Britain’s division of the Indian subcontinent into two countries 70 years ago led to the largest mass migration in modern history, with more than 12 million people displaced and more than half a million killed.
The traumatic legacy of the birth of India and Pakistan is the focus of a new museum that opened in Amritsar in Punjab, the northern state that witnessed the worst frenzy of violence after its western portions went to Pakistan and the eastern ones to India in 1947.
This violent chapter of history had been almost forgotten, said Mallika Ahluwalia, co-founder of the Partition Museum.
Telling their stories
Although fiction and cinema have reflected that troubled time, there was until now no memorial or museum to millions of people caught in partition.
“We found that so many people we talked to say to us that finally someone is hearing their story. For a long time there was no space, either metaphorical or physical, where their story could be told,” Ahluwalia said.
An initiative of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, the museum opened in Amritsar’s restored, British-era Town Hall.
Exhibiting ordinary items that people carried as they fled, as well as photos, newspaper clippings and audio recordings, the museum recreates the time when slaughtering mobs and bloody riots ravaged both sides of the newly created border.
The exhibits tell tales of ruined homes, lives shattered and rebuilt, loved ones lost and found as tens of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus crossed to India and Muslims to Pakistan. They crammed into overcrowded trains, trucks or even crossed rivers clutching whatever they could salvage.
Some displays depict the functional and mundane, such as a sewing machine and boxes. Many had emotional value. A woman carried her wedding sari. A heavy embroidered jacket and a briefcase belonged to a woman and her fiancé, who were separated amid the looting and carnage, but were happily reunited at a refugee camp. A woman has donated a box that as an 8-year-old girl, she pulled out of the rubble of a house hoping to put into it new dolls to replace the ones she left behind.
Violence bore by women
In a section devoted to women, who largely bore the brunt of the violence, the central exhibit is a water well, a tribute to thousands who either jumped into wells or were pushed by their families to keep them from being raped or abducted.
But an embroidered fabric strung on the well exemplifies the many instances of humanity found amid the carnage.
“That phulkari (embroidered fabric) belonged to a woman who jumped into the well along with all her family members when they were attacked, but she was rescued. She was rescued by someone from another community,” Ahluwalia said.
A jute cot, carried by a family, symbolizes the endless stream of refugees, including tens of thousands of affluent families, that huddled in sprawling camps.
One of them is Jagat Singh, now 90, who traveled from the neighboring city of Jullundur to Amritsar to relate his story.
He escaped the massacre in his village by crossing the Ravi River on a boat when he was a 19-year-old student. Singh still struggles to understand how the harmony between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who lived together in neighboring villages and towns, deteriorated into horrific bloodshed.
“In my hostel, we had friendly and affectionate relations with Muslim students. We used to visit each other’s homes. I don’t know why this turned into violence,” he said.
He has donated his most cherished possession — the documents of an $8 student loan that enabled him to graduate and rebuild his life after he arrived as a penniless refugee.
From stories, understanding
Such stories are helping visitors, especially those of younger generations, understand that it was not just leaders of the freedom struggle from British rule, but also countless ordinary people who paid a heavy price for independence.
Praniti, a law student, said the museum left a deep impression on her.
“It makes me feel so free and so privileged and so aware of how unaware I was,” she said.
It was not just people who were victims. Objects in museums in Punjab also had to be divided between both nations, Ahluwalia said. She points to a necklace dating back to an ancient civilization that had to be split.
“We have come across files which have said half of the beads need to go to Pakistan and half to India. Our entire history in a sense they were trying to divide it in a way that is sad — how do you divide a shared heritage?” she asked.
The answer to that question still eludes the South Asian nations that, 70 years on, remain bitter rivals. But even as the scars of partition continue to fester, for many, the exhibit keeps the hope of reconciliation alive.