Partition trauma and social identity

Print edition : January 04, 2019

Circa 1947/1948: At a camp for displaced Indian Muslims near Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, during the period of unrest following Partition. Photo: AFP

Circa 1947/1948: Sikh refugees at a relief camp at Khalsa College in Amritsar, Punjab, following the unrest in the wake of Partition. Photo: AFP

The book focusses on the psychological and social dimensions of the distress and trauma emerging out of Partition, but a discussion on the rhizomatic web of caste is absent in Partition studies.

THE book under review is a welcome contribution to the study of the psychological impact of the partition of India. It lays on the table the reorganisation of medical and psychiatric services on account of Partition and the resultant neglect of the psychological dimensions of Partition in symptomatology and in treatment and care.

Several of its chapters focus on the psychological and social dimensions of the distress and trauma caused by Partition such as vulnerability and violence; political trauma, mental illness and identity crisis; social progress, politics, and medical care; and, psychiatry’s reluctance to account for the social-psychological location of the individual.

This is a beginning in mental health studies, especially in India and South Asia, but beginnings are often compromised when their foundations are not adequately reflected upon.

The rationale for the work remains rooted in the orthodox take on the philosophy and epistemology of psychiatry as science despite protestations, questionings and elaborations to the contrary and the “pre-occupation” with the social.

Broad domains of reflection

The book’s engagement with the “social” and “psychological” remains perfunctory and inadequately theorised; thus, it is littered with quick and cursory statements on complicated and fundamental theoretical questions and notions arising from the literature to which it alludes and to which it does not.

The work could be located in two broad domains of reflection, namely Partition studies and mental health studies. There are two ways in which it can be viewed: one is to note this or that aspect of contemporary scholarship on Partition in India and South Asia specifically and on Partition, migration and bordering internationally, which have not merited attention or have been considered incidentally in the chapters. The other way is to raise the question of perspective or framework that occasions and guides the study. A few salient absences in the book in the context of Partition studies are the following. It reflects the elision of two major considerations, that is, the question of the partition of eastern India and the question of caste.

Partition of eastern India

Almost all the essays in it are located in the northern or north-western region of India, physically and cognitively vis-a-vis Partition despite the recent efforts of a fairly large corpus of literature on the partition in eastern India (specifically, Bengal (West Bengal/Bangladesh), Assam and parts of the other States of north-eastern India) attempting to overcome the historical deficiency of studying eastern India in Partition studies. This literature, based on almost all the genres that have been used in the work (that is, the humanities, performing arts, and the social sciences), alerts the student of Partition on the massive historical and civilisation specificities of this part of the subcontinent, thereby enormously enriching the oeuvre of Partition studies. This is an important consideration given that the scale and nature of Partition (say, in terms of the very political origins of Partition, the ideological and theoretical resources that had to be marshalled to address this part of the world, violence, the volume of transfer of populations, and the resettlements and rehabilitation done in diverse geopolitical and cultural settings) were admittedly more complex in eastern India and South Asia.

Moreover, a consideration of refugee camps (and work in progress on the theoretical significance of these camps), which have been one of the hallmarks of studying the partition in eastern India, gets short shrift in the work. In this context, it is interesting to note that some of the gaps in the studies on the partition in eastern India have been reproduced in the papers in the work; for instance, (i) the inadequate treatment of regional or sub-regional differentialities in terms of issues such as geographical territories and terrains; administrative entities such as States, districts and blocks; and, communities, cultures and local political economies, and (ii) the enmeshment and intersectionalities of electoral, radical and local politics with these differentialities.

Silence on caste

This picture is closely connected to the silence on caste in Partition studies and subsequently in the book. This is despite a few seminal studies on the partition in eastern India, which have sought to make the question of caste central. Social-psychological consideration of caste in comprehending traditional and modern India (and also South Asia) is already a part of academic lore. What is significant in contemporary India and South Asia is the political and contestive understanding of caste, which have been highlighted in a slew of studies from the humanities, social sciences, and public policy over the past three decades. A work on Partition cannot but ignore this scholarship on the brute fact of caste in India and South Asia. In this context, it is worth the while to note two developments that have a huge scope in enriching any future work of similar ambition, that is, (i) the anthropological, political and legal work being done on conflict, repression, natural disasters, environmental change and development in the context of migration and refugees in the international context; and (ii) the work being done in the intersection of philosophy and the social sciences on bordering and transitional spaces. Much of the burgeoning scholarship on these areas is, unfortunately, missing in the book.

In the domain of mental health studies, an effort is on to study the meaning, operations and implications of caste. In these studies, psychiatrists and social scientists seek to examine the psycho-cultural dimensions of the stigma and discrimination of caste and understand the differences in the stigmatisation of untouchability and of mental distress. Secondly, this scholarship tries to comprehend how cultural identities (especially that of caste) have shaped the Indian reception to theories of textbook psychiatry and how that has influenced practice in the clinic.

There is, in this oeuvre, an effort to initiate a debate on whether the institutional and epistemological arrangements of psychiatry are incapable of a wider consideration of social justice or whether psychiatry’s visualisation of it as a science, which, as an inherently just enterprise, is incapable of epistemologically countenancing caste. Given the significance of caste today, the work would have been keener if it had taken into consideration the leads provided by these rudimentary studies.

These absences in the fields of Partition studies and mental health studies prevent the work from considering several complicated issues relating to the psychological impact of Partition. The authors could have done well to engage with the issues of caste, regional specificities and differentiations, and bordering. These issues structure the social, the political and the mental.

Absence of argument

But the more debilitating handicap of the book is the absence of a clearly formulated argument or question from which its proposition or rationale emanate. Here, one gets the sense that it is necessary to study the psychological dimensions of Partition in India because this (and the related phenomena of migration and refugees) has been studied in the West and not in India.

Subsequently, it emerges that Partition did after all have traumatic consequences for the mind and for the social, and that the psychiatric clinic in India had/has no answer to it. Were one to reverse this “sequence”—that is, contending first that Partition had serious mental consequences and that this has also been the observation in the case of the West—the ground would still be the epistemological ability of the science of psychiatry to cognise, accommodate/internalise, and make the social the clinical. This position runs throughout the work in somewhat muted tones but occasionally erupts to the surface with assertions on the universality and power of psychiatry and science.

This message is acutely felt when it is asserted that particular specificities, such as the identity of caste, tribe and religion, disrupt the universal message of science and progress. Could this then be the reason for the work neglecting the literature of caste in its conceptualisation and illustrations?

Psychiatry’s inability

The claim to the superiority of the universal is problematic. The enormous work that has been done in mental health studies from the Marxist perspectives or frameworks on psychiatry, the post-structuralist destabilising of reason and madness, liquidity and fluidity of cultural studies, and even the history of “psychiatry” in India generates a whole host of arguments and questions for mental health studies, which many a time problematise the ability of psychiatry to address the social.

In this corpus, the universalist claims of reason and science and the political messages of progress, welfare and politics are thoroughly historicised and interrogated. More importantly, questions on the formulation of the social itself are raised and the inability of psychiatry to go so far “back” or “deep” is argued in terms of theory, practice and institutions.

The work does not engage with this literature and this becomes immediately evident in its inability to reconcile its latent framework or position of the truth and power of the universality of psychiatric science with the variety of issues discussed in the chapters (which may or may not be in consonance with the contentions of the universal). References to the phenomena of emotions, power, exclusion and vulnerability, which are replete in some of the chapters, have the potential of indicating the need to engage with the work done by the Marxist, post-structuralist, and cultural studies approaches in the domain of mental health, but this exercise is absent in the work. This situation becomes more alarming when one recognises, further, that even this heterodox literature of heterogeneity, particularity, multiplicity and “destability” does not raise the question of caste.

The “rhizomatic” web of caste, which tells us so much of India and South Asia, is absent even in their deliberations. This complicated terrain demands ground-breaking work in the intersections of Partition studies and mental health studies. Unfortunately, the much-needed and welcome promise of the book under review is not given the opportunity to germinate. Work on several of these concerns is in progress amongst teachers, activists and students across India (“the silent zone”). And it would be wonderful if the well-known editors who have taken a bold step took the trouble to search out these researchers, many of whom may not have reached—for many reasons—the charming circles of the national professional and intellectual elite.

Parthasarathi Mondal is Chairperson, Centre for Social Theory, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He was on the editorial advisory board of Indian Journal of Medical Ethics.


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