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After Nearly 70 Years, the India-Pakistan Partition Gets a Museum

The Partition Museum is unrelenting in its portrayal of a brutal era

Refugees wait for water at a camp in Delhi. The partition of India put millions on the move. (Columbia University/Wikimedia Commons)
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In 1947, after years of anti-colonial resistance, Britain finally ended its rule of India. With independence came partition: the splitting of the Indian Empire into two countries, India and Pakistan. But dividing one heterogeneous country into two independent nations based on religion (India was majority Hindu and Pakistan majority Muslim) spurred history’s largest mass migration—and years of chaos, violence and murder. Now, reports Shashank Bengali for The Los Angeles Times, that brutal history is finally being commemorated in the world’s first museum devoted to the era.

It’s called the Partition Museum, and it’s located in the Indian city of Amritsar near the Pakistani border. Devoted to examining the years before and after the Partition, the museum was funded entirely by the public and the artifacts within were donated by people with memories to share.

Those memories are marked by horror. After the British Raj came to an end and India was divided in two, an estimated 14.5 million people became migrants within a four-year period. (That number could be even bigger since it is thought that millions were unaccounted for by census statistics.) This migration was accompanied by what The New Yorker’s William Dalrymple calls “a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented”—sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims that included huge riots, massacres and other forms of brutality.

As law and order collapsed, people found that they were unwelcome in lands where they had lived for centuries. Women were particularly vulnerable during the post-Partition period, notes historian Yasmin Khan: An estimated 83,000 who tried to move to their new countries were abducted, raped and often enslaved.

Though it occurred nearly 70 years ago, Partition has left scars on both Indians and Pakistanis. Their stories are largely untold. In both India and Pakistan, school textbooks include biased accounts of the partition and many survivors have remained silent for decades. The museum confronts that silence with oral histories from survivors, and is seeking more interviews to flesh out its representation of the bloody epoch in the subcontinent’s history.

As Bengali notes, the Partition Museum is the only physical memorial to an upheaval that transformed the lives of millions. Inside, decades of silence are broken and the stories of those whose lives were torn apart by partition. Perhaps its existence will help future generations talk about the trauma their ancestors survived—no matter which side their families were forced to take.

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