The political partition of India caused one of the great human convulsions of history. Never before or since have so many people exchanged their homes and countries so quickly. In the space of a few months, about twelve million people moved between the new, truncated India and the two wings, East and West, of the newly created Pakistan. By far the largest proportion of these refugees--more than ten million of them--crossed the western border which divided the historic state of Punjab, Muslims travelling west to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs east to India. Slaughter sometimes accompanied and sometimes prompted their movement; many others died from malnutrition and contagious diseases. Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 (the contemporary British figure) to two million (a later Indian estimate) but that somewhere around a million people died is now widely accepted. As always there was widespread sexual savagery: about 75,000 women are thought to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own (and indeed sometimes by men of their own religion). Thousands of families were divided, homes destroyed, crops left to rot, villages abandoned. Astonishingly, and despite many warnings, the new governments of India and Pakistan were unprepared for the convulsion: they had not anticipated that the fear and uncertainty created by the drawing of borders based on headcounts of religious identity--so many Hindus versus so many Muslims--would force people to flee to what they considered `safer' places, where they would be surrounded by their own kind. People travelled in buses, in cars, by train, but mostly on foot in great columns called kafilas, which could stretch for dozens of miles. The longest of them, said to comprise nearly 400,000 people, refugees travelling east to India from western Punjab, took as many as eight days to pass any given spot on its route.
This is the generality of Partition: it exists publicly in history books. The particular is harder to discover; it exists privately in the stories told and retold inside so many households in India and Pakistan. I grew up with them: like many Punjabis of my generation, I am from a family of Partition refugees. Memories of Partition, the horror and brutality of the time, the harkening back to an--often mythical--past where Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived together in relative peace and harmony, have formed the staple of stories I have lived with. My mother and father come from Lahore, a city loved and sentimentalized by its inhabitants, which lies only twenty miles inside the Pakistan border. My mother tells of the dangerous journeys she twice made back there to bring her younger brothers and sister to India. My father remembers fleeing Lahore to the sound of guns and crackling fire. I would listen to these stories with my brothers and sister and hardly take them in. We were middle-class Indians who had grown up in a period of relative calm and prosperity, when tolerance and `secularism' seemed to be winning the argument. These stories--of loot, arson, rape, murder--came out of a different time. They meant little to me.
Then, in October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security guards, both Sikhs. For days afterwards Sikhs all over India were attacked in an orgy of violence and revenge. Many homes were destroyed and thousands died. In the outlying suburbs of Delhi more than three thousand were killed, often by being doused in kerosene and then set alight. They died horrible, macabre deaths. Black burn marks on the ground showed where their bodies had lain. The government--headed by Mrs Gandhi's son Rajiv -- remained indifferent, but several citizens' groups came together to provide relief, food and shelter. I was among the hundreds of people who worked in these groups. Every day, while we were distributing food and blankets, compiling lists of the dead and missing, and helping with compensation claims, we listened to the stories of the people who had suffered. Often older people, who had come to Delhi as refugees in 1947, would remember that they had been through a similar terror before. `We didn't think it could happen to us in our own country,' they would say. `This is like Partition again.'
Here, across the River Jamuna, just a few miles from where I lived, ordinary, peaceable people had driven their neighbours from their homes and murdered them for no readily apparent reason than that they were of a different religious community. The stories of Partition no longer seemed quite so remote: people from the same country, the same town, the same village, could still be divided by the politics of their religious difference, and, once divided, could do terrible things to each other. Two years later, working on a film about Partition for a British television channel, I began to collect stories from its survivors. Many of the tales were horrific and of a kind that I had found hard to believe when I was younger and heard them second or third hand: women jumping into wells to drown themselves so as to avoid rape or forced religious conversion; fathers beheading their own children so they would avoid the same dishonourable fate. Now I was hearing them from witnesses whose bitterness, rage and hatred--which, once uncovered, could be frightening--told me they were speaking the truth.
Their stories affected me deeply. Nothing as cruel and bloody had happened in my own family so far as I knew, but I began to realize that Partition was not, even in my family, a closed chapter of history--that its simple, brutal political geography infused and divided us still. The divisions were there in everyday life, as were their contradictions: how many times have I heard my parents, my grandmother, speak with affection and longing of their Muslim friends in Lahore, and how many times with irrational prejudice about `those Muslims'; how many times had I heard my mother speak with a sense of betrayal of her brother who had married a Muslim. It took the events of 1984 to make me understand how ever-present Partition was in our lives, too, to recognize that it could not so easily be put away inside the covers of history books. I could no longer pretend that this was a history that belonged to another time, to someone else.
* * *
I began, like any other researcher, by looking at what had been written about Partition. And there was no dearth of material. Yet, as I read my way through it, I found myself becoming increasingly dissatisfied, sometimes even angry. If the books I was reading were to be believed, the Partition of India was something that happened in August 1947. A series of events preceded it: these included the growing divide between the Congress and the Muslim League, the debates between Jinnah and Gandhi. Nehru, Patel, and a host of other developments on the `political' front. And a series of events accompanied and followed it: violence, mass migration, refugeeism, rehabilitation. But the `history' of Partition seemed to lie only in the political developments that had led up to it. These other aspects--what had happened to the millions of people who had to live through this time, what we might call the `human dimensions' of this history--somehow seemed to have a `lesser' status in it. Perhaps this was because they had to do with difficult things: loss and sharing, friendship and enmity, grief and joy, with a painful regret and nostalgia for loss of home, country and friends, and with an equally strong determination to create them afresh. These were difficult things to capture `factually'. Yet, could it really be that they had no place in the history of Partition? Why then did they live on so vividly in individual and collective memory?
I looked at what the large political facts of this history seemed to be saying. If I was reading them right, it would seem that Partition was now over, done with, a thing of the past. Yet, all around us there was a different reality: partitions everywhere, communal tension, religious fundamentalism, continuing divisions on the basis of religion. In Delhi, Sikhs became targets of communal attacks in 1984; in Bhagalpur in Bihar, hundreds of Muslims were killed in one of India's worst communal riots in 1989; a few years later, the Babri Mosque was destroyed in Ayodhya by frenzied Hindu communalists (supported, openly and brazenly, by political parties such as the Bhartiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shiv Sena), and later, thousands of Muslims were again targeted in Surat, Ahmedabad and Bombay. In each of these instances, Partition stories and memories were used selectively by the aggressors: militant Hindus were mobilized using the one-sided argument that Muslims had killed Hindus at Partition, they had raped Hindu women, and so they must in turn be killed, and their women subjected to rape. And the patterns were there in individual life too: a Muslim and a Hindu in independent India could not easily choose to marry each other without worrying about whether one or the other of them would survive the wrath of their families or communities; if such a marriage broke up, or for some reason ended up in court, you could be sure that it would be accompanied by public announcements, for example on the part of the judiciary, about those who had accepted the two-nation theory and those who had not.
All of this seemed to emphasize that Partition could not so easily be put away, that its deep, personal meanings, its profound sense of rupture, the differences it engendered or strengthened, still lived on in so many people's lives. I began to realize that Partition was surely more than just a political divide, or a division of properties, of assets and liabilities. It was also, to use a phrase that survivors use repeatedly, a `division of hearts'. It brought untold suffering, tragedy, trauma, pain and violence to communities who had hitherto lived together in some kind of social contract. It separated families across an arbitrarily drawn border, sometimes overnight, and made it practically impossible for people to know if their parents, sisters, brothers or children were alive or dead. A mother and daughter, separated in the violence of Partition, found each other fifty years later through the agency of a news magazine when, in search of stories to mark fifty years of independence for India, a reporter and a photographer went looking for families divided at Partition. A brother and a sister were brought together after fifty years at the border by the same news magazine. A father whose thirteen-year-old daughter was abducted from Pakistan by Hindu men made several trips to India to try to track her down. On one of these, he was arrested on charges of being a spy and jailed. His daughter was never returned to him.
* * *
These aspects of Partition--how families were divided, how friendships endured across borders, how people coped with the trauma, how they rebuilt their lives, what resources, both physical and mental, they drew upon, how their experience of dislocation and trauma shaped their lives, and indeed the cities and towns and villages they settled in--find little reflection in written history. Yet, increasingly after 1984, I began to feel that they were essential to our knowledge of Partition. What then, I asked myself, were the tools I had to have to begin this search, what were the `sources' I could turn to? James Young, writing on holocaust memories and testimonies, poses the question: how can we know the holocaust except through the many ways in which it is handed down to us? He answers it by suggesting that as much as through its `history', we know the holocaust through its literary, fictional, historical, political representations, and through its personal, testimonial representations, for it is not only the `facts' of any event that are important, but equally, how people remember those facts, and how they represent them. The question might well be extended to Partition, for how do we know this event except through the ways in which it has been handed down to us: through fiction, memoirs, testimonies, through memories, individual and collective, through the communalism it unleashed and, only as one of these aspects, through the histories it has produced. Perhaps more than any other event in modern Indian history Partition lives on in family histories particularly in north India, where tales of the horror and brutality, the friendship and sharing, are told and retold between communities, families and individuals. A Punjabi refugee only has to meet another Punjabi refugee and immediately stories of `that time', of home and country, are exchanged. Or, an Indian refugee only has to meet a Pakistani refugee for the same process to begin. This collection of memories, individual and collective, familial and historical, are what make up the reality of Partition. They illuminate what one might call the `underside' of its history. They are the ways in which we can know this event. In many senses, they are the history of the event. It is to these, then, that I decided to turn.
The choice brought its own problems. Working with memory is never simple or unproblematic. I am deeply aware of the problems that attach to the method I have chosen. There has been considerable research to show that memory is not ever `pure' or `unmediated'. So much depends on who remembers, when, with whom, indeed to whom, and how. But to me, the way people choose to remember an event, a history, is at least as important as what one might call the `facts' of that history, for after all, these latter are not self-evident givens; instead, they too are interpretations, as remembered or recorded by one individual or another. Let me try to explain this with an example. One of the commonest responses I encountered when I began work was people's (initial) reluctance to speak. What, they asked me, is the use of remembering, of excavating memories we have put behind us? Every time I was faced with this question, I came up with a question of my own: why, I wondered, were people so reluctant to remember this time? Surely this reluctance in itself pointed to something? Was it only to do with the horrific nature of events--sanitized into numbers and statistics in the pages of history books--or was it to do, at least in some instances, with people's own complicity in this history? There had been, at Partition, no `good' people and no `bad' ones; virtually every family had a history of being both victims and aggressors in the violence. And if this was so, surely that told us something about why people did not wish to remember it, publicly, except perhaps within their families where the `ugly' parts of this history could be suppressed?
How then, we might ask, extending James Young's formulation, can we know Partition except in the ways in which it has been handed down to us: not only in the texts and memories it has produced but even through people's reluctance to remember it. In this kind of knowing then, what we know as `facts' are not self-evident givens. So much of the existing history of Partition is made up of debates about these `facts'--debates that balance one person's interpretation against another--that I do not plan to repeat these or indeed to go into them here. Thus, although Partition is the subject of this book, the reader will not find here a chronology of events leading up to Partition, or indeed the many `political' negotiations that followed it. Nor will he or she find much about the major players of this history: Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Mountbatten. Their absence from my work is deliberate. Instead, I focus on the stories of the smaller, often invisible, players: ordinary people, women, children, scheduled castes. I do this principally through interviews and oral narratives.
As I say this I know that I am entering a problematic terrain. Oral history is a deeply contested area in historical discourse. I have no wish to pose people's narratives, or even a notion of `raw experience', against something that we might call history, for both are not unproblematic concepts. I am not a historian. History is not my subject. I have come to this work through a political--and personal--engagement with history, contemporary communalism, and a deep and abiding belief in feminism. All of these have led me to the realization that it is extremely important to be able to listen, to attempt to understand how and why religious difference, for example, has come to acquire the kind of resilience that it has. Why is it that so many second- and third-generation Hindus and Sikhs after Partition have come to internalize notions of `us' and `them' when they have no reference to Partition--except through family and community memories? What is it about the selectivity of memory that, in this case, feelings of fear and hatred seem to have been nurtured, to have a greater resilience, while feelings of friendship and sharing are not allowed to surface? I am aware of the many pitfalls that are attendant on the method I have chosen: there is no way of knowing, for example, if the stories people choose to tell are `true' or not, nor of knowing what they choose to suppress. How can we know that, four or five decades after the event, the stories are not simply rehearsed performances; or that they are told differently for different people, perhaps tailored to suit what the person thinks the interviewer wishes to hear? How do we reach beyond the stories into the silences they hide; how can we assume that speech, the breaking of silence, is in itself a good thing? There are a hundred such questions. But I am not making a claim for oral history as against what we understand as the disciplinary narratives of history; rather, I would like to ask if there is a way in which people's stories, notwithstanding all their problems, can somehow expand, stretch the definitions and boundaries of history and find a place in it. Is there some way in which history can make space for the small, the individual, voice?
Whatever its limitations, the oral narrative offers a different way of looking at history, a different perspective. Because such narratives often flow into each other in terms of temporal time, they blur the somewhat rigid timeframes within which history situates itself. Because people locate their memories by different dates, or different timeframes, than the events that mark the beginning and end of histories, their narratives flow above, below, through the disciplinary narratives of history. They offer us a way of turning the historical lens at a somewhat different angle, and to look at what this perspective offers. I do not want to argue here that oral narratives can replace what we see as history, only that they can offer a different and extremely important perspective on history, a perspective which, I believe, enriches history.
I have come to believe that there is no way we can begin to understand what Partition was about, unless we look at how people remember it. I do not wish here to carry out a literal exercise of first seeing how people remember the history of Partition, and then attempting to penetrate their narrative for its underlying `facts' to arrive at an approximation of some kind of `truth'. Instead, I wish to look at the memories for themselves--even if they are shifting, changing, unreliable. James Young says: `Whatever "fictions" emerge from the survivors' accounts are not deviations from the "truth" but are part of the truth in any particular version (my italics). The fictiveness in testimony does not involve disputes about facts, but the inevitable variance in perceiving and representing these facts, witness by witness, language by language, culture by culture.' I can find no more eloquent description of what I hope to do in this book.
* * *
Collecting material is sometimes the easiest part of putting a book together. The difficult decisions come when one wants to try to figure out what to include and what to leave out. Over the many long years that I have been working on this subject, I have interviewed perhaps seventy or so people. While this number sounds quite substantial to me, it is negligible in terms of the number of people who were affected by Partition, an indication of the fact that no single individual can tackle this project in its entirety. While one part of this book is made up of my telling of Partition stories, in the other parts people I have interviewed tell their own stories. But of the number I spoke with, I have included only a fraction. This is not because the others are not worth reproducing. Indeed, each story is rich in insights and unique in what it offers. But clearly I could not have included them all, so in the end I have chosen to use rather arbitrary criteria in my selection. I have included the stories that meant the most to me, stories of people with whom I have formed real friendships, or stories to which I keep returning again and again.
In presenting the interviews to the reader, I have taken the liberty of narrativizing them--that is, I have removed the questions posed by the interviewers, and have let the text run as one continuous narrative, although no chronological alterations have been made. And in a few cases I have retained the interventions made by other people, particularly in instances where they add to, or illuminate, certain aspects of the text. This shaping of the interviews to turn them into more `readable' texts has been done quite consciously. I do not believe that the transcript of any interview can ever be an unmediated text. In transferring words to text, so much is lost: the particular inflection; the hesitation over certain thoughts and phrases, even certain feelings; the body language, which often tells a different story from the words; and indeed the conscious `shaping' of the interview by the interviewer who is usually in a situation of power vis-à-vis the person being interviewed. Given this, I thought it pointless to pretend that the interviews could appear before the reader in some `pure' form, and I have edited them into what I feel is a more readable form. The full text of each interview, and indeed of the ones I have not used here, will, I hope, be housed in a library or archive so that they can be used by others researching this area.
The fact that most of the interviews took place in family situations also meant that women were seldom alone when they spoke to us. Much of the time the interview had to be conducted in the nooks and crannies of time that were available to women between household tasks. Equally, if their husbands or sons were around, they tended to take over the interview, inadvertently or otherwise, making the women lapse into a sort of silence. This is not uncommon--many oral historians have written about the difficulty of speaking to and with women, of learning to listen differently, often of listening to the hidden nuance, the half-said thing, the silences which are sometimes more eloquent than speech. Listening to women is, I think, a different thing between women than it is between men and women.
When I reread the interviews now, it strikes me that there are some very clear differences between the speech of men and of women. Is there such a thing, then, as a gendered telling of Partition? I learnt to recognize this in the way women located, almost immediately, this major event in the minor keys of their lives. From the women I learned about the minutiae of their lives, while for the most part men spoke of the relations between communities, the broad political realities. Seldom was there an occasion when a man being interviewed would speak of a child lost or killed, while for a woman there was no way in which she could omit such a reference. This is a question I discuss further in the conclusion to this volume.
The process of identifying people to speak to was an almost random one. I first began to consciously speak to people when I was working on a film called A Division of Hearts made by two friends for Channel 4 Television in Britain. But once I had begun, almost everywhere I turned there was a story to be listened to. In Delhi particularly, you can be sure that almost every other Punjabi person over a certain age has a history of Partition somewhere in his or her family. I would often find myself stopping on roads to talk to people I thought looked the right age. Once, after talking to a family in Jangpura in Delhi, I came out to find an autorickshaw to take me home. The driver was dressed in the salvar-kurta that is typical of Pakistani Punjabis. I asked him where he was from. He responded with a question--one that is common when asking north Indians where they are from. Are you asking about now or earlier, he said. The word `earlier' is only an approximate translation of the word that he actually used: `pichche se', which refers to something that comes from an earlier time and has been left behind. I told him I was interested in where he was from `earlier', not now. He said he was from Baluchistan, and had stayed on there for nearly ten years after Partition, in a small village where a community of Hindus lived peaceably, without any problems. Soon, we were in his house talking about his recollections of the time. One day, as I walked out of a take-away restaurant in south Delhi, clutching a roti and kebab, I was accosted by a beggar woman asking for money. She spoke in Punjabi, an unusual thing, for there are very few Punjabi beggars in the city. I asked her where she was from. She responded with the same question: now or earlier. I gave her the same answer and she told me she had come from a small village called Chak 53, that she had walked over with the large kafila of refugees and had ended up, by a circuitous route, on the streets of Delhi, begging. In this way, I moved from one person to another, one story to another, and collected stories, almost randomly. This is one reason why there is no clear pattern to the oral narratives in this book.
Some patterns will, however, be discernible to the reader. For example, many of the interviews I have used come from the same region--Rawalpindi district--and relate to incidents of violence that took place there in March 1947, just a few months before Partition. Often, in an attempt to recreate the communities that Partition destroyed, people moved en masse to one place, or were housed by the State in a particular place. When I began to track down Partition survivors, I was led, first of all, to survivors of the Rawalpindi violence who lived in a middle-class area in south Delhi. One person put me in touch with another, and then another and in this way I collected many stories. It is for this reason that the accounts of Rawalpindi survivors form a major part of my work.
Apart from all the methodological problems that attach to oral narratives, they are also very difficult to deal with in practical, structural terms. How do you structure a book that is primarily made up of such accounts? Should it contain just the texts of the interviews, should there be an accompanying commentary, should there be analysis and/or explanation, should the interviews be long or short, and so on. I have grappled with all of these questions. In the beginning, I thought it better to simply put together a book of oral accounts, without any explanation or commentary. Gradually, I came to believe otherwise: as a reader, and a publisher, I know that very few readers actually go through a collection of oral accounts unless they are very short, and I thought the things that people said in the interviews were too important to be either summarily cut short or just put together without any comment. Also, if I was shaping the interviews, I felt I needed to point to what, for me, was significant in those interviews. As I got more involved in the work, I found there was a great deal I wanted to say, in addition to what the people I spoke to had said. There were their stories, as they told them, and there was what I learnt and understood from those stories. I then began to think of a way of meshing the two together. The structure that you see in the book now, with excerpts from interviews forming a major part of the analytical chapters, was what emerged from this. Even so, there remained the problem of where and how to locate the full text of the interviews. I felt it important that, at least for the small number that I had selected, there be a place that was an integral part of the book. After much thought, I decided to place all interviews together in a separate section at the end of the book. But having once done that, the same problem re-presented itself: would people actually read them, or would they see them as simply adjuncts to the other chapters? It seemed likely that that was what would happen, and to me the interviews were far too important to be put aside as an appendix. Finally, I decided to move the interviews into the main text, and to supplement what I have said in each chapter with one or two interviews. Inasmuch as it was possible, I tried to relate the interview(s) to the chapter in which they have been included, but this was not possible each time. It is difficult, indeed it is too pat, to have at the end of each chapter an interview that perfectly fits the subject matter of that particular chapter. Had I had a list of chapters in mind before starting this work, I might have been able to consciously look for interviews that could directly relate to specific subjects. As it was, my interviews did not fit any particular pattern. Nonetheless, I have chosen to place them alongside each chapter because I believe they offer insights into all, and more, of the things I have discussed in this book, and are not only limited to the chapters they figure in. Sometimes, then, the interview begins the chapter, at others it ends it, and in one instance it provides the thread that weaves the chapter together. I think the reader may find it helpful to keep this in mind while reading the interviews.
While interviews form my primary sources, I have also looked at diaries, memoirs, newspaper reports and the kinds of documents that I feel are important for my work: letters written by different people, reports of enquiry commissions, pamphlets and, of course, books. From these I have reconstructed many different `voices' of Partition: official, unofficial, informal, others. These include the voices of people telling stories, the voices through which they speak in memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, those that emerge from the official narratives, those that are evident in communal discourses, and, woven through all this, my own voice, reading, speaking, questing, hazarding explanations.
Together, these have made for a narrative in which my presence, as author and interpreter, is quite visible, some would say almost too visible. I make no apologies for this. I can only say that I have always had a deep suspicion of histories that are written as if the author were but a mere vehicle, histories that, to use Roland Barthes' phrase, `seem to write themselves'. The absence of the `I' in such histories helps perhaps to establish distance, even to create the illusion of objectivity, perhaps to establish factuality. I have no wish to pretend that these histories, these stories, are in any way an `objective' rendering of Partition. I do not believe such a thing is possible. For the many years that this work has been with me, I have felt involved in it, intensely and emotionally, politically and academically. To pretend then, that this is a history that has `written itself', so to speak, would have been dishonest.
In the process of working on Partition I have become, like every other researcher or writer who gets involved, obsessive about this work. For years, I have thought of little else. One of the things that troubled me enormously when I began was precisely the lack of what is known as objectivity in my work. There was no way I could deny a personal involvement; no way I could pretend that there wasn't an emotional entanglement; no way I could wipe out my politics. It has taken me several years to feel comfortable with this fact. If this account is read as history, it may well be thrown out the door. Perhaps then, the best way to read it is to add the word `personal' to the history that I am attempting in this book. And to throw out, once and for all, any notions of objectivity or distance. This is a personal history that does not pretend to be objective.
Copyright © 2000 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved.
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