The division of the Indian Subcontinent into two independent nations – India and Pakistan – was an event of great confusion and uncertainty. After the British Raj in India that prevailed for nearly a century, British India split asunder into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. This constitutes the Partition of 1947.
During this disconcerted period, a man from the Ambala city in present India decided to migrate to present Pakistan with his family. This man, the president of the Muslim League (the political party that led the movement for a separate Muslim nation in British India) in Ambala at the time, was Khawaja Abdur Rehman. The process of migration was extremely challenging and perilous during that period, but it was successful for this family. Traveling inside a train, this particular group of nine to ten individuals was frightful of being attacked – which was to be “expected” during the hot days of this exodus – and hid the youngest among them under a train seat in case of any riot. This fifteen-year-old girl later was to be my grandmother.
We are interested in understanding the importance of two types of histories, political or historian’s history and oral or people’s history, and developing a connection between them. The historian’s history dominantly focuses on the political or national aspect of history. As a result, it tries to comprehend and record the causes and effects of a particular event in detail. Oral history, on the other hand, “is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events” (Oral History Association). The former is at the state level and usually objective whereas the latter is at a personal level and can be deeply subjective.
During the process of studying partition, I had a glimpse of both approaches to history, but I was most intrigued by how Gyanendra Pandey, a historian who specializes in the colonial and post-colonial history and the author of “Remembering Partition”, has approached the subject of partition. Focusing on the history of ordinary people, he has attempted to understand partition from different angles. In his style, I’ve witnessed a fine combination of both recorded history and people’s history, although most of the material inclines to the latter. The very approach enables the reader to understand different aspects of the same event.
Gyanendra Pandey has stressed the relationship between history and memory. More specifically, he has attempted to establish a link between historian’s history and oral history, and also highlight the difference between them. The people’s history regarding the partition of 1947 contains violence based on cultural, religious and racial differences. It discloses the atmosphere of violence, rape, murder, and uncertainty prevalent at the time. Academic history, on the other hand, accounts for the brutality during the partition as something alongside a massive political and democratic change.
Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Swedish political scientist and author, in his book “The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed” indicates the distinctive factor of oral history and the person who shares it. “He/she is not treated merely as a source or object of information, but as a subject who is intrinsic to the story he/she tells. Each such story is a living history to be read on its own merits” (Ahmed 139).
Gyanendra Pandey, after collecting and studying numerous oral histories, has distinguished two narratives that local people used to make sense of the violence of the partition. First, the certainty that violence was justified during that time. Second, the belief that it took place “out there”, that is, outside their village or community. These narratives describe how the personal interpretation of events can affect the history of memory.
One can raise questions regarding the veracity and validity of history of memory, but I think the purpose of oral history is to go beyond estimating the accuracy of the event, and understand the people themselves, who constitute the “actual” history. Oral histories give insight into the people and families, which are the building blocks of any community or nation. Hence, it becomes imperative to account for oral histories (what people remember) along with recorded history while studying the partition of 1947.
Gyanendra Pandey has distinguished three partitions, each dealing with an aspect of the partition of 1947 viewed from a different approach. The first partition is concerned with the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan from 1940 onwards. In studying this concept, one learns the South Asian Muslims’ side of the story. In the second partition, which is concerned with the splitting up of provinces of Punjab and Bengal, one learns the Sikhs and Hindus’ side of the story. The third partition, however, is more human-oriented and deals with massive upheaval and violence that took place on “both sides” during the partition.
It is the third partition that is staggering to me, as it raises serious questions regarding the whole idea of the partition. Who was in the right and who was in the wrong? Perhaps the partition cannot be understood in binary terms at all. We cannot separate the heroes and the villains. Political perception about the partition can vary from person to person, and each argument can be somewhat debatable. I think by studying the anthropological dimension of partition – or people’s history – one’s political perception changes or refines. Hence, the importance of oral histories is not only limited to understanding people and families in the time of the partition, but it extends to forming the entire perception of the partition of 1947 in general.
In the introduction of his book, Remembering Partition, Gyan Pandey writes: “Part of my purpose is to underscore the point about how different the history of Partition appears from different perspectives” (Pandey 5).
Coming back to the story we began at the start of the paper, there lived a Sikh in Rawalpindi, located in present Pakistan, during the partition of 1947. The Sikh decided to migrate to the opposite side of the border (present India) with his family. Before leaving, he handed over his properties – a total of five to six houses – to the person who had migrated to Pakistan from India with his family just recently: Khawaja Abdur Rehman.
It is hard to explore the connection between these two individuals from two different nations and cultures, but this simple interaction helped the lives of multiple other families who had migrated to Pakistan from India, as Khawaja Abdur Rehman decided to give these properties to needful refugees.
Even during the period of great confusion and bloodstained riots, we can spot practical examples based on humanistic values and interfaith compassion.
Ahmed, Ishtiaq. The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. New Delhi: Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2011. eBook.
Oral History Association. Oral History: Defined. n.d. Website. 12 November 2019.
Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. eBook.