Collecting memories of partition: “this is our last chance to hear first-hand accounts”

On the 70th anniversary of the divsion of India and Pakistan, archivists try to build a museum.

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Nand Jhaveri was a few months over ten years old when he left his home in Shikarpur, Pakistan for India. It was 7 January 1948. The countries had become independent the previous August following the bloody creation of two separate states.

Now, a city like Delhi, a crucible of Muslim Mughal culture, was stranded in the middle of a Hindu-majority country, while Bengalis were divided into Indians and East Pakistanis (later Bangladeshis). 

Sindh, the province containing Shikarpur, had been relatively peaceful, unlike neighbouring Punjab where thousands of people had been killed on both sides of the new border. But on 6 January, major riots took place in Karachi, the capital of Sindh, convincing many Hindu Sindhis that it was time to leave. Jhaveri arrived at the city's port with his mother, uncles and cousins by camel cart and boarded the Karapara bound for Bombay (now Mumbai). “It was fun for me,” said Jhaveri, now 81.

In Bombay, Jhaveri lived in a barrack in a camp set up for partition refugees in the suburb of Chembur. His father and grandfather arrived a year later. Since they couldn’t bear to sell their ancestral land, they signed it over to their Muslim manager. Jhaveri, who ran a diamond trading business and wrote Sindhi poetry, has never been able to get Sindh out of his mind. He has visited Pakistan six times, travelling to Karachi and his old home in Shikarpur.

Jhaveri was one of the estimated 15 million people who crossed borders between India and Pakistan during partition. The numbers that died during the violent separation and exodus in both directions are said to range from 250,000 to two million. Despite being the largest migration in history, partition is perfunctorily studied in school and hardly talked about in the public sphere.

However this year, the 70th anniversary of independence, is different. For the first time, there have been large-scale efforts to remember the horrors of partition. On 17 August the Partition Museum will open fully in Amritsar in Punjab. It was partially opened last year. Described as a "people’s museum", it documents personal histories of those who were there.

“I think in the immediate aftermath of partition, people were raw,” said Mallika Ahluwalia, the co-founder of the Partition Museum (pictured above). “There was the economic impact of it. People lost homes and grieving was considered a luxury. They had to pull themselves together. There was also a veil of silence because of the violence against women. Now there’s a sense of urgency. This is our last chance, in ten years we won’t get a first-hand account of partition.”

Ahluwalia’s grandparents migrated to the Indian side of Punjab in 1947.

Anju Makhija, a poet living in Mumbai who has translated into English poetry about partition written in Sindhi, attributes the lack of a conversation to the near absence of an archival culture in India. “We don’t archive and we don’t have strong university programmes that support research,” she said.

One of those pioneering remembrance is the Mumbai-based arts organisation the Godrej India Culture Lab, which held a three-day "pop up museum" remembering partition. It was the first such event in years, which is surprising as the city is home to a large number of partition migrants. Many of them are Sindhis, who mourn the loss of their state, which is entirely in Pakistan

The 1947 Partition Archive, a collection of oral histories, also released its cache of 4,300 stories to universities in India, Pakistan and the Stanford Digital Repository this week. In 2008, shortly after the 60th anniversary of partition, Guneeta Bhalla, at the time a PhD student in Florida, visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. She was moved enough to begin gathering stories of partition.

At first she spoke to Indians in the US, and later interviewed witnesses in the Punjab. The archive began as a word-of-mouth exercise, but found a digital home in 2011. It now has stories from across the world including the UK, which has a large numbers of Indian immigrants. The archive’s witness accounts have been mostly crowdsourced either by "citizen historians", who must sign up for an online workshop on oral history, or "story scholars", who have earned fellowships to collect stories.

Collecting stories about Partition is not an easy task – one reason it is infrequently discussed is that the witnesses see little value in raking up the past. London resident Arjan Kirpalani was 18 at the time. While two of his brothers moved to India in 1948 aboard the Karapara, the same ship that brought Jhaveri to Bombay, Kirpalani stayed back in Hyderabad with his parents. His father had a job in the government of Sindh and was reluctant to leave. He migrated to the UK in 1958. “What would you get back by remembering these things?” he said, in a phone interview. “It was dirty politics.”

Birmingham resident Kidar Jain was ten when partition took place. He recalls travelling in a bus, filled with men and women migrating to India from his hometown of Jhelum, to Amritsar. The ride felt like an adventure and he sensed no danger even when the passengers were told not to step outside.

It was only much later that he realised how perilous the journey through Punjab was. Jain’s mother had died of an illness that year and his father was meant to join him in a few days. But his father was stabbed to death before he could cross over. “I had been dreaming of my father coming back, but he never came,” Jain said. He moved to the UK in 1965 and got a job in Birmingham as a laboratory technician. Both Jain and Kirpalani’s stories have been documented by the archive.

The archive is not just about Hindus fleeing to the newly-independent India. It has many accounts of Muslims who crossed over from India to Pakistan, and of Hindus and Muslims who moved between India and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

Ali Shan, who lives in California, was a six-year-old boy in Ranguwal in Indian Punjab when he saw a mob kill his mother and brother. He survived being shot at and, in an ironic twist, was later rescued by one of the men in the mob, who handed him over to a Sikh family. Shan was fostered for six months before being taken to a refugee camp in Lahore. (India and Pakistan had an agreement that those who’d been abducted or separated from their families would be returned to their families.) Shan’s maternal uncle found him at the camp and took him home to Kasur in Pakistani Punjab.

Another story is that of Kazi Shamsuzzaman, who migrated from Howrah in West Bengal in India to Dhaka in East Pakistan in 1947. During communal riots in 1946, he hid in a tree to escape a murderous mob. Friends convinced his father that India was unsafe for Muslims and the following year, they abandoned their land and a large house to take a train to Dhaka with just a bag of jewellery and some papers.

By revealing people’s stories of partition, Bhalla and fellow archivist Ahluwalia are keen to correct the popular perception of the event as a conflict between Hindus and Muslims, especially at a time when India's right-wing government appears to be fanning anti-minority sentiment. Bhalla finds that young Indians have more religious biases than their elders. “It’s important for our generation to know because most [partition witnesses] recognised that it was not a religious thing,” Bhalla said. The violence was the fault of a few. In fact, oral accounts of Indian partition witnesses are full of anecdotes of Muslims protecting their Hindu neighbours.

Rajinder Kumari Sabharwal, who lives in Mumbai, left her village near Jaranwala in Pakistani Punjab a few days before partition. While she arrived safely, her parents had a dramatic departure some days later. They hid in their Muslim neighbour’s home when rioters ransacked Hindu homes in the village. The next morning, they retrieved gold jewellery they had hidden beneath the stove and left for the Indian border escorted by a gun-wielding Muslim man from the village.

Sabharwal compared the violent mobs to terrorists and said their actions had nothing to do with religion. Yet she feels talking about partition will only deepen fissures between Hindus and Muslims. “What’s the point of raking up these issues?” she said. “We’re settled now.”