The paper is old and the writing has faded into an indistinguishable grey. Yet, the firmness in the hand of the writer is visible after 70 years.
Around him, as he wrote in 1947, looters were invading homes and striking at the vulnerable. Diwan Chand Bhatia wrote to his son, Chuni Lal from Gujrat near Sialkot, on the September 1, 1947: “Situation is so bad, and beyond description. Do not come back to this place… If I survive I will meet you all. Arson, plundering is the order of the day…this may be my last letter to you.’
Now 70 years later, as his grandson, Ved Bhatia, donates the carefully preserved letter, written in pure Urdu, to the Partition Museum, the lost story of Diwan Chand has found a home, at last, in Town Hall, Amritsar. His words, his agony and his despair will be commemorated. He is no longer just a forgotten number: One of the millions who suffered during the Partition of India, unsung and unheard.
While we celebrate Independence, and the freedom fighters — shouldn’t we also commemorate the spirit of those 14 million who lost their homes on August 17, 1947, when the final Radcliffe Award was announced?
Ved Bhatia has given to the Museum not just this precious letter, which contains more information than any chapter of a history book, but also a Refugee Registration Card, the final blow that was delivered, post-Partition, to so many respectable middle class families as they fled their homes. They found it in the squalor of makeshift camps, set up by the new governments on both sides of the border. Chuni Lal struggled with 13 other family members, first in a refugee camp in Dehradun and later in Kanpur.
So as we put together the memories that our history writers and political masters have tried to erase over the years, the question that I am asked most frequently is, ‘Why did this museum not come up earlier?’ To be honest, it puzzles me. The only reason could be our own hypocrisy. Or could it be because the freshly divided nations felt an overwhelming guilt both towards those who had been forced to leave their homes and those who were treated like second class citizens in the country they selected?
How were the refugee families received? In Delhi there are still people who will speak about how the culture of Delhi was spoilt after the ‘refugees’ arrived. Many of the upper middle class refugees who came from West Punjab were not uncouth.
Read: The Partition Museum
In fact, they had led extremely cosmopolitan lives: Lahore was known as the ‘Paris of the East.’ But now, having been stripped of their fancy homes and luxurious cars, they arrived (from Punjab and Bengal) as supplicants.
Those who had been alerted were well prepared. But many were not, and former millionaires slept on the streets or on verandahs of overcrowded homes, courtesy the largesse of friends.
Many were able to rise from the dust, but there were also those who found the psychological and mental trauma impossible to cope with. Still others managed to cope with the help of the resettlement policies that the government set out, and accepted the property they were offered in lieu of that what had been left behind. All those stories, public and private documents will be part of the narrative in the Partition Museum.
And yes, there are also so many stories of courage and hope. For instance, the story of the artist SL Parashar, whose works we are fortunate enough to display in the Museum. Krishan Khanna, another artist whose works on the Partition are based on his own memories of the event and the disastrous outcome, has given the Museum another fascinating account.
Among these refugees, there were many nation-builders, and there were also women who swept aside purdah and decided to work in the refugee camps and help other women who had become destituted, as all the abandoned single women were called . The museum will also recognise the importance of their work, which enabled other women to work in areas forbidden to them earlier. There are millions of stories hidden for decades, which are now being gathered for the Partition Museum, about not just what happened to the ‘destituted women’, but also about their children who were taken to ashrams and then abandoned. Some questions remain unanswered — where did these children go?
The museum will house all those memories, people, documents and stories that some continue to deny. That is a false premise — and now as the 70th year of the Partition approaches, it is time to junk the excuses and contribute memories, oral histories, any objects or documents that were carried across the border. And given the advancing age of the Partition survivors, time already running out, rapidly.
Kishwar Desai is the chair, The Arts And Cultural Heritage Trust , which is setting up the Partition Museum in Amritsar
The views expressed are personal