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.
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