The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India

Since the 1990s, rising religious tensions between various communities in India have led to the reexamination of the partition of 1947. This edited volume fits within the emerging genre of partition history. Eight essays, six on India and two on Pakistan, examine diverse and multiple memories of various groups in the Indian subcontinent and their different and differing relationships with events and the process of partition. Each of the essays highlights a narrative of disruption. Within the limits of this framework, the essays focus on issues as diverse as methods of doing history outside the official archive; celebration and spectacle of communal festivals; national monuments and religious tensions; history and learning in Indian schools; violence and masculinity in literary writings; and the location of marginal and outcast groups within historical and community narratives of India and Pakistan. The common thread connecting the essays is easily lost in the details, but taken as a whole the volume raises a critical question: how do we read partition? The contributors remind us that the neat official history of partition that the state has created suppresses and silences the meandering and multiple memories and manifold narratives that are the stuff of people’s partition experiences and urge us to think about the myriad partitions within the partition of 1947.

The book begins with Mumlika Banerjee’s examination of the role of the Khudai Khidmatgar (KK), a Pakhtun group in the Northwest Frontier (in present-day Pakistan) in the freedom struggle. Their commitment to the Gandhian ethos of nonviolence and a united India made the KK an undesirable memory in postindependence Pakistan. Can their sacrifice and struggle for freedom be recovered and find a fitting place within the national history? Banerjee leaves us with deep doubts.

Joya Chatterjee examines the place of the Bengali refugees in the postpartition politics of India. Initially sidelined, neglected, and denied privileges, unlike the Punjabi refugees of West Pakistan, over time the Bengali refugees learned to organize and demand their rights. Chatterjee argues that the refugee experience led to awareness and a language of rights for all citizens articulated in the voice of the politicized Bengalis.

Dovetailing her essay is Ramnarayan Rawat’s analysis of Dalit politics in the partition years and their demand for recognition and rights as a minority group, which they failed to achieve. As the author argues, Dalit politics reveals the true face of Indian democracy as no more than a majoritarian tyranny.

The next essay in the volume shifts from the colonial to the precolonial period. Sunil Kumar’s study of a national monument called the Qutb complex probes the delicate issue of the interaction of the Indian state with its Muslim past. Kumar argues that although the Qutb is iconic of multiple memories and associations, today only one kind of remembering is allowed. The representation of Qutb as “the Might of Islam” reduces the Muslim presence into an occupying force, which, in turn, justifies communal tensions toward Muslims in postindependence India.

Richard Murphy analyzes the relationship between community identity and the festival of Basant or Spring in Pakistan. Although partition divided Muslim and Hindu space, celebration of the so-called Hindu festival of Basant in Pakistan, Murphy reminds us, testifies to the lived experiences of syncretism and disrupts the reality of partition.

Urvashi Butalia is concerned with the issue of sources for partition history. She questions the use and limitation of letters for recovering the silenced moments and narratives of people’s experiences. Butalia shows how the poignant emotions of hope and loss depicted in the letters argue for the failure of the state toward the people who created it.

Priyamvada Gopal offers a probing reading of Hasan Manto’s stories. She argues that Manto’s preoccupation with the subject of violence was driven by his desire to see the reconstruction of a human community in the subcontinent that was destroyed as well as transformed by gendered violence.

Finally, Nita Kumar’s essay highlights the method and impact of history lessons on school children. She urges that a new kind of history telling should be developed that would make it possible to accommodate alternative ways of narrativizing for creating a national body of citizens.

As in many collections, readers will find some unevenness of style and analysis throughout the volume. Many questions are not adequately answered. For instance, neither the editor, Suvir Kaul, nor the contributors, with the exception of Sunil Kumar, engage the literature on memory and/or how they use this term. Nor do they establish memory’s relationship with history. Is history simply the official version, and memory what people have? And what is meant by by Dalit? Are they low-caste Hindus or the oppressed in India? If the latter is the case, Dalit histories would be multiple and manifold, and alternative tellings would have to be developed to accommodate the variety. In the same vein, we can ask what is Muslim or what is Hindu in India? What is Pakistani or Indian identity? The contributors do not probe deeply into these issues and hence the complexities embedded within the categories remain unanalyzed.

A serious problem with this volume is the absence of contributors from Pakistan. All we get are secondary representations from the perspectives of Indian and American scholars. These shortcomings, and the volume’s lack of coherence, make the book a difficult read. Although many contributors suggest alternative readings of institutions, texts, communities, and events, the book as a whole fails to make a serious and new intervention in partition literature. Nonetheless, it raises a salient question: what lessons have we learned from the violence of 1947? Can we make the history of partition a site to re-form self for understanding and expressing the power and fragility of our positions and of the nation-state?

Yasmin Saikia
University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill