The Partition of India and Pakistan occurred on August 15, 1947, following Independence from British colonial rule. This divided British India into two dominions: India and Pakistan and tied each of these nations to a religion, where India would be Hindu while Pakistan was established as a Muslim-majority nation, consisting of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. Partition led to widespread communal violence and mass migrations that affected and uprooted millions of lives. The aftermath of Partition continues to shape the history, politics, and relations between India and Pakistan, leaving a lasting impact on families and the social fabric of the Indian subcontinent today.
Mainstream narratives about 1947 Partition convey that sectarian conflict between Hindus and Muslims underlined the political negotiations during the run up to Partition. School textbooks of both India and Pakistan teach children about the violence and bloodshed from their own nationalist perspective, where people belonging to the ‘other’ religion are accused of murdering their ancestral families. These perceptions are constantly reinforced today at the level of politics and culture levels through cross-border ceasefires and nationalist rhetoric through media and education.
Uncovering Partition histories has been an a key area of scholarship. Recent research has been done on the ‘human experience’ of the Partition. Feminist Scholar Urvashi Butalia writes, ‘each memory [of Partition] is like an onion layer, when peeled away, reveals another beneath, the core itself being made up of several layers within layers.’ It is individual as well as collective memories which provide a more holistic view to understanding the consequences of Partition, both short and long term. These micro-narratives sometimes corroborate, and sometimes contradict the official mainstream metanarratives of Partition experience that tend to neglect the complexity of individual memories shaped by differing social class, caste and gender barriers.
As a student of history, when I first read about Partition, I pictured people being violently displaced, some escaping from the eyes of rioters while others forcing their own family members to commit suicide. I was particularly struck by the Thoa Khalsa incident of 9 March, 1947 where around 90 women jumped voluntarily down a well to drown themselves in order to ‘save their community’s honour’ from Muslim rioters.It is unknown if they really wanted to sacrifice their lives or were bound by the idealist patriarchal norms that venerated the sanctity of women who laid their lives for the nationalist project. Elsewhere, people like Gulab Singh who killed 26 women of his family to save their honour and Mangal Singh who killed 17 women and children of his family to save them from conversion to Islam, convinced me to explore gendered violence during Partition and the ongoing immortalisation of such acts of bravery by society, including by women.
My view was further nuanced by recent scholarship on the 1947 Partition which has included different facets of Partition, incorporating such micro narratives using specific case studies, exploring the gendered, class, caste and religious dimensions of Partition. Ritu Menon, Kamala Bhasin and more recently Urvashi Butalia have delved into the gendered experience of Partition. While Gyanendra Pandey and Ravinder Kaur’s insightful work has highlighted the differing class experience. Kaur highlights how political connections and wealth enabled secure migration passages, even by air, as seen in the case of G. D. Khosla, a Lahore High Court Judge, who could return to retrieve personal belongings. Aanchal Malhotra’s recent book The Language of Remembering presents an inclusive, nostalgic narrative of Partition where upper-class Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh families discuss Partition as a time where lifelong friendships were forged and love that was sometimes inter-religious blossomed in refugee camps.
Curious, I asked my father if he knew anyone who had witnessed Partition first-hand, since none of my immediate family members experienced it and only knew about it through popular anecdotes and hearsay. He told me about Mr. Narendra Kapoor, one of his acquaintances he had crossed paths with many years ago. Luckily, upon my generous request, Mr Kapoor agreed to talk to me about his own account of the 1947 Partition.
Mr. Narendra Kapoor, a resident of Noida, Uttar Pradesh belongs to an elite family who have roots in Lahore. He was 5 years old when Partition forced his family to migrate from Lahore in August 1947. Lahore was to become a part of Pakistan, and the Kapoor’s were Hindu, so left for India. His grandfather, Keshav Ram Kapoor hailed from Sialkot, who later moved to Lahore. He was the District Magistrate and Additional District Judge of Lahore , a man of immense social influence and prestige. Mr. Kapoor’s father worked in the film industry and ran several private theatres and recording companies. He had close ties with Prithviraj Kapoor, the renowned actor who performed in his theatre as well. By looking at Mr. Kapoor’s family background, it is clear that his family’s social standing later determined his Partition experience as well.
Mr. Kapoor’s family background provided them with better resources and a broader social network, facilitating a quick and safe escape from Lahore. Though initially, they believed Lahore would remain in India, they quickly adapted to the escalating situation. He said, “hamare dada ji ko laga Lahore India me rahega lekin jab hamne aage lagti dekhi to ham agle hi din aa gaye…” (Our grandfather thought Lahore would remain in India but as soon as we saw fires raging, we left the next day..) The police escorted them in an open white car up to Wagha Border, and from there, they travelled safely to their relatives’ home in Amritsar. Despite losing their studios and recording companies to the violence, the family carried a significant sum of Rs. 70,000 in cash. He remarked with pride, “us waqt sattar hazar sattar lakh ke barabar hote the!” (During those days, seventy thousand equaled seven million Rupees of today!) Mr. Kapoor recounted his migration journey across the border, a remarkably effortless journey.
Mr. Kapoor’s father was given compensatory land in Preet Vihar, Delhi which he then sold off to manage his Cinema’s expenses in Bareilly. It was granted to him by the first Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Govind Vallabh Pant in 1950 who later inaugurated it, under special circumstances with a lifelong lease to rehabilitate the Kapoor family. This account too exemplifies the family’s prestige which not only helped them get compensatory land in Delhi, but also enabled them to seek a chief minister’s help to buy a Cinema, Hind Talkies, under special case. The cinema hall is important in the families’ story. Mr. Kapoor recalls, “Hamara uthna baithna bade logo ke sath ho gaya tha kyoki sab picture dekhne aate the…” (we created contacts with elite people who came to watch movies in our cinema).
For him, Partition was not as traumatic nor did it negatively impact the rest of his life as it did for many middle and lower-class people. “Nobody stopped us at Border!” he exclaimed with ease, and said with a broad smile, “we are lucky to be among few who got so successful and well-off right after Partition.” He did not witness violence, except for raging fires in his neighbourhood, nor did he face any hardships. His face is excited as he talks about his experience. I was surprised about how swiftly he agreed to have a conversation about Partition during our initial phone call. After reading about 1947 in school and college, I was anticipating that his story too would be tragic and emotional, of loss and rupture, and that he would perhaps pause or rethink when asked about it. Throughout our conversation, Mr. Kapoor spoke beyond what I had intended to ask, often saying ‘aur suno’ (keep listening..) He would often digress from my questions, explaining his family’s history, reputation and privilege; as if Partition was not the core but a peripheral event of his life. I asked if he ever wanted to visit his old home, to which he abruptly said “nahi, ab mai vaha kyu jaunga? (No, why would I go there now?). This is contrary to many people’s longing to return to their ancestral homes across the border today.
His account of having close connections with prominent Muslim politicians in India challenged my perceptions about post-Partition life as well. The Indian state behaved like “an Islamophobic agency”, keeping Muslims out of the bureaucracy and sometimes even removing them altogether from public positions on suspicion of being “Pakistani fifth-columnists”, writes Pratinav Anil in his book Another India. Historian Mushirul Hasan calls the post-partition Islamic communities in India fragmented, weakened and vulnerable to right-wing Hindu onslaughts. It is true that communal tension after Partition made Indian Muslims vulnerable to bias and accusations of being pro-Pakistan. Despite prevailing anti-Muslim sentiments, Mr. Kapoor formed friendships with many Muslims, as he had across his life. Among his personal friends were Aarif Muhammad Khan, who is now Governor of Kerala and Islam Ahmad, Uttar Pradesh’s first muslim Inspector General of Police and a friend of Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister from 1966-77 and 1980-84. Whether these friendships were influenced by socio-political prestige or genuine pro-Muslim sentiments, or a complex interplay of factors remains uncertain.
Oral history however presents certain limitations, as it deals with memories which can be subjective, conditioned by one’s own experiences, beliefs and prejudices and interviewees narration depends upon factors like with whom they are shared. Mr. Kapoor’s story is only one among a vast pool of oral history accounts preserved in books and digital archives. But it reminds us that Partition research needs to show how race, class and gender intersected and resulted in varied experiences of migration and rehabilitation in order to understand how this event affected people along the lines of social stratification and its repercussions today.