Friday, March 14, 2008

Interviewing Partition Survivors

Via 3QD, I came across an article in the Washington Post about a 10 year research project, based in Delhi but funded by the Ford Foundation, to interview thousands of survivors of the 1947 Partition.

The story begins with a powerful anecdote:

Every year in March, Bir Bahadur Singh goes to the local Sikh shrine and narrates the grim events of the long night six decades ago when 26 women in his family offered their necks to the sword for the sake of honor.

At the time, sectarian riots were raging over the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and the men of Singh's family decided it was better to kill the women than have them fall into the hands of Muslim mobs.

"None of the women protested, nobody wept," Singh, 78, recalled as he stroked his long, flowing white beard, his voice slipping into a whisper. "All I could hear was the sound of prayer and the swing of the sword going down on their necks. My story can fill a book." (link)

These 'honor killings', where women were killed by male members of their families to prevent their being raped by communal mobs, were not at all unusual. I do not know if they happened in other communities, but in the Sikh community in particular it is thought that thousands of women died this way. (I do not think anybody knows exactly how many it was.)

Thus far, the project has interviewed about 1300 people, including Bir Bahadur Singh. The project ("Reconstructing Lives: Memories of Partition") does not appear to have a web presence, and I'm not sure whether there are any plans to digitize the tapes from the interviews, or publish raw transcripts. Hopefully, that will be in the cards at some point.

Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, where there have been many documentary projects, including a number of survivor interview projects, the Partition of India has only been studied in dribs and drabs. There is, as I understand it, no public memorial to the Partition in India itself (compare to the many museums and monuments devoted to memorializing the Holocaust in western countries).

But a full knowledge of the true history, including these personal testimonials, is extremely important, for a number of reasons. First, it adds to the historical record, and makes it harder for extremist (communal) groups on both sides of the border to distort the story, or to put all of the blame for today's problems on the other party. Second, a fuller knowledge from a position of historical distance might help everyone address the lingering trauma the event created (it's no accident that the person heading this operation is a psychologist), so we can start to address the root causes of this kind of violence.

Other posts on Partition to look at: here, here, and here.


Anonymous ed said...

Unfortunately, it seems that historical memory needs 2 generations to find the 'courage' to commemorate - it seems that only those far enough removed to be actively involved talk about or act in order to respect true historical accounts. Your parallel to the Holocaust in western countries is unfortunately also fitting in so far as it only slowly began in Austria (where I am from and still a resident) in the mid 1980s and here too it was first the arts and individual projects that finally managed to trigger public awareness not only of the events themselves but of the massive involvement of the 'common people'. In so far, I think that times are also changing with respect to Partition stories - it is 'just' taking so long, because Partition was not over with 1947 itself... thus the generations active in the cruelty and slaughter connected with Partition and the events that followed are still very much around and in respected positions maybe.
But literature is giving very moving accounts that do no longer offer (feigned) oblivion. Two texts dealing with the Sikh history in this respect that I would highly recommend are Shauna Singh Baldwin's first novel "What the body remembers" where, among other things you also have a - excuse this choice of words - beautifully poetically rendered description of the horrid killing for honor of the females of the household. The other is a more recent text and interestingly enough by a non-Sikh, but maybe thus even more effectively able to portray not only the global involvement in extremist movements and how distances distorted views are the real danger leading to terrorism, but also depicting that partition and the hatred it stirred among religious groups is still not close to being resolved. Anita Rau Badami's "Can You Hear the Nightbird Call" - admittedly both texts by writers living abroad..... And - again only judging by the Austrian experience regarding the Holocaust which we are yet far from properly dealing with as our history - I do see developments in the right direction, because once literature manages to present individual life stories - even if fictitious - the complexity of historical developments on the individual level is brought to the fore and thus generalizing statements that lead to stereotyping etc. are contradicted or no longer appeal to the people. Maybe that is naive ... but being in the humanities I cannot but believe in the power of the arts :)

4:59 PM  
Anonymous narayan said...

I just watched "Khamosh Pani" (on Netflix as "Silent Waters"). I got confused towards the end regarding the other women in the story, but what was clear is that there were Muslim women who met the same fate. Two sides with mirrored claims of suffering distinguishes the Partition from the Holocaust. The latter, like happenings in Rwanda, Darfur, etc, was one-sided -- true Genocide. The problem here is that no matter how human the issue, Pakistan and India will never commit to burying the hatchet. One injured party and we can work toward forgiveness; two injured parties and the world offers few models.

Another factor is that the poor suffered much more than the rich. (I may be terribly off the mark here. If so, will someone please speak up and correct me?) Genocides don't discriminate in this way.

In the early 60s, a Sindhi classmate who was perhaps two or three at Partition got all tremulous recounting his family's experiences, as if they were embedded in such vivid detail in his own consciousness. Sympathy was surely due him, but, two generations later I would ask, "what are you doing about it"? Having become more of a skeptic in the intervening years, I would also question the validity of memories. Life-changing events likely develop a life of their own over time.

Unless one makes a personal effort to curb them, hatreds will be passed on. While memorialization undoubtedly heals by spreading consciousness of events, it also has the effect of perpetuation of grief. In the current climate, even a neutral mediator, a Desmond Tutu, may not placate the two sides. Had South Africans and Rwandans waited sixty years, there would be no possibility of reconciliation for them either. I doubt that there will ever be monuments and museums to Apartheid and Genocide in those countries.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the problem with the semi-amnesia regarding Partition in the Indian subcontinent is the fact that the underlying motives are still inseparable from current political realities.

The very motive for partition is the raison d'etre for Pakistan and indirectly, Bangladesh. On the Indian side, there often seems to be a knee-jerk reaction towards blaming the British entirely for initiating Partition.

In sum, none of the communal parties involved find it in their interest to study, recall and assuage the wounds of Partition. This sounds cynical, I know, but it was a very successful bloodbath for ALL sides as it handily satisfied their political need for victimization and segregation in lieu of social integration.

12:34 PM  

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