A decade ago, a group of us girls having staged our first play ‘Toba Tek Singh’ found ourselves excited at an invite extended to us by the Government College, Lahore. In the week that we spent across the border, we gathered many memories and in particular an emotional visit by a dear friend to her Nana’s home is what stayed with us. Right from finding the house to meeting the new occupants and finally realizing nothing had changed in the house, emotions ran high and my friend couldn’t find a way to control her tears. Performing Toba Tek Singh had not taught us what our friend’s experience did. Overwhelmed by the hospitality of our Lahori-friends, the only question I pondered over the years was – was the Partition truly inevitable?
I realise that we in India and Pakistan grow up with different textbooks that give us different historical perspectives. So here are 10 artworks (interspersed with artist-experiences) that narrate the story of our divide impartially & capture the ongoing legacy of loss, desperation and separation.
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India in the Second World War
By the end of the War, Britain’s place in the world had changed dramatically and the demand for India’s Independence could no longer be ignored. Britain’s devastated economy could not cope with the cost of ruling the over-extended empire. A Cabinet Mission was dispatched to India in early 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee described its mission in ambitious terms:
My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain her freedom as speedily and fully as possible. What form of government is to replace the present regime is for India to decide; but our desire is to help her to set up forthwith the machinery for making that decision.
Hindus Vs Muslims
In the backdrop of the Quit India Movement and the Civil Disobedience, the tension between Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi reached its height. Communal Violence on the streets began to escalate. People moved away from, or were forced out of, mixed neighborhoods and took refuge in increasingly polarized ghettos. Tensions were often heightened by local and regional political leaders.
Nehru, Jinnah & The Separation
The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946. As riots spread to other cities and the number of casualties escalated, the leaders of the Congress Party, who had initially opposed Partition, began to see it as the only way to ‘rid themselves of Jinnah and the Muslim League‘. In a speech in April, 1947, Nehru said,
“I want that those who stand as an obstacle in our way should go their own way.”
The British began to speed up their exit strategy and on the afternoon of February 20, 1947, Attlee, announced that British rule would end on “a date not later than June, 1948.”
In early June, India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten stunned everyone by announcing August 15, 1947, as the date for the transfer of power—ten months earlier than expected. This rush led to even more chaos.
Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge assigned to draw the borders of the two new states, was given barely forty days to remake the map of South Asia. The borders were finally announced two days after India’s Independence.
Arpita Singh’s painting, titled “Leaping Bridges” is a take on the Partition and Ramayana – you can spot the golden deer trying to cross over what seems to be a senseless rendering of lines – as senseless as perhaps the Partition- which, as Arpita Singh puts it “even went through people’s kitchens!” #indiapakistan #border #dividedwefall #politicalart #politics #ramayana #india #history #partition #art #painting #5womenartists #contemporaryart #arpitasingh #theheritagelab
Flag of Independence
On the evening of August 14, 1947, Nehru made his most famous “Tryst of Destiny” speech:
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
But outside the well-guarded enclaves of New Delhi the horror was well under way. That same evening, as the remaining British officials in Lahore set off for the railway station, they had to pick their way through streets littered with dead bodies. On the platforms, they found the railway staff hosing down pools of blood. As the Bombay Express pulled out of Lahore and began its journey south, the officials could see that Punjab was ablaze, with flames rising from village after village.
Announcement of the Partition
Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims started their journeys to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.
What followed, especially in Punjab, the center of the violence, was one of the great human tragedies of the twentieth century. As Nisid Hajari writes in his award-winning book, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition:
“Foot caravans of destitute refugees fleeing the violence stretched for 50 miles and more. As the peasants trudged along wearily, mounted guerrillas burst out of the tall crops that lined the road and culled them like sheep. Special refugee trains, filled to bursting when they set out, suffered repeated ambushes along the way. All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.”
The Plight of Women and Violence
The Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16 million people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.
Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps.
Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour. Around 100,000 were raped or abducted. Urvashi Butalia’s “Other Side of Silence” narrates a bone-chilling incident where a father takes the extreme step of killing his daughter, fearing she would be raped or converted.
Remembering the Partition
The year 2017 witnessed a series of events remembering the 70 years of the Partition of India. In Amritsar, the Partition Museum opened its doors to the public, re-igniting memories and stories of the “largest migration in history”. This was also the year when the much-awaited book, ‘Remnants of a Separation’ by Aanchal Malhotra hit the shelves and the hearts of all those who read it. Another initiative, 1947Archive is documenting letters, photos and keeping all other memorabilia safe in a digital archive for we must remember to remember. The effect of the partition and its violence cannot fade from the memory of those who saw it. Artists who experienced the tragedy often revisit the time – perhaps in the hope of coming to terms with it.
Mataji – could be anybody’s grandmother and in the context of the Partition, it is easy to imagine the root of her sorrow. Millions of people were forced to flee their homes and those who fled across the new border continued to live with the memory, enduring displacement and loss.
In the shadow of 1947
Seven decades on, well over a billion people still live in the shadow of Partition. As the memory of the brutality of Partition fades, the two countries that have fought 3 wars since 1947, engage in a colourful flag ceremony as the sun sets over the Wagah border post that lies midway between Amritsar and Lahore. As William Dalrymple puts it:
In Delhi, a hard-line right-wing government rejects dialogue with Islamabad. Both countries find themselves more vulnerable than ever to religious extremism. In a sense, 1947 has yet to come to an end.
Those words find manifestation in Reena Kallat’s 2017-art installation at Memories of Partition [an exhibition at the Manchester Museum]
1947 changed lives forever and greatly impacted India’s art landscape. Many artists who witnessed the Partition could only manage to turn to their art and trust it to narrate their experiences to future generations.
I usually close all my Museum & Arts-Ed sessions with my students on a fun note. But for the Partition series, this year, I found a deeper closing address, courtesy the poet Gulzar :
We were ONE people. One parted. Now we are TWO
Featured Image: “Carrying Home” by Nilima Sheikh.
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