The Legacy of Partition

Personal narratives - distinct from nationalist histories - can heal the wounds of partition

The 1947 Partition is undoubtedly one of the most momentous events in history, not only in terms of administrative dismantling, but it also resulted in large scale displacements and the mass killings of people. It was a holocaust and one of the largest forced movements of people. We cannot minimize Partition’s legacy. Wars were fought because of this decision. One land was split into two nations, and then three in 1971. Many of today’s problems in the South Asian subcontinent are rooted in Partition.

The importance of recording witness stories of Partition cannot be overstated. These are sources of human experience in a time of dramatic crisis and great loss and instability. The Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto and many others have written about it. Individual memories of displacement, the experience of violence, and the loss of kith and kin are extremely important to document. It was a holocaust, yet it has not had a great deal of documentation. One would be surprised at the few memorials of Partition that exist today.

It is critically important to bring the human dimension into Partition. People, depending on where they lived, their religious background, and numerous other conditions had to respond to this event in different ways. Many people found themselves on the wrong side of the border and were forced to migrate. As we know, the line of Partition was drawn in great haste, and thus suddenly, people of the minority religious community found themselves under attack by members of the majority. Families were divided. The events of Partition have permanently scarred the psyche of the subcontinent. There is no continuing problem that doesn’t hark back to Partition whether it is environmental, political, or communitarian. One has to know that Partition impacted people differently based on region, class, and also the urban/rural divide. Punjab and Bengal also experienced Partition differently. For Punjab, the movement of people was much more sudden and the changes were dramatic. For Bengal, the movement was more staggered, and change manifested over time. All of these experiences are extremely important to record.

One is left pondering over the human tragedy that was incurred by this largely arbitrary decision. The impact of that decision, which was made on a whim by the leaders to divide the country, tends to get normalized or underplayed in the histories that are taught to us. These human stories show us that the impact of this decision cannot be overlooked. Through these individual stories, we learn of certain narratives that go against the idea of the usual communal divisions, such as stories of friends and neighbors who helped each other, despite their religious identities. I can’t say if these stories can tell us why Partition happened the way it did, or if they can give us answers, however, it is certain that the more you read the personal narratives, the more it becomes apparent that we need to hear these stories, as they are important to our understanding of Partition. We cannot consider the nationalist histories of post-colonial nation-states as our only sources of understanding.

I hope that more narratives are exchanged across the great divide that will bring about empathy, rather than erecting walls of separation. These personal, apolitical narratives have the potential to initiate a healing process, which the subcontinent sorely needs.

Dr. Ayesha Jalal is a Pakistani-American historian, and a professor of history at Tufts University.