The Partition of India has, over the past seven decades, generated a vast literary output, many celluloid classics, memorable art, and two generations of outstanding historical scholarship. What was missing, however, is the public memorialisation of Partition. That has changed now.
There has been a resonance about the idea of memorialisation both in Punjab and West Bengal in the last few years, with Punjab leading the way in setting up a museum. This is a critical moment in the history of the subcontinent, in terms of a public engagement with history; and it may be pertinent to put it in perspective.
If we look at the historical scholarship on Partition, especially since the 1980s, we will see that there has been many interesting new turns in it: with historians shifting the focus of attention from causes to experiences, and from national to regional histories of Partition (Ian Talbot, Joya Chatterjee), exploring experiences of women (Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon & Kamla Bhasin) and Dalits (Sekhar Bandopadhyay), delving deep into the nature and meaning of violence (Gyanendra Pandey), highlighting the peculiar predicament of borderlands (Willem van Schendel), the contentious process and politics of border-making (Vazira Zamindar), and bringing in de-colonization (Sekhar Bandyopadhyay) and diaspora (Joya Chatterjee, Claire Alexander & Annu Jalais) into the discussion.
History writing, in the last three decades, thus became ever more capacious in the range of aspects of Partition that it dealt with and the nature of actual experiences that it incorporated within its enquiry. The tilt towards ethnographic research was distinctly felt with the feminist turn in partition historiography in the 1990s, and it gained more currency thereafter.
The post-millennial phase saw another major shift with the digital archiving of oral histories by The 1947 Partition Archive, started by Gurmeet Singh Bhalla in 2010. It has done enormously significant work in collecting a vast reservoir of stories that was left previously untapped. Though oral stories from Partition survivors had been retrieved by historians before, it was still broadly a disciplinary undertaking – practiced by specialists and restricted in location. The Partition Archive opened up the field to amateurs – “citizen historians” who unearthed a “people’s history”.
The current decade also saw the emergence of a new, more subjective dimension of memory studies in the work of Ananya Jahanara Kabir; and a resounding demonstration of the power of material memory in the work of Aanchal Malhotra.
It could be argued that the systematic archiving of a people’s history over several years and making it widely available to the general public through social media, as well as new ways of looking at memory, gave a certain impetus to and set the stage for the public memorialisation of Partition in the form of a museum in the last few years.
The Partition Museum in Amritsar – the world’s first partition museum – initiated by Lady Kishwar Desai, is a stupendous feat of solidarity and creative effort by a dedicated community of citizens, all the more remarkable for accomplishing it within a very short time. As the first effort of its kind, it should be lauded; but it is primarily about the Punjab partition (see APM Report).
Bengal needs a Partition Museum of its own not only because of the lacuna in the Amritsar museum, but because its experience of both the event of Partition and its aftermath and afterlives has been markedly different from the Punjab.
It is also very important to remember that Bengal has experienced Partition thrice – in 1905, 1947 and 1971. While 1947 was the most defining moment, the other two partitions were also significant in their own ways.
The 1905 partition of Bengal, ostensibly for British administrative convenience, was vigorously resisted, brought a new turn in the nationalist movement, and was finally annulled in 1911. It also marked the year when Calcutta ceased to be the capital of the British Empire and Delhi took over.
In 1947, British India got divided into a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India (with the Princely States being forced to accede to either of the two new Dominions). But 1971 overturned the logic of 1947 – of a religion-centric division of the subcontinent – when Islamic Pakistan cleaved itself into two after the Liberation War of Bangladesh. India’s intervention in that war directly affected West Bengal, as millions poured into the state, creating a new refugee crisis when the old (from 1947) had not yet been contained.
Even apart from war, the continuing porosity of the Bengal border makes for a very unique reality in the delta. The constant “illegal but licit” traffic at the Bengal border is anything but the stringent high-surveillance LoC maintained with all the might of the Indian army on the Punjab side; while something like the recent exchange of enclaves (chitmahals) between West Bengal and Bangladesh shows an empirical continuation of Partition well into 2015.
This entire trajectory of Bengal from 1905 to 2015 is one that needs special attention. A museum – dedicated to memorializing this specific history – is the only answer.