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Memories and Narratives: Intimate Glimpses of Partition of India

Posted by bangalnama on December 22, 2010

– By Anindita Dasgupta and Neeta Singh*

The independence of India in 1947 gave birth to the new South Asian nation of Pakistan – one country but incongruously situated on two sides of the Indian sub-continent and named East and West Pakistan—comprising territories carved out of Bengal in the east, and Punjab in the west. What Gandhi famously called the vivisection of India had, as a consequence, also led to the re-defining of the subcontinent’s borders, and the creation of the new Indian nation-state as well.

Barely six weeks before India’s independence when the political big-wigs of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League were engaged in conversations and compromises regarding the imminent partition of Punjab and Bengal, in a quiet north-eastern corner of India— Sylhet district in Assam— unknown to most people, Hindus and Muslims were braving the incessant rains and waterlogged fields, and streaming into make-shift poll booths to cast their life-changing votes to decide for themselves if their district would remain with India or join East Pakistan. A little over a month earlier, on 3 June, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had proposed that a referendum be held in order that the people of Sylhet (a Muslim-majority district in Hindu-majority Assam) could decide whether to stay in India or join Pakistan after Independence. However, the Mountbatten Plan for Punjab and Bengal provinces had no such referendum. Instead Boundary Commissions were set up to demarcate the two parts of the Punjab and Bengal based on majority Muslim and non-Muslim areas.

Since India’s Partition, the displacement and fate of the people of Punjab (and to a lesser extent Bengal), as a consequence of the division on the north-western side of the subcontinent has been the subject of substantial historical research. Nonetheless, there remain many untold partition stories from the Punjab which offer further insights into the tumultuous days of the partition. On the far side of the sub-continent, however, the migration of displaced populations of northeast India, and in particular the curious case of the Sylhetis (natives of Sylhet), has not been the theme of any mainstream partition study until the turn of the twenty-first century. Thus even six decades after partition, the experience of Sylhet continues to remain caught within the acutely personal realms of memory, nostalgia, imagination and living-room conversations. It is only in recent years that occasional attention by local historians has brought the unique experience of Sylhet into the public domain. These accounts are invaluable in showing, that the northeast Indian experience of partition was considerably different from the two better-known cases of Punjab and Bengal.

In this article the focus on Sylhet and Punjab arose out of the writers’ own family histories narrated to them over the years by elders who had personal experiences of partition. Though the writers were not even born at the time, these were the stories that deeply connected the writers to India’s partition but in very different ways. Anindita’s grandfather was a Sylheti government official posted in Sylhet at the time of partition, who together with many others, opted for a transfer to Shillong in Assam after the outcome of the referendum saw the majority voting in favour of merging with East Pakistan. On the other side of the sub-continent, around the same time, Neeta’s father, on the other hand, was not given such a choice. Believing until the very end in Gandhi’s promise that India would only be ‘divided over (his) dead body’, the partition came as a shock and so his experience of partition in Punjab was a painful and sudden flight across the newly created border, leaving him and many like him with life-long memories which were only spoken of after much prodding and persuasion.

Anindita’s story: Knocking on Assam’s doors

Sylhet, a Bengali-speaking district historically a part of East Bengal, was joined to its Assamese-speaking neighbour, Assam, in 1874 by the British, in order to make the latter ‘economically viable’ and self-sustaining. For several years after 1874 the Sylheti Hindus demanded a return to the more ‘advanced’ Bengal; the Sylheti Muslim position, on the other hand, was best reflected in the statement of one of its most well-known leaders, Sir Syed Sadullah who argued that as long as Sylhet remained with Assam, Muslims who constituted one-third of the province’s population would remain ‘a respectable minority and hold the balance of Assam’s electoral politics’. From 1874 to 1947, the indigenous Assamese themselves had been in favour of the separation of Sylhet from Assam, as the English-educated Sylhetis were seen not only as competitors for jobs but as a cultural threat to the indigenous Assamese middle class, which had been trying to come into its own under the aegis of British colonialism since 1826.

As plans were afoot to organize the referendum, the future of the people of Sylhet, especially the employees of the Assam government who were at that time posted in different parts of the province, hung in the balance. Their immediate concern was what would happen to their jobs and seniority once the results were announced? Would the Hindu Sylheti officials continue to be employed in Sylhet if it became a part of East Pakistan? Would the Muslim officials automatically become the employees of the Indian government even if they had voted in favour of East Pakistan? By a stroke of good luck, however, following the decision to hold the referendum, the Assam government offered its employees, then posted in Sylhet, the option to choose where they wanted to serve post-Partition – in India or Pakistan, regardless of the final outcome of the vote. The moment of reckoning came within a couple of weeks when it was announced that the Sylhetis had voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining East Pakistan. As a consequence of this, most of Sylhet district, barring a small Hindu pocket contiguous to India’s newly created borders along Assam, was ceded to East Pakistan. Almost immediately, groups of Hindu Sylhetis began to trickle into Assam, of which the erstwhile district had been a part since 1874. In the absence of serious historical works, poignant first-hand accounts of Sylhetis who had to make difficult and emotional choices after the Referendum provide valuable insights into the times when India was divided.

My grandfather, (who was born in Assam but was posted to various parts of the province including Sylhet) an official of the Assam government, was one of the first natives of Sylhet to arrive at the borders of Assam, following the hurriedly organized referendum. When the results were announced on the radio on 14 July – in favour of Sylhet’s inclusion in East Pakistan – he informed the provincial government that he wanted to be relocated to Assam, in India. Word came in the late afternoon of 14 August, the day that the Assam government officially pulled out of Sylhet, that he was to immediately hand over charge to his newly- appointed successor and move to his new posting in Assam. Bidding farewell to the land of his forefathers was perhaps the most painful and difficult decision that he had had to make in his entire life. But he had little time for tears or goodbyes, as he drove his family from his provincial posting to their ancestral home along the Sylhet-Shillong highway. It was the last night that he would spend in the ancestral home that his grandfather had so lovingly built some eighty-five years earlier. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, he and his family started their five-hour journey to Shillong to report for duty within the next twenty-four hours. It was generally believed that he was one of the ‘luckier’ Assam government employees, for having been successfully relocated after the referendum. Many other Sylhetis who had made similar decisions were not so fortunate as they found themselves without jobs upon arrival in Assam – there were ‘no vacancies’, they were told, and some were forced to undertake lengthy legal battles not only to be reinstated but also to retain their job seniority. The optees, however, constituted a very small section of Sylhet’s Partition-displaced population. Many other Sylhetis also made the difficult choice of leaving their homes and possessions and migrated to Assam sporadically between 1947 and 1950 and even afterwards. The easy movement of people, both Hindus and Muslims, was facilitated across a very porous border as the passport system was only introduced as late as 1950.

Over the years, the story of my grandfather’s move from Sylhet to Assam became a part of our family folklore. Indeed, as far back as I can remember, stories about ‘Sylhet’ had echoed around us, especially during trips to our old family home in Dibrugarh in northern Assam, where my grandmother spent most of her days after her husband’s death. This was not a conscious act, nor did anyone have the fancy notion of being ‘oral historians’ for the community. These stories were simply related in an off-the-cuff manner – some by way of complaining about the present, while others were mere idle gossip. My grandmother’s sentences often started with something along the lines of, ‘If only your grandfather was still alive…’ before moving on to a story about the prosperity and respect he had enjoyed during his time as a government officer in Sylhet and, later, Shillong.

Though my grandfather had passed away long before I was born, most of his partition experiences were related to me by my grandmother, my father and many other Sylheti elders. In general, I found the older generation of Sylhetis to be forthcoming, regardless of whether I knew them or not. Some were just happy to reminisce; some were in many ways unwitting oral historians of their own community, and anxious that the story be retold and written down. Others were simply pleased that a member of the younger generation was taking an interest in the community’s past. While there indeed was ‘nostalgia’, there was little ‘trauma’ associated with their memories of 1947. In fact, most Sylheti Hindus did not use the word ‘violence’ at all in their narrations. At best there were vague references to some instances of violence being inflicted on others, besides cases of petty thefts, land encroachments and burning of houses by both Hindus and Muslims, but none could provide me with any instance of communal violence that they had seen, experienced or read about. It is significant that their stories helped me create a mental picture of the Partition that was rather different from the stories that I read or heard about Punjab (or even Bengal). The story of Neeta’s father, for instance, was one such that painted a very different picture of partition in Punjab.

Neeta’s story: Refugees in their own land

Across the divide, on the north-western side of the subcontinent, the partition experience took a different and more violent turn. The referendum had given the Sylhetis an option, no doubt a difficult one, but still an option to choose their destiny, a luxury not available to the people of Punjab when partition led to a division in which the majority Muslim western part of the province was given to Pakistan and the majority Hindu and Sikh part became India’s Punjab state. The resultant mass exodus of Hindus and Sikhs to the Indian side and the Muslims to West Pakistan has been described by eye witnesses and historians as one of the largest population movements in recorded history. Estimates of the displacement of people have varied between 12 to 14 million and deaths between 500,000 to 1.5million. Most significantly, the division set off inter-communal violence on a scale that many described as a bloodbath inflamed by retaliatory anger and hatred, the most vivid images of which were the train-loads of slaughtered refugees arriving on both sides of the divide. They were the innocent victims caught in the throes of the birth of a new nation – Pakistan – and the newly independent re-defined nation of India. They were also the victims of the conflicting political aspirations of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League whose leaders were locked in a political impasse which could only be resolved by the creation of two separate nation-states. Thus, even as the newly constituted nation-state of India marched ahead following its famous ‘tryst with destiny’, it was the displaced and dispossessed populations in the affected regions who paid the heaviest price for their ‘freedom at midnight’.

Amidst the insane acts of violence that ensued from this cataclysmic division, amongst the lucky few who escaped the carnage was my father, a Sikh, who was a lecturer at Atchison Chief’s College in Lahore. On very rare occasions my father would speak of the days immediately before partition. The most vivid account which remains with me today is his description of nights of fear and sleeplessness caused by the scenes of distant fires, sounds of rioting and communal violence in the city. Caught in the frenzy of the communal hatred sparked by the partition, my father’s immediate concern was the safety of his family and how he was going to take them out of Lahore as soon as possible. By a strange quirk of fate, one of his students, the son of the Raja of a small principality in Punjab, became instrumental in providing him safety of passage across the newly created borders. When the Raja sent an armoured escort to evacuate his son before the violence completely engulfed the city, the latter had insisted on taking my parents and oldest brother (a baby at the time) with him. Unable to return to Lahore after partition, they stayed at one of the numerous quarters in the palace grounds for almost 5 months until some semblance of calm was restored. From accounts of their onward flight to Delhi, though my parents were provided with an armed escort by the Raja, they had to stop overnight at several places as it was still unsafe to travel in those dangerous times.

In an ironic twist of fate, my father had become a refugee in his own homeland. Unlike the optees from Sylhet, he like others from West Pakistan had been forced to flee into an uncertain future, leaving their homes and belongings and jobs. Fortunately, when my father moved to Delhi from Punjab, he got a job as a lecturer at the Hindu College, Delhi University. He and many others lived in temporary refugee quarters in Delhi which saw the largest influx of refugees. And three years later, the government of India allotted permanent housing to him and many like him. However, my father was not destined to remain in his homeland as the fateful journey which had started in Lahore and ended in Delhi was to continue once again when he accepted a job in colonial Malaya as one of many educationists who were recruited by the British.

His partition experience was to remain deeply embedded in his psyche for the rest of his life, an experience which was so traumatic that he would only speak about it on very rare occasions. And though he often spoke nostalgically of returning to India for good, he never did and Malaysia became his home. His story is one among many that illustrates the different directions in which destiny took the displaced populations of partition.

Partition memories and narratives: Difference and identity

A study in contrasts, the unique personal partition experiences of two people on opposite sides of the subcontinent serves to explain the relative lack of violence in the northeast and the violent upheaval in the west. The referendum given to the Sylhetis had allowed them some time to move in their chosen direction and though this does not in any way minimize the enormity of their predicament, it nevertheless may explain the lower levels of violence in the northeast. The lack of a similar referendum in the Punjab may have also been due to the exigencies of political developments in the region wherein the Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim communal demands had created tensions which were threatening to spill over into civil war. Lord Mountbatten, faced with an imminent civil war which the British had no desire to be embroiled in, had thus speeded up the partition process. It is interesting to note that even the members of the Punjab Boundary Commission were so distraught at the consequences and the violence that was unleashed after the division that they refused the compensation they were entitled to for their work.

The Sylheti experience—which was largely shaped by the referendum— can be said to be an exception to the general image of partition migrants. In fact, by shifting the focus a bit, the ‘local’ contexts of the 1947 partition – and there were many – offer crucial assistance to explaining the nuances of each of the different partition sites. Of course, this in no way undermines the national and imperial contexts of partition, but rather it simultaneously takes into account the local, political, economic and social realities in which much of partition experience was embedded. Indeed, this could well explain why the experiences of Bengal or Sylhet were different from one another and from what took place in Punjab, particularly when it came to levels of violence, conditions of out-migration and post-partition settlement patterns.

Narratives of personal partition experiences have generally not been the subject of mainstream historical discourse which has focused largely on its political and geographical dimensions. The human element on the other hand has been expressed mainly in a small body of literary works, memoirs, and films on partition. It is thus imperative that eyewitness accounts of partition be recorded for posterity as it is commonly believed that memory fades after three generations. After more than sixty years of partition, it becomes even more urgent for historians to archive these personal experiences, both for future research and to provide the younger generation with a sense of the past. Over the generations, such stories become part of the community’s folk-history which in turn shapes its sense of identity and belonging to a lost homeland.

About the authors:

Anindita Dasgupta is Associate Professor of History at Sunway University College, Malaysia. She has recently completed a study on Sylhet Partition memory supported by a post-doctoral grant of SEPHIS, International Institute of Social History, The Netherlands.

Neeta Singh is a lawyer who lectures in Malaysian Studies at Sunway University College, Malaysia.

4 Responses to “Memories and Narratives: Intimate Glimpses of Partition of India”

  1. lokendra sengupta said

    Two contrast views of Anindita and Neeta over partition of India are really rare gifts to the readers of Bangalnama.Story of Sylhet and Lahore are symbol of cries from thousands broken hearts. Salute to both the writers.

  2. Mukhtiar Singh Gill said

    My message is to Neeta.
    Why have you not given more insight of your Father.It should be easier to recall what he did than remembrance of a Grandfather.
    A concise biography would be great reading.

  3. Bikash Chakravarty said

    I am a sylheti myself,now located in Delhi/NCR for last 40 years.Pangs of partition was experienced by me.About Punjab partition I heard so much from my Punjabi friends I feel as if I had experienced it.I was 14 at that time.I have always been thinking that why nobody is writing about the unique case of Sylhet.Now I am immensely pleased to see this.Looking forward to see more.

  4. pranab barman said

    Dear Anindita madam,
    I want a your book about sylhit memory , pls reply my emai “talktopranab@gmail.com

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