Partition’s legacy transcends India-Pakistan border. Can commemoration?

Muslim refugees crowd onto a train bound for Pakistan, as it leaves the New Delhi area on Sept, 27, 1947. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes amid the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, after gaining independence from Britain in 1947.
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As the British left India in 1947, they left a territory divided in two, and pain that has lasted generations. The land’s Partition into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan led to the deaths of perhaps 1 million people, and up to 20 million displaced – not to mention the bloodshed of Bangladesh’s independence, in 1971.

It’s a past that’s ever-present, hanging over diplomatic tensions, religiously motivated violence, and inherited family traumas. But Partition has no memorial accessible to the people of the three affected countries. And now, digital spaces offer what was previously unimaginable: a place to collectively share stories, mourn, and heal.

Why We Wrote This

Partition left deep scars in present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but few ways to commemorate it across borders. Now, after three-quarters of a century, the internet is creating new spaces to remember, mourn – and heal.

“It may take a lifetime – or several lifetimes – to really engage with these stories, but remembrance is vital to deal with the communal issues across South Asia,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archives, a digital collection of crowdsourced stories.

Many participants find themselves unpacking memories not quite their own – understanding parents’ and grandparents’ experiences in a new light.

“Because of the enormity of the event, you would be hard-pressed to find someone from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh who doesn’t have any connection at all – even if it’s not a direct connection – to the Partition,” says Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist at Stanford University.

Salman Rashid and Mohinder Pratab Sehgal had an unlikely friendship. It struck immediately after they met and lasted until Mr. Sehgal died. After all, the two had been looking for each other all their lives.

In 2008, Mr. Rashid set out from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, carrying a photo of his grandfather’s house in Jalandhar, India. The 80-mile journey might seem simple, for an acclaimed travel writer like Mr. Rashid, but this was a deeply personal quest. His father and some other relatives had survived the Partition, the violent end of British India in 1947. But there were no answers as to how his grandparents had died, or what had happened to his aunts. No one had heard from the women since the subcontinent’s division into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan – which led to the largest mass migration the world has ever witnessed.

There was complete silence in his house about Partition. Nobody ever talked about it. All that was passed on to Mr. Rashid was that the family must have died, because there were no Muslims left in Jalandhar. So he set off to find the answers himself.

Why We Wrote This

Partition left deep scars in present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but few ways to commemorate it across borders. Now, after three-quarters of a century, the internet is creating new spaces to remember, mourn – and heal.

As the British left India, after 200 years of rule, they left a territory divided in two, and pain that has lasted generations. How to divide this land was a decision made in five weeks by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe on his first – and only – visit to India. Almost immediately, communal riots broke out among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims who had lived together for centuries. Perhaps 1 million people died, and up to 20 million were displaced, though estimates vary. Women paid the highest price, with mass abductions, forced conversions, and rape.

This month marks 74 years since the Partition few imagined would last forever. Fleeing across the brand-new borders seemed temporary, survivors say – it was incomprehensible that they could never go home. But not only did it last; a quarter century later, the region was further divided, with further bloodshed, when East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.

Courtesy of Salman Rashid
Salman Rashid (right) and Mohinder Pratab Sehgal stand on the rooftop of Mr. Rashid's ancestral home in Jalandhar, India. Though family tragedy brought them together, the two men became friends.

Like Mr. Rashid’s, many families tried to put the pain of Partition behind them. But the crisis is ever-present, its legacy everywhere from India and Pakistan’s constant tensions, to last year’s mob violence against Muslims in New Delhi. And now, digital spaces offer what was previously unimaginable: a place to collectively commemorate the shared pain and intrinsically connected histories of the people of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who are geographically close, yet so far apart that to visit each other’s countries is a dream many die with.

“It may take a lifetime – or several lifetimes – to really engage with these stories, but remembrance is vital to deal with the communal issues across South Asia,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archives, a digital collection of crowdsourced stories about Partition’s legacy.

“I have to ask forgiveness”

Unlike the Holocaust or world wars, the millions of dead and displaced of the Partition have no memorial that is accessible to the people of the three affected countries. There is no remembrance day, and it took 70 years for the first museum to open up in Amritsar, India.

Ms. Bhalla, who lives in the United States, is a third-generation survivor herself. It was at a Hiroshima memorial in Japan that she realized there was nothing to document the stories of Partition survivors, her grandmother among them, and she started her journey to record oral histories. Today, the 1947 Partition Archives has more than 10,000 stories from survivors in more than 700 cities around the world.

As much of the world went into lockdown, the archives launched Facebook Live sessions titled “Sunday Stories,” where academics, writers, and historians from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh discussed the myriad ways Partition shaped South Asia. Last month, during the series’ second season, Mr. Rashid spoke of going “home” to Jalandhar, a city he had never seen but always felt was his. Here he found his ancestral house, where six decades later, the neighborhood still remembered his grandfather with reverence, as “our doctor sahib.”

Like picking up clues left on a trail, Mr. Rashid made his way from person to person, looking for someone who would have the answers he was looking for. One day, the shopkeeper working below his grandfather’s house explained there was someone in the neighborhood who wanted to see Mr. Rashid, too – Mr. Sehgal, who had been just 13 at Partition. But as soon as the men met, Mr. Rashid recalls, the stranger erupted into an apology: “First of all, I have to ask forgiveness, for it was my father’s mistake.”

Courtesy of Salman Rashid
Salman Rashid’s ancestral home in Jalandhar, India. In 2008, Mr. Rashid set out with a photo of the house, hoping to learn more about what had happened to his grandparents and aunts during the Partition of India.

It took 61 years for Mr. Rashid to know that his aunts had been killed, and that it was Mr. Sehgal’s father who killed them. Twelve family members had died, shot in the room where they were hiding, their bodies eventually piled up on a pushcart and cremated.

For all his life, Mr. Sehgal had carried his father’s guilt, and Mr. Rashid, his father’s pain. There was no real explanation, except, as he remembers Mr. Sehgal telling him, “It was a time of great madness.”

Mr. Sehgal died several years ago, but not before the two men’s tragic connection grew into a genuine friendship. The killings were almost a shared loss – a bond. Mr. Rashid and his wife made several more trips to India, meeting their new friend each time with presents from Pakistan in tow. Both men, in Mr. Rashid’s eyes, were victims of Partition.

Past is present

Despite the nationalism that rages in all three countries today, comments below the “Sunday Stories” videos mostly show similar warmth, connection, and acknowledgment of shared pain. Viewership has grown from 150,000 last year, Ms. Bhalla says, to more than 400,000.

“What I find in Partition survivors is that they were so preoccupied in the day-to-day that processing the psychological trauma was a luxury,” says Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist at Stanford University. “If the original generation didn’t do it, then someone had to do it, that’s my belief as a PTSD specialist.”

The trajectory of Dr. Jain’s life itself has been directly affected by the Partition. Her grandfather too was killed in the riots of ’47, leaving her father orphaned and a refugee at the age of 10. Unable to find enough opportunities in India, he moved to England, where Dr. Jain was born and raised. “Because of the enormity of the event, you would be hard-pressed to find someone from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh who doesn’t have any connection at all – even if it’s not a direct connection – to the Partition,” she says. “The 1947 Partition really changed the trajectory of my family’s destiny.”

Although it’s been more than seven decades, the Partition is barely an event of the past. Its presence is not only seen in the second and third generation’s quest to know more, but also in the continued acts of religiously motivated violence seen across South Asia.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters/File
A huge crowd of Pakistani and Indian residents gathers to watch the Pakistani (right) and Indian border security forces perform their daily flag-lowering ceremonies at the Wagah border post between the rival nations on July 12, 2001. More than half a century after the hasty partition of the Asian subcontinent by departing British colonialists, relations between India and Pakistan are still tense.

“With unprocessed trauma, you enter these cycles of reenactment, and this may not even be on a conscious level. But to me, the communal violence in South Asia is historical, generational, deep-rooted trauma that hasn’t been processed,” Dr. Jain adds. “And when trauma is not processed, it manifests as hate, as shame, as rage, as guilt, and those emotions have to go somewhere. Until we fully reconcile with that past, understand it, and heal from it, then such countries are just beholden to repeated cycles of violence.”

While Zoom has helped discussions go beyond borders, the digital space has not been entirely free. Last March, one of Pakistan’s leading universities organized a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, bringing together scholars from both countries. Within hours of the conference schedule being shared on social media, it was canceled without explanation, widely interpreted as an act of self-censorship.

In spite of these circumstances, activists in Pakistan have carried on. The country’s leading feminist organization, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), organized an online event on March 25, 2021, the day that marks the Pakistan army’s Operation Searchlight in what was then East Pakistan. The day after – March 26, 1971 – Bangladesh declared its independence.

During the following nine-month military operation by the Pakistan army, nearly 500,000 people were killed. Estimates of rape vary between thousands and a few hundred thousands.

“I don’t want to write or think about those days,” said Amena Mohsin, a professor at Dhaka University, recalling her memories of the time at the WAF event. She was visibly shaken as she read her sister’s letter from their days in an internment camp in Pakistan, where they were prisoners in a state that was once theirs.

“It took me 47 years to write about 1971,” she said.

And it had taken 50 years for Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to come together in an inclusive space and share the grief – and guilt – they carried.

Bangladeshi scholars remembered the noise of the crows on the night of March 25, when “rivers of blood flew” and “bodies were strewn everywhere.” In a chat box, meanwhile, Pakistanis were sharing how much they wanted to apologize, with comments of how people had come together even in the worst of times, how a Hindu cook saved his Muslim employer’s life. In many Zoom windows, people just listened and cried.

Living memory

I was sitting in my Zoom window, too, dialing in from Islamabad. This was the closest I’d come to hearing direct accounts of the genocide. Though born more than a decade later, I inherited from my mother the guilt of this war. She first heard about the breakup of her country, Pakistan, through the All India Radio that could be heard from her neighbor’s house. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was addressing the Indian Parliament, which had supported the Bengalis, and declaring victory. 

For three days of mourning, no food was cooked at their home. But when recounting better memories, my mother often talks about her uncle’s house, in present-day Bangladesh. This house was by the river in Khulna, and sometimes water would come up to the garden. And then there were nights when one could hear the bansuri player late into the night as the full moon shined over the river. I can picture this house so well that it feels like a reliable memory, as is often the nature of stories we’ve heard all our lives.

Max Desfor/AP/File
A still-burning building stands amid the ruins of other buildings at the Bhatti Gate in the walled section of Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, on June 23, 1947, amid communal violence over the Partition of India.

That was the Bangladesh on my mind as I listened, along with nearly 200 other people, to stories of the war that in many ways were all our stories.

“I was surprised how few of the Pakistanis knew about the internment camps that we had grown up hearing stories of all our lives. What is forgotten is what we have to tend to,” says Dina Siddqi, a professor at New York University who attended the WAF event.

Later, via NYU’s website, she hosted the conference that had been canceled in Pakistan. “Zoom has really transcended national borders,” said Professor Siddiqi, who studies gender and religion in Bangladesh, sharing how Pakistani and Bangladeshi scholars had come together to make it happen despite the backlash.

The event led to a shift within her, she says. “I would like to think of myself as someone who has transcended nationalist baggage, but it was during the conference that things began to resonate with me that I hadn’t emotionally explored. These conferences are opening up emotional spaces that I didn’t know existed.”

The stories she had grown up with came back like they hadn’t before: a cousin who had escaped an internment camp, making his way from Islamabad to Kabul in the rough winter months; a dear uncle who had died very young, after time as a prisoner of war in Pakistan.

“I had heard these stories all my life, yet during the conference I kept thinking of my uncle,” she says. “My aunt would always say that he died because the Pakistanis made him march in the hot desert sun for 10 hours. That kept coming back for me; I don’t know where it came from but all I could think of was that.”

I was surprised at how raw the wounds of an unwitnessed past felt for me – even in the simple, stark realization that this was the first time I had heard someone speak Bangla, the language of people who were once my own.

My brother and I were both tuned in – he in Berlin, I in Islamabad.

“Isn’t Bangla beautiful?” I texted him.

“Gorgeous,” he said.

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