Partition's ghosts

Why Partition survivors in the US believe it's vital to keep talking about the trauma of 1947

Former refugees from both India and Pakistan, who spoke at a recent event, see their experiences reflected in Syrians seeking refuge in Europe.

Last week, in the birthplace of America ­– the city of Philadelphia – Indian and Pakistani Americans gathered to share memories of the birth of India and Pakistan.

The unique community event was aimed at generating a new public dialogue on the 1947 Partition migrations through storytelling and memory. In the intrepid gallery called Twelve Gates Arts, devoted to South Asia-related arts, the event Voices of Partition presented witness testimonies from both India and Pakistan. Co-hosted by online digital video project, The 1947 Partition Archive, and part of a global series, Voices of Partition was an unexpected success – a flood of RSVPs meant that the gallery had to double its seats; people were standing, sitting on the floor in the aisles, just squeezing into the space to listen.

Fragmented memories

Three local South Asian American senior citizens – Hindu and Muslim – shared their memories of migrating as children across the new and bloody borders of India and Pakistan. Sagar and Reena Banka were originally from Lyallpur and Lahore, and Khurshid Bukhari was originally from Patiala. They described their fragmented, episodic memories of how they heard about ethnic violence in August 1947, how their parents decided to leave their homes, and how they slowly rebuilt their lives, in the shadow of homes and friends lost, in new countries. Many commonalities emerged across their stories: All said their parents thought that they were moving temporarily – until things calmed down. None imagined today’s closed borders, and the wars the two countries have fought.

Unlike other moments of collective historical trauma like the bombing of Japan during World War II or the Holocaust, the Partition experience has not been institutionally memorialised, said Guneeta Bhalla, founder and director of The 1947 Partition Archive, in her framing remarks. Approximately two million people were killed, and over 12 million displaced, within nine months during the division of India. But there is no equivalent to the Hiroshima memorial, or the Holocaust memorial, for Partition.

This inspired Bhalla to start gathering and recording witness testimonies in 2010. Today, the archive has gathered 2,500 testimonies, has offices in five countries, and its goal is to gather 10,000 stories by 2017 from a generation we are fast losing to age. Supported by grant funding as well as private citizens from three continents, the project indicates the global impact of Partition’s migrations. Steadily, this archive is creating a historical record of the price that millions of ordinary people paid for freedom in 1947.

Forging new bonds

As the gentle and eloquent speakers narrated their experiences and shared old black and white photos, a new and palpable emotional community was forged between the speakers and their multi-generational audience. The witnesses shared what they remembered of that harrowing time-colored by their childhood. They recalled the stigma of being derisively called “fugees” – because many didn’t know how to pronounce the word refugee. They also reflected on the lessons of that experience of becoming refugees.

Sagar Banka said their experience was mirrored today in the Syrian refugees’ reception in Europe. He urged the audience that while Syrians were being derided in the media as refugees, people needed to recognise that they are more than that label. They are, as his father was, teachers, or perhaps doctors, engineers, lawyers… human beings. Pointing to his and his wife’s contributions to American society, he called for a more humane and inclusive response to today’s refugees so that they would also have an opportunity to become contributing members of society.

Bukhari’s harrowing tale of a narrow escape from Amritsar, to which her Patiala-based family had fled after increasing violence, ended with her reminiscing about a certain kachori stall in Patiala. She said, “Oh, I would love to eat those kachoris again.” Someone from the audience warmly replied, “I’m from Patiala, and that kachori-wala is still there!” In the question and answer session, others in the audience, who had also migrated in 1947, started sharing their stories, their journeys. A 21-year-old South Asian American young man noted that when he discovered that his grandfather had migrated to Pakistan during Partition, it had transformed his sense of his identity: “I guess we were refugees. Refugees.”

Delhi calling

What emerged in this diasporic gathering of those who once were refugees was an eagerness to remember that experience without rancour toward the other religious community. For instance, Sagar Banka affirmed that beyond religion, it was the Punjabi language that, here in the US, bound him in closer friendships with Pakistani Punjabis. The shared familiar itineraries of beloved cities (Lahore, Dehradun, Patiala) and schools spun new inter-religious, inter-national emotional bonds in this contingent community, flecked with the red and gold paintings of the Lahore-based artist Komail Aijazuddin.

Established in 2011, the goal of Twelve Gates Arts is, in its founder Aisha Khan’s words, to “create and promote projects that cross geographic and cultural boundaries. The gates refer to the fortified gates that walled many ancient cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Jerusalem, and Rhodes – inside which lay the heart of each city's art and culture. Through this Voices of Partition event, Bhalla and Khan opened the gates of our political borders and divided cultures. The dialogue allowed people, through the sharing of remembrances past, to not only see that Indians and Pakistanis have much more in common than our politicians would like us to acknowledge, but also to forge new relations of peace between us".

This Voices of Partition is not the first event, nor will it be the last. On April 24, The 1947 Partition Archive will host its first Voices of Partition event in India in Delhi. They had hoped it would attract 100 attendees – they have over 1,000 waiting to register. On Facebook, they have 4,500 interested in attending. It seems this submerged history is still very much alive today, and people want to tell and hear these refugee stories. They will need a bigger venue.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.