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70 years of Independence: With the Partition Museum, we will commemorate a painful past

Why did we not have a museum to commemorate partition? Perhaps 17th August should be declared Partition Remembrance Day, which was when the partition of India was announced.

opinion Updated: Jun 15, 2017 08:54 IST
Partition Museum,Partition Remembrance Day,Partition of India
The Partition Museum is being put together because people feel that we have sorely neglected this part of our country’s history. They want the stories of their parents and grandparents — as well as their own experience to be part of it.(Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times)

Perhaps there are no coincidences in life, because this year, when the world’s first Partition Museum will be completed in Amritsar, the theme for the International Museums Day was “museums and contested histories: saying the unspeakable in museums”.

A far-fetched idea perhaps in India , where thus far, museums have usually been very safe zones — meditating upon a vast heritage of art and culture. These repositories have reflected pride and endeavour — but rarely failure or defeat. They have looked at cultural triumphs 5000 years ago, and forgotten the events of just 70 years ago. Museums have been more about collections than experience. About documentation rather than memory . About history through objects, rather than story telling. And usually the collections, if donated, are from the wealthy, not from the marginalised.

Alternative histories, and ‘subaltern’ experiences have been left out — as have the contemporary plural narratives, because no one wanted to document, or reflect upon the dark shadows. These have been usually deemed unsuitable for a museum space. Unsurprisingly, all these years, we have not had a partition museum . But now we have changed all that to speak the unspeakable, by setting up the Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar — which has a huge emotive connect — and has already received (with a small curtain raiser exhibition) over 30,000 visitors. The entire museum will be completed by August.

In this environment, a museum on the partition of India might appear like a unicorn — but the kind response and help coming from all over the world — from partition survivors and their families, and also from academicians and media alike makes one understand that this was a long felt absence. This museum is being put together because people feel that we have sorely neglected this part of our country’s history. They want the stories of their parents and grandparents — as well as their own experience to be part of it .

It has taken us 70 long years to get to this point.

And yet other nations have successfully attempted to curate difficult experiences and ideas — and dedicated museums to their most challenging moments. Museums should not be dead spaces after all, but vibrant ones which generate debate and discussion, especially when a nation’s torment lies exposed. Whether it is the most recent 9/11 Museum in New York, or the Hiroshima Memorial, or the Apartheid Museum — every nation has preserved its collective crisis of conscience. In India, thus far, we have excelled at collective amnesia. This has especially been applicable to the partition of India — a narrative which we should have carefully preserved — because in that exodus from a much loved home lay the essence of a generation’s grief and resilience. This trauma was probably passed onto the next generation whilst still cocooned in silence.

Even when those recording oral histories had first reached out to partition survivors and their families a few decades ago, their stories remained captured in books and archives, unavailable to the larger public .

Most of the generation that actually were adults during partition are no more. We are now recording their children and later generations who describe how the world’s largest migration took place, because soon even these memories will be erased forever.

And it is these once unspeakable memories that form the core of the Partition Museum in Amritsar, a people’s museum, based on their recollections, and on the material they are providing us everyday . Most of the memories are impossible to forget.

One person who recently recorded for the Partition Museum is 77 years old , but his wife says he still cries in his sleep, remembering the mobs that had surrounded his house in 1947.

The thousands of memories we are recording right now for the Partition Museum tell the collective history of so many like him—who are adults today in their seventies, eighties and nineties. These men and women are all pillars of society , the builders of post-partition India. They came as children during partition, and in later years, went on to become part of the bureaucracy, the army, the trading community, business houses, educational institutions —and yet they all share a common history. A history which has never before been examined all together in one space. A history of a displaced childhood accompanied by forced penury. A history of silence as they were vulnerable and innocent when they went through the largest and most painful migration the world had ever experienced. They lost their childhoods, their schools, their toys and playmates, forever—and yet went on to build the new India, with remarkable fortitude.

We do hope that this year August 17 ,will be declared as Partition Remembrance Day. This was the day when partition was actually announced . On this day, every year, we should think of the martyrs and survivors of 1947, and learn from their spirit and resilience. One way we could all acknowledge the debt we owe them is to visit the Partition Museum on August 17, and together we could remember them.

Please contact the Trust at or with any information you might have on the Partition.

Kishwar Desai is the chairperson of The Arts And Cultural Heritage Trust, setting up the world’s first Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 14, 2017 11:18 IST