How does one divide a land? And how do you tell this story to generations who have no idea of the deep loss and grief millions of people experienced when the partition of India happened in 1947?
Who decides what story to tell? When to tell? How many stories to tell? Who decides how should we tell the history of a nation to its younger lot? How can we tell these stories so that subsequent generations know the real cost of hate, prejudices?
During my recent visit to Amritsar, I spent an entire day at the Partition Museum, the only one of its kind in the world. To be there is to be on a pilgrimage. It was deeply moving and engaging to be there. The Partition of India saw the largest migration in human history and around 20 million people were affected. Yet, for many decades these stories have not been shared. The Partition Museum is all about people and their stories. They have opened their hearts, shared their gut-wrenching experiences and while sharing their stories they have once again lived the horrors of those times. But they have chosen to share their stories. That’s the beauty of the Partition Museum in Amritsar.
Here I am sharing some notes I took while I was there. Photography is not allowed inside the museum (barring at one place) which I think is a fabulous idea. The physical space of the museum strikes a chord with your inner self. The haunting sound of a train passing by and the installation of an anonymous railway platform stays with you for a long time. This nameless platform is in memory of all those innocent ordinary people who lost their lives in train attacks and all those who survived this intensely traumatic train journey without food/water as they fled from the land that was their home. You come closer to stories of loss, grief, betrayal and also the story of hope and the indomitable human spirit to build lives from the ashes.
THE PARTITION … THE LINE THAT DIVIDES
Sir Cyril Radcliffe had six weeks to draw the border line. He was commissioned to equitably divide 4,50,000 km sq of territory with 88 million people. Radcliffe had never visited India before and he had no idea of its people, landscape and culture. He arrived on July 8 and completed his report by August 12. In an interview later, he said, “I had no alternative, the time at my disposal was so short that I couldn’t do a better job. Given the same period, I would do the same thing. However, if I had two-three years, I would do it differently.”
Following the mindless violence the partition saw, Radcliffe did not take any money for the work he had done. He said, “The people who died, their blood was on my head.”
YOU CAN’T READ LOSS
Loss is personal yet in many ways it’s universal too. Sudershana Kumari and her parents had to flee their home one evening while they were preparing their dinner. They just jumped from one terrace to another in desperation and left everything that was once theirs. Sudershana was eight then. Decades later, she recounts that horrifying night as tears flow continuously from her eyes. In an extraordinary gesture, she has donated a ‘KARI GLASS’ (among other things) to the museum. She explains, “When you respect a guest, you offer them milk/lassi in a kari glass. As the polish never goes off, it was considered precious.” Her sense of belongingness lies in that glass.
Major Jagat Singh’s family and their village did not migrate initially because they assumed Lahore will be with India. When finally their kafila moved, they were attacked. Singh had just crossed the Ravi river, when he looked back to see his father and many others killed on the other side of the river.
(Radcliffe had said, “By population, property, standards Lahore was originally in India. But then there was no city left for Pakistan. So I took Lahore from India and gave it to Pakistan. From East Pakistan, Calcutta was coming to India.”)
In Thoha Khalsa village in Rawalpindi, women jumped into the well to protect the honour. In the museum, when you see the well (an installation) under the subtle light you feel a knife cutting through your heart.
THE POOR ALWAYS SUFFERS THE MOST: There were many with no other means came by Kafila, walking miles and miles in the scorching heat and the torrential rains of heavy monsoon. They were particularly vulnerable to attack by mobs. They walked without shelter, sanitation, food and water. Thousands especially the elderly, the sick, the children perished from exhaustion, starvation. They started the journey but never made it to their destination.
WHO CARES ABOUT DALITS? Very less has been written about the Dalits and Partition. To be honest, I myself have not thought about this aspect of the Partition earlier. Dalits could not stay in the main refugee camps and they were also cut off from getting access to clothing and food rations. Rameshwari Nehru, the head of the committee to rehabilitate dalits notes that the land compensation policies excluded dalits as they were viewed as tillers not owners.
HOW DO YOU DIVIDE CULTURE?
The tragic consequences of the Partition were felt in music, literature, cricket and heritage. In an absurd matter of fact effort at equity, ancient necklaces belonging to Mohenjodaro were broken and an equal number of beads were given to India and Pakistan. Even giving either country one extra bead had to be discussed and put formally on file.
TOWARDS HOPE, LOVE AND LIGHT
The Partition Museum shows us that — We can never win against hate. Hate will consume all of us, sooner or later. Empathy is the only answer.
The last segment of the museum has a tall, elegant Hope Tree. You can leave a message on a piece of paper which is in the shape of leaf. History can be our greatest teacher if we are willing to learn from our history.
Facing the Hope Tree, there is a board which has following lines of Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. “Entire universe is contained in a single point. The God is found not by those who follow rites and rituals but by those whose hearts are pure.”
Let us move away from hate, prejudices and stay closer to love and empathy. If not now then when?