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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Advertisements

Books of critical importance in the era of Trump from Temple University Press

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books of importance in the era of Trump.

Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Jamie Longazel
Longazel uses the debate around Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s controversial Illegal Immigration Relief Act as a case study that reveals the mechanics of contemporary divide and conquer politics, making important connection between immigration politics and the perpetuation of racial and economic inequality.

The Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives
Edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli
A critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change.

The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements
Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke
With a Foreword by Angela Y. Davis
The Great Refusal provides an analysis of contemporary social movements around the world—such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement—with particular reference to Marcuse’s revolutionary concept.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto
Eric Tang
Eric Tang tells the harrowing and inspiring stories of Cambodian refugees to make sense of how and why the displaced migrants have been resettled in New York City’s “hyperghetto.”

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants; Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security
Anna Sampaio
Winner! American Political Science Association’s Latino Politics Best Book Prize, 2016
Immigration politics has been significantly altered by the advent of America’s war on terror and the proliferation of security measures. Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants examines how these processes are racialized and gendered and how they impose inequitable burdens on Latina/o immigrants.

Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City
Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage
Examining how racial solidarity and whiteness were created and maintained, the authors provide an intriguing analysis of the experiences and memories of whites who lived in Chicago neighborhoods experiencing racial change during the 1950s through the 1980s.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Situating the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work, Ryan Patrick Murphy offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Revised and Expanded Edition
George Lipsitz
In this unflinching look at white supremacy, Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes. He analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, and identifies the sustained and perceptive critique of white privilege.

Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Foreword by Naomi Zack
Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, Yancy identifies the ways white power and privilege operate.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

TOP


SaleBOTTOM

Why Partition survivors in the US believe it’s vital to keep talking about the trauma of 1947

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost an essay on Partition survivors in the U.S. by Violent Belongings author Kavita Daiya that was recently published on the website Scroll.in

Last week, in the birthplace of America ­– the city of Philadelphia – Indian and Pakistani Americans gathered to share memories of the birth of India and Pakistan.

The unique community event was aimed at generating a new public dialogue on the 1947 Partition migrations through storytelling and memory. In the intrepid gallery called Twelve Gates Arts, devoted to South Asia-related arts, the event Voices of Partition presented witness testimonies from both India and Pakistan. Co-hosted by online digital video project, The 1947 Partition Archive, and part of a global series,Voices of Partition was an unexpected success – a flood of RSVPs meant that the gallery had to double its seats; people were standing, sitting on the floor in the aisles, just squeezing into the space to listen.

daiyacomps.inddFragmented memories

Three local South Asian American senior citizens – Hindu and Muslim – shared their memories of migrating as children across the new and bloody borders of India and Pakistan. Sagar and Reena Banka were originally from Lyallpur and Lahore, and Khurshid Bukhari was originally from Patiala. They described their fragmented, episodic memories of how they heard about ethnic violence in August 1947, how their parents decided to leave their homes, and how they slowly rebuilt their lives, in the shadow of homes and friends lost, in new countries. Many commonalities emerged across their stories: All said their parents thought that they were moving temporarily – until things calmed down. None imagined today’s closed borders, and the wars the two countries have fought.

Unlike other moments of collective historical trauma like the bombing of Japan during World War II or the Holocaust, the Partition experience has not been institutionally memorialised, said Guneeta Bhalla, founder and director of The 1947 Partition Archive, in her framing remarks. Approximately two million people were killed, and over 12 million displaced, within nine months during the division of India. But there is no equivalent to the Hiroshima memorial, or the Holocaust memorial, for Partition.

This inspired Bhalla to start gathering and recording witness testimonies in 2010. Today, the archive has gathered 2,500 testimonies, has offices in five countries, and its goal is to gather 10,000 stories by 2017 from a generation we are fast losing to age. Supported by grant funding as well as private citizens from three continents, the project indicates the global impact of Partition’s migrations. Steadily, this archive is creating a historical record of the price that millions of ordinary people paid for freedom in 1947.

Forging new bonds

As the gentle and eloquent speakers narrated their experiences and shared old black and white photos, a new and palpable emotional community was forged between the speakers and their multi-generational audience. The witnesses shared what they remembered of that harrowing time-colored by their childhood. They recalled the stigma of being derisively called “fugees” – because many didn’t know how to pronounce the word refugee. They also reflected on the lessons of that experience of becoming refugees.

DaiyablogSagar Banka said their experience was mirrored today in the Syrian refugees’ reception in Europe. He urged the audience that while Syrians were being derided in the media as refugees, people needed to recognise that they are more than that label. They are, as his father was, teachers, or perhaps doctors, engineers, lawyers… human beings. Pointing to his and his wife’s contributions to American society, he called for a more humane and inclusive response to today’s refugees so that they would also have an opportunity to become contributing members of society.

Bukhari’s harrowing tale of a narrow escape from Amritsar, to which her Patiala-based family had fled after increasing violence, ended with her reminiscing about a certain kachori stall in Patiala. She said, “Oh, I would love to eat those kachoris again.” Someone from the audience warmly replied, “I’m from Patiala, and that kachori-wala is still there!” In the question and answer session, others in the audience, who had also migrated in 1947, started sharing their stories, their journeys. A 21-year-old South Asian American young man noted that when he discovered that his grandfather had migrated to Pakistan during Partition, it had transformed his sense of his identity: “I guess we were refugees. Refugees.”

Delhi calling

What emerged in this diasporic gathering of those who once were refugees was an eagerness to remember that experience without rancour toward the other religious community. For instance, Sagar Banka affirmed that beyond religion, it was the Punjabi language that, here in the US, bound him in closer friendships with Pakistani Punjabis. The shared familiar itineraries of beloved cities (Lahore, Dehradun, Patiala) and schools spun new inter-religious, inter-national emotional bonds in this contingent community, flecked with the red and gold paintings of the Lahore-based artist Komail Aijazuddin.

Daiyablog2Established in 2011, the goal of Twelve Gates Arts is, in its founder Aisha Khan’s words, to “create and promote projects that cross geographic and cultural boundaries. The gates refer to the fortified gates that walled many ancient cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Jerusalem, and Rhodes – inside which lay the heart of each city’s art and culture. Through this Voices of Partition event, Bhalla and Khan opened the gates of our political borders and divided cultures. The dialogue allowed people, through the sharing of remembrances past, to not only see that Indians and Pakistanis have much more in common than our politicians would like us to acknowledge, but also to forge new relations of peace between us”.

This Voices of Partition is not the first event, nor will it be the last. On April 24, The 1947 Partition Archive will host its first Voices of Partition event in India in Delhi. They had hoped it would attract 100 attendees – they have over 1,000 waiting to register. On Facebook, they have 4,500 interested in attending. It seems this submerged history is still very much alive today, and people want to tell and hear these refugee stories. They will need a bigger venue.

Kavita Daiya holds the NEH Chair in the Humanities at Albright College for the academic year 2015-2016. She is the author of Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India

Chronicling the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians

This week, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled likens the Cambodian refugees that are featured in his book to the current exodus of Syrian refugees to show connections of race, gender, and activism.

After they survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by several years of confinement in international refugee camps, as many as 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived to the Bronx during the 1980s and 1990s.

Unsettled chronicles the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians, closely following one woman and her family for several years as they both survive and resist their literal insertion into the Bronx “hyperghetto.” The term hyperghetto refers to the postwar structural decomposition of U.S. cities resulting from massive and compulsory unemployment, public and private disinvestment, and the hyper-segregation and confinement of the city’s poorest Black and Latino residents. It serves as a prime example of how late-capitalism and racial democracy failed far too many in the post-Civil Rights era.

Unsettled_smI wrote Unsettled  to reveal how Cambodian refugee resettlement to the United States did not mark the closing of the refugee sojourn, followed by the opening of a new era of peace and stability for those who fled their homeland. I wanted to show the ways in which the refugees remained displaced, their sojourn unclosed, owing to the false promises of federal policy makers and the unscrupulous actions of their handlers. Politicians talked boldly about delivering refugees into the arms of the free market, but there was never a meaningful economic plan tethered to U.S. refugee resettlement policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offered only one-year of housing and job training assistance to refugees before they were cut loose, told to make it on their own. Meanwhile local resettlement agencies placed Cambodian refugees into ruinous housing units in some of the most economically marginalized neighborhoods in the Bronx. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have held some of the highest welfare and poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Among Cambodian refugees living in New York City, 42.8 percent were living in poverty, 23.9 percent were unemployed, and 62 percent had less than a high school education twenty years after their resettlement. Over the past three decades the vast majority of Bronx Cambodians have subsisted on welfare programs (or what remains of them).

Despite these harsh realities, many Bronx Cambodians engaged in activism. Unsettled explores how Bronx Cambodians resisted conditions of poverty, violence, and housing discrimination. It pays attention to the unique process whereby community members developed an analysis of their conditions, reached consensus on their collective needs, and sought meaningful political redress through community organizing and direct action. Today, such activism continues through the community’s younger generation—the children and grandchildren of refugees—led by organizations such as Mekong NYC. The organization’s work, as told by director and community organizer Chhaya Chhoum is featured in key chapters of the book.

As an urban ethnography, Unsettled offers a new kind of discussion on race and gender in the contemporary city, particularly as it relates to the welfare-dependent and jobless urban poor. In this way, it departs from the core thesis of seminal texts in the sociology of immigration that, in the decade following refugee resettlement, predicted the seamless transition of Cambodian refugees into American labor markets as well as their eventual assimilation into Anglo-American culture. It serves as a rebuttal to research that seeks to ideologically remove the refugee from the grips of a Black and Latino “underclass”—the sociological pejorative used to describe racialized inner city poverty. By examining the ongoing phenomena of refugee poverty—that is, the manner in which Cambodian refugees of the Bronx simultaneously subsist in the welfare state and the sweatshop economy—Unsettled complicates the fixed race and gender identities that structure common-sense notions of the city: the immigrant working-poor on the one hand, the domestic and welfare-dependent underclass on the other.

Finally, Unsettled poses questions that are relevant to the present moment. The current exodus of Syrian refugees represents the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Indeed, not since the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, have so many migrants from one region risked their lives, across land and sea, in search of asylum. Yet what happens after they are resettled to their new homelands? Have their struggles come to an end, or have they only just begun?

%d bloggers like this: