Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Partitions past and present

Updated Mar 18, 2015 10:06am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

It has been called one of the “greatest convulsions in human history”. With millions on the move and hundreds of thousands killed (the official British figure stands at 200,000 but Indian and Pakistani estimates are in the millions), it is unsurprising that South Asia is still reverberating from the consequences of that massive displacement.

However, while Partition, its tragedies and triumphs, its crushing cost to communities and to culture, even its absurdity (think Saadat Hassan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh) has been memorialised in literature and film, there are fewer efforts to capture its impact on the ordinary migrant.

The cost incurred by this omission is only now becoming apparent. With the generation that actually experienced Partition dying and amounting to ever dwindling numbers, their stories too are threatened with extinction.

Read: Murder, rape and shattered families: 1947 Partition Archive effort underway

The 1947 Partition Archive, a project initiated by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, who operates out of the University of California in Berkeley, attempts to stem just this tide of time and its accompanying erasures. Inspired by the oral histories of survivors carried and archived at the Hiroshima Memorial in Japan, Bhalla has already collected more than 2,000 histories from survivors of Partition; her goal is to have 10,000 by 2017. The urgency of the task is crucial; Bhalla believes that in the next five years, the vast majority of Partition survivors will be gone or unable to tell their stories. Using the labour of volunteer interviewers in a variety of countries, the project has collected stories from nine different countries.

With the generation that actually experienced Partition dwindling, stories of their migration are threatened with extinction.

Several of the stories collected by the project are featured on its website. Spread over a map of South Asia, the stories are marked by the places where the migrants originated. One such story is that of Leela Mamtani, 15 years old at the time of Partition and living in Nawabshah, Sindh. In her childhood, Leela lived in a large haveli, which had a number of secret cupboards, called hooris, in which the family hid their valuables. Even as the politics of the British departure from the subcontinent escalated, Leela does not remember poor relations between the Hindus and Muslims of the community. However, as the demand for Partition transformed from a campaign to a political reality, conditions grew worse. By December 1947, Leela remembers many nights in which the family’s house was pelted with stones. The family left, making their way to Karachi, where they boarded a ship for Kuch Bhuj in Gujarat.

At the same time, Inayat Ali Taj was 11 years old and living in Udaipur in Rajasthan. When Maharaj Bhopal Singh reluctantly gave up his throne to the government of India, chaos broke out in the city. The government took over the Taj family’s house and gave it to Hindu refugees arriving from Sindh.

Suddenly, the family had no place to live and was forced to leave. His father put them on the Dwarka, a ship to Karachi. He himself took another route to try and ensure that someone from the family survived. They did, but the maternal side of his family stayed on; his maternal grandfather said he would live and die on the land that his family had held for generations. In this way, the two sides now lay separated by a new border.

The stories are numerous and heartrending, each representing the peculiar calculation that injustice inflicted on either side would somehow together amount to a semblance of justice. Within the details, of course, as is captured by the stories being collected, there are drastic and even cruel approximations. One family voluntarily leaves and arrives relatively unscathed, able to transport all its riches and set up again in a new land. Another is forced to leave penniless, losing loved ones and remaining forever scarred. Such perhaps is the arithmetic of history and the unthinking costs it places on those who have to endure and those who come after.

One would think that with such momentous migration attached to the very fact of Pakistan’s birth, the movement of people, the possibility of creating new communities, that a certain pliability of place would become ingrained in our national psyche. This of course has not been the case. Now that Partition has receded far enough in memory, most will nod in assent when considering the importance of preserving its varied narrative.

The thought of applying similar care or concern to the migrations of now is not one Pakistan can in its present moment digest easily. The waves of other migrations, from what is now Bangladesh, have not yet, it seems, become distant enough to be valued without acrimony.

Then there are the even more unloved: the migrations of now. Just as the 1947 project is collecting stories of that original fateful severing, Pakistan’s internally displaced, the near million that have been rendered homeless owing to security operations in North Waziristan, are due to begin their own journeys home. While much has been said about the demographic changes and consequent conflict that their displacement has wrought, there has been no thought on collecting their narratives or imagining any sort of cultural assimilation for those who return or for those who choose not to do so.

The truths of migration are harsh ones; places never stay the same and the village once left can, owing to the vagaries of time and conflict, be lost forever. Those that moved at Partition have never returned, can never return. The million on the march in Pakistan now, armed with the hopes of rebuilding and the faith that return requires, may find that the home they seek, is also unreachable, taken away by distance and absence. Perhaps someone will collect a few of their recollections as well, so that the displaced of now can have their place in the record of a nation that began with migration.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2015

On a mobile phone? Get the Dawn Mobile App: Apple Store | Google Play

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (35) Closed

Nidderacalling Mar 18, 2015 02:19am

It makes one sad to read the stories of people who left homes where their forefathers lived for centuries and move to a place which they did not know at all, except that it was Muslim. But the story does not end with the migration after partition. WE saw the breakup of Pakistan and although both parts were Muslim, realised that only religion is not enough to remain united. But we have also seen in Turkey where the kurds, although Muslim would like nothing better than part from Turkey. For me the lesson is that only respecting each other and following democratic values unites people. Nothing else.

Nathan Mar 18, 2015 03:08am

Amazing work! Browsing through the archive site, seems thorough.

Harmony Mar 18, 2015 04:51am

Its a praiseworthy project initiated by Guneeta Singh Bhalla. It would remain in the annals of history - commendable!

Bachabassi Mar 18, 2015 05:28am

Unfortunate event.

chandran Mar 18, 2015 06:25am

What an irony! Displacement of people from there home due to lack of social security arisen out of futile ideology,extremism, nepotism,individual ambitions,terrorism,jingoism of superiority race, etc. get unnoticed on our peninsula. From 1947 to date this curse is going on. No one is identified accountable ? History has elevated those who are responsible for the sufferings . Hatred and distrust is made to migrate from generation to gerations! Denied reality feed on hatred. It is a make believe world that trust hatred and revenge to undo the sufferings.But what about the master minds that planted the seeds of suffering.? History continue to elevate them !!!!

Shahid Mar 18, 2015 06:50am

Although it is still considered a taboo in Pakistan, it will be interesting to have a debate about the pros and cons of the 1947 partition. We have the founder of the nation aiming for a secular state while many other insisting that the sole goal of the partition was to establish an Islamic state where Sharia rules supreme (as enshrined in our constitution). A related topic I would like to see our historian take up is what made people mortal enemies of their neighbours with whom they had lived in harmony for generations.

DR. SHAZIA Mar 18, 2015 07:43am

It's extremely invaluable that we document our grandparents or great-grandparents experiences when they immigrated from India to Pakistan during the Partition. As the researcher emphasis too many of those who can remember the holocaust imposed upon South Asians by the Brits will all soon disappear if not documented.

Some of us have asked relatives to record audio diaries in order to have some first hand memories of our elder's experiences during those cataclysmic times.

Patriot Mar 18, 2015 08:26am

Rafia thanks for sharing this was my dream work. I want to know from the Muslims of India why they fought for Pakistan when they knew it was far from their home

zak Mar 18, 2015 08:50am

Religion is the cause of partition , religion serves no good purpose other than bringing in violence , tragedy and deaths.

ss Mar 18, 2015 09:20am

Partition is one of the saddest moment in both countries history..not about having achieved it...but the cost incurred....unimaginable liss and grief...there was surely a better way to have done it....the British did it fast and furious before people on both sides could realise....guess that's what aggravated the situation all the more.....and some mobsters willfully created mayhem.....

Sajad Padder Mar 18, 2015 09:52am

Hope the oral histores of divided Kashmiries across LoC also figure in Ms Guneeta Singh Bhalla's 'Partition Archive'.

BHUK Mar 18, 2015 10:29am

I am writing a story novel on agonies of partition and power politics of supper powers.i will welcome any contributions though dawn.

dawn reader Mar 18, 2015 10:34am

It was partition of punjab mostly not India because the whole punjab was coming to Pakistan due to huge Muslim population but Nehru told British India need its bread too that's how punjab partition turned deadly. The rest of pakistan today was not part of India but rather part of British India because under British rule balochistan and Khyber pakhtunkhwa came under British control more like they borrowed this land from Afghanistan per Durand Line treaty. Sindh was the first Pakistan and Karachi was it's capital.

R.Kannan Mar 18, 2015 10:37am

Partition was a big tragedy and affected millions. The issue is how to ensure that another tragedy does not occur in our life time or in future. The British rulers in 1940s encouraged the partition as they desired to break up the nation into several small states to avoid the emergence of a large nation capable of becoming the preeminent nation in the world. The tragedy is the present ruling elite also works to repeat the same story

khanm Mar 18, 2015 10:51am

It is an interesting article..specially this particular sentence... "greatest convulsions in human history".... it is not the history as yet cos the convulsion and all those heinous events you have described in your article are still happening, day in and day out. how i wish if we could put this behind us and move on.. we like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past....even the future i see nothing but darkness..

Gurdaspur to Islamabad Mar 18, 2015 11:04am

Short story of my native district Gurdaspur, not to forget. Thousands of people migrated leaving behind many painful stories.

"During the partition of India in 1947, the future of Gurdaspur could not be decided for many days, as the majority of the population of this district, 51.14% was Muslim. The Radcliffe boundary awards transferred only Shakargarh Tehsil of the Gurdaspur district to Pakistan. The rest of the district was transferred to India. The Muslim population of the district migrated to Pakistan. Many refugees, the Hindus and the Sikhs of Sialkot and Tehsil Shakargarh, migrated to Gurdaspur after crossing the Ravi bridge. They settled and spread throughout Gurdaspur district. Kashmir in 1948."

Abhishek Singh Mar 18, 2015 11:42am

I born in an Independent India but I can feel the pains of millions of Indians and Pakistanis when they left everything. For me it's very hard to leave my current job and they left their everything..Home, city, state, country and beautiful memories...It was very hard time to Indian and Pakistanis..We salute to people who faced that crucial time and give condolence to all that millions of people..But Time teaches everyone to live, Varna koi ladka aaj Milkha Singh nahi banta..Jai Hind ! Jai Bharat !

Dr. Siddiqui Mar 18, 2015 12:27pm

Narrative is a recycling of old work! Nothing new! All this has been reported so many times!

Nasir islam Mar 18, 2015 12:43pm

Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed has collected a lot of stories and anecdotes in his monumental work on partition. I lived through it. I was 10 years old. My family survived due to the kindness of a Sikh colleague of my father. We witnessed a lot of tragic events and yet luckily escaped the most brutal experiences the other families faced on both sides of the border. The Hindu / Muslim politicians did no t foresee the ethnic cleansing that would ensue the Declaration of Independence, particularly in Panjab.

Iqbal Mar 18, 2015 01:35pm

Finally that generation is gone and we can move forward. Hopefully next generation would not have the same hiccups as the partition generation.

rehan Mar 18, 2015 01:51pm

I think we should stop looking at 1947 as a "tragedy" . Freedom comes at a huge cost and to look at our freedom as some sort of tragic incident that should never have happened is a mistake. We need to remember the sacrifices our ancestors made and value our freedom. Obviously no Indian wants Pakistan to remain intact but the world is hardly revolving around India .

Tahir A Mar 18, 2015 02:11pm

Why don't we have the likes of Guneeta Bhalla doing something about the plight of minorities in Pakistan. While the situation during partition was a s result of political blunder and shortsightedness, the killing of innocent people belonging to minority communities in a republic is an act of homicide which is happening in open daylight and goes unpunished.

ashok Mar 18, 2015 03:05pm

@Sajad Padder You are talking of displaced Kashmiri Pandits who have been made to migrate by a fanatic community?

E,Somapalan Mar 18, 2015 04:29pm

@Iqbal Even the history cannot be wished away. History repeats itself and we should understand what is going to to repeat. Rafia Zakaria has done a good job and one should study something from the past

Sadiq Ali Bohra Mar 18, 2015 05:42pm

Hope that what is left from this bitter past is just the collection of memories. May people on both sides of border just get the strength to move forward with that!

Bal K. Gupta Mar 18, 2015 06:21pm


Good idea. My eye witness account "Forgotten Atrocities: Memoirs of A Survivor of the 1947 Partition of India" might help you.

Bal K. Gupta

Bal K. Gupta Mar 18, 2015 07:55pm

@dawn reader

It was also partition of Jammu and Kashmir. You can read my eye witness account "Forgotten Atrocities: Memoirs of a Survivor of the 1947 Partition of India". Also see my story on Mirpur on the map of "1947 Partition Archives" website.

Bal K. Gupta

Bal K. Gupta Mar 18, 2015 08:03pm

@Nasir islam

Is Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed alive? If so, please forward him information about my eye witness account " Forgotten Atrocities: Memoirs of a Survivor of the 1947 Partition of India".

Bal K. Gupta

Syed Chishti Mar 18, 2015 09:25pm

Don't let history of 1971 repeat itself. No one will benefit from it. Except that center will be further weakened. Partition was in benefit of Muslims, any further loss to federations integrity will be irreparable loss. Those who will consider themselves winner will be made subservient to the hegemony of the arch enemy.

Read the course of events of the ethnically divided countries of the world, and all should understand where we are heading. We can still stop all this by rising above the frey and think in unison for the sake of sovereignty of the Pakistani nation.

Bal K. Gupta Mar 19, 2015 02:32am

@Sajad Padder

See my story on Mirpur on the map of "1947 Partition Archives" website. You can also read my eye witness account "Forgotten Atrocities: Memoirs of a Survivor of the 1947 Partition of India".

Bal K. Gupta

Indi Mar 19, 2015 02:39am

This catastrophe mainly affected Punjab and Bengal. Some extend to UP & Bihar. Negligible on rest of India. Why KP, Baluchistan & south india take the burden.

Antony SV Vigilious Clement Mar 19, 2015 05:31pm

Good Article

A trusted Muslim Mar 19, 2015 05:47pm

@Syed Chishti

Sindh and Frontier are in the pipeline

Syed Chishti Mar 19, 2015 08:50pm

@Indi Ignorance is not an approach for individuals and collectively as a nation to respond to prevalent internal and external threats particularly disowning the burden of responsibility.

yawsep Mar 20, 2015 08:20pm

@dawn reader sindh and punjab was craddle of indian culture later it was amalgated with islamic culture..later it was taken by ideologically irrevelent pakistan..which is culturally , lingustically (punjab and sindh) and ethinically can find a greater difference bwtween south indians and north indians than with pakisthan..