POLITICS

Partition Day, The Poignant Anniversary Lost In The 15 August Bustle

The Partition Museum is a brick-and-mortar reminder of the bloody history.

16/08/2017 2:58 PM IST | Updated 16/08/2017 2:58 PM IST
Photodivision
A refugee special train at Ambala Station. The carriages are full and the refugees seek room on top.

When I heard that India's first Partition Museum was opening on 17 August in Amritsar, I was puzzled.

"Why August 17?" I wondered, displaying my utter historical ignorance.

"17th August. That was the day," Kishwar Desai, chair of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, which is bringing the museum to life, explained patiently.

"17th is when the details of the Radcliffe Line was announced. For many people, that was the day they discovered whether they were in India or Pakistan."

Photodivision
Photographed of "rescued" non-Muslim Women and Children who arrived in the Ganga Ram Transit Camp in Lahore in February 1948. from Campbellpoer and Kunjab Refugee Camps in Pakistan for evacuation to India under military escort

In my defence, it's a day I do not recall anyone commemorating with any great ceremony. Our national narrative has always been about independence, a triumphant finale to a fight for freedom. Partition was the ugly flip-side to independence. There are books, films and television serials that commemorate it.

My mother tells stories of my great-grandmother's sisters who left their homes in what became East Pakistan in the wake of the new borders. She remembers hearing how the daughter of one of them, an invalid, had to be carried across the border on a stretcher. But Partition itself has been kept discreetly out of sight in official memory. The keepers of a new nation naturally wanted to remember and celebrate the stroke of the midnight hour when India awoke to life and freedom, not the hundreds of thousands of deaths that accompanied it, the riots, the burning homes, the rapes.

"It was a very young government," says Desai. "And no government wants to admit its failure of lack of preparedness."

The Partition Museum is not about pointing fingers and passing judgement. But it is an effort to remember that cataclysmic historic event before the last of its eyewitnesses die.

The Partition Museum is not about pointing fingers and passing judgement. But it is an effort to remember that cataclysmic historic event before the last of its eyewitnesses die. "This is the last generation. After this we can't do it," says Desai.

The museum's time has clearly more than come. But it's not just one Partition Museum. This 70th anniversary feels curiously a lot more about Partition than any other year and not just in South Asia. British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha's film 'Viceroy House' is being released in India as 'Partition:1947'. There are art exhibits and panel discussions. Many months ago I started getting calls from international media houses soliciting ideas for their Partition shows. To be honest, at that time, the 70th anniversary was not high on my radar.

"I don't remember Partition being such a big deal 20 years ago," says Anusha Yadav, curator of the Indian Memory Project. "I don't remember it being such a big deal internationally." That was the 50th anniversary, a more significant milestone in many ways than the 70th.

Photodivision
Refugees just arrived from West Punjab line up to get their names registered prior to admission the respective camps. (Photo taken on September 27, 1947).

And many more of those who survived Partition had been around at that time. Yadav has her own theory. That was 1997. The world, including India, was more interested in looking ahead to the new millennium instead of looking back at Partition.

"We were more worried about Y2K than Partition," says Yadav. In 2017, when the future of the world feels far more uncertain, in a time of Donald Trump and Brexit, "the idea of nostalgia and history is suddenly the next big thing."

In hindsight, it might seem shocking that the Holocaust has its memorial and museum but the Partition has never been commemorated in any similar fashion.

In hindsight, it might seem shocking that the Holocaust has its memorial and museum but the Partition has never been commemorated in any similar fashion. But World War II was a war with clearly defined winners and losers. Independence in the subcontinent was a transfer of power.

"In the Holocaust they had somebody to punish, they had trials," says Yadav. During Partition, the Radcliffe line was deliberately announced after India and Pakistan became independent because Lord Mountbatten, says Kishwar Desai, "did not want the British to be blamed for what happened later on."

In that sense, the victims of Partition were the orphans of history. No one truly wanted to commemorate their pain for everyone was culpable in it.

READ: The Story Of India's Partition Through The Objects Refugees Carried Across The Border

But it's also true that perhaps as a country we were just not ready to commemorate Partition in the way it deserved. Desai remembers her parents' generation did not want to talk about Partition at length. "They had to build their lives from scratch. Nobody had the time to think of things like museums," she says. Yadav goes further.

"In the subcontinent we don't acknowledge pain," she says. "We get on with life. We've gotten on with it forever whether it's Partition or 1984 or internal riots." In a country where justice moved at a glacial pace, and powerful perpetrators strutted around freely, there was little choice but to do that.

However that amnesia has its price. The lack of documentation means Partition has struggled to find its place in history despite being called the greatest mass displacement of the 20th century. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the executive director of the 1947 Partition Archive, says when she moved to the United States as a child, she remembered reading about the Holocaust and Hiroshima in her textbooks.

But Partition was barely a sentence. "When I mentioned it to my teacher in high school I remember her saying maybe it was an exaggeration, it was not as big a thing because it was not even in our text books," says Bhalla. On a trip to Japan while doing her PhD, she went to the Hiroshima archives and understood what was missing.

Photodivision
A view of the Humayun's Tomb Camp in Delhi for Muslim refugees during the disturbances in 1947.

"I saw the testimonies of people talking about how they were not able to get a job or get married because there was a stigma around people affected by the bombs. And I realized the same had to be done for Partition," she said.

The 1947 Partition Archive now has done over 4,000 interviews which it is releasing into the public domain through universities like Stanford in the US and Ashoka in India so that the story of Partition is no longer lost in the more glorious narrative of Independence.

In that process, hopefully we will find the room to complicate the story of Partition. It's not just about India and Pakistan. It did not happen overnight. It's not just about trains filled with dead bodies. It's not just about violence. "We realized there was so much of culture and history pre-Partition that was suddenly changed or lost," says Bhalla. It's about food, music, films, literature. Everything was partitioned in a way. And out of that debris there were also new beginnings.

READ: My Grandfather's Narrow Escape From Death Was A Small Triumph For Humanity

"Kwality Walls, Nirula, Campa Cola all came about after Partition," says Yadav. "But my favourite is the story of the last trader on the Silk Route. He was an old man, the biggest guy in his area and his business shut down because of Partition."

A museum can tell that complicated human story of politics, class, gender, religion and culture.

"I think today's generation is more conscious of that history," says Desai. "We were just told by our parents to get a job and work hard. This generation has the luxury to actually look back." But before it can do so, Partition will need its own place in history that's distinct and separate from Independence Day.

From this year, going forward, the Punjab government will mark 17 August as Partition Remembrance Day.

"I believe there is Independence Day and there is Partition Day," says Desai.

The Partition Museum is a brick-and-mortar reminder of that separation of history.

More On This Topic

SPONSORED BY &PRIVÉ HD