Which way home?

Almost 70 years on from Partition, Amit Ranjan says there is still much of our collective memory to preserve

Which way home?
The Partition of India in 1947 remains an unresolved puzzle despite the body of literature produced on the subject by numerous scholars. Those who either suffered or witnessed the barbarism that characterised Partition developed two contradictory emotions for the ‘Other’: hatred and affection. Hatred, because they had been uprooted from their ‘own’ homes; affection, because they still ‘locate’ themselves in their ancestral land. As the number of people who witnessed Partition shrinks with time in both India and Pakistan, the baton has been passed to the next generation, whose collective memory is based on the narratives they have preserved. Unlike their forebears who witnessed the event, the ‘post-memory’ generation does not ‘belong’ to the land – they do, however, try to identify with it.

Partition: The Long Shadow Ed. Urvashi Butalia New Delhi: Zubaan and Penguin, 2015
Partition: The Long Shadow
Ed. Urvashi Butalia
New Delhi: Zubaan and Penguin, 2015

An individual’s primary identity is based on time and space, but his or her relationship with an ancestral land is a dominant marker of that identity – even if he/she does not live there. The sense of ‘belonging’ to a particular territory is always present in one’s subconscious. In 2013, when I visited Lahore for the first time to attend a THAAP conference, I was introduced to a professor from the University of Gujrat by Usha Gandhi and Rajmohan Gandhi. I discovered that he too had his roots in the Indian state of Bihar. He was born in pre-Partition India in Ara district, migrated with his parents to East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) during Partition, completed his education at the University of Dhaka and re-migrated to West Pakistan in 1971. In 1947, the professor’s religion was his identity; in 1971, he said he identified himself as a Muslim who spoke Urdu – yet Ara clearly remained in his subconscious memory during our conversation. He hugged me and seemed to be strongly moved at this meeting. He said he was very happy to meet someone who had come to Lahore from his ‘own’ land. I gave him my visiting card. I haven’t yet heard from him, but perhaps he does not want to revisit the past.

This is what brings me to Urvashi Butalia’s new collection of essays on Partition. Partition: The Long Shadow is about such memories that the people of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan retain of their ancestral homes. Arguably, Partition carried a heavier emotional than physical cost. People can relocate themselves in a new place, but establishing an affective relationship with that space is more difficult. Those who came to India during and after 1947 still profess an attachment to their ancestral land. And those who witnessed the barbarism it unleashed still feel anger towards the other country at having been uprooted from their homes.

In the book, Rita Kothari talks about the identity that remains fixed to an individual or a group, despite any change in the geographical space they occupy. She examines the case of the Bannis, who became part of India only after the 1965 arbitrated border settlement between India and Pakistan. The Bannis still consider themselves – and are seen by others as – Sindhi and not Kutchi. Kavita Panjabi explores why people from her father’s generation are hesitant about visiting their ancestral homes. Is it, she wonders, because they do not want to re-invoke their past? The authors also bring in the ‘post-memory’ generation and their reactions to Partition.

Butalia also includes essays on the India–Bangladesh nexus, both of which have had a number of disputes over borders and people. Having recently signed a treaty to implement the Land Boundary Agreement, the two countries hope to legally resolve the majority of their disputes over the demarcation of the boundary line, but a range of political and humanitarian issues are likely to remain intact. Sanjib Baruah, one of the foremost experts on India’s northeast region, talks at length in his chapter about the relationship between migration and Partition, especially with reference to Assam. There is also an interesting chapter on the Marichjhapi incident by Jhuma Sen, who describes the attack carried out on migrants who ‘occupied’ an area in the Sunderban delta.
As the number of people who witnessed Partition shrinks with time, the baton has been passed to the next generation

Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Amiya Sen examine the migration of people from then East Pakistan into India in 1971 through a series of sketches. Sukeshi Kamra talks about collective memory and how it is being reframed: in India especially, this is being done through the medium of film, which serves to narrate the trauma of Partition to the post-memory generation. Of course, the interpretation of the violence that ensued varies from one director to another. Tarun K. Saint talks about ‘re-visioning’ and ‘re-storying’ Partition, citing the literatures that present a humane and poignant narrative. Prajna Paramita Parasher interprets the Partition-related sketches of S. L. Parasher, a former vice principal of the Mayo College of Arts before 1947.

The largest exodus in modern history
The largest exodus in modern history

Jyotirmaya Sharma‘s chapter deals with the issue of religion, which has been associated with much violence – or been interpreted as such – since the medieval period. Alok Sarin, Sarah Ghani and Sanjeev Jain try to explore the psychological aspects of communal conflict, which is important if we are to understand the mental trauma of finding oneself caught in or witnessing such a situation. Two other important chapters that deal with issues rarely brought up in the literature on Partition concern Ladakh and the role of the communists in Jammu and Kashmir.

Essentially, Butalia’s book tries to answer some of the questions that come up less commonly: the puzzles of Partition in 1947 and its wide impact on the region’s people. Like her previous book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, this collection of essays is a necessary addition to the literature on Partition.