Why must our textbooks hide away memories of Partition?

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeAug 13, 2017 | 16:52

Why must our textbooks hide away memories of Partition?

It's the time of the yearly ritual of a bombastic, euphoric celebration of Indian independence. The key word is independence here. The word "partition" seldom occupies our minds when we approach this day. The "we" of course is the suave, urban middle class that has aspirations for the future. Partition, as we try and console ourselves, is what fate was for Pakistan.


India became independent. It was the birth of a prosperous country as opposed to a "moth-eaten" Pakistan. To quote Ashish Nandy out of context, the hubris of freedom for us is best captured by looking at Pakistan as "a bird which has two wings but no body".

Pakistan with no real "body" to talk of experienced the ill-effects of Partition. We, on the other hand, were destined for a better future. This is broadly the fiendish idea that informs our public mind even today.

Think of our school textbooks to realise how we get taught about "our independence" and "their partition". The public memory being perpetually short, casteist and gendered compounds our increasing dissonance of comprehending Partition as a memory, a non-linear action of events which continue to form, re-form and transform identities to this day.

Partition, especially for students like I, was always inconsequential, something that barely had a mention of a footnote in our school textbooks. People rail against the NCERT books for not adequately covering the multiple traumas of Partition. I can only imagine how horrible the situation is for state government books.

There needs to be a concerned engagement with how our present lives are shaped and formed by the cataclysmic event of Partition. Photo: LIFE


We used to have a mention of two-three truisms at best — the number of people who migrated from both sides, a couple of pictures of trains flooded with hapless people and occupying the top storeys of the trains and how a certain Cyril Radcliffe came and drew the borders for the two countries.

The description, even with these mentioned ones, stops here. The lifeless numbers of migrations not only occlude the possibility of multiple narratives of anguish, despair and suffering but categorically enclose the chapter within these unsubstantiated, bogus bullet points.

For instance, the horrific rapes by people who were once the victims and at other times the perpetrators, gets sidelined almost to say that in the New India, it is the future of the migrated lot that counts and not the sombre memoralisation of victimhood.

Visual imagery was the second dominant part wherein trains, leaders, cartographic maps of new India occupied the centre stage. Image as a purveyor of memory, storytelling and as something that generates a minimum act of empathy about the consequences of Partition were used to be secondary. In textbooks, it was always about the heroic sacrifices of our leaders (even here one can see a clear selective bias) at the expense of what transpired in the daily lives of common people whose rhythm of quotidian activities were given a sudden, disturbing jolt of disruption and migration.


The poignancy of the event was never conveyed to us in our school days. The images made it sound as a largely ephemeral, episodic event instead of provoking our impressionable minds with what gets wiped out and what gets included in our understanding of history.

The horrors of an arbitrarily drawn border by Radcliffe never reached us. The objective fact of the border being made public on August 17 instead of August 15 becomes a more important matter to memorise. It is maybe because of this insufficiently imagined sense of Partition that undergirds our shallow modern articulations of anything and everything related to Pakistan.

At least today, with the benefit of hindsight, one can probe into all those worldviews that were just not introduced to us in schools. If history is reading the past in order to understand the present and thereby make a better future, partition studies need to be an integral part of our post-colonial imaginations.

It should start with reflecting about our complicity in ignoring lived experiences of our own grandparents and their generations. There is plenty to be learnt from the "partition-grandchildren" as well for a group of, for the lack of a better word, "independence-grandchildren".

Oral histories have certainly been a tremendous effort on the part of scholars, starting with Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, that should become a part of mainstream story-telling. Shows like Buniyaad, films like Tamas and many others should be a part of compulsory viewing, sadly a space today that has been ceded to jingoistic war movies.

Theatre plays, nukkad nataks, documentaries etcetera on partition stories need to be delved into at the earliest. A rich treasure trove awaits to be mined by students who are keen to rummage through these media to comprehend our modern-day resentment.

This cannot merely pop up as a yearly ritual of celebration and triumph. There needs to be a concerned engagement with how our present lives are shaped and formed by the cataclysmic event of Partition.

It should be a starting point of curiosity for people belonging to every possible stream, ranging from social transformations in the fields of arts, architecture, science and technology, music, businesses and many more.

We, as students, need not don the hat of an academic to make sense of each and every complexity of all these streams that got transformed by Partition. At the same time, to neglect them as a mere episode after which everything fell back in place would be tantamount of us being collectively unethical toward our nation-building process.

As William Faulkner would say, "The Past is never dead. It's not even Past."

Last updated: August 13, 2017 | 16:52
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