The division of south Asia into separate nation states on the eve of Independence was a partitioning of minds, as much as that of divided geography. As psychiatrists, we have been intrigued by the lack of discussion, historically, in Indian mental health discourse, on the psychological scars and damages caused by the Partition. In Europe, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the psychological impact was deliberated upon in great detail, and a consensus was achieved that it would “never again” be allowed to happen.

These debates in Europe thus grappled with issues of prejudice, trauma and displacement, and tried to understand how social upheaval impacted mental health. These issues were often brought into attention by psychiatrists and doctors, and led to the development of humanistic schools of psychotherapy, greater acceptance of diversity, as well as ensuring that medical services develop certain global and universal principles of practice and ethics (eg, the Nuremberg Code) that were clearly enunciated, and shared.

By neglecting the effects of trauma and violence, during the events following the creation of the nation states of south Asia, we (in India) sidestepped the notion of universality, both of understanding psychological spaces, and of delivering medical care. The lack of this discourse thus has had an impact on our current predicament, wherein we pay relatively little attention to social trauma and distress, and its role in mental (ill) health, as also a fractured system for providing health care. ...

In south Asia, there can be no greater example of mass displacement than the Partition. Several questions arise in our minds about the silence surrounding the mental health consequences of partition. Few people who had to endure the partition have actually verbalized their feelings. A poignant example of a literary representation of the emotional impact of the partition is Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, and many other texts, which have become a reference point for books, cinema and social theory; but seldom medical science, or the psychiatrists’ concern.

It is intriguing why psychiatrists, who are intimately connected with mental distress, were silent about the Partition. For those who had been part of the partition, was the mental trauma of the partition too intense to allow into consciousness? Was it another event in the lives of ordinary people which did not merit discourse? Do issues like poverty, dis- empowerment, marginalisation, communal strife hold no place in mental health discourse? Or is it the alleged stoicism (fatalism) of the East, the tendency of people here to lean more towards a philosophic and spiritual approach to life and its challenges. Whatever the vantage, it is intriguing that these issues have not formed a part of discourse, either in academic or general discussion.

Alok Sarin
Alok Sarin

It is not as if this blurring and redrawing of boundaries was not experienced by patients and the public at large with equanimity. An illustrative account of how psychopathology is deeply acculturated is the recounting of symptoms of psychosis by patient, by RB Davis (a Padma Shree awardee, and the psychiatrist at Ranchi, and one of the founding members of the Indian Psychiatric society) at a symposium on the earliest indication of mental diseases held at Allahabad on 5 January 1949.

He describes the case of a 22-year-old male and the contents of his thought before he developed a psychotic attack. As Dr Davis describes, “The man first had dreams that he had urinated on the head of goddess Kali followed by a fear that someone might know this and punish him. He changed his name and dress, called himself a Mohammedan and got relieved of the painful idea and fear. He also started speaking in Hindi, although he was a Bengali. After sometime he had an idea of sexual intercourse with the wife of a great Mohammedan political leader, and the idea started disturbing him and one night in his dream, he had sexual intercourse with her. He got extremely frightened and next morning he took a Christian name and got dressed in a suit and started speaking in English. He became a normal man in this way again free from troubles. But only after some time, he had strong obscene ideas about Virgin Mary. Now he completely broke down....”

The symptoms, in another patient, described at the same meeting, ran the whole gamut of political belief, over a few years, from being an admirer of Subash Chandra Bose, then the Communist party, then with welfare of the untouchables, and finally a sense of guilt and a suicide attempt following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The experience of psychiatric disease, in all its forms, is thus influenced by identity, socio-cultural ideas and stigma, and also the politics of the day.

Sanjeev Jain
Sanjeev Jain

Collated and edited by psychiatrists, the book thus tries to bring together the issues of partitioning and dividing the human experience, and its impact on the cultural life, including medical and psychological health...The events of the partition had an impact on literature, fostered a gendered violence, and even interrupted the lives of those living within the mental hospitals. The disruption of medical services removed an essential component of civic life, and the psychological and political events encouraged a social distancing and a seemingly justifiable (retributive) violence.

As one observer of the violence during the Partition pointed out, though it was quite obvious that the victims needed succour, but it was the “moral abyss” in the soul of the perpetrator that would also take generations to heal. This perhaps explains, to an extent, the rapid erasure from conscious awareness. There were millions of victims, but apparently no one was guilty!

The essays thus discuss important emotional dimensions of partition. Was the act of Partition mindful of the emotional trauma not only to those who were directly involved, but also the trans-generational effects of such an event? For a person with mental illness or “insanity”, does insanity divest the individual of personal, collective and national identity? Did Partition unleash an insanity which persists in day to day life, attitude and ideology? Political trauma and social distancing, whether by fascism in Germany, or by colonialism and racism, or other forms of social oppression, contribute to psychological symptoms.

Excerpted with permission from “Setting the Stage: The Partition of India and the Silences of Psychiatry”, by Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, from The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, edited by Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, Sage Publications.