The significance of the Partition of India is that it started a new geopolitical order in the South Asian subcontinent.
That’s what I discovered when I visited the Partition Museum in Amritsar on the weekend of January 26. It was part of a school history project, and the timing of my visit was impeccable. It was shortly after witnessing Republic Day celebrations coupled with nationalistic fervor at the Wagah border.
Despite being located in India, the museum is well balanced in covering both Indian and Pakistani perspectives on Partition.
What struck me most was the value of certain primary sources obscured by history which must be brought to attention in the public domain. These primary sources will provide new perspective and explain why Partition was the single most influential political event in shaping contemporary India. Since photography of these sources is prohibited in the Partition Museum, my visit was spent writing down all the details I could find. And here they are:
It is a popular notion that Pakistan, a separate nation carved along religious lines, was the brainchild of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. However the Pakistan National Movement took shape in 1933 when C Rahmat Ali coined the term Pakistan for the first time. At the museum, I was lucky enough to spot the map that Ali drew highlighting the Islamic states in South Asia. While this map included Kashmir as part of Pakistan, what caught my eye was the fact that Ali demarcated Balochistan as a separate Islamic Republic. He also propagated the creation of Usmanistan (Nizami Hyderabad), and included the entire Seven Sisters as part of a Bang-e-Islam (which was to become East Pakistan).
There was a clear difference between what Ali envisioned for a partitioned India and what turned out to be the reality. In his map, Ali demarcated modern day Punjab as Guruistan, a sovereign nation for the Sikhs. Secondly, Ali marked the international waters surrounding Pakistan as “Pakistanian Sea” rather than the Arabian Sea. This shows that Ali’s vision for Pakistan was not to be part of a pan-Islamic ideology. Rather it was for Pakistan to have an identity of its own.
Before 1947, it was apparent that the British seemed very concerned about the political future of India, to the extent that they were willing to delay the Partition process to meet the strategic interests of all concerned political parties. In March 1942, Winston Churchill sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India to negotiate with different parties. This should have signalled hope for a new deal for independence. However, despite numerous discussions the mission was unsuccessful. A 1942 comic, illustrated by yesteryear comic artist Vikram Verma, titled “One More Sealed Letter” reflected the frustration of the Indian public with the diplomacy and slow proceedings of the British when deciding the future of India. This comic mentioned several diplomatic meetings in bold, such as “Cripps calls on Jinnah” and “Gandhi meets delegation”. The comic also mentioned the duration of such meetings and the excessive use of diplomatic language shows that there was not going to be consensus on a solution for post-colonial India that would satisfy the interests of all religious groups.
However, after 1945, the British were hasty about Independence. The haphazard manner in which boundaries were drawn across United India was the direct cause of religious manslaughter of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs travelling across the border two years later. At the Partition Museum I found stark evidence which reflected that the British were indeed indifferent towards the fate of the Indian subcontinent after Independence. Here is what Cyrille Radcliffe, the British lawyer tasked with drawing the boundary between India and Pakistan, stated in a 1971 interview to journalist Kuldip Nayar:
“[T]he time at my disposal was so short that I could not do a better job […] Given the same period of time I would do the same thing. However, if I had three to four years, I might have improved what I did.”
It was true that Radcliffe was only given a tour of the border once, and in the matter of seven weeks he was meant to decide the political future of a polarized sub-continent. The poem “Partition” by W. H. Auden is the epitome of British indifference towards post-colonial India: “But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided. A continent for better or for worse.”
In contemporary India, there is a lot of coverage on Partition on the Western part of united India. As for the Eastern border, it is a common understanding that modern day Bangladesh was partitioned from India to form East Pakistan. However, as I discovered in the Partition Museum, there was a demand to create a sovereign, united Bengal which was refuted by the Congress early on. The chief proponent of united sovereign Bengal was H. S, Suhrawady. He proposed holding a plebiscite for Bengalis to decide whether they wanted to join the Union of India. I found this information in the “Dawn” newspaper, an English-language newspaper and the mouthpiece of the Pakistan national movement who also supported Suhrawady’s demands. The newspaper even referred to his demands as a “plea”. However, the newspaper also reported that this plan was struck down because the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bengali communists were not in favour of it, while there was a concern about Scheduled Caste representation in Bengal.
While Indian media highlights the suffering of Hindus and Sikhs during Partition, what is less widely covered is the condition of the refugees that each country had to take as a result of partition. The Museum introduced a new perspective to post-Partition times for me when I read a transcript of a letter that B. R. Ambedkar wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru regarding the treatment of Scheduled Caste individuals in refugee camps for Hindus and Sikhs who came from Pakistan:
“The Scheduled Caste evacuees who have come to eastern Punjab (Indian state of Punjab) are not living in the refugee camps established by the government of India. The reason is that the officers in charge of these refugee camps discriminate between caste Hindu refugees and the Scheduled Caste refugees.”
There was inherent caste-based polarisation that existed, considering that the officers were giving preferential treatment to individuals even in such deprived conditions. Secondly, the Partition Museum also provided evidence of caste-based violence. In a letter to the liaison officer of the Punjab Government (Lahore), an officer of special duty wrote that by November 1947, there were over 400 families that were victims to caste-based violence. In this letter the special officer also wrote that “members of the scheduled caste community were subject to toward in-humane treatment.”
After visiting this museum, there is an overwhelming sentiment within me that makes me feel that it is important to understand the most critical South Asian event in light of the Two-Nation theory and haphazard political decision making of the British Empire. This had serious ramifications that led to sufferings on both the sides. Maybe Partition was inevitable, but I wonder, could it have been better handled? Did so many people have to suffer and die?
I encourage all readers of this article to visit the Partition Museum if you go to Amritsar in the future. As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history”.
While there were several events that may have played a role in partition, my museum visit showed me how only a certain narrative gained popular currency and contributed to India’s social, political and cultural landscape.