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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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

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