Independence and Partition: clear words, unclear legacy

Sikh refugees in 1947. (Photo: Margaret Bourke-White | Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images. Source: The Washington Post)

Sikh refugees in 1947. (Photo: Margaret Bourke-White | Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images. Source: The Washington Post)

Coinciding with independence celebrations in Pakistan and India on August 14 and 15 respectively, an article in The New York Times features the 1947 Partition Archive, a project based in Berkeley, California, led by Guneeta Bhalla. The two-year-old project is creating an oral history archive of personal stories from survivors of the religion-based partition of Punjab and Bengal in 1947 that created the nation-states of Pakistan and India, and later, Bangladesh:

…its dozens of volunteers have video-recorded 647 oral histories from more than seven countries and stored them digitally. It describes itself as “a people’s history” of that wrenching time.

“It’s something that’s been brewing in my mind since high school,” recalled Ms. Bhalla, a research physicist who is now 34, about the same age as her grandmother in 1947. “As I was growing up, it was always in the back of my head, and bothersome, as family members were passing.”

As I discussed two years ago, while August 14/15 is a cause for celebration by many, there are mixed emotions associated with this date in 1947, which triggered one of the largest human migrations in history (some 15 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims migrating to either India or Pakistan) — particularly those from Punjab and Bengal — and resulting in a carnage of communal violence and death that resulted in millions killed. Yet, despite the enormity of this history, there has been little to show in memoriam. Amazingly, while obscure, we are only a few generations removed from this history of Partition.

The oral history project is equally remarkable for being the first of its kind. As much as the partition hangs over the politics and psyche of the Indian subcontinent, there is no memorial — digital or analog — to mark it.

Within my own family, stories about Partition are many. My father often recounts the story of my grandfather who was a headmaster in a school in an area of Punjab designated for Pakistan. As exams approached and communal violence was escalating, his Muslim students threatened to kill him if he did not pass them in their classes. He acceded, and when he later decided to escape to India, he was given information that his family was already murdered by Muslim mobs. It would be days later that he would find this information to be incorrect — my grandmother, uncles, aunts and father were all alive.

A grand-uncle of mine (the son of my great-grandfather who himself witnessed and escaped the Jallianwale Bagh massacre in 1919) bears not only the emotional scars of this history, but also physical ones. He and his friends were attacked by a small group of Muslims who hacked to death his friends with swords. My grand-uncle escaped, but without three of his fingers which were severed in the attack.

Another grand-uncle of mine was not able to escape the violence while boarding a train out of to-be-Pakistan with his family. He was shot and killed through a train window as he heroically defended his wife and daughter from a Muslim mob that had attempted to board the train and kill its passengers.

My father also recounts stories of our family harboring a Muslim family in our home in Indian Punjab to protect them from Hindu and Sikh mobs, before the family was provided military escort to Pakistan. The mobs demanded that the family be handed over to them, but my grandfather refused, and the mobs were turned away. Our family was left to their own devices to defend themselves and their home; in another story, my father recounts taking refuge at their rooftop and filling light-bulbs with acid to drop on to any attackers who tried to enter the house below.

My father described these stories in vivid detail, much more so than I have done here. His knowledge of this history highlights the value and necessity of Guneeta Bhalla’s work to preserve these stories for future generations. In February 2012, she shared her experiences documenting this history at the Sikholars 2012 Conference at California State University, East Bay:

As unequivocal are the words “Partition” and “Independence”, the legacy left behind is not quite, and is instead full of contradiction, nuance, and even disappointment, particularly when we consider the states of women, minorities, poverty, equality and justice as they exist now. While Indians and Pakistanis around the world celebrate the realization in 1947 of their decades-long campaign for self-rule (indeed, Sikhs contributed significantly to the cause with severe consequences), the raising of the Indian and Pakistani flags for the first time 66 years ago to grand applause was also accompanied by violence, strife and bloodshed that most of us will not see (or could even dream of seeing) in our lifetimes, but the repercussions of which has shaped our families and communities even today.

Read more in The New York Times, and also visit the 1947 Partition Archive for more information and excerpts of the history of Partition told by those who survived it.


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