He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
—W.H. Auden, “Partition”
While history books debate the political reasons for Partition (see Partition of India), attempts at writing a social history are relatively recent. Feminist historiographers like Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Urvashi Butalia were some of the first to attempt such a history where they tried to write women’s experiences of Partition back into the archive by recording and analyzing oral histories in Borders and Boundaries and The Other Side of Silence respectively. Though memory can be as an unreliable witness, as these authors note, it also provides a window into the “human dimensions” of history.
The interview excerpts and audio clips included on this page represent one such attempt to record and understand the events around Partition as experienced by people who have since moved to the greater Atlanta area. These interviews were conducted by Emory students as part of their coursework for an undergraduate course on “The Partition in Literature” taught by Deepika Bahri in 2004.
Excerpts have been organized around thematic clusters.
- “And in Jammu, at that time, there was a lot of murder and all that. In retaliation, Muslims did it in their part of Punjab; our people did it in our part of Punjab, Indian part of Punjab. When I was at Akhnoor, as I told you, there is the river, Chenab, and there is a bridge at that place, small kind of bridge, they used to gather about 50-60 Muslims, bring them on the bridge and start murdering them and throwing them in the river, in the water, down below in the river. I have seen that. There was a lot of these things, I mean everybody had become brute. Nobody cared for anybody’s life. There was a lot of it, I can’t explain; blood all around, bodies all around, hideous. There was a lot of looting, lot of nobody cared for anybody’s life.” (E)
- “The whole thing started when Pakistan in order to get political leverage planned the action day on 16 august 1946. That was a very a day of Mahara one of the festivities. A very colorful festivity, colorful processions from all directions to central Calcutta. The colorful processions were very beautiful to look at and I still remember when we went to the top of our house. You know in India we have all flat roofs and we used to climb up there where you could get a better view of the ground. Then all of a sudden there was a commotion, people screaming and running here and there and what have you, saying that someone has been stabbed. That was a little shock. Me and my siblings were in a jubilant mood about something very colorful and the next thing you came to know some atrocities had started. Then everything went wild. Humans became less than animals and everyone started feeling uncomfortable of anyone near him. Feeling scared, kind of, that everyone else is after me.” (B)
- “Close to Agra, there was a state where there were lots of Muslims but the ruler was Hindu. The name of the state was Bharatpur. It was about, I have a feeling, about 2 hours or less train ride, and many of the bodies—Muslims who were trying to run away from there, and trying to come to Agra—the trains were stopped and they were massacred. So, all these dead bodies were brought to this institution that my grandfather had established for Muslim burial, because there was nobody to claim these dead bodies. My grandfather had started an institution 35-40 years before all this happened, for the burial, Muslim burial, of the destitute. He had no idea that one day it would be used for this kind of atrocity. And so the dead bodies, on the first day the dead bodies came—there were ten or fifteen—we were kept inside by our parents and not allowed to go out and see the bodies. By fourth or fifth day, it didn’t matter because there were hundreds of dead bodies. And so it did not matter anymore. I was going over the dead bodies and trying to match which hand or head belonged to whom.” (I)
- “There was a lot of burning houses, people getting caught in the fire and losing lives. And even if they knew that their children were in the burning house nobody attempted to go and save them, they wanted to just run away from those places and be safe. When it comes to life I suppose you become very, very selfish, you don’t even think of your own children.” (H)
On the Enemy and if Partition could have been avoided:
- “The country would have gone on the same way. One country, one people. If only Jinnah had not been there and the Britishers had not encouraged him and instigated trouble. We would have been very happy if things had gone on the same way. But since the Britishers had made this a condition to leaving, there was no other solution.” (A)
- “Jinnah is what they call the “Puppet of Imperialism.” British convince the Nehru to make the partition and fight because the British don’t want to see that the India will be united, with Muslims. They want to see the split and the fighting. They want to divide and rule, like they going to return.” (D)
- “The Muslim league was not that bad…Jinnah was not that bad; he was made that bad. He was given this impression that you have live–Muslims have to live, in a separate state. They need to have a separate state. That’s why Pakistan came to be.” (E)
- “For a historian this is not a simple question but I will simplify. It should not have taken place but political circumstances led inevitably to it. It could have been prevented if the leaders of the majority and minority communities had shown some willingness and ability to make concessions, especially to the minorities to make them feel comfortable. Instead of blaming each other, there should have been some meaningful negotiations. But the colonial regime was also complicit. When the riots started in Calcutta, which eventually led to the later events including partition, the government deliberately removed the police and army from the streets and there had been a strong presence of both before that. They also disgracefully quit India after a hastily organized withdrawal. On a wider level, one must always challenge the claims of exclusive inheritance by one particular group in a country like India, which is completely plural (region, religion, language and caste). Such invention of the past, especially through a religious ideology, particularly by the majority in effect excludes the minorities, whereas in actual fact the strength of Indian society lies in its mixture of cultures and plurality. Indeed, this is true of all nations and this sort of myth of the nation has been the most frightening development of modernity.” (G)
- “Whatever view you take, the fact of the matter is that in 1947, the Muslims sought a separate nation, and the country was divided. Gandhi was leading the freedom movement. He did not believe that there should be any difference. He felt the Muslims were like brothers to the Hindu, and everyone should respect each other and be one nation. But they were encouraged by the British or by the desire to have Muslim leadership; if they had a separate nation they would not be a minority.” (F)
Displacement and refugee life:
- “At night, I don’t remember what it was, but now that I look back, I think there were people that used to walk around the streets. I don’t know what it was, but maybe it was the influx of people, shouting. It was chaos, pandemonium. My grandfather and grandmother, cousin, uncles, aunts, they came in waves. Not all at once. My first cousin, who was about my age, would get up in the middle of the night and start moaning terribly and scream and shout, “They’re coming, they’re coming! Save me!” They had come to escape the horrors: I don’t know what must have been going through his mind.” (F)
- “And even when they were chased out of those territories which belonged to Pakistan – when they were coming most of them would not get anything to eat, because they were not treated like human beings. They wanted them to get them out of that place, so they didn’t give anything to eat or drink or anything. They had to come until they crossed the border and came here, where they had refugee camps where they were taken care of.” (H)
- “They are all relatives, all people; adversity brings people together. We got this place, they did not have any room to stay, although our area was not all that big, but still my mother said all that we need is one room and we all felt this Pakistan is temporary; we are all going to go back. So the feeling was we have to somehow or the other get through this and we will be going to back.” (C)
- “We had a quarter- quarter is kind of an apartment supply given by the government to the government servants- couple of bedrooms, but I don’t know how many, somehow or the other the number fifty-three is in my mind, whether it was fifty-three families, fifty-three adults, fifty-three total number, I do not remember. So we kind of lived in that place; we did not disturb the occupants, they lived inside and we kept our luggage there. So we were kind of living on the street, on the roadside; going in, I don’t know, to use the bathroom, to keep our belongings, and that I remember okay. For the whole row, all night, men would take turns saying ‘okay, okay, okay.’ If you did not hear ‘okay’ from one house, men would go and check- ‘Hey what’s happening. Is everybody safe?’ Then if that person just slept and did not say ‘okay’ I think they were quite upset with him, maybe they beat him up [laughs] whatever. So it was ‘okay, okay’ and I remember that, that used to go on all night” (C)
- “No, we didn’t migrate, actually, we were displaced. We should call it displaced. We were displaced in a topsy-turvy way. And some people, part of the family came separately. We, myself and my father came separately. We were united with the family after about two months. We didn’t know where are they, whether they were alive or not…all that. It was quite a, very sad experience.” (E)
- “And this is the lesson that I learned and I can never forget it. That this is the most important and then he pointed towards his head and said what you have here. He pointed a finger and he said what you have here, nobody can ever take it from you…no matter how many borders you cross. There have been times, we have lived in so many countries, there have been times where I felt that I could shed my skin like a lizard and become blue eyed and blonde haired and light skin person.” (I)
- “Everyone suffered; no particular people, not particularly to any community—everybody suffered. Whoever came in the way suffered. I mean people were uprooted badly, and I tell you, it took us about 20 years to come out to an average level. There is a lot of hard work. Who hadn’t worked, my father, as I told you, was head of the village, quite a well-to-do man. He had to go work for 45 rupees at a shop. You can imagine the plight of that man. Everybody suffered; we suffered badly and I tell you…we suffered every way, for sometime we were went with out meals and all that. [Hindi] The people that made dishes, they were called katyars that make metal dishes. The ones that manually turned fans for them, so we three brothers, we all use to do that fan thing for 10 rupees per month, for 48 hours a day. So you can imagine.” (E)
- “He had sent earlier my youngest aunt because she was single and the single women were at a grave risk of being raped. So he took whatever money and had to pay a lot more on the ticket, put her on the airplane, and sent her to Delhi. And she reached us.” (C)
- “Earlier there was no fear as there was no violence in our area but later we were scared of being carried off because in Pakistan the Muslims were kidnapping Hindu girls. And even when the Hindu girls were brought back, their family members would not accept them. This scared us. But as nothing really happened to any of our family members or friends, we felt quite safe till we had to move out of our village…When we crossed the border we saw bodies along the way. There was blood all over and till this day I can see the dead bodies, especially those of mothers who had been killed while they were still feeding their babies, who had been killed with them and were still cradled in their arms.” (A)
- “The only thing I had was my doll that had lived with me, because to me it was like a person. My mother had made it for me; it was a hand-made doll when I was two years old. And so, we had shared only everything else, but also our birthdays, because it was given to me and it was a hand-made doll. [Since] my elder sister, who was fifteen years old, was hiding some fabric, silk fabric, in her pillow [that] she was carrying under her arm all the time, she was hiding unstitched fabric, that her best friend had given as a parting gift, and my parents had no idea about this. At the customs, they picked up pillow, and the fabric fell on one side, and they ripped it open and they found this fabric—yards and yards of silk—which we were not supposed to carry, because you could carry clothes, but not unstitched fabric, or else you pay tax, or fine, or whatever. So, they suspected that in the doll I was carrying, the hand-made doll, maybe there was jewelry hidden in that hand-made doll. They ripped open the doll, and for me, that was the death. Not the dead bodies I had seen, in previous days and weeks, but that was the” (I)
- “What he did was, he just took off his Gandhi cap and put on his Jinnah cap, he knew Quran, he knew Persian and he became and staunch Muslim kind of thing, at least acted one and he just went and mingled, left his house and went to the predominantly Muslim area and acted as if he was one of them, maybe he told them some stories- that he came from Delhi, he came from UP or wherever because he was not there, he lives there. The only thing he was afraid of was if somebody asks him to take off his pajamas, his trousers, because all Hindus are not circumcised and all Muslims are circumcised. So that was the test.” (C)
- “Muslims saved us, I have told you, Muslims saved us. So we can…they gave us money to come to this side of the country. They helped us every way. They kept us at their house during nights and when they came to know that boats are going and people are going on the other side of the border they took us there with full protection and safely we went to the other side and from there we were taken to the border of Jammu and Kashmir. The relations were very good.” (E)
- “We should never forget what happened and the causes – the way leaders took increasingly intransigent positions and used religion to further political ends. Religion as a personal faith that sustains people emotionally is valid but not its use in political mobilization and as part of a public and political discourse. The misuse of religion in India came with the rise of nationalist politics in which religious ideology played an increasingly important part. Religion and politics must be uncoupled.” (G)
Message for the future generations:
- “Enmity between two communities or people can only lead to tragedy and losses on all sides. Once hatred reigns, there is no control over anyone, so everyone must learn to control those emotions and not instigate them in others as they can only destroy.” (A)
- “There is so much in common with our cultures…I am from Punjab. A Muslim in Punjab speaks my language; you don’t speak my language. We are Indians, but a Muslim in Punjab: the food he eats, the language he speaks, and the music we listen to is more similar. It’s the same food, same culture, same everything, except religion. As a matter of fact, my job takes me to India very frequently. I would go down to Madras, and the only language in which I could communicate with someone in Madras is English. Our languages, our food habits are different. There is a big divide. Whereas, for a Muslim and Hindu in Punjab there is so much more commonality. It makes you wonder, who created this wall? Why did we become so obsessed with religion? Religion is not supposed to make you disunite. Who stoked the fires of hatred, using religion, to the point that people with the same mother tongue hate each other? It makes you wonder. I suppose your generation should look to find who created this hatred?” (F)
- “In any scripture, it will say, “There is strength in community.” Even if you are different, but still we can join hands. There are plenty of areas where you and I see the same way. These are the areas that we should work on. That should be our point from which we can unite and give things more reason. We lose that kind of sense. That was cemented in those days. Hatred breeds these things.” (B)
- “As I just told you, my final thoughts would be that there is a big responsibility on the younger generation. And I hope that one day, you will learn a lesson and a positive lesson: love and peace. It’s an ultimate that we should all strive for. And you know each other and be friends but at the time of controversy, that is the test. So if you can rise above all that, that is love.” (I)
A: Hindu woman who migrated from Bhawn, Pakistan to Delhi, India.
B: Hindu man who lived in Calcutta, India during Partition.
C: Hindu man who migrated from Multan, Pakistan to Delhi, India.
D: Hindu man who lived in Akoti, Gujarat, India during Partition.
E: Hindu man who migrated from Chakrala district Sialkot, Pakistan to
Hamirpur, moved to Akhnoor, and eventually settled down in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India.
F: Sikh man who lived in Delhi, India during Partition.
G: Hindu man (and historian) who lived in Calcutta, India during Partition.
H: Hindu woman who lived in Madras (now Chennai), India during Partition.
I: Muslim woman who migrated from Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India to Pakistan.
J: Hindu woman living in Punjab, India during the time of Partition.
Authors: Deepika Bahri and Palak Taneja, 2018