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Reflecting on the Trauma of India and Pakistan’s Partition — More Than 70 Years Later

3 min read

This year marks 70 years of independence for both Pakistan and India. Likewise, this also means that it’s been 70 years since the partition.

In 1947, the British removed themselves from British India and divided the region across religious lines. Chaos ensued as people tried to cross over to the “right” side of the border. People from all religious denominations engaged in violence. The resulting agreement stands as the largest mass displacement from non-natural causes.

I’ve recently had the incredible good fortune to work at the 1947 Partition Archive in Berkeley, California, a non-profit organization that interviews survivors of the partition from around the world and records their memories of life before and after partition, as well as the during displacement itself.

[Read Related: ‘The Strongest Bond of Fraternity’: Social, Political And Artistic Links Between India And African Americans Before And After India’s Independence]

It is no accident that many of our parents’ generation moved to Britain, and the West in general, after the Orientalism of the British Raj systematically, and with structural violence, worked to implant British and white superiority. It’s probably also not surprising that parents and grandparents do not share stories of partition easily. Both sets of my grandparents either died before I was born or whilst I was still a child with no notion of partition. My parents now have the odd story about how partition changed everything for their parents’ generation, but this was not quite the information I was looking for.

My project involved a focus on searching for articulations of trauma that did not actually articulate themselves explicitly as “traumatic.” Before coming to the archive, I always had the partition in the back of my mind. It is the definitive event that altered the course of South Asia, a place that is always considered our desh or ‘back home.’

The archive has thousands of interviews. Though I only got through a small amount, what I did see was difficult to hold in my head. It was overwhelming and all-consuming. Every single interview I came across was riddled with some kind of articulation of trauma. British India and the formation of two new states was a period wrought with murder, rape, and death.

Having grown up in Britain, this was the first time that knowing Punjabi and Urdu was actually useful in a work setting. It was the reason that I could be of some use. For once, it wasn’t something that I was supposed to keep at home or only use with a select few friends. It feels like an achievement precisely because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t learn Punjabi for this—I just knew it.

The experiences I was hearing about speak to the multifaceted nature of trauma. To know that such an event was unique and had its own specific internal pressures placed a series of barriers between the trauma I see articulated on the screen and that trauma that actually happened. Simply put, differing engagements of trauma means there are countless unique versions of trauma. This is particularly true with the development of technology and social media that enables a specific kind of trauma that is simultaneously located away from the physical site of trauma whilst feeling more visceral.

Trauma is not one single thing. I don’t mean that it affects different people differently—this is true, but not what I’m trying to get at. There are different levels at which to be traumatized (i.e seeing something on TV that inspires a memory or reminder of structural oppression, to be part of the community that is targeted, to be at the site of an attack). These are the kinds of events I mean when I say that trauma is filtered through these events.

There have to be multiple ways of seeing trauma, and wildly different articulations of what it looks like and how it moves across your body. To use the topic under discussion here, many South Asians are going to have different ties, engagements, and emotions when it comes to how to discuss partition, the facts of it, the violence of it, the pain of it. There can’t be any kind of definitive text that explains what partition was or how it still sits in the hearts of South Asians scattered around the world. Our understanding of it is piecemeal because of a lack of institutional and societal acknowledgement of how and why partition happened, and who it happened to.

Partition feels unwieldy, something that cannot be held because it is simply too big and too painful. If we’re thinking about remembrance and acknowledgements of trauma, at all levels, it is difficult not to feel sheer terror at how unseen brown bodies can be, particularly brown bodies that are suffering. Equally, there are brown people working hard to ensure that the pieces of understanding of partition that we have are available to us. That means something. It means something that we can rely on our own communities to care about partition and to care about the gaping hole you’re left with when you think about it, to care about the people who suffered and the people who died.


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