1947 Partition of India & Pakistan
As the clock struck midnight on August 15, 1947, celebratory shouts of freedom from colonial rule were drowned out by the cries of millions frantically making their way through the corpse-littered landscape of nascent India and Pakistan. After more than one hundred years of British East India Company rule and an additional 90 years of the British Raj, the Indian subcontinent had finally achieved Independence. What should have been a moment of crowning triumph after years of anti-colonial struggle was indelibly marred by unimaginable violence and bloodshed.
Up to two million people lost their lives in the most horrific of manners. The darkened landscape bore silent witness to trains laden with the dead, decapitated bodies, limbs strewn along the sides of roads, and wanton rape and pillaging. There was nothing that could have prepared the approximately 14 million refugees for this nightmare. The 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan was accompanied by one of the largest mass migrations in human history and violence on a scale that had seldom been seen before. As the provinces of the Punjab and Bengal were effectively split in half approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs and seven million Muslims found themselves in the wrong country. Believing they would return "home," many families left their valuables behind before they packed up their essential belongings and began the trek to India or West or East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Many never made it.
How could neighboring communities, accustomed to centuries of relative peace have suddenly turned so violently upon one another? One could blame the July 15, 1947 decision by the British to hand over power only a month later on August 15, 1947, a full ten months earlier than anticipated. One could blame the hastily drawn borders, which were created by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe who lacked basic knowledge of India and was given only five weeks to redraw all the borders of South Asia. One could fault the increasingly hostile rhetoric that accompanied the rise of Hindu and Muslim nationalism or the divide and rule policies of the British.
Whereas the popularly accepted narrative of Partition stresses each of these factors and characterizes the violence as neighbor turning against neighbor and bands of weapon-laden young men in the throes of a communal frenzy seeking out their next victims, these interviews provide a helpful corrective. They point to the complete breakdown of law and order, of confusion on the ground, and the personal motivations of those involved in the bloodshed – gangs of looters from neighboring towns and villages carried out most of the violence. Religious difference might have been used as a pretext, but women they could abduct and loot were the raisons d'être. Neighbors often risked their lives in the effort to protect each other.
These Partition memories, as represented in this collection of interviews, underscores the fragility of our humanity, of the depths and heights of which we are capable of and falling to and ascending. It is hoped that these personal stories will not only provide a greater level of understanding of the lived experiences of Partition, but that they will serve to bridge the stories from all sides of the borders and remind us that our commonalities are always greater than our differences.
The exhibit tile image is a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White/Life Picture Collection/Getty.