Report on the Amritsar Partition Museum

Categories Report

~ By Rituparna Roy; originally published in The Wire ~

I visited the Amritsar Partition Museum just a few months after it opened its doors in December 2017. Though I was very impressed with the museum, it convinced me – more than ever before – of the need for having a museum dedicated to the Partition experience of Bengal.

In a Report written for The Wire that was published on 15 August 2018, I explained the reason why. I am reproducing that article in this blog post, as it lies at the very heart of our endeavour.

A Museum in Amritsar Highlights the Lesser Known Players Behind Partition. While the scale and the size of the Partition Museum provide a memorable experience, the lack of representation of Bengal’s experience is a lacuna.

Seventy years after the partition of India, a museum finally memorialises the event and its aftermath in the subcontinent. It was long overdue and the Amritsar Partition Museum (APM), housed in the right wing of the Town Hall of Amritsar, deserves credit for this initiative.

The museum opened its doors to the public on 17 August 2017; I visited it in early December. No newspaper report had prepared me for the scale and size of APM. It is spread over 17,000 square feet on two floors and has 14 galleries. It has done amazing work within a very short time.

I had a memorable experience and though I was impressed with the museum overall, I would like to highlight some of the features that struck me the most.

Detached/neutral narrative?

Of all the galleries, I found Gallery 7 – that deals with the Punjab Boundary Commission – to be most intriguing. The museum’s attempt for a detached/neutral narrative is best exemplified here through its depiction of Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

Gallery 7 is a corridor that leads on to the next batch of galleries on the ground floor, with exhibits on both its left and right walls. On the left wall, you have Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s career before 1947; Lord Mountbatten’s brief to him in India; and details about the four members of the Punjab Boundary Commission (PBC), all of whom were members in the High Court of Lahore in 1946 – Din Muhammad, Mohammad Munir, Mehr Chand Mahajan and Teja Singh.

A blow-up of W.H. Auden’s famous poem “Partition” ends the exhibits on the left wall. On the right are videos: where sons of some of the members of the PBC talk about their fathers’ work and finally, one where Kuldip Nayar talks about his 1977 interview of Cyril Radcliffe.

Of the three components on the left wall of Gallery 7, the final countdown to Partition in 1947 after Mountbatten’s arrival in India is well known: the June 3 plan, the June 12 AICC acceptance of it, the July 20 passing of the Indian Independence Act in the British Parliament, the roping in of barrister Radcliffe (for ‘impartiality’: he had no idea of India’s geography and had never been to India) to draw the boundary line in five weeks flat and the formation of the Punjab and Bengal Boundary Commissions – whose members could give individual recommendations to Radcliffe, but his decision would be final and binding.

Through texts, photographs, and newspaper clippings, that story is also precisely detailed in Gallery 7. But it is preceded by a celebratory account of Radcliffe’s career – his brilliant legal career, his distinguished service in the World War II which earned him an OBE and his stint as the director-general of the Ministry of Information in 1941.

It almost seemed to say that though he drew a line that changed lives forever and millions lost home and property and were killed, he was himself not an evil man – he just had the misfortune of being entrusted to do a dirty job.

This impression is reinforced by stories not so well-known, such as secret negotiations between Radcliffe and the PBC members. Mehr Chand Mahajan, for instance, wanted both Gurdaspur and Lahore in India. When Mountbatten said he cannot have both, he chose Gurdaspur over Lahore.

The Radcliffe Line thus also had to do, to some extent, with personal preferences of the members of the commission, which Radcliffe had to negotiate with. It was impossible to be totally impartial in such a scenario.

It was also impossible to please both sides. In his 1977 interview, Nayar had asked Radcliffe what he felt, three decades on, about his role in dividing India. His reply, in essence, was that there was no way that the border could have been uncontroversial, no way that it would not have gone against the interests of some, one way or the other.

But he had the blood of so many people in his hands that he did not accept his paycheck.

Who was responsible for the partition? Was it inevitable? Could the communal violence, at least, have been avoided? These are questions that have preoccupied historians for a long time. In answering them, blame is usually variously apportioned among the chief players – Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis Mountbatten – particularly the latter, for his decision to expedite the process of transfer of power “from a date no later than June 1948” to August 1947.

What has not got as much historical attention is the work of the Punjab and Bengal Boundary commissions and some of their critical negotiations. They had a more direct bearing on the Radcliffe Line than the political negotiations among top leaders.

APM has done well to highlight this aspect. In the entire narrative of Radcliffe and PBC, I could sense an effort to be neutral on its part. I laud the curators for that effort, especially when dealing with a region that had witnessed the most horrific violence both before and after the line was drawn.

Installations: Thoa Khalsa

There were several installations in the museum: a British jail telling stories of the inhuman conditions of political prisoners, the way they were incarcerated; a morgue on Direct Action Day in Calcutta; a train station with a huge LCD screen featuring a train and some objects on the station (a holdall, a trunk), even as an eerie whistle sounds in the background; destroyed homes, both village huts and pucca houses, in the wake of violence in the Punjab in the spring of 1947.

But it is Thoa Khalsa that is the most evocative. The story is well known. Gyanendra Pandey wrote quite elaborately on it in Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Thoa Khalsa was a small village in the district of Rawalpindi, which saw unabated violence in the week of March 6-13, 1947. Some Muslims attacked the village, which the Sikhs tried to stave off during the first wave of the attack one evening.

But the next day, some thousands came.

When it became imminent that they would be butchered, it was decided that the women would drown themselves in the village well. Some 90 women gathered together and jumped one by one, some with babies. Towards the end, there was not much water left to drown themselves in and some tried repeatedly without success.

The installation has a well, with a rope. The story is told in bare language on a plaque on the wall of the well. Above it, from floor to ceiling lies a white cloth, a long dupatta that gives facts and figures about the abductions and recoveries of women on both sides of the border. It is located in the part of Gallery 7 which deals with the recovery and rehabilitation of women. So, it is made part of a broader narrative of violence against women.

The sketches of Sardari Lal Parasher (1904-1990)

There are a number of artworks in the museum, including a few by Satish Gujral. I was myself particularly drawn to the sketches and line drawings of Sunder Lal Parasher, who was camp commander of Baldev Nagar refugee camp, Ambala and Gandhi Nagar Camp, New Delhi.

The introductory museum text on his work elaborates:

There are stories that in the evening Parasher would walk around the camp, drawing in order to release despair… willing to do anything for the traumatised and grieving people all around him. Often only a few lines, sometimes on scraps and oddments of paper — to this day, the sketches retain the sense of stopped time, frozen glimpses of those whose lives had suddenly come to a halt. Very few are named, dated, identified or signed. It was not a place or a moment where the particular could take on much importance.

Of the 13 sketches of Parasher on display in the APM, I found three that were particularly striking: ‘Small Comfort’, ‘Cheekh’ and ‘Prayer’. In ‘Small Comfort’, a group of women form a circle of grief, heads bowed in mourning. ‘Cheekh’ is the agonized cry of a bony man. ‘Agony’ (another sketch by Parasher) is very close to it in composition, though ‘Cheekh’ is more heart-rending. For me, it constitutes a kind of culmination.

As a partition scholar, most of what I was encountering in the museum was familiar material for me. And yet the galleries that dealt with the immediate aftermath of partition in the Punjab were very heavy. As one reads, watches, takes in all that pain, grief, loss – all the accumulated emotions of those galleries seem to have an outburst in the cheekhof this man. It kind of culminates in it. At least that is how I felt it.

This is of course, a deeply personal response, as the sketch is in no way highlighted in the curation, as a blow up or by making it a centre-piece. It is actually unassumingly placed on the right side of the penultimate gallery, and is one of the last exhibits before one exits the museum.

In ‘Prayer’, a lone, bony man kneels to the ground, palms firmly clasped, eyes raised to the sky. Our attention is focused on the upraised neck, in a posture of utter supplication – to God, to some power beyond human agency – praying to intervene, bring an end to, give succour to the unutterable pain and misery.

These three sketches are significant, as they convey the most normal, inevitable responses to trauma: seeking comfort in collective grief, letting out one’s agony, imploring the heavens to have mercy.

The principal lacuna of APM: Where is Bengal?

APM advertises itself as “the world’s first partition museum”, but it is really about the Punjab.

There are three predictable historical moments from Bengal that find a place in APM in the galleries that deal with the lead up to 1947: the partition of 1905; the Bengal Famine of 1943 and Direct Action Day (August 16, 1946) and the subsequent Noakhali riots.

It has one other item: a particularly high-pitched rendition of Tagore’s “O amar sonar Bangla, ami tomai bhalobashi” (that was later adopted as Bangladesh’s national anthem). It plays as a background track for 1905, but at top volume, which somewhat disrupts the viewing experience of the adjacent galleries.

There are five huge galleries across two floors devoted to the aftermath of partition and I found it remarkable that the experience of Bengal does not find a place in even one of them. The aftermath deals exclusively with the Punjab border, with a lone confessional audio by Sucheta Kripalini at the very end (it is the very last item in the exhibits on the upper floor) as a kind of weak compensation for what has not been covered.

In that audio – the full text of which is available in the digital archives of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University – Sucheta Kripalini admits: “We’ve not done enough for Bengal”. The points she raises while doing so are pertinent: that the mass exodus on the eastern border had happened not in 1947, but 1950; that though the west Punjabi refugees were known to be practical and hard working, they had been given massive assistance by the Central government. West Bengal did not get such assistance – there was only (inadequate) relief, no compensation.

There is a great tragedy hidden there: of the economic impoverishment of a state and the intractable problem of refugee rehabilitation that it faced stretching over several decades. The matter becomes clear when it is realised that the partition experience of Punjab and Bengal – both the event and aftermath – were very different.

The genocidal violence in Punjab was not faced by Bengal in 1947. The migration of refugees in the west was a one-time event marked by a two-way exodus; there was an almost equal exchange of populations and the border was rigidly maintained. On the Bengal side, the exodus was primarily from the east to the west; the border remained porous, facilitating further refugee movement over several decades, sometimes in a trickle, sometimes as a flood (as in 1971, during the Liberation War of Bangladesh).

Another major difference was that unlike Punjabi refugees, Bengali refugees had to be relocated in disparate parts of the subcontinent. In 1947, about 1 million refugees had sought shelter in West Bengal. By the mid-1950s, that figure had reached 3.5 million, half of whom were resettled in Calcutta and its environs.

By the 1960s, refugees constituted a third of the population. The West Bengal government just did not have the resources to tackle a crisis of this proportion and strongly felt that its burden should be shared by the federal government and its neighbouring states.

Accordingly, refugees were resettled outside of the state as well – in Assam, even in distant Andaman and Nicobar islands (the latter successfully). But the biggest resettlement programme, conceived as a long-term solution, was undertaken in Dandakaranya in central India, comprising of districts from both Orissa (Koraput and Kalahandi) and Madhya Pradesh (Bastar).

Unfortunately, this failed: it was meant to be a haven of hope, but turned out a land of banishment. Not long after, there was a “migration in reverse gear”, when refugees started coming back to West Bengal and were asked/forced to return again.

A particularly desperate and defiant lot came back in 1978, settled in the island of Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans, and refused to return, even after repeated warnings and an economic embargo. They were finally massacred by the Left front government in May 1979, in a most ironic twist of fate, as the front had earned their mandate by championing the cause of refugees.

For Bengal, the aftermath of Partition has thus been a protracted one; the afterlives are equally significant, especially along the borderland. The recent transfers of enclaves (chitmahals) between West Bengal and Bangladesh is a case in point: it shows an empirical continuation of partition well into 2015.

The APM ignores this entire experience of post-partition Bengal, as if nothing had happened in the east after 1947. Granted it is a new museum and cannot cover everything to do with the partition at one go. But if it could not accommodate the experience of both Punjab and Bengal within its galleries, it should have at least acknowledged the fact. Since it leaves out an enormous part of the partition experience of the subcontinent, it should not advertise itself in general terms, but rather as a partition museum of the Punjab. Which is what it is.

There is nothing wrong with a partition museum devoted to Punjab. After all, we are used to the Punjab focus, in history writing, in literature and in the Central government’s benedictions. But let not Bengal be given just a consolation prize in the form of an audio-clip. It deserves much more.

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