Remembering and forgetting go hand in hand. When we talk about remembering something, we also talk about what we have forgotten. But what does it mean to remember? Can we stop a historical event, in this case Partition, at a specific point in time and say, “this is where memory ends?” Not if we are looking at Partition as a human relationship rather than an event that happened in the past and stayed in it, ending in August of 1947. Human relationships, the great historian of labour E.P. Thompson once wrote, have a kinetic energy that evades analysis if we stop it dead at any moment. The relationship between history and memory is a fluid one. It naturally follows that the relationship between history and forgetting would be equally fluid. For every site of memory, a lieu de mémoire as the French historian Pierre Nora called it, there is a lieu d’oubli, a site of forgetting.
Who Decides What We Remember?
Our first clue comes from a study commissioned by the Planning Commission in 1965 called “Greater Delhi—A Study in Urbanisation”, headed by the economists V.K.R.V. Rao and P.B. Desai. At the very beginning, they pay tribute to the “spirit of enterprise” and “hard work” of Partition refugees who came into Delhi. This is a well-established belief about Partition refugees. There is a popular story about Partition that goes something like this: there was a refugee who went to a sugar merchant in Khari Baoli, the spice market of Old Delhi, and asked him to give him two sacks of sugar on the condition that he would pay him back by the evening. He sat outside the shop, and started selling the sugar at the same rate. At the end of the day, he repaid the merchant. This went on for a few days. After a while, the merchant asked him how he made a living by selling the sugar at the same rate. The refugee replied that after he had sold all the sugar, he would sell the empty bags. With that money, he would feed himself and save a little. The merchant was impressed and praised the spirit of the refugee.
Such narratives, produced both by the state and the individual, line the stories of Partition, especially in Delhi. They produce a sort of mythical “refugee” with set characteristics—“entrepreneurial spirit” and “hard work” in this case. This refugee exists between fact and fiction. But if we are to consider Partition as a human relationship, we cannot stop with the idea of the “refugee” at this characterisation. The first question we have to ask is, whose narratives are these?
Prof. Ravinder Kaur, in her classic work Since 1947, writes: “To a large extent, our knowledge about Partition migration has so far been obtained from the narratives of upper caste/middle-class migrants.” To that, we can add the category of “Punjabi”, “male”, and “victim”. These narratives, through repetition, become the “master” narrative, appropriating all experiences into one simple, cosy narrative. The semi-mythical refugee, with his entrepreneurial spirit, becomes the site of memory. But with this appear different sites of forgetting too. For every Punjabi refugee whose success the historian V.N. Dutta explained was through their “superior initiative and enterprise”, there is this passage from Greater Delhi about the refugee from East Bengal: “He is dubbed a bundle of apathy, impervious to the rehabilitation effort bestowed upon him....”
These narratives of the upper-caste, upper-to-middle class Punjabi refugees are mostly recorded by historians and writers from similar backgrounds with socioeconomic capital. To this effect, we can take three important non-fiction texts about Partition, from three different eras. The first is J. Nanda’s Punjab Uprooted (1948), which is one of the first accounts of Partition written by a professional historian (J. Nanda was the historian B.R. Nanda’s pseudonym); V.N. Dutta’s essay Punjabi Refugees and the Urban Development of Greater Delhi (1986); and Aanchal Malhotra’s In The Language of Remembering, which came out recently. All three texts, written using very different methods and sources, come from upper-caste Partition survivors or their descendants, in Malhotra’s case. There is a certain sensibility and sensitivity with which these works treat Partition, but most of their preoccupation is with the upper-caste Punjabi refugees, most of them victims.
When it comes to the archive, the state has done the same thing. From Ravinder Kaur to Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Anusuya Basu Ray, historians and social scientists have noted the overwhelming majority of archival material about Partition centred around the upper-castes and their experience before, during, and after the event. As we have seen before with Rao and Desai’s report, the story of the mythical Punjabi refugee has been adorned with adjectives fitting the review of a Greek classic. And yet, the state, as Prof. Kaur’s thesis goes, remains invisible from most histories of Partition. It is only now, when the focus has turned from institutions of power to human experiences of the event that we have realised how the state has been written out.
Who Decides What We Forget?
“Nation states immensely invest in production, mobilisation and disciplining of memories.” — Bodhisattva Kar
The Nehruvian state centring itself on a scientific outlook, and giving primacy to the economic sphere as opposed to the social, distanced itself from the communally charged violence that had accompanied its “arrival”. In Nehru’s own writing, particularly in The Discovery of India, communalism is shown as an animal instinct, with people who committed communal violence being driven by “primal” instinct rather than rational thought. Communalism, in the state’s ideology, was “unscientific”, a lower state of existence to beware of. India was shown as always existing in a state of harmony, which was only disturbed for a little while during the 1930s and the 1940s. Partition was a one-time event, something that once done with, should never happen again. For the state, it solved a few purposes: public memory was disciplined. By calling it “unscientific”, the state made communalism an antithesis to its own goals. The animalism in the violence made it outside the ambit of law and order, for which the state could not be questioned.
Near the beginning of Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India, the historian Gyanendra Pandey notes: “For too long the violence of 1947... has been treated as someone else’s history—or even, not history at all.” When we talk about the violence of Partition, we talk about a violence with victims—most notably due to the path-breaking work done by feminist writers such as Urvashi Butalia and Rita Kothari—but without any perpetrators. Partition never had a Nuremberg trial. The violence of Partition on this side of the border was quickly brushed under the carpet, and the state instead occupied itself with the rehabilitation of the displaced people. By focussing on the victims of the violence through “resettlement”, the state immediately wiped out the memory of the perpetrators of the violence. The only perpetrators that remain in the public memory of Partition are Muslims on that side of the border driven to animal passions, whose wrath the refugees coming to this side somehow survived.
Partition and the Golden Age Myth
Repetition and knowledge have an intimate connection. Repeat something enough times and it becomes reality. The state and bourgeois-nationalist history writing, one working on a myth of harmony and the other on upper-caste, middle-class testimony, worked together to create an image of pre-1940s India as a space where every religion coexisted in a state of perfect tranquillity. This furthered both the agendas: the Partition violence was a one-off event where masses were drawn to their basic instincts, and that there is hope for those who had to leave their homes. The “lost homeland” of Partition therefore became a land steeped in idealism and nostalgia, static in a Golden Age. The multiple social hierarchies that existed in pre-Partition India never made it to this master narrative of blissful coexistence. Instead, both the state and scholars reinforced this framework.
Against this narrative of semi-mythical refugees who left their home right before independence in the middle of violence and chaos in planes, trains and cars, we have the narrative of the Shudra refugee, in most cases only able to leave much after Independence, if at all, and even if they left, made to go in caravans several kilometres long, exposing themselves to constant threats of violence and disease.
Scholars working on Partition in various regions have noted the marked absence of lower-caste narratives from the archive. The transfer of power documents, on the basis of which much of Partition history has been written, has sparse mentions of caste. Often, Kaur tells us, they were only included within statistics to denote the number of “non-Muslims” that needed to be evacuated from Pakistan after Partition. The resettlement policies of the state, which revolved around compensation for property owned on the other side of the border, do not have a lot of value as evidence, either. Malhotra’s In The Language of Remembering is quite forgetful about the topic of caste as well. In the 700-odd pages of the book, there are only four mentions of the word “Dalit”, none which pertain to an oral history or a testimony of any sort. Nanda and Dutta suffer from the same amnesia. Newer methods of looking at Partition such as material memory are also dominated by possessions like jewellery and expensive furniture and cutlery brought over by certain upper-castes, who were relatively more affluent at that time.
However, documentary absence does not entail physical absence. Researchers have turned to archival scraps in order to excavate lower-caste experiences of Partition. The first marked difference is in the relative mobility that was afforded to different castes when it came to migration. One of the more famous stories about this is about Liaquat Ali Khan telling Sriprakasa, the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, that if the Dalit workers went to India to visit relatives, who would clean the gutters? A lot of untouchable groups were forbidden from migrating to India because it was believed that no one else would do the jobs they performed. Even today, most of the lower-caste Hindus and Christians that remain on the other side of the border work as sanitation workers.
The ones who migrated to India did not fare any better. Refugee camps, mass housing schemes, and job opportunities were bound by caste barriers. Most Dalit-Bahujan refugees ended up getting menial jobs like sweepers in the municipality or peons in government offices. The Regharpura Housing Scheme in New Delhi provides another interesting case study in how caste played a role in the differential treatment of refugees. The scheme, completed in 1948, involved the government building mud huts with tarpaulin sheets as roofs. It was only a few decades later that the government decided to make a 100 concrete settlements, leading to the area being named Sau Quarter. Regharpura lies a short walk away from Karol Bagh, where a lot of affluent upper-caste refugees were settled on the basis of their claims in Pakistan.
Remembering as an Act of Resistance
Pandey, whose work stands as a seminal text to read into the issues of Partition, makes a very compelling argument for rethinking the broad categories through which we study it. He argues that both India and Pakistan, in order to make their own meanings, tended to look at the refugees as a fixed community, with well-defined features. In order to study it as a human relationship, we need to recover the “malleable, fuzzy, and contextual” states of community that were closer to what people experienced then. So, when we think of the Partition refugee, we give them mythical descriptors which suit a master narrative of the “Hindu” with a definite set of characteristics, and a similar backstory of leaving and finding home in an alien land.
Competing claims to being “well-settled”, therefore, become competing claims to nationality. Compare the case of the Punjabi upper-caste refugee with those in Assam, where the issues of the National Register of Citizens and rising ethno-facism are closely related to the two partitions that it went through, first in 1947 and then in 1971. As Udayon Misra, a historian of the partition in Assam writes: “The shadow of Partition is still with us precisely because it turned Assam into a part of the periphery and borderland of India.”
To look at Partition as a critical moment rooted within Indian history and society is an act of resistance. It serves both as a question and a lesson: as a question, it forces us to look beyond labels of “Hindu” and “Muslim” and actually into how people led their lives. As a lesson, it serves as a grave reminder about how and why societies can reach extremes, and how we can learn from them and actively avoid it in daily practice.
Srajit M. Kumar is a recent postgraduate in modern history from the University of Delhi. He is a freelance writer, researcher, and educator.
- Partition narratives, produced both by the state and the individual, produce a sort of mythical “refugee” with set characteristics—“entrepreneurial spirit” and “hard work”.
- Our knowledge about Partition migration has been obtained from the narratives of upper caste/middle-class migrants.
- Against this narrative of semi-mythical refugees who left their home right before independence in the middle of violence is the narrative of the Shudra refugee, in most cases only able to leave much after Independence, if at all, and even if they left, made to go in caravans several kilometres long, exposing themselves to constant threats of violence and disease.
- A lot of untouchable groups were forbidden from migrating to India because it was believed that no one else would do the jobs they performed.