The partition of India in 1947 is known as one of the most tragic events in world history.
After 200 years of British Colonial rule, the Indian subcontinent was divided, creating 2 independent countries; Hindu-majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan.
Muslims fled India and Hindus fled Pakistan, creating the largest migration in history. Unprecedented communal riots broke out across the subcontinent, leaving an estimated one million people dead and several million others homeless.
The creation of the border became a tragedy that shook the Indian subcontinent to its core.
Now, after 70 years, a museum has been set up to commemorate the event. The Partition Museum in the northern Indian city of Amritsar aims to be a unique repository of memories from partition survivors.
Bismillah Geelani went to the museum opening last month, and has this story.
Seventy seven-year-old PS Rawal was just seven when the Indian sub-continent was split into two separate nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
He vividly remembers running for his life. His father was a wealthy landlord, but suddenly, they were leaving everything behind.
“When the partition announcement came my father refused to believe it,” he recalled.
“Otherwise we would have shifted long ago and we would have saved so much. But my father insisted that partition will never happen. He would say I own so much land, so many people are working for me and it can’t happen to us. But it did happen. The government announced that those people who are interested to go to India have to leave within a week’s time,” he said.
The family was boarding the train to India when Rawal’s elder sister refused to hop on. Her husband hadn’t made it to the train in time, and she wouldn’t leave without him.
Her refusal saved their lives.
“My mother said if my daughter doesn’t go then I won’t go either so my father told everyone to come down,” he explained.
“So the train left the railway station and went towards India but somewhere near the border, the train was stopped and Mohammedans armed with spears, guns and many other things came and butchered everybody, the whole train was butchered,” Rawal said.
Amidst death and destruction, Rawal’s family finally made the journey in a caravan led by bullock carts. In India they started over from scratch.
And while families like Rawal’s poured into India, millions of others crossed from India into Pakistan.
Eighty-two-year old Aslam Sheikh was 11 at the time. His voice chokes and his eyes fill with tears as he recalls his ancestral home in the Indian city of Jalandhar, and his journey to Pakistan.
“We were told if we don’t leave our house within 3 days we will be killed. So our parents took whatever little cloths and other essentials they could and we were taken to a refugee camp,” Sheikh recalls.
“Riots had broken out everywhere and many dead bodies and injured people were being brought to the camp in trucks. I saw a woman whose breasts had been cut off. She said her toddler son was tossed in the air and hacked to pieces with swords. Such cruelty, such madness was never heard of before. And then when we took a train to Pakistan we saw dead bodies everywhere in the fields, many of them decomposed and rotten,” he sad with sadness.
There are millions of stories like these; of loss, grief and survival during partition. And most those stories remain untold.
But a new museum in India has embarked on an ambitious mission; to record the personal stories of partition survivors and share them with the public.
“This was an event in which more than 18 million people were forced to migrate and leave their homes overnight. It is the largest migration in history. It is now 70 years since the migration happened and it has never been properly documented,” explained Kishwar Desai is chairperson of the Arts and Culture Heritage Trust, the organization that established the Partition Museum.
“We have lost many of the records, the personal archives of so many people who were cruelly uprooted at that time. So it is obviously important for us to try and preserve it and that is the effort we are making here,” she stated.
The museum opened on the 70th anniversary of the partition, last month.
Situated about 30 kilometers from the India-Pakistan border in Amritsar, it is the world’s first memorial dedicated to the partition.
Assistant curator Ganeev Dhillon explains that the museum displays oral histories recorded with survivors, as well as archival material.
“We have tried to capture the time in all different media that we can, so government files, personal papers, letters, private diaries, photographs, newspapers, footage from official sources, stories that people have written, poetry, lots of objects that people carried across with them when they came, we have tried to bring everything together in one place,” Dhillon stated.
But the Partition Museum only tells the Indian side of the story.
People from Bangladesh and Pakistan were equally affected, but they are not represented in the museum.
The founders of the museum say they have plans to reach out to all partition survivors and include their stories, but critics remain skeptical.
Javed Siddique is editor of one of Pakistan’s leading Urdu Newspapers Nawai Waqt.
“This is unfair; they are not doing justice to our shared history. We all fought together and won our freedom from the British and we all suffered the loss and trauma of partition and the museum must reflect it all,” Waqt argued.
“If it does not reflect the true picture of those events and only the Indian narrative is put forward and propagated it would be intellectual dishonesty and an attempt to distort the history.”