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.
"We have to recognize the kind of scars we are living with and work through these experiences so that they don't haunt us," he said, noting that one-fourth of the subjects in his project had never shared their stories before, not even with their children.
The interviews represent a radical step for a country where mainstream academics have tended to neglect oral histories. India has no public memorial to partition that would help survivors share their stories.
"Silence has been a way of coping that enabled the people to survive and carry on with the business of life," said Shobna Sonpar, a clinical psychologist who conducted 15 exhaustive interviews with survivors. "Many of my interviews began with people questioning the need to rake up the past."
Still, Sonpar said, "the silence around partition is breaking." A recent editorial in the Times of India newspaper said the country needed a museum on the subject, citing the American novelist William Faulkner's famous aphorism: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In a project called "Partition: The Long Shadow," playwrights, historians and storytellers from India and Pakistan have come together to find stories about the era and how it shaped communities. A film festival featuring six partition movies was screened to packed houses last month.
Last August, about 50 heart-rending partition photographs taken by the American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White were exhibited throughout a shopping district in New Delhi.
"We used every bit of public space available -- the walls, shop shutters and parapets. The gruesome images were there for everybody to see," said Pramod Kapoor, the organizer. "Sixty years have passed. We now have a generation that wants to look at partition dispassionately."
Discussion of partition is not completely new. Ten years ago, Urvashi Butalia, an Indian author, said she began listening to her parents' partition stories once more. She recorded them and eventually produced a book called "The Other Side of Silence." She now speaks to schoolchildren about the importance of such stories and is managing "The Long Shadow."
"Partition is a difficult subject to talk about because you do not have clear categories of victims and aggressors. The lines are blurred," said Butalia, who is popularly known as "the partition lady." "Everybody was implicated in the violence. In order to forget, you have to remember."
Som Datta Mohan, an 84-year-old retiree who took part in the research study, recalled in an interview how he had once thrown a bomb at a Muslim village to guard his Hindu neighborhood, which is located in what is now Pakistan. His father was stabbed in reprisal killings, and Mohan had to make the perilous journey across the newly drawn border to the Indian side.
"Those pictures are still very, very vivid in my eyes," Mohan said. "Such events should never happen again. It has taken a long time, but the wounds are healing now. India is prospering. I am no longer a refugee, I am home. And I would like to tell my story to the young."