India's Survivors of Partition Begin to Break Long Silence

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NEW DELHI -- 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."

Although the political history of the 1947 partition has featured prominently in Indian classrooms, personal stories such as Singh's have gone unrecorded. Hundreds of thousands of Indians have remained trapped in their private pain, many ashamed of the acts they committed, others simply wary of confronting ghosts from so long ago.

Now, however, the aging survivors of partition are beginning to talk, and historians and psychologists are increasingly acknowledging the need to study the human dimensions of one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century.

About 1,300 survivors of partition, including Singh, have been interviewed as part of an ambitious, 10-year research project that examines the experiences of people across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And since late last year, a number of new books, research papers and cultural events have attempted to lift the shroud of silence surrounding partition.

Following the creation of the East India Company in the 17th century, the British established control over the subcontinent. It wasn't until 1885 that a nationalist movement began to blossom with the formation of the Indian National Congress. Later, as sectarian tensions grew, the subcontinent's Muslims pressed for an independent state.

By the time the British left in 1947, they had divided the colony into a predominantly Hindu India and a Muslim East and West Pakistan. The borders were drawn hurriedly -- in a way that critics say ignored social realities -- and the result was bloody.

According to conservative estimates, about half a million Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered and 14 million displaced, and about 70,000 women were abducted and raped, leaving both countries with deep psychological and political scars. Riots convulsed the newly independent nations for months as centuries-old communities split apart.

Government documents unearthed by researchers provide chilling details of what happened during partition, as well as alphabetical lists of the names of women who were abducted. Historians and witnesses have said that trains crossing the new border were filled with corpses from either side. People were "cut down like carrots and radishes," an expression heard in many Indian family stories.

"Partition is the unwritten epic of our times," said Ashis Nandy, a social psychologist at India's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "Now there is an urgency to capture the stories of a generation whose voices will fade away soon."

Nandy heads the decade-long project to document the experiences of partition survivors, an undertaking funded in part by the Ford Foundation. Witnesses interviewed for the project have recounted horrible stories, but there have also been accounts of Hindus and Muslims helping one another. Nandy said it's important that all stories be recorded.

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