One of the most significant chapters of world history and the most painful contradiction of modern Indian History has been that of the Partition. On the one hand, the country was rejoicing its new found Independence, but for many, those celebrations were marked by separation, violence, desperation, rage, helplessness, revenge, fear and threats to their survival. Though the country was now free from the shackles of colonialism yet it got separated from itself, succumbing to the fervour of religion. The country could not celebrate Independence as a whole. August 1947, saw two (later three) countries born out of one which achieved their freedom simultaneously.
Though the hints of Partition had been dropped much before 1947; when it did reveal its true self, no one was prepared for its monstrosity. The violence it unleashed was unexpected, the agony which ran through the two nations was unbearable, the atrocities committed were unspeakable and the memories it created are still indelible!
Partition, therefore, stands as an episode recorded in the pages of Indian history, which makes one cringe in disbelief on the unimaginable horrors that humans could inflict on each other. Homes were looted and burnt, women were raped, forcefully converted or killed and men were murdered in large numbers. Many were burnt alive, hung from trees, beaten with sticks, and were left homeless. Trains full of refugees were attacked and burnt and many more unspeakable atrocities were committed on each side of the border.
It is due to these nightmarish memories that we find the survivors of Partition hardly talking about the issue. Even though the events had occurred in the distant past, time ‘the healer’, has not been able to obscure the wounds. But these memories have to be preserved, not only as a deterrent for future lapses of human judgement but also for the fact that for many, this event has been crucial to shaping their present, even if they may not be so aware of it. Thus, for the younger generation, these stories are in some way an important part of their identities, as they are a result of the difficult choice of either letting go or holding on to their roots, which their ancestors were confronted with.
But not only do they affect the present in terms of one’s nationality or lineage, but also in terms of the stereotypes and animosities which the two communities have created of the ‘other’ which manifest themselves out in the open during communal riots and very recently in the great debates regarding who is a ‘nationalist’ and who are ‘anti-nationals’.
Even in these general stories of great despair and bloodshed, there are some stories which display a different side of human nature- that of compassion and perseverance. Many of us would have heard about people helping their neighbours by giving them shelter and protection, from the ongoing violence and even some success stories of those who had to restart start their lives and yet managed to achieve great heights.
Partition is not just a story about redrawing new boundaries of division and creation of countries or the pogrom accompanying it. The episode of Partition within itself contains a myriad of stories, each having its own lasting implications. It not only has the stories of communal violence but also of compassion beyond communal lines. It has the stories of women being kidnapped, raped, religiously converted and made forceful wives along with stories of many who with time became comfortable with their new families.
Contrast this with the policies of both the countries of forcefully ‘bringing their women back’ without the women’s consent! And then who can forget the stories of those women who were killed(many burnt alive) by their own families or even took their own lives voluntarily as their bodies, which was a symbol of ‘family honour’ had to be protected from being violated.
There were people who lived miserable lives in the refugee camps (even graveyards became temporary refugee camps at that time) but, at the same time there are also stories of the noble souls who rose above the hypnosis of communal frenzy and opened their doors to the persecuted, to give them refuge before they made the tough choices regarding their destination.
Families were torn apart but then there were some which got re-united as well. There are families which never recovered from the loss, but there are also those who have so wonderfully prospered (like some from Punjab). But what makes the history of Partition unique is that unlike most histories, for which we need to rely upon government documents and official records, Partition’s history is largely interwoven with stories of the common people, the actual survivors of those times.
This history is a reflection of the collective experience of the masses which can be further divided into subsections, and every section of the society experienced this one common phenomenon differently. It is this voice of the common people like you and me, which makes us have an instant, deep and personal connection with the past, which is truly undeniable and irresistible. This is what makes them so impactful.
However, these voices today are facing the threat of extinction. Though time is a great healer, it is a cruel stealer as well and human mortality has always been an eternal fact. With the generation of eyewitnesses and survivors dying, what also goes with them are the pearls of memories which they, for the fear of re-living the trauma of Partition, might not have shared with many. The pain still exists and it still haunts them and maybe that’s why members of that generation tend to become teary-eyed while visiting a Partition exhibition. This only shows that those wounds have survived and the pain is still fresh.
For me, as a member of the younger generation, standing in a Partition exhibition surrounded by heart-wrenching stories, I feel that one gets transported to a special unique space which is disconnected from the present. Here, one forgets the din of the surroundings and views the scenes described as if they are happening right in front of their eyes. It is in these serene moments that the past runs through one’s veins.
It is a moment when history speaks to you and you listen to it spellbound, too affected to speak. It feels like you have truly united with the history.
Therefore, it is reassuring to know that some organisations such as 1947 Partition Archives and Partition Museum (Amritsar), formed by visionaries are undertaking the pertinent task of getting these endangered first-hand accounts recorded and displayed for the benefit of the posterity.
However, these organisations need a lot of support from the public. It is important that each and every memory gets recorded as every single one of them is as precious as the other. Not only do they give posterity a chance to better understand their lineage, identity and heritage, but also gives them an opportunity to truly become one with history!