Academic journal article The Historian

Partition Historiography

Academic journal article The Historian

Partition Historiography

Article excerpt

A SIGNAL EVENT in global history, the South-Asian Partition of 1947 involved the world's largest mass migration of human beings, sectarian violence at an unprecedented scale and the simultaneous formation of the states of India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The coming into being of Bangladesh has been called the third Partition of Bengal. Until recently, however, Partition survivors refused to divulge painful details about their experiences. My uncle migrated to Delhi from what is now West Pakistan. Yet his journey is a mystery to me. Did he travel on foot with his young sisters and elderly father? Upwards of ten million refugees crossed newly demarcated borders on foot in long caravans. As Margaret Bourke-White's photographs eloquently show, these caravans were fraught with their own dangers, the elderly left abandoned, young girls abducted by raiders, food and water at a premium. (1) Did he take the train? More than two million refugees were evacuated by train in the months from August to November 1947. (2) Trains bearing refugees were routinely waylaid en route by partisans who killed every person on board except the conductor and driver; welcoming committees at the train station would be overcome with horror at the sight of these "ghost trains," each compartment filled with the dead. I learned all this from other sources and not from my uncle. He greeted my questions about his passage with one of his own, "What's the point of going over those bad times now?" The generation that witnessed Partition is now dying and, in stark contrast to their self-censorship, later generations are concerned that accounts of Partition survivors die with them.

A dedicated corps of young volunteers is digitally recording stories for newly founded websites like the '1947-Partition Archive,' (3) 'The Indian Memory Project,' (4) and multimedia graphic novels such as This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition. (5) The upsurge of a revitalized interest in the event of Partition parallels the equally insistent pressure to suppress those memories. It is necessary to distinguish repressions of various kinds; for instance, my uncle's self-censorship represents powerful impulses of silencing among survivors. The logic of survivors' forgetting and remembering is distinct from official mechanisms of silence instituted at the level of the state.

This review is in conversation with the work on post-memory in Holocaust studies by Marianne Hirsch. (6) Hirsch defines postmemory as the relationship that the generations after the event bear to the "personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before." (7) The post-generations inherit memories which can threaten to overwhelm their own life stories. For Hirsch, the connection between postmemory and the past is "mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation." (8) Both the upsurge of interest and the imperative to forget suggest that now is the ideal moment to: i) evaluate Partition historiography; ii) identify the seminal texts that continue to define the debates; and iii) mark how Partition studies have been influenced by interdisciplinary fields such as studies of violence, memory, and literary analysis.

For historians, the event of Partition poses certain analytical problems. In the first place, there is debate whether Partition should be treated as one discrete event with no direct bearing on other aspects of South-Asian history, or as the clarifying event that deserves prime importance in any analysis of post-independence South-Asian history. Regardless of its treatment of this fundamental question, Partition historiography primarily explores the following themes: a "high-politics" explanation that focused on causes; feminist analysis that relies on oral histories and memoirs to investigate effects; attention to liminal or marginal communities in relation to Partition violence; critical theorizing of Partition as part of nationalism's originary violence; and finally, literary Partition which served as a productive, ongoing conversation between historians, novelists, and filmmakers in order to describe the lingering effects on the life of the subcontinent today. …

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