His­to­ri­ans race to pre­serve dy­ing mem­o­ries of par­ti­tion

Within the tales of sense­less bru­tal­ity emerge sto­ries of love and hope

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

Par­ti­tion etched a deep fis­sure in the re­gion and threw mil­lions of Hin­dus, Mus­lims and Sikhs on the road to their new home­land

Sit­ting in her Karachi home, Jamshed Ja­han Ara looks straight into the cam­era as she ex­plains in a trem­bling voice how her fam­ily fled In­dia dur­ing Par­ti­tion in 1947.

Just six years old when she boarded an over­crowded train bound for the newly-cre­ated Mus­lim state of Pak­istan, Ara re­calls watch­ing armed Sikhs ap­proach - then hear­ing her fa­ther tell her brother to kill the women of the fam­ily if the con­voy was at­tacked.

“One is my wife, an­other is my sis­ter and one is my daugh­ter,” she re­calls him say­ing. “‘So, dear, be a man. I can’t shoot them. You must kill all three and we will fight (the Sikhs) till the last be­fore we sur­ren­der’.”

“I asked, ‘Why would Neeam kill me. I have done noth­ing wrong’,” the 76 year old tells the cam­era, emo­tion flood­ing her face as she re­mem­bered her fa­ther’s re­ply: ‘A bul­let is bet­ter (than be­ing cap­tured)’.

On both sides of the bor­der that di­vided the sub­con­ti­nent 70 years ago, his­to­ri­ans are rac­ing to record the ac­counts of the last liv­ing wit­nesses to one of the largest, dead­li­est hu­man mi­gra­tions of all time.

In Au­gust 1947 the Bri­tish Raj was dis­man­tled, cre­at­ing a newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia - though with chunks of its west­ern and east­ern re­gions hur­riedly am­pu­tated to cre­ate Pak­istan.

Par­ti­tion etched a deep fis­sure in the re­gion and threw mil­lions of Hin­dus, Mus­lims and Sikhs on the road to their new home­land.

Six thou­sand kilo­me­tres of new bor­ders were drawn in just five weeks. Fif­teen mil­lion peo­ple up­rooted. En­tire vil­lages mas­sa­cred. Tens of thou­sands of women kid­napped and raped. Pos­si­bly as many as two mil­lion lives lost.

But be­hind those statis­tics are the sto­ries of the men and women who lived through that his­toric mo­ment, the legacy of which still de­fines re­la­tions in South Asia.

In Pak­istan’s south­ern me­trop­o­lis of Karachi, stu­dents and vol­un­teers are tran­scrib­ing frag­ments of oral his­tory col­lected across the coun­try by the Ci­ti­zen Ar­chives of Pak­istan.

“His­tory for the long­est amount of time has been lim­ited to the peo­ple who were the rulers or the win­ners but his­tory has a larger scope. It has in­di­vid­u­als who get af­fected. It has cul­tures that get af­fected,” said Aliya Tayyabi, di­rec­tor of the ar­chives.

Race against time

Sukhwant Kaur (78) had al­ways strug­gled to find the words to ex­plain her fam­ily’s ter­ri­fy­ing es­cape to the In­dian side of the bor­der.

Sit­ting in her home in Am­rit­sar in north In­dia, the grand­mother can still re­call with star­tling clar­ity the hor­rors she wit­nessed as a child of eight.

A mother ask­ing her son to drown her in a river. A small pond with corpses float­ing in it that was the only place to find wa­ter. A woman cut­ting the um­bil­i­cal cord of her new­born child with the only thing she could find - a stick of su­gar cane.

“I feel much lighter in­side hav­ing dared to ex­plain all this,” said Kaur.

It is sto­ries like Kaur’s that, for sev­eral years now, or­gan­i­sa­tions on both sides of the bor­der in­clud­ing the Ci­ti­zen Ar­chives of Pak­istan, the Am­rit­sar Par­ti­tion Mu­seum and the 1947 Par­ti­tion Archive have been hur­ry­ing to record and digi­tise.

“That gen­er­a­tion is leav­ing us,” said Mal­lika Ah­luwalia, di­rec­tor of the newly cre­ated Par­ti­tion Mu­seum. “There’s this real sense of ur­gency.”

The projects are also seek­ing to trans­form that volatile pe­riod into more than just a chap­ter in a school text­book.

In Pun­jab, which saw some of the worst vi­o­lence of 1947, the Par­ti­tion Mu­seum en­listed the help of a dozen high school stu- dents from Am­rit­sar.

Few fam­i­lies liv­ing around Am­rit­sar, just 30km from Pak­istan, es­caped Par­ti­tion un­touched. The teenagers were told to find three sto­ries from the pe­riod from amongst their rel­a­tives.

“While in­ter­view­ing them, im­ages were form­ing in front of my eyes. It was a painful ex­pe­ri­ence, I al­most felt the pain that they were go­ing through at that time,” said 16 year old stu­dent Aniket Bha­tia.

Fel­low stu­dent Ra­hat Sandhu burst into tears as she heard the story of a sur­vivor whose baby sis­ter was aban­doned on the side of the road be­cause no one could carry her.

“He cried, and I cried too,” said Sandhu. “The kind of en­ergy they put into their words, the kind of bond we shared for that time, for 15 min­utes, is in­ex­pli­ca­ble.”

‘Your bias breaks’

But within the tales of des­per­ate de­ci­sions and sense­less bru­tal­ity emerge sto­ries of love and hope.

“So many peo­ple who made it across, made it across be­cause of the kind­ness of a friend, of a neigh­bour, of some­body who worked with them and in many cases even a stranger,” said Ah­luwalia of the Par­ti­tion Mu­seum.

Sur­vivors’ ac­counts also of­fer ob­jec­tiv­ity from those who suf­fered most, says Aleena Mash­hood of the Oral His­tory Project - an in­creas­ingly valu­able per­spec­tive as time goes on.

“They say some­thing like, that wasn’t us Mus­lims who suf­fered, it was also the Hin­dus who suf­fered,” she said. “Your bias breaks.”

In Am­rit­sar’s Par­ti­tion Mu­seum, where the wounds that still de­fine the re­gion are pre­served, the last room is per­haps aptly named ‘The gallery of Hope’.

Visi­tors look at pho­to­graphs at the Par­ti­tion Mu­seum in Am­rit­sar

(Pho­tos: AFP)

Pak­istani vol­un­teers are seen tran­scrib­ing in­ter­views and tes­ti­monies of peo­ple who mi­grated from In­dia to Pak­istan in 1947

Mal­lika Ah­luwalia, CEO of the Par­ti­tion Mu­seum in Am­rit­sar, speaks dur­ing an in­ter­view in the mu­seum

Jamshed Ja­han Ara, who mi­grated to Pak­istan at the time of par­ti­tion, points out a his­tor­i­cal photo of Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah

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