August 17, 2017 12:46:41 am
India’s first Partition Museum opens 70 years after the Radcliffe line came into effect, dividing Amritsar from Lahore, Chittagong from Kolkata, India from Pakistan, and turning the moment of independence from colonial rule into a bloody massacre. Nearly 15 million crossed this imaginary line, Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India, Muslims to Pakistan. For 70 years, that border has run through us, and within us.
Through 5,000 personal objects donated by those displaced by Partition — letters and manuscripts, a coat salvaged from ruin, a refugee registration card — the museum aims to acknowledge the momentous loss of life and amity in 1947, especially in Punjab, which neither India nor Pakistan have quite looked in the eye. Even more unacknowledged has been the displacement in Bengal. Immediately after Independence, unsurprisingly, both countries turned towards the task of nation-building and survival, rather than look back in anger and sorrow. Moreover, unlike in Germany after the WW II, blame wasn’t easily apportioned. Hindus had slaughtered Muslims, Muslims Hindus, in a carnage of spectacular proportions. India, as a republic in the making, a secular nation where all citizens were equal, could not bear to remember the violence that midwifed its freedom.
Forgetting is a part of dealing with trauma, of course. But so is remembrance. It has taken us 70 years to make this first step. In these decades, the divisiveness of Partition, its questions of who owns what, and who belongs where, have not been exorcised. Many of the limitations and blind spots of Indian secularism, arguably, stem from this reluctance to reckon with a legacy of violence. India of 2017 seems to be gripped by the debates of 1947. It is precariously poised, with a growing, muscular majoritarianism that points to the past to fan anxieties of Hindu victimhood. But as is evident in the museum in Amritsar, there were few heroes in the massacre that birthed Independence. The best way to memorialise Partition is to shun the path that leads us down another bloody cleavage.
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