Partition Museum revisits history with hopes of better future

A newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar revisits the trauma of displacement, with optimism for a better future

india Updated: Oct 30, 2016 12:32 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Partition Museum,Partition of India,Indian Independence
Lady Kishwar Desai at the opening of the Partition Museum in Amritsar on October 24.(Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

On a late October evening, hundreds of people had gathered as usual on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah to cheer for their respective countries, as Border Security Force personnel performed the daily ritual of lowering the national flag and closing the border for the night. At about the same time, in nearby Amritsar, another group was gathered at the city’s Town Hall for the opening of a museum that aims to record and preserve the experiences of those displaced by the partition of India in 1947. Hindustan Times is one of the contributors to this first-of-its-kind museum.

“They come in hordes every day to see the border. But how many know how it came to be,” questions writer Kishwar Desai, the guiding spirit behind the Partition Museum. With both her parents having survived the horrors of the partition – her mother’s family was from Lahore, her father a student of Government College Lahore, who couldn’t complete his PhD because he lost all his papers in the displacement - tales of displacement and rebuilding one’s life in a new place, are something that Desai has grown up with. No wonder then that the idea of the museum has been on her mind for “the last 20 years”, though she says she “started actively working on it only about a year-and-a-half back”. On October 24, with the opening of the Partition Museum in Amritsar, a long-cherished dream was realised.

Though the museum at present is spread across three rooms and an introductory passage, the final plan is for seven galleries spread across 16,000 square feet. It will be thematically divided into syncretic Punjab, independence and partition, migration, research, rehabilitation and resettlement and the gallery of hope.

The Town Hall in Amritsar that houses the Partition Museum (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

The narrative starts with Lord Mountbatten’s arrival to India in March 1947 with the charge to transfer power to the Indians and then of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a barrister, who was brought in to divide the country. From the political decision of partition, the Museum then moves on its impact on civilians, many of whom didn’t know of it till the last minute. On the walls are newspaper reports from 1947, including those from the archives of Hindustan Times, recording news of violence and riots as the people of a divided country tried to make their way to safety. “The good thing about the museum is that you don’t have to do all the research yourself. You can be dependent on other people who have been working and your duty is to collect all that material and put it in one space,” says Desai.

There are oral recordings of personal histories, photographs and paintings (including those by Sardari Lal Parasher done during his stay in a refugee camp in India), letters and objects that people brought with them when they left their homes. In the centre of one of the rooms is a well – symbolic of the many wells across Punjab into which women and children threw themselves to avoid being abducted, raped and killed by rioters.

The Tree of Hope at the Hindustan Times Gallery of Hope at the Partition Museum in Amritsar (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

But it is not just a re-telling of tales of past anguish, a display of old wounds or their scars, but rather a story of braving that and rising above challenges to build a new life. The Gallery of Hope, which is funded by Hindustan Times, tells the inspiring stories of people like Brijmohan Lall Munjal, who crossed over to the Indian side without anything and managed to build a business empire over the years. At the centre is the Tree of Hope – its trunk made out of barbed wire (symbolic of the borders). But its branches are smooth. “We will hang leaves on it with positive messages. We wanted to show that there is peace and harmony again through the efforts of people, we will talk of how people reconcile to the memories and how the young generation moves forward,” says Desai. Agrees senior advocate and additional solicitor general Pinky Anand, one of the trustees of the museum, “Most north Indians, if I can use that term, are partition survivors and have resurrected themselves. I think it is a part of the Indian psyche – we are survivors. As survivors you learn to manage everything.”

Read:Partition: An interactive project exploring stories from 1947

Desai says that from the time that she thought of the museum, she always wanted it in Amritsar, because being on the border, it suffered the worst impact of the partition. Also, this is where trains to and from Pakistan would cross through. And the Punjab government has supported her all the way, including by giving her the space for the museum. The museum has also fitted in with the efforts of the Punjab government (which has provided the space for the museum) to preserve and promote Amritsar as a destination for heritage and culture tourism. The street leading from the Town Hall to the Golden Temple, with shops, offices and other properties on both sides has been renovated to give it an old-world look. Buildings – both of the British era and those built earlier by local rulers – have been restored to preserve their original look. “We want any tourist who comes here to go back with a different experience and this forms a part of it,” says Navjot Pal Singh Randhawa, CEO Punjab Heritage Tourism Promotion Board and director, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Punjab. The stretch is so clean, and so other-worldly, it is like stepping into the sets of a period film. It is definitely the perfect setting for the museum.

The renovated stretch of road between the Town Hall and the Golden Temple in Amritsar which has been given an old-world look (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

“There is a lot of tension about partition, even now. So we need to understand what happened. There is a problem of defining India’s nationhood, in India we are sitting on multiple possible nations. And we have to go on asking ourselves why partition happened and could it have been avoided. To understand the nature of India’s unity, we have to understand partition,” says economist Lord Meghnad Desai, also one of the trustees of the museum. Hopefully, the museum will help with that understand and by reconciling visitors to the past, help them work harder for peace today.

A Digital Tool To Connect To the Past

Viren Gupta at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. The student of class XII has created a Partition Museum App to digitalise the project (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

When Viren Gupta, a student of class 12 at Gurgaon’s Shri Ram School heard of the Partition Museum from a family friend, he was immediately interested. “My grandfather’s family was based in Jhelum, in present-day Pakistan, and he talks about how as a ten-year-old in 1947, he used to carry a knife with him because he was determined that if he was killed, he would take down someone with him,” says Gupta. “When I heard of the museum, I thought why not digitise the experience,” says Gupta who has created the Partition Museum App.
While one function of the app is for people to record their oral history on their phone and submit it for verification to an administration, the young enthusiast has also recorded film personalities like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani on their experiences of portraying the partition on screen. There is also a donation tab for those who want to donate to the museum. “A company called Sparklin has done the programming, but the design and functionality is mine,” he says. “We are raising funds for the app through a crowd funding called Wishberry which will be launched in early November. The app will be launched in December,” he says.

Watch: View of the Partition Museum

“Not Just Putting Objects In A Glass Case”

Neeraj Sahai, designer of the Partition Museum in Amritsar at his Delhi office

It was about two-three months ago that Delhi-based communication designer Neeraj Sahai saw the Town Hall in Amritsar for the first time. “The building was a mess. Even the electrical work had not been done,” says Sahai of the place that he had been hired to design as a partition museum. “I had been approached by Kishwar (Desai) and the other trustees of the Partition Museum about a week before that to work as design consultant for the project and I said I needed to see the space. They (the government) were saying they would give us the building in five days, but they were just being ambitious about it,” says Sahai, who explains his role to be that of “designing the exhibition, the whole look and feel of it.” “We have a story. We have done our research and we have edited it to get the final narrative in place. But the story has to have an ambience. It has to be set in the right backdrop so that while going through it you are drawn into it. I help create that experience,” he says.

A few days after his first visit to the Town Hall, Sahai paid a second visit to the place with Kishwar. “At one point thinking of giving us the whole building and they wanted us to fit up that entire space in two-a-half-months. Even without seeing the place, I told Kishwar, that is not possible. So we agreed to do up the ground floor. After the second visit, however, when we saw how much work was still left to be done on the building, we agreed to launch with just three-four rooms and gradually building up the entire museum,” says Sahai. The question then was whether to just create the first gallery on Punjab or do a kind of a curtain raiser to the whole project. So then the question was, should we do a just Punjab, or a curtain raiser to the entire project. “I think it was a good decision on all our parts to go with the decision to do a shorter version of the whole story. We kind of fast-forwarded the story, removed two-three sections, entered from the middle, and tried and finished it on a positive note. It was very important for us to stop at a positive note. There were some very gory and disturbing images, but we had to end with hope,” he says.

There were on ground challenges. “The buildings were very dusty. We were not in a position to bring in all the objects that are in our possession. So we agreed to bring a few, key objects, some old letters etc. But the exhibition was becoming very flat,” recalls Sahai. They decided to add some installations, a well, symbolic of the ones in which so many women had jumped to avoid being abducted and raped by the rioters. “A well is very simple, just a cylinder and you put it there. But to put it there and to make it look authentic, it had to be downscaled in a way that it did not look like a plastic toy. That was the challenge. We researched with various photos of wells from Lahore, downscaled it, We were lucky to get these Nanakshahi bricks – these are thinner than the ones that we use now-a-days, that helped us give the well look closer to the wells of those times,” he explains.

The communication expert has much more ambitious plans for the final look of the museum. “There will be soundscaping to give a feel of the place and time. We will experiment with the light. In some galleries we might add a fog machine. There will be more installations,” he promises. Though reluctant to give out the details of the project, he promises that it won’t be “another museum that has objects in a glass case with captions”. “Today museums have moved into a high-tech space. But unfortunately many our museums are in a bad state. The original purpose of a museum was to preserve objects for the purpose of research. But they have gone beyond that. They have general visitors now. And so you need drama, you need to engage your audience, so that they go beyond and read more. It is important that museums embrace the change and don’t look upon technology and the art of communication as a luxury,” says Sahai.


Biba Uppal, 73

I was four years old when India was partitioned. My father had houses in Lahore, Rawalpindi and elsewhere, but at the time of partition we were in Lahore. I still remember the house. It was a very big house, with a driveway. I don’t remember too many people, but some incidents have stayed in my memory. My father was a collector and he had many Persian carpets. There was a wall hanging of a Persian carpet in the dining room. I was always asked to come and meet the guests when there were guests at home. I remember this one incident where I went to the dining room to meet some guests and my father was sitting at the dining table and there was a lady called Begum Shahnawaz. I remember her name because I often heard her name mentioned in later years. I was made to curtsy to her and I remember her telling my father that “sardar saab, give me this carpet, I want to buy this carpet”. My father said “I am a collector and I buy things for myself, not to sell”.

After Pakistan was created, our munshi ji offered to go back and get some things from the house, because when we moved, my father refused to bring anything. He said the state has changed, but people haven’t. ‘We will stay here’. He had many Muslim friends. He didn’t doubt them. When this munshi came back, he brought back only family paintings that had been done in London. He knew they would be of value to us, even if they had no value to others. He also brought some family books. He said Begum Shahnawaz was there with two trucks and she was loading things. Another story I remember was of my uncle, who left Pakistan later. He said they (rioters) killed children with spears. He said I have to give it back to them. And he killed others. But his family was here, so he finally came.

Biba Uppal (standing) and Amolak Swani (seated) at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Both their families moved to India from the other side when the country was divided in 1947 (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

Amolak Swani, 85

My house was in Peshawar. Prithviraj Kapoor’s family was our neighbour there. We moved in March. The riots had started. Sikhs were easy targets because they were easily identifiable. People were being stabbed from behind. For a week, no one went out of their houses, not even to get food. They just managed with what was in the house. I was already married. My father and my husband were both in the dry fruit business.

When the situation became so bad that it was difficult to reach the station – people were being killed, women abducted – then our Muslim workers helped us to come to India. My husband and father-in-law were both away on business. So I came with my mother-in-law and the other women and children in the family. My parents moved later. The workers put us in trucks that would come with the dry fruits. They put boxes of dry fruits in the back and took us to the station. They brought the burqas of their women and told us to put them on. We were put in trains. We were lucky, we reached safely. The train that arrived the next day came with dead bodies.

I was newly-married at the time and I put all my jewellery in a sewing machine and brought it with me. I thought suitcases will get looted, but no one will look inside a sewing machine. We never thought we would never go back. We thought we would stay for a few months here and once the situation improves, we’d go back. That never happened. But my most poignant memory of partition was of the time when my husband was in China, and I was visiting my parents in Peshawar. My father said there is a mob downstairs. If you hear me killed, here are petrol and matches. Kill your mother and yourself, but don’t fall in their hands.

Dr Santokh Singh, 77

Dr. Santokh Singh at his home in Amritsar. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

My father and the rest of my immediate family were in Lahore at the time of partition. My father owned brick kilns, and was also a supplier of bricks and a contractor. We lived five-six miles out of Lahore, on the Amritsar side. The problem started in February-March 1947. We heard sloganeering. We children would be scared and run in and we’d see mobs passing. It didn’t affect the elders so much, because they had Muslim friends.

I remember one incident very clearly. We were in school and we heard during recess that a mob was coming to kill the Sikhs. We tried to sneak out, but there was a big burly Muslim gatekeeper who stopped us. We went to the headmaster and he too asked to wait. He said someone will come to take us home. And sure enough my father sent a car and then the gatekeeper and headmaster told us that there was killing outside and they had stopped us because they wanted us to be safe. Possibly the trouble makers had migrated from India, perhaps they had been beaten and forced to leave their homes and they wanted revenge. My father sent us to the Indian side in March, but he stayed in Pakistan till August 14.

Once when he had come to Amritsar to get license for a brick kiln here, he saw a Sikh mob attacking a boy, presumably a Muslim. He saved him and a little later when he himself was attacked by some people, he was also saved because he ran inside a gurdwara.

On the evening of 14 August, his Muslim friends came to him and asked him to leave for India. They said a kafila had come and had heard that there was a Sikh in the village and was looking for him. He was reluctant, but they put him in his car and sent him away. And sure enough, the house was burnt down that night.

My grandparents also moved to India, but that was later, after August 15. When they entered Amritsar, they slept near a bridge. The house that we had been living in was only three hundred yards away, but they didn’t know. My father of course had joined us by then and when he heard of the refugees, he went to see if he could off er any help and he saw his in-laws there! So he brought them home.

First Published: Oct 29, 2016 20:02 IST