against time. Furthermore, as we move further from the generation that experienced Partition, the level of knowledge and understanding on both sides of the border about what actually happened will decrease. Rather than memories, flawed and biased rhetoric of politicians and strategists will inform perceptions, stereotypes and attitudes of history and of the ‘other’.
The Partition Museum Project that has started due to a collaboration between all sides and voluntary participation from the youth, is the need of the hour. A Partition museum, with its physical space to house artefacts and memories, will go a long way in ensuring that we do not forget. And forget we must not, in order to not only remember the individual stories and struggles but also to remind ourselves that communal violence shouldn’t be reduced to statistics but dealt with the rawness of loss that comes with it. By creating a shared pool of memories and knowing that both sides suffered, the animosity between the children of Partition can be softened. By confronting the past of the birth of our nation, we will be able to understand the pain of refugees crossing seas and leaving behind long-cherished memories better. It is only by acknowledging the past can we be truly free to dream of a better future.