What does history make happen?: Teaching the Partition in 2021

30 September 2021
The course on the Partition taught to a joint group of Pakistani-Indian students began with the moment of refugee creation. They heard and read experiences from refugees fleeing in haste and terror. Participants were not told names of people or of regions. Students expressed amazement at the sameness of stories; the religious affiliation of those fleeing did not make any difference to the content of the narrative.
AP Photo
The course on the Partition taught to a joint group of Pakistani-Indian students began with the moment of refugee creation. They heard and read experiences from refugees fleeing in haste and terror. Participants were not told names of people or of regions. Students expressed amazement at the sameness of stories; the religious affiliation of those fleeing did not make any difference to the content of the narrative.
AP Photo

The Partition is not dead or forgotten. On the contrary, that gash on the subcontinent has spawned a prolific industry—films, novels, poetry, academic articles, journalism, commentaries, documentaries, museum installations, oral histories, paintings, music, diaries, memoirs, short stories. It seems we will not forget the Partition, or perhaps, more accurately, we cannot forget it. We seek to record it, analyse it, understand it. 

Yet, while the Partition seems to fairly saturate our popular culture, our schools barely gloss over it. The history of how one freedom struggle resulted in the creation of two Independence Day celebrations is not an easy one to narrate. It stumbles through dangerous terrain, among the swamps of religion, nation, justice and freedom. 

In February 2020, I was approached by the ReReeti Foundation to create a workshop on the Partition for middle- and high-school students, primarily in South India. The ReReeti Foundation is a Bengaluru-based organisation that works to revitalise museums and the teaching of history in schools. I was ambivalent. What would be the motivation to expose young people to a concatenation of the horrors, the murders and rapes, the abductions, the pain of betrayal, the loss of home, the grief, and the suffering that is the Partition? Would they be able to stomach it, to keep it at the distance that allows analysis? Should they be able to? There would have to be an essential reason to pass on the trauma of the event, even if at second, or fifth, or eighteenth remove. Yes, there were stories of great courage and heart, stories of love and friendship, of unflinching bravery, but the overall landscape seemed to be coloured with red. 

Besides, I wondered, with so much having been already said about it, what new things were left to be discovered? The poet WH Auden in his poem—“In Memory of W B Yeats”—famously said “poetry makes nothing happen.” What, I wondered, could history make happen? Like any story of human-created horror—of which there are far too many to choose from—the question was, is knowledge of these painful events an absolute good in itself? I did not think so. The question I would have to think through was—of what kind of story was the Partition an essential protagonist? 

The original brief called for a Bengaluru-centric approach to the subject, as it was aimed at students in Bengaluru. It sought to set right the notion that the Partition, primarily of the Punjab, had hardly any impact on South India in general and Bengaluru in particular. As such, it imagined Partition as a relatively non-controversial affair—even though there were stories of Sindhis and Punjabis fleeing Rawalpindi and Karachi, the main focus of the brief was on their successful integration into the cultural and economic life of the city, the introduction of chhole bhature and the salwar-kameez, for example. During our research on how to teach the Partition in Karnataka, we found there were also a few stories of people leaving the state to go to cities in Pakistan, but these tended to be peaceful departures, undertaken some years after the formation of the new country. Particularly intriguing was the story of the creation of a Bangalore Town housing society in Karachi, complete with a signboard announcing the availability of “masala dosa.” However, in explaining Partition, it was impossible to interpret the larger frame of the story as a peaceful one. 

Sonali Sathaye is an anthropologist and educator by training and inclination. She has been lucky to have had the opportunity to teach Sociology, Drama, English, History and Environmental Health at the school and college level. She currently lives in Bangalore. 

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