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How We’ve Been Ignoring Important History Only Because It Wasn’t Written Down

Posted by Nayanika Chatterjee in History
March 28, 2017

In my 12th grade, I remember coming across the chapter on Partition in my history textbook. Like all other chapters, it felt like something I had to read, memorize and learn well enough for me to be able to answer questions based on it. My understanding of the Partition was, sadly, limited to the 25 pages chapter because, I took it as a given and never seemed to question the text or my teacher.

The interviews and oral texts that were included in the chapter were part of the source boxes, boxes that were deemed unnecessary since they were not a part of the syllabus. What we needed to learn was simply the basic timeline of the events that took place during the Partition – The Lahore Resolution, the victory of the Congress and Muslim League during the elections, violence breaking out in Calcutta and Mahatma Gandhi travelling to Noakhali in East Bengal to restore communal harmony.

As long as I got the facts right, with the assurance that these would fill up the pages of my answer sheet, I thought I was prepared. The introduction of the chapter stated that, “interviews can tell us about certain aspects of a society’s past of which we may know very little or nothing from other types of sources. But they may not reveal very much about many matters whose history we would then need to build from other materials.” This only reinforced the belief in my mind that the sources with the interviews were not necessary since they would be missing out on the bigger picture.

A refugee special train at Ambala station. The carriages were full and the refugees sought room on top of the train.

But Urvashi Butalia’s “The Other Side of Silence” completely shattered my narrow understanding of the Partition. Since school, students have been engaged in squeezing and guzzling up information about the Partition, which, may have made us all highly insensitive to the harrowing experiences that survivors went through.

While I read Kulwant Singh’s interview about his memory of the Partition, about seeing his father’s body being cut into hundreds of pieces, the women of his family jumping into the fire in order to conserve their izzat (integrity) and him lying next to his father’s dead body, I realized the magnitude of what had been carefully omitted from the school textbook.

With the same books in circulation, doesn’t that mean that this would lead to the creation of just more ill-informed citizens? That a lot of students would never know why Mangal Singh used the word “martyred” instead of “killed” when 17 members of his family “offered themselves” in order to save their honour is nothing short of disturbing.

Oral histories provide the knowledge that is necessary for us to expand the information that lies with us already. As students, we should avoid falling into the trap of keeping history objective. No fact or timeline will ever hold meaning unless the fabric of human history is richly embroidered with personal experiences.


Photo credits: Visual News/Stringer via Getty Images