Then and Now: From Undivided India into a Divided Present

By Dr Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry

Ishmeet Kaur Chaudhry
As India completes 70 and enters 71, time seems to have moved on with rapid changes. Changes that have defined, refined and reformed the nation. These definitions set themselves in lieu of the several movements and experiences in terms of migrations, displacements, and resettlement even from the rural to the urban. With these experiences has evolved a vocabulary of such words that define the order of the day: borders, terrorism, riots, unrest, bomb-blast, and curfew. The words often corresponded to other establishments like development, cosmopolitanism, travel, tourism, neoliberalism, technological advancements and of course globalization. The varied experiences resulted in the far-fetched, yet relevant and connected concerns for the citizens of a nation. With this evolves a history of varied and diverse experiences of a country. At the onset, it would not be wrong to suggest that histories of nations are better understood with individual experiences. At the same time, the present is never exclusive of the past. The past has an overwhelming presence in its present. Thus, history is temporal as well as cultural. Behind the progression of such an experience lies the vast experiences of the citizens in the past. The seventy-year-old history of India has its foundations on the experiences of the generations that experienced the turmoil of partition seventy years back. Coming from such a family, one can never dissociate oneself from the experiences of grandparents who witnessed partition. With every Independence Day celebration, the memories of the lost family members, the dead and the diseased, during partition way back in 1947, arise.  Celebrations centering the idea of independence appear on the surface, but deep within it is the dreadful mourning of the inerasable scars and abrasions. 
Innumerable interviews recorded by the archives[i] illustrate the vast numbers effected by the violence around partition. The individual experiences chart new histories. Unfortunately, the official documents fail to record the intensity and the degree of assault met by the people but oral narratives testify the individual experiences. Urvashi Bhutalia in The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India refers to James E Young who suggests that the holocaust is known:
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, how they represent them. (Butalia 9)
Similarly, the refugee identities have been defined by their rootedness to the place of their belonging.  With the nostalgia of the past emerges a new sense of the place or the village from where the people were displaced. At the same time, these accounts deal with the devastating stories that reveal ideologies of hatred and separatists’ identity. With partition emerged a discourse of identity where communal identity became the major insignia of marking people and categorizing them as minority or majority. Places where Hindus were in majority, Muslims and Sikhs were designated as minority and visa-versa. At the same time, it would not be wrong to suggest that material gains also perpetuated violence. In the words of Nandita Bhavnani, “…Partition violence was also motivated by material ambitions, especially a cutthroat competition for property, in many parts of the subcontinent” (139).  Moreover, honour killings during partition imply the further categorization on the basis of gender. Many accounts suggest how the survivor families refrained from mentioning events around partition as the women were either abducted or left behind, and restored and in many cases had a narrow escape from being abducted. Some women were even killed by their own family members. This had a strong influence on the mind of the survivors. Mohinder Kaur narrates her experience of probably escaping death, being hit by her own elders. She was 9-10 years old during partition. She has a scar on her head and neck that carries with her the history of the gruesome times.
The scar along with another one made by sharp-edged weapon on her neck are signs of the gory tale­­­­. These were inflicted by the sword of some elder male in the family as they slaughtered all women and girls of their clan after mobs abducted a few women of Hindu families of Guru Nanak Pura in Jhang area. “Perhaps their hands wavered as they attacked their own and wounds were not deep enough to kill instantly” (Times of India, 14 Aug, 2017, 6).
Mohinder Kaur narrates how her blind great grandmother was picked up and taken by Muslims. She reported of feeling cold and asked the men to put her near the fire. Having done so, she burnt herself alive, as was narrated by the Muslims to her family members after the army arrived. Mohinder Kaur for all these years has been haunted by these events in her dreams when asleep and remembrances when awake. The likes of Mohinder Kaur have never been able to forget their past. With new generations and entry into the new century, things might have changed but past has made a continuous presence in their life. Similarly, the famous Punjabi writer Mohinder Singh Sarna narrates the impact of partition on him. He writes:
I was an eyewitness to those massacres and those acts of fanaticism and barbarity. The blows of barbarism fell more on my soul than on my body. I saw the blood spurting forth from the jugular vein of humanity; I saw humanity sobbing as it breathed its last. It shook my faith in mankind and in life. Deep inside, my resolve and direction wavered and my ideas dimmed. The earth had slipped from under my feet, the universe seemed in disarray. Joys and smiles were wrapped up in a shroud and buried in the soul’s grave. Stories and verses made no sense. I did not want to do anything, write anything, be anything (Sarna, xv).
Those who had witnessed the bloodshed were overweighed by its impact to the effect that the creative energies refused them. The times had impacted the psyche of the witnesses and the survivors. To have survived, was perhaps, more difficult than to have died. The survivors continued with a guilt of having survived, having killed their own people, of not being able to control the situation and to be embroiled in remembering the past that perhaps, seemed to be the most difficult thing to do. My 99-year-old grandfather, Harbans Singh, who moved from Kahuta (in Rawalpindi district, now in Pakistan) to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh refrains from narrating the events of partition and refuses to authenticate several accounts that he had narrated to us in the past. He refuses to return to those unpleasant memories at this age though he acknowledges that he has seen innumerable people being killed and murdered. On my inquiry about the past, he suggests that there is no need to remember, “…the past is done and over, focus on the present” (Singh. “Interview”). Having said that, he walked away only to return after two-days and talk again of whatever he remembers. What the third generations (like us) produce is a “memory of another memory”.  Harbans Singh’s memory fails him, yet he remembers what he voluntarily wishes to forget. This attempt at forgetting is primarily a refusal to remember that which is unpleasant and disturbing. The whole operation of recalling and forgetting is an “enigma” as suggested by Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur examines forgetting in terms of happy memory and unhappy memory. He says:
For meditating memory…forgetting remains both a paradox and an enigma. A paradox,… how can we speak of forgetting except in terms of the memory of forgetting, as this is authorized and sanctioned by the return and the recognition of the “thing” forgotten? Otherwise, we would not know that we have forgotten. An enigma, because we do not know, in a phenomenological sense, whether forgetting is only an impediment to evoking and recovering the “lost time,” or whether it results from the unavoidable wearing away “by” time of the traces left in us by past events in the form of original affections. To solve the enigma, we would have not only to uncover and to free the absolute ground of forgetting against which the memories “saved from oblivion” stand out, but also to articulate this non-knowledge concerning the absolute ground of forgetting on the basis of external knowledge—in particular, that of the neurological and cognitive sciences—of mnestic traces. (30)
Whether forgetting is a voluntarily act or unintentional wearing of age with time, one thing is sure that Harbans Singh refuses to revisit the unpleasant experiences. At the same time, he lives through the same experiences that may have haunted him for years and recalls them. In a way remembering and forgetting are corresponding acts with him as he continues to return to his past and locates me to narrate his remembrances of the past, of the relatives he has not seen in years and of his aloofness and alienation in the present city of Shimla away from his family members in Patiala and Chandigarh.
This query raises some fundamental questions as to “Why remember?” | “Why should the present be effected by the past?” and “What does remembering contributes too?” It would be appropriate to quote Suvir Kaul at this point who opines:
…our memories of Partition are fragmented and painful. Yet Partition and its known and unknown legacies have played, and continue to play, important roles in the constitution of collective identity and thinking in India. In spite of the efforts of a number of writers and filmmakers the work of some scholars and analysts, we remain a national culture, uncertain and anxious about the place of Partition in our recent history. In many ways, Partition remains the unspoken horror of our time (3).
Therefore, the impression of partition in constituting our present cannot be overlooked. Thus, remembering and revoking the past so that it never repeats itself is extremely essential. Ruchika Sharma opines that in the Post-Independence era “women’s bodies did not just represent their communities, but also the new nation” (The Wire). Also, how the new generations live with these memories and how they become “a part of …family’s lived history, and mentality” (Sharma, The Wire).
India has not been witness to a single partition but many partitions. The state conundrums around borders like Haryana-Punjab, Gurgaon-Delhi, or Karnataka-Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand-Bihar, Uttarakhand-UP, Chhattisgarh-MP and now the newly bifurcated Telangana-Andhra Pradesh have their own tales to tell and even though one continues to be in modern India such disputes have not gone without experiences of protests, violence and riots. The memories of the past can never be erased as the present is dependent on what has happened in the past. The past also provides lessons to be learnt from, so that the future can be secured but unfortunately that seldom happens.
The present-day discourse of the nation relies much on differences on various parameters ranging from communal to linguistic and regional. The communal differences may have been old and even before the colonial period but the larger differences apparently visible in the present were largely affirmed with the differences created during the colonial rule and at the time of partition. The communal identities confirmed themselves largely during the tension in 1947. With this emerged a rigid sense of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other identities. Somehow, those differences have continued over years and our present, 70 years after, still projects them. Sabiha Farhat in an essay – Partitioning “Us” and “Them”: The Politics of Othering – brings out “how Partitions act upon one’s physicality and psychology.” She talks about the impact of staying on the border of Gurgaon and Delhi and living on with this complexity, where she continuously experiences the confusion caused by the divide in Modern India. She appropriately explains the relationship of borders and partitions as follows:
Borders and partitions define each other. To me their essence is negative, at least in the human world. I wonder if there are places where one would willingly embrace partitions – of mine or space. Why do we keep the partitions alive if they are painful? Why don’t we bury the past and move on? Why do they become a wound that refuses to heal? What would it take to heal these wounds so that no scars are left, so that awe can move on free and unhindered? (Farhat).
She further brings out the complexity of carrying a name of a minority community in a country that seems to be more polarized and compartmentalized.
The sliding away of the minorities in a country that wears the garb of a secular nation seems to be compromising the existence of the diverse groups than accepting their right and the willingness to be a part of an integrated nation whose strength lies in the slogan “Unity in diversity”. Would these slogans continue as hollow words or do we mean to keep struggling to find the spirit of these words even after 70 years of Independence and Freedom?

[i] See 1947 partition archive :
Works Cited:
·         Bhavnani, Nandita. “Property, Violence, and Displacement.” Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture, and Politics. Eds. Amritjit Singh, Nalini Iyer, and Rahul K. Gairola. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2016.
·         Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Gurgaon: Penguin Books, 1998.
·         Farhat, Sabiha. “Partitioning “Us” and “Them”: The Politics of Othering”. Café Dissensus. Issue 38.
·         Kaul, Suvir. (Ed.) The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2001.
·         Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
·         Sarna, Mohinder Singh. Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition. Trans. Navtej Sarna. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2013.
·         Sharma, Ruchika. “Coming to Terms with my Grandparents’ Trauma of Partition” The Wire. 14 Aug, 2017.  Accessed: 15 Aug, 2017 <>
·         Singh, Harbans. Interview with Ishmeet Kaur. 15 May, 2017. 19:15 hrs. Shimla.
·         “70 years on, Scars Remain- On Body and Soul” Times of India. 14 Aug, 2017, 6. Accessed: 14 Aug, 2017. <>

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