The Partition Museum: Opening up about the pain

This piece was originally published by The National.

Phulkari coat & briefcase, and water pot
A traditional embroidered pulkhari coat and a water pot carried by a family fleeing Pakistan. Photo courtesy of the Partition Museum

January 11, 2018

In July 1947, British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe was ordered to travel to India, which at that time was under colonial rule. After two decades of increasingly violent struggle, India had won its independence but amid rising calls for a Muslim state, the British agreed that the territory would be divided, keeping India primarily for the Hindus and Sikhs and also creating Pakistan, an independent Muslim country.

Radcliffe, who had never visited India before, had one month to decide where the line between the two countries should be drawn. When his decision was made public on August 17, millions found themselves on the wrong side of the border.

There was a bloodbath. While disputed, it was estimated that more than a million people were massacred and between 12 and 18 million displaced in what is thought to be the largest mass migration of all time.

Now, at the world’s first museum dedicated to exploring the history of Partition, an entire gallery offers insights into Radcliffe’s thought process. His decision was ultimately made by drawing a line on a map – he had never visited the places involved.

For decades, survivors of Partition were surrounded by a “veil of silence”, explains Mallika Ahluwalia, the Partition Museum’s chief executive, co-founder and curator. But in recent years, several cultural and story-driven projects have started to shed light on their memories and experiences.

The most prominent of these is the Partition Museum, which opened on August 17, 2017 – the 70th anniversary of the atrocity. It is located in Amritsar, a north Indian town in the state of Punjab, which was itself divided in two.

“This is the first memorial museum in the world and we felt that it was very important that it should be in Punjab, because Punjab was the most impacted, unfortunately, in terms of death and migration,” explains Ahluwalia, who is the grandchild of a Partition survivor and along with three others set up the museum.

Just 30 minutes from the border, Amritsar witnessed some of the worst unrest and violence. When the line was drawn dividing India from Pakistan, it was cut off from its sister city Lahore, which is located 50 kilometres away across the border. “Had Partition not happened they would probably be the same city today, just because of urban sprawl,” says Ahluwalia. “We have a number of oral histories from people who say, ‘I used to cycle down to go to the dentist, or we’d go to see a movie’, and of course now that’s not possible.”

The museum is housed in the Town Hall, an imposing building built by the British in the late-19th century.

Spread across more than 10 galleries over two floors, it charts the run-up to Partition, the violence that marked its announcement, and its tragic aftermath. It starts with the growth of the freedom struggle and its roots in the brutality of British rule.

Newspaper clippings, posters and videos of speeches cover the growth of the independence movement and the first calls for a Muslim state, along with personal documents like letters and diaries. Although the historical background is arranged chronologically, cases hold donated objects carried by refugees, foreshadowing the horrific events to come.

“They are either very practical objects that people carried with them when they were fleeing, like a trunk, a water pot or a lock, or they’re very emotional objects… so a wedding sari, a favourite dress, a father’s pocket watch,” says Ahluwalia. “Then there are also the post-Partition objects, like the refugee cards… the citizenship cards they were issued, especially in Bengal.”

One of the largest rooms, dedicated to stories of flight and communal violence, is dominated by a black-and-white film showing trains carrying refugees. Periodically, the mournful wail of the train’s horn fills the room, providing a haunting soundtrack to tales of loss and the photographs of displacement and death.

According to the museum’s research, in October 1947, 570,000 refugees crossed from India into Pakistan and 471,000 left Pakistan for India in a single week, according to one estimate. In Punjab alone, between 200,000 and one million people were massacred. Trains travelling between Amritsar and Lahore left the stations with refugees balanced on the roof beside piles of baggage, or sandwiched between carriages clutching their children. By the time they arrived, everyone was dead.

Harrowing black-and-white photographs by American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White show corpses covering the train tracks, amid attacks and reprisals that led to bloody massacres on both sides of the new border.

Those who didn’t take the train walked in lines stretching for miles. Thousands died of exhaustion, starvation and disease. One of the donated objects in the museum is a photograph of a young mother holding her infant daughter. In a video filmed decades later she explains the photo was all she had left after her baby was lost to Partition.

One of the most moving parts of the museum is a display dedicated to recounting the disproportionate suffering of women. Hundreds of thousands were raped and killed or abducted, while others were murdered by their own families or chose to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of rampaging gangs.

In a series of video testimonies, daughters recall overhearing their fathers discussing how best to kill them, should they come under attack. In one village, more than 80 women threw themselves into a well to evade capture. An installation recreates the well in the centre of the gallery, a length of scarf covered with phulkari – traditional Punjabi embroidery –trailing over its rim.

The Partition Museum was set up as a non-profit organisation registered with the Indian government and it recounts primarily the Indian experience. Of dozens of aural and video testimonies, less than 10 share the perspectives of Pakistanis who fled India. It’s an understandable limitation but one that the museum would benefit from rectifying.

To this end, Ahluwalia hopes to work with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a Lahore-based organisation with a large collection of oral testimonies that could help to provide more diverse perspectives.

Ahluwalia is not the only grandchild of a Partition survivor to dedicate her life to documenting its stories. Guneeta Singh Bhalla was raised in the United States by Indian parents, the offspring of Partition survivors. When she was a teenager, her grandmother shared her story. It left Bhalla shocked with the realisation that the realities of Partition were nothing like the dry accounts she had read about.

A few years later, while studying for her PhD, she travelled to Hiroshima where she visited the oral history archives. “I was very deeply moved,” she recalls. “I realised that’s what was missing from Partition: we didn’t have the human stories.”

Bhalla began interviewing survivors, first on a visit to Punjab and then in California. Soon, she couldn’t keep up. Student volunteers started helping her to record video testimonies, and in 2008 she left her job as a physicist to move to Delhi and work full-time on the 1947 Partition Archive.

To date, it has recorded the testimonies of more than 4,000 people, with another 600 waiting to share their stories. Although there were books and films about the Partition, Bhalla’s oral history project was the first of its kind. Over the past decade it has played a crucial role in breaking the silence around Partition and encouraging survivors to share their stories.

With more than 500 volunteers, who work in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and nine other countries, the archive has a broad focus, featuring the stories of people from a wide range of backgrounds, in multiple languages. The youngest volunteer recording testimonies is 13, Bhalla says, and the oldest is 87, himself a Partition survivor. Some of the older recordings include the memories of people who participated in the violence, adding an important element to the historical record.

“A lot of them have put an embargo on their stories for 50 years or until the end of their lifetimes,” says Bhalla.

Interestingly, many of the projects have been started by the grandchildren of survivors, rather than by their children. Bhalla theorises that this is because there is more emotional distance between the generations, which helps to break down barriers. Born and raised to identify as Indian or Pakistani, however, the younger generations are also more prejudiced against one another than those who recall an India undivided.

This lack of enmity between Partition survivors was one of the things that most surprised 22-year-old Sandeep Dutt and 19-year-old Faisal Hayat, who last year began working on their own project to document Partition stories, a Facebook page called Bolti Khidki – The Speaking Window. Unusually, theirs is a joint Indian-Pakistani effort. Dutt is from Ludhiana, an Indian town near Amritsar, while Hayat lives in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

The two met through a Facebook page and became friends. Although they have never met in person, they are clearly close, joking with each other on Skype as they tell their story.

Last year, Dutt decided to take Urdu lessons and discovered that his teacher was originally from Sargodha, the town in Pakistan where Hayat was born. Hayat’s grandmother, meanwhile, had fled to Sargodha from Amritsar. The sense that the two had swapped places inspired Dutt and Hayat to start collecting stories of others displaced by Partition.

“Let me tell you what amazes us about these stories. People of my generation are keyboard warriors,” says Dutt.

“Any place [online], you’ll find Indians and Pakistanis hating each other and spitting venom. But these people, who lost their homes, who lost their loved ones, still speak the language of love. None of them have grudges.”

Several of the duo’s audio recordings are included in the Partition Museum, representing views from Pakistan. Hayat, who has faced criticism over his friendship with Dutt, says the project has altered his world view.

“I am an army brat and this project has totally changed my personality and my perspective,” he says. “We became the voice of the unheard and that was the best thing I’ve known.”

Bolti Khidki is inspiring because of the cross-border friendship at its heart. “To prove my patriotism for my country, I don’t need to hate Pakistanis,” says Dutt. “I don’t need to hate Faisal. He’s such a nice guy… Why would I hate him? I love my country. He loves his country. And if we seriously want to do something for our countries, if we want no war, then we need to build bridges of peace.”

Projects like the museum and oral history archives have a historical focus, but the growth of discussion around the topic is also inspiring cultural productions with an emotional approach. Singer Sonam Kalra, another grandchild of a Partition survivor, is currently touring Asia with a live multimedia performance entitled Partition: Stories of Separation, inspired by a verse by Punjabi poet Ustad Daman with the refrain, “The redness in our eyes shows that you have cried and so have we.”

“I wanted to talk of our shared history and most importantly, our shared grief – the pain on both sides,” Kalra explains. “The pain of tearing a country apart. The pain of displacement and being separated from one’s family and friends. The pain of, overnight, losing everything, not belonging and becoming a refugee. And through talking about it using music, theatre, video and art, I hope for a more peaceful future and dialogue between the two countries.”

Kalra’s songs are punctuated with films from the 1947 Partition Archive. One harrowing interview features an elderly Sikh man who wails with sorrow as he recalls witnessing his father chop off his sister’s head with his sword.

The raw pain and horror of these memories is offset by the beauty of Kalra’s music, and happier stories recounted by actress Salima Raza, such as the tale of a brother and sister separated in 1947, who found each other decades later and built a relationship across the border.

After each performance, members of the audience are given a blank postcard and asked to write a message to the other side, beginning with the words: “When we meet… ”

“When we meet, I will tell you my father still dreams that his friends play with the toys he left behind,” began one, displayed on a board outside a performance in Mumbai in December.

“When we meet, we will discover once again that we are all the same and the borders of our minds will vanish forever,” says another.

Echoing these sentiments of peace, the final gallery of the Partition Museum is filled with stories of resilience and of survivors going home to be greeted with joy by old neighbours.

“Though we take people through this very difficult journey that a refugee would have gone through at that time, we did want to make sure that we ended on a note of hope,” explains Ahluwalia.

In the centre of the room stands a tree made of barbed wire, its trunk twisted and jagged, its branches bare. Visitors are invited to write positive messages on green paper leaves and hang them on the tree, slowly bringing it back to life. For those who witnessed Partition, the museum represents an acknowledgement that their suffering has not been forgotten.

“They’re in their 70s, 80s, 90s,” notes Ahluwalia. “We wanted in their lifetime that they should know this physical space exists and that it remembers and hears them.”

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