‘Future of the Past’ — Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1947 Partition
Memories that are kept alive to cultivate old hatreds and resentments culminate in vengeance and violence. Memories that are kept alive to transcend hatred have the potential to heal wounds.
As someone who works with conflict resolution and peace issues, I have been privileged to contribute to the many events being held globally to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1947 British India Partition by organizing an exhibit and seminar at Lesley University in the Boston area. The event held in March this year, titled Open Wound and Stories of Partition, was part of Lesley’s annual series Future of the Past.
It revolved around the witness accounts of Partition survivors Puran Dang from India and Akhtari Alam from Pakistan, and a presentation by Dr. Annu Matthew, Professor of Art (Photography), University of Rhode Island. More than forty people of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and United States origin, gathered on the evening of 22 March, despite close to zero degree temperatures hard to imagine in the heat of the summer.
Dr Matthew’s “Open Wounds” is a unique photography project that documents the voices and images of those who experienced Partition. The images were of Partition survivors she had interviewed, from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the three countries that were affected by the tragedy of Partition. Her exhibit, and some of stories documented by the 1947 Partition Archive remained on display at the Marran Gallery at Lesley University till 1 April.
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“My brother and I boarded a plane from Pakistan for India,” said Puran Dang. “I was just ten and did not know what was going on. When we reached Delhi from Lyallpur (which is now known as Faisalabad in Pakistan), we had left everything. We had nowhere to go.”
He remembers a cousin working as a clerk, earning a modest salary, and living in a small one-room apartment, who gave his home to the family until the government relocated them to Rajender Nagar, refugee quarters. The community reached out and people supported each other. Despite the hardships, he says, “I don’t remember my parents complaining, but always encouraging us and reassuring us that everything will be ok.”
Akhtari Alam, born near Patna, recounted her journey across the border as a six-year-old Muslim girl who was protected by a Hindu zamindar, a good friend of the family. “Irrespective of the religion, everyone celebrated all the festivals, Holi, Diwali and Eid.”
She recalls the zamindar asking her family to move to his house as the riots were getting worse. He then arranged for them to travel to a safe place, till the violence settled down. In 1948, they moved to what was then East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh. Akhtari Alam was in Boston with her husband, when Bangladesh gained independence in 1970. They were once again uprooted, and decided to make their home in the United States.
These and other such stories can be found on the 1947 Partition Archive Facebook page.
Physical borders based on religion were drawn in 1947, but these stories bring to the fore the tragedy that united the two communities, Hindu and Muslim. Their accounts are not about the facts of Partition, but the impact of those facts on people who experienced the event, and about the painful continuities created by the violence in their lives. Their lived experience of the memory is a touchstone of reality, highlighting how people try to lead normal lives after such trauma.
The Lesley University event ended with a moving dance performance by Deepa Avula, a graduate student in the Dance and Expressive Therapies Department at Lesley, followed by Shua Khan Arshad’s beautiful rendition of Kishore Kumar’s “Aa chal ke tujhe mein le ke chalun.” The audience hummed along to this popular and moving song by Shua Khan Arshad, an associate with the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, and a Lesley alum.
Partition is known as one of the largest forced displacements in history. In a short span of a few months, more than 12 million people were displaced and another million brutally killed as they migrated across border lines hastily drawn by the exiting Colonial rule.
It is only now, 70 years after these harrowing tragedies that a museum telling the story of what happened is coming up in Amritsar, with a similar initiative being planned in Lahore. Until a few years ago, accounts of Partition were pressed between pages of academic books and fictional narratives. Urvashi Butalia’s seminal work The Other Side of Silence (1998) broke the silence around women’s experiences of Partition. Now, thanks to video and internet technology, oral histories are being preserved by non-profit organisations like the 1947 Partition Archive, launched in 2010. Other oral history initiatives, like the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) have also document Partition stories but that is not their focus.
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<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/179370172″>Farah – Stories of Partition – Pakistan</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/annumatthew”>Annu Palakunnathu Matthew</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
The US-based 1947 Partition Archive focuses on documenting the stories of Partition in the voices of those who witnessed, experienced and survived the tragedy. This has not been an easy task as one generation has passed away without sharing their narratives. Living witnesses, now in their 80’s, are dispersed all over the globe. There is an urgent need to collect these stories to leave a record for present and future generations about one of the largest forced displacements in human history.
There is an urgent need to memorialise the 1947 Partition, to remember those who lost their lives, and those who survived and lived to share their accounts. We have to honor their resilience and draw lessons from their narrative to help us make meaning of the challenges we are collectively facing today. When witnesses from across borders share their stories of Partition on the same platform, a third space, they draw a real-life sketch of images that recreates the dangers, fears, hopes, trust and a sense of community they experienced more than half a century ago.
The writer is a professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Lesley University who also volunteers in Massachusetts with the 1947 Partition Archive to support their story collecting initiative.