Art & Culture

Palestine's history takes a leaf out of India's Partition

Urvashi Butalia
Urvashi ButaliaMay 15, 2015 | 19:49

Palestine's history takes a leaf out of India's Partition

Every year on May 15, Palestinian communities across the world come together in their respective countries to observe al Nakba, or the day of the catastrophe, which marks a long, ongoing history of homelessness, refugeeism, violence and often despair. In 2011, I happened to be in Israel on this day - that was the year when the marking of al Nakba in Israel's neighbouring countries once again became contentious. In Israel, the border forces reacted with tear gas and shooting. Accompanied by two Palestinian friends, I managed to make my way across from Tel Aviv into Ramallah - and found myself, first, in the thick of tear gas attacks and shouting and anger on the streets and then, deeper inside the town, in the marketplace where people sat around an improvised stage, singing, talking, remembering the day, in 1948, on which they became strangers in their own land - almost mourning, a day which one might think was best forgotten.

Partition: The Long Shadow; Zubaan/Penguin Viking; Rs 361.

I realised then how contentious acts of remembering and forgetting can be, and how, sometimes, state power can be called into the service of suppressing memory. For the Palestinians, the necessity of remembering was a way of keeping alive a history that stretched its long arm into their present, and indeed into the future of their children. And yet, the imperative to remember was not universal among Palestinians either, for many felt this was a history best left behind, a history from which it was time to move on. For the Israelis, the necessity of forgetting that very same history made it incumbent that they do their best, indeed use their power, to suppress and not allow the surfacing of that memory, even if it meant using tear gas shells and guns. Depending on where you are placed and which perspective you approach them from, acts of remembering and forgetting can mean very different things.

Something like that applies to Partition too. Broadly speaking, for Indians, remembering Partition means recalling the dark side of Independence, a moment of loss, a moment when the country was divided and that which was lost was immeasurable - for it was not only homelands, and families, and material things but much more that could not be articulated, sometimes not even named.


This is perhaps why, nearly seven decades on, we have still not found a way of memorialising Partition, acknowledging what people lived through. Not only does it look different from either "side" - for Pakistanis, the same moment is one where a nation, an identity was gained - but, over the years, its memories have become more complex, acquired more nuance and layers, and been seen differently, depending on the particular circumstances of the moment of remembering. Further, as the numbers of those who retain direct, experiential memories diminish, as their stories recede, ways of remembering also change, the filters through which such memories are passed on - whether in and through literature, or music, or art and so much more - now begin to shape how they are passed on.

For Indians, remembering Partition means recalling the dark side of Independence, a moment of loss, when the country was divided and that which was lost was immeasurable.

With distance, the power and poignancy of the direct story are often muted, and what tends to acquire more importance is the business of living with the consequences of that history. And in many ways this is in the fitness of things, for generations who will not have the direct experience of having lived through violence, loot, rape, arson, can only know that history through the multiple ways in which it is handed down to us.


The exploration of memory is also not something that is or can be finite. One cannot begin to open up memory and reach a point where the exercise is done and can be laid to rest. Every historical moment that offers us the possibility of looking at it through the prism of memory demonstrates that the more you search, the more there is that opens up. Onion-like, each layer peeled away reveals another beneath, the core itself being made up of layers within layers. When the initial works that opened up Partition histories, particularly those that drew on first-person accounts, appeared, they tended to focus on the untold stories of Partition victims and survivors, mainly Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. It was only later that other studies, such as those of Sindhis, or minorities, or Muslims who stayed behind in India, or stories of continued displacement, of caste and class and studies with other perspectives, began to open up. Today there is talk of second generation experiences and the impact of Partition, and the focus on migration and violence has broadened to include so much more.

This volume, initially conceived as a set of lectures to mark the 60th anniversary of Partition, and later expanded to take in new works as well, reflects some of these new explorations. It turns its attention to the 'peripheries' - Ladakh, Kashmir, Assam - in its exploration of the long-term consequences of Partition. Similarly, it explores art and literature, and new forms of narrative such as the graphic story; it looks at the experience of 'resettlement', forcible eviction and the massacre of Dalits and poor refugees in Marichjhapi: it examines Gandhi's ideas of violence and non-violent action. It examines the involvement of communists, of Sindhis, and the meaning, for Partition refugees and survivors, of notions of home, belonging, territoriality.

And time and again it poses the question: how do we move forward and not only carry this history with us, but also transcend it? Is this even possible?

Last updated: January 17, 2016 | 15:30
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