Reckoning with Independence and Partition in India, 70 Years On

 

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of Violent Belongingswrites about participating in the inaugural panel of a landmark event held Aug 4-6, 2017 in Mumbai, India, called “Remembering Partition.” 

“Remembering Partition” revolved around the memories and legacies of the 1947 Partition of India during decolonization from British rule. The 1947 Partition was a unique event: within a span of nine months, the British decision to divide India left approximately two million dead and between 12 and 16 million people displaced. As India celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its independence on August 15, 2017, this event was intended to be a public invitation to remember that this independence came with a price: the price of partition, paid by the millions who lost homes, lives, families, and belonging in 1947.

“Remembering Partition” was the first, three-day long, sustained, multi-disciplinary and public dialogue that reckoned with the Partition, ever held—in India or the world.  Envisioned and curated by the Lab’s visionary director Parmesh Shahani, “Remembering Partition” was hosted by the Godrej India Culture Lab in a cutting edge campus in suburban Mumbai, and involved over seven exhibits of art installations, refugees’ letters, objects, and fashion that explored the Partition experience; it also presented panel presentations and dialogue over three days with scholars, writers, filmmakers, artists, fashion designers, actors, activists, and Partition witnesses who shared memories of the mass migrations during 1947.

The speakers included Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis from a range of fields, like Sharmeen Obaid, Lalita Ramdas, Salima Hashmi, Nandita Das, Vishwajyoti Ghosh (editor of  This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition), Anusha Yadav (The Indian Memory Project), Nina Sabnani, Tanvir Mokammel, and Ramesh Sippy. In addition, local and global thought leaders and innovative producers from different industries and walks of life attended. Many speakers highlighted feminist and queer perspectives of the Partition; others also reflected on the enduring legacies of the Partition, from India-Pakistan conflict to Kashmir—something that I pointed to in Violent Belongings. The panels at this event drew over 600 attendees every day, from across four generations; it was standing room only at the state-of-the art auditorium. People from all walks of life, from scholars and artists, to activists, senior citizens, students, and school children showed up to hear and participate in this important, and long-overdue dialogue on the 1947 Partition.

A slideshow of images from the events can be found here:

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My panel “Archiving Partition,” inaugurated the event on August 5.  Speaking along with activists like Guneeta Bhalla (founder of the 1947 Partition Archive), Aanchal Malhotra, and Mallika Ahluwalia, I discussed the archive of literature, film, and journalism my book examines, to explore the cultural representation of Partition from 1947 till 2007.  I discussed why Partition urgently continues to resonate today for both India, as well as South Asian America. Issues explored in my talk included the lessons learned from the refugee experience of the Partition, and how revisiting Partition could enable us to reinvent “the politics of the present.”  

daiyacomps.inddIn Violent Belongings, one of the things I pointed out was how the institutional censorship of refugees’ voices in the early independence period, meant that until the 1990s, the experience of millions of Partition refugees was largely marginalized, if not ignored, in Indian history.  This silencing was both acknowledged and undone in this interdisciplinary dialogue  “Remembering Partition,” which extended and complemented activities like the “Voices of Partition” events with Partition witnesses regularly organized by Bhalla’s transnational, oral history online archive 1947 Partition Archive since 2013 in India, the United States, Pakistan, and the UK.

This was a great start to a robust and path-breaking three days of dialogue and artistic exploration that honored Partition refugees’ experience, identified Partition’s many legacies, and pointed to new directions in memorializing the most momentous event in the modern history of the Indian subcontinent. Gender-based violence and how women were differently impacted by the Partition were central to the story told by Violent Belongings. This focus was complemented by the art installation at this event “Well of Remembrance.”  The installation, which partially recreated a brick well with a white fabric suspended from the ceiling, memorialized the fact that thousands of women jumped into wells during Partition to avoid sexual violence, and lost their lives in the process.  The fabric symbolized the long scarves or sarees women often wore in northern India, as if it was falling into the well.  The installation served as a stark reminder of the differential price that women paid in this geo-political and religious conflict created by the British division of the Indian subcontinent.

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