Museums, Archives & Heritage

Memorializing Partition

In the past year, three wealthy and well-read individuals have separately sounded me out on the same idea — that of having a museum or memorial to the victims of the Partition of India. In each case, the example or model invoked was that of the Holocaust. The Jews who perished in Nazi death camps, said my interlocutors, have their memorials in Israel, Europe, and North America. The existence of these multiple memorials to the Holocaust, they went on, is a standing rebuke to the inability of south Asians to honour the memory of those who perished during Partition.

Ram Guha 2

That the same proposal independently surfaced three times may not be a coincidence. India now has a class of men and women who have become rich through their own intelligence and entrepreneurial skills. None of the individuals who spoke to me inherited his or her wealth from fathers (or mothers). These were also widely travelled men — in one case, a widely travelled woman— educated in the West and with strong personal and professional connections to the United States of America in particular. There the memory of the Jewish tragedy is ever present, spoken of, written about, filmed, and remembered in museums which act as a warning not to repeat those horrific crimes again. Why then, these well-meaning, public-spirited, rich Indians ask, do we not similarly memorialize the sufferings of our own people?

In each case, the individual mooting the idea has been prepared to help raise funds for such a museum, and ready to chip in with the first cheque. In each case, I have had regrettably to raise a metaphorical hand to stop them. For a Partition museum is —notwithstanding the good intentions that lie behind it — a somewhat unworkable idea. To understand why, pursue the comparison with the Holocaust a little further, just so far as to realize that the two situations were radically different. In the case of the Holocaust, it was very clear who were the perpetrators, and who the victims. In the case of Partition, on the other hand, the victims were also the perpetrators.

During World War II, in pursuance of their theories of Aryan supremacy, Germans led by the Nazi party collectively murdered an estimated six million Jewish people in Europe. On the other hand, the violence that accompanied the Partition of India was carried out by all the relevant groups. Hindus and Sikhs ethnically cleansed East Punjab of Muslims. Thus Amritsar went from being a city whose largest community were Muslims to having not a single Muslim resident. On the other side of the border, Muslims ethnically cleansed West Punjab of Hindus and Sikhs. Thus Lahore went from being a city beloved of Hindus and Sikhs to being a city dominated and peopled by Muslims alone. The homogenization of the cities was accompanied by a similar homogenization of the countryside.

Across the subcontinent, in Bengal, the picture was similar, but not identical. Here it was a straight Hindu versus Muslim fight. A third party, such as the Sikhs, were absent. The violence was not nearly as total and complete as in Punjab. But it was savage enough. Although many Hindus stayed on in East Bengal, many others were killed, or fled for safety into the western part of the province. Although some Muslims stayed on in West Bengal, many others were killed or made to migrate to the side where their community was numerically dominant.

In the case of the Holocaust, the Jews suffered, while the Germans inflicted the suffering. In the case of Partition, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus all inflicted violence and suffered violence as well. And there was also a fourth party, the British, whose own contribution to the horrors of Partition should never be ignored or underestimated. In the lead-up to Independence, the British rulers subtly, and in some cases explicitly, intensified suspicions and animosities between Hindu and Muslim leaders, so as to undermine a united front against them. When Independence and Partition came, they deployed key army units around isolated white settlements, rather than send them to where the violence had broken out. Then, in an act of cold cynicism, the boundary award was delayed to after August 15, 1947, so that the blame and the burden would accrue to the Indian and Pakistani governments, rather than to the British raj itself.

Old Sikh man carrying his wife on their move to their new home, 1947.
Old Sikh man carrying his wife on their move to their new home. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1947, via Wikimedia.

The manager or curator of a Holocaust museum has complicated aesthetic decisions to make, such as the shape of the building, the size of the rooms, and the sequencing and selection of the exhibits. Yet, in moral terms, his task is relatively straightforward. He represents the Germans and their collaborators as the bad guys, the Jews and their protectors as the good guys.

The task of a curator of a putative Partition museum shall be infinitely more complex. It may be easy enough to represent the British in villainous terms. But it is far more difficult to be even-handed when it comes to the other actors. This is because Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all subscribe to a narrative in which they were the principal victims. In the narrative of Indian Hindus, the unpatriotic Muslims, led by the wildly ambitious Muhammad Ali Jinnah, actively sought separation from the Motherland. In the narrative of Pakistani Muslims, they were forced to call for a separate homeland for themselves because of the arrogance of the Hindus, whose hegemonic designs were carried forward by the scheming bania, Mohandas Gandhi. As for the Sikh narrative, this blames both Muslims and Hindus, the first for having animosity against them from Mughal times, the second for acting in their selfish interests and betraying a community they claimed to be close to.

The well-meaning individuals who proposed the Partition museum saw it as a vehicle of reconciliation. In truth, such a project is far more likely to create new fissures, open up old wounds. The narratives carried by these communities are so intensely felt, so parochial, that it is impossible ever to reconcile them within the space of a single building or exhibit.

While a museum may be a mistaken idea, there may be other ways of speaking and thinking about Partition. I have recently been reading a book called Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland. Its author, Saaz Aggarwal, was born and raised in India, but her family’s roots lie in the Sindh province of what is now Pakistan. Through the skilful use of oral histories, her book recreates the experience of living in undivided Sindh, in towns and villages peopled by both Hindus and Muslims. It then moves forward to the events of 1947, and the displacement of Sindhi Hindus, to their forced migration across the border, and the hard, heroic, rebuilding of their lives in India.

The literature on Partition, both academic and popular, has been massively dominated by Bengal and Punjab. Along with the earlier work of Rita Kothari, Saaz Aggarwal’s book helps bring the neglected Sindhi experience into clearer focus. The Sindhi tragedy is in some ways the most poignant of all. The Muslims of Bengal and Punjab each have a nation they dominate, namely, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Punjabi Hindus and Bengali Hindus each have a state of their own in India. On the other hand, Sindhi Hindus completely lack political power in India, while Sindhi Muslims have been swamped in their homeland by Urdu-speaking Mohajirs and by Punjabi and Pastho speakers from other parts of Pakistan.

A book such as Saaz Aggarwal’s is part of an ongoing conversation. Other memoirs can be written in its wake, that highlight other themes, other communities. But museums, unlike books, tend to work within a fixed, not to say frozen, structure. Therefore a museum devoted to a political theme can only be feasible if it has a simple, straightforward narrative. A Holocaust museum fits the bill, as also an apartheid museum, such as the one outside Johannesburg which works within what is literally a black-and-white framework.

A Partition museum may be a bad idea, but there remain other ways of remembering what happened during and after the hot and horrific summer of 1947. These are the capacious and open-ended genres of the novel, the memoir, the film, the play, and maybe even the historical monograph. Perhaps my wealthy friends could think of funding these instead.

This article was first published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, and is reposted here with the permission of the author –


  1. I am a Sindhi, born in Hyderabad Sindh. I have read the book SINDH Stories from a Vanished homeland by Saaz Aggarwal and I think the Sindhis living across the globe shouuld read it and encourage their children and grandchildren also to read.

  2. It would indeed be enormously difficult to curate a Partition museum which reflects on the enormity of the suffering and loss of life while respecting the sensitivities of all communities. But just as Partition slips out of living memory, this does feel the moment to attempt that task. Novels, films, short stories and the recent turn towards social histories of Partition have all addressed the human aspect of that moment. Some communities find their own ways of honouring their victims (I’ve attended such a gathering at a Sikh gurdwara in Bhogal in Delhi, commemorating those who died at Thoha Khalsa, the event depicted in Bhisham Sahni’s novel ‘Tamas’), but surely something more – and something more public – is needed.

    The very difficult debates about how to make use of what survives of the H Blocks/Maze prison site in Northern Ireland, and how to memorialise the dead of the Spanish Civil War, indicate just how complex it is to find public ways of remembering civil conflict. But that doesn’t mean the goal of marking profound moments of rupture and their human consequences shouldn’t be pursued.

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