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South-Asian Partition Studies: An ‘industry’ in the making?

By Debasri Basu

The sundering of the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion in 1947 has been a watershed in the history of South Asia, casting a pervading impact on its populace. The people of India, Pakistan and latter-day Bangladesh have had to encounter a gamut of experiences on account of this which have, over the last seven decades, been expressed through diverse modes. The most immediate responses were journalistic reportage, followed by fiction, poetry and allied literary depictions as well as chronicles, which in turn led to the framing of ‘history proper’. In later years, oral testimonies came up in a big way to supplement written accounts and highlight the importance of ‘petite’ against the bulk of ‘grand’ narratives.

Having said that, it ought to be borne in mind that the field is a particularly explosive one, and has remained so for all these years. That there was a lag between the event and much of its representation cannot be denied, and has sometimes been ascribed to an often self-imposed moratorium by sections of the intelligentsia. It could have been the result of their own sense of repugnance at the gross brutalities that had transpired, which numbed them into relative silence. The prevalent polemics of that period could also have contributed to it, since it impeded the evolving of a milieu conducive to any unencumbered deliberation on the topic. The common argument was that the wounds were quite raw and parochial dogmas still held sway. Incidentally, Tapati Chakravarty refers to a ‘literary policy’ directed against the manifestation of such themes in literature in her essay, “The Paradox of a Fleeting Presence” (268), where she illustrates the aversion for subjects with contentious implications. The furore in India over M. S. Sathyu’s 1973 Urdu movie Garm Hava and the 1988 Doordarshan telecast of Govind Nihalani-directed television series Tamas [whose plot-line was based on Bhisham Sahni’s Hindi novel of the same title] is also an index of the communally-charged atmosphere that remained entrenched in the polity much after the Partition.

It is only in the last couple of decades that the issue has registered a greater degree of discussion in academic and public spheres. This change is, perhaps, the natural corollary of the fact that a large segment of the witnesses to the Partition had grown old, prompting historians and scholars to record their testimonies while it could be feasible. As far as the survivors themselves were concerned, the passage of almost half a century had sufficiently lent a ‘distance’ essential for creating a ‘perspective’ to review their past. Some of them still felt the pangs while speaking about those agonizing days, but others, especially Sikh refugees, came forward to articulate their observations, regarding it imperative in view of the phases of politico-religious turmoil in the intervening duration – most notably the anti-Sikh conflagration after the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi, in 1984. Not surprisingly, the time was thus ripe for the development of a distinct academic domain, termed Partition Studies, which started delving deeper into not merely the causes of the political divide but also its multifarious repercussions.

This growth found an almost concurrent impetus from the blooming of what has come to be known as Partition Literature. Unlike history, literature had been swift in representing the myriad facets of this rift since the late 1940s, possibly owing to the inherent distinctions in the two genres. The element of fictionality enables literature to enjoy a degree of latitude which is not available to history. Creative writing in the form of novels, stories, sketches, poems, plays, inter alia, in the many subcontinental languages as also English flourished in the immediate aftermath of the vivisection of India. Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Mohan Rakesh, Yashpal, Bhisham Sahni, Jyotirmoyee Devi and Sunil Gangopadhyay, among several others, took up the untold aspects of this Partition in their signature ways. As it happened, there was a perceptible emphasis on novels and memoirs, as a result of which short stories, poems and even dramas remained out of general purview for the most part. It was the 1990s that proved to be crucial in the eventual expansion of Partition Studies, plausibly since it coincided with the golden jubilee celebrations of attaining political independence. Partition, being ‘the other side’ of this freedom, hung heavily on the predictable festivities associated with the year 1997. The decade had already seen the publishing industry run into a tizzy, with numerous titles seeing the light of day. These included a number of anthologies which gathered poetry and prose pieces of varying lengths, especially short stories, which were translated from a range of vernaculars into English and intended for a wider readership.

These publications are, however, not without their share of lacunae. If we survey the body of such works written since the late 1940s, a geographic disparity is bound to be detected. Most scholastic writings on the subject have been Punjab-centric, to the almost exclusion of other provinces affected by Radcliffe’s dividing line, viz. Bengal, Sindh, and Sylhet. This is evident in not only the realm of history but also literature, especially in some of the anthologies like Stories about the Partition of India collected by Alok Bhalla in four volumes, When the British Left India: Stories on the Partitioning of India, 1947 and Orphans of the Storm: Stories on the Partition of India, both edited by Saros Cowasjee and Kartar Singh Duggal, India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom in two volumes collated by Mushirul Hasan, and Translating Partition edited by Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint. Most of the stories and accounts included in these books were written in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, and subsequently translated into English. Bhalla’s original compendium in three volumes had sixty three stories, forty seven of which were from these languages of northern India. Orphans of the Storm had one story from Bengal, while the other titles mentioned above did not have even a single Bengali or Sindhi tale, accentuating a highly skewed linguistic ratio. The lop-sided nature of such pan-Indian anthologies, as also paucity of English translations, has led to the formation of a fallacious notion amongst some people about the supposed lack of Partition writings from these regions. The upshot of such editorial slights has been the grossly insufficient coverage that they have received in most circles, which ultimately resulted in the perception about its apparent absence. S. Settar and Indira Baptista Gupta, the joint-editors of a two-volume collection of critical essays on the subject titled Pangs of Partition, reveal this general impression when they state: “An interesting aspect of Bengali literature is its total indifference to Partition, as virtually no short stories or novels of significance dealt with it” (11). We find a related query in the words of social historian Ashis Nandy spoken in this context: “Why have even the garrulous Bengalis been, for once, silenced?” (xvi). The  reasons are not too far to seek, especially when one takes into account the fact that academic discussions, whether in national or international spheres, have largely remained confined to the occurrences in Delhi and Punjab. Partition scholar Urvashi Butalia had astutely pointed out this bias in the August 1994 issue of the journal Seminar: “A serious gap is the omission of experiences in Bengal and East Pakistan” (qtd. in Bagchi and Dasgupta 1:1). The renowned Indo-English poet Keki N. Daruwalla too had echoed similar sentiments when he emphasised the need of looking anew at hitherto neglected areas: “…we need to be better informed on partition literature from Bengal and Sylhet” (200). It was only in the initial years of the twenty-first century that this anomaly was partially corrected through the publication of some anthologies with a special focus on Bengal, Sylhet and Sindh – namely Prafulla Roy’s Set at Odds: Stories of the Partition and Beyond, The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India in two volumes edited by Jasodhara Bagchi, Subhoranjan Dasgupta with Subhasri Ghosh, Bengal Partition Stories: An Unclosed Chapter collated by Bashabi Fraser, Mapmaking: Partition Stories from Two Bengals collected by Debjani Sengupta which laudably included a story from the oft-ignored Tripura, Barbed Wire Fence: Stories of Displacement from the Barak Valley of Assam edited by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya and Dipendu Das that focussed on the plight of refugees on account of both religious and linguistic factors, as well as Rita Kothari’s The Burden of Refuge and Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition, voicing the anguish arising out of this division on those affected from Sindh.

The recent years have seen a veritable explosion on account of fresh inputs into this domain, including not just books and periodicals, but also various arms of audio-visual media. Documentary movies and feature films themed on the Partition have been made in India for long. In the world of television, contents which delineate the different aspects of the vivisection have been visibly popular from the 1980s. Be it Buniyaad which portrayed the tribulations of a Punjabi Hindu family from Lahore seeking refuge in India, or later programmes like Tamas, the subject has successfully managed to draw in the audiences. The trend sustained well into the new millennium and has found enthusiastic response from viewers and critics alike. Even in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the issue has been variously dealt with in notable films and television serials.1 At the same time, it would do well to remember that the projection of the 1947 Partition in these cultural productions from the two neighbouring nations could be different from their Indian counterparts, owing to divergent perspectives from which the split is viewed by their respective masses.

The subcontinent has, thus, in later decades offered an environment favourable to the bourgeoning of the subject through an assortment of academic and cultural exhibits. Their profusion, particularly in India, has generated appellations like ‘cottage industry’ to designate Partition Studies as a lucrative discipline. It is nowadays quite common to come across numerous seminars, conferences and symposia on this theme, and according to some the topic is fast approaching the stage of saturation. There are also concerns that the tragedy of a section of the populace has being exploited, a matter which inevitably veers towards the ethics of representation. Moreover, persistent harping – at times in explicit terms – on the bodily abuse that occurred during those cataclysmic days can border on the salacious, a prospect that had provoked Alok Rai to characterise such writings as ‘pornography of violence’ in his essay “The Trauma of Independence: Some Aspects of Progressive Hindi Literature, 1945-47” (365). The criticism inherent in such a label is not too difficult to sense, necessitating a detailed appraisal of the scenario. That the topic still reverberates with readers and audience alike is a fact that cannot be gainsaid and, not surprisingly, this emotive factor has been utilized by practitioners and their associates from the world of arts and academia with consummate prowess. Publishing firms have upped the ante to bring out newer titles under the rubric, possibly trying to cash in on the vogue. The phenomenon is also noticeable in the commercial domain, and a case in point is the ‘Reunion’ advertisement produced by the multinational company Google in November 2013 to promote its Search Engine. Although the video clip tugged at the heartstrings of many across India and Pakistan, it simultaneously prompted speculation about financial considerations being the motive power behind artistic and similar endeavours in today’s market-driven economies.

Notwithstanding such critiques, Partition Studies continues to march ahead with its entourage of political and cultural capital, for despite there existing a sizable array of works on the subject, it is far from exhaustive. Ashis Nandy in his essay, “The Days of The Hyaena” (xiv), rues that in fact, it has not been as extensive as those on the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, the Jewish Holocaust before and during the Second World War, or the much recent Bosnian and Rwandan massacres in the 1990s. The numerous socio-historical issues and their nuances are yet to be completely explored even after all these years, and coupled with the vastness of the area is its intrinsic complexity, a feature which makes it all the more challenging to engage with the  multiple causes of the Partition as well as its far-reaching effects. Besides, with instances of religious violence showing no signs of abatement in the subcontinent it is imperative that the lessons from the manoeuvres surrounding the Partition and its manifold, less than desirable, consequences are learnt anew. The long shadow of the Partition continues to haunt people even till this day, especially the older generation who were either directly or indirectly affected by its vehemence. On the political front its very mention has the capacity to raise the hackles of some people, and demands handling with extreme tact. There have been concerted initiatives by groups from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to organise cross-border campaigns in order to foster awareness about each other and encourage amity amongst the ordinary citizens.2

There is also a growing realization about the need to impart these insights to the current and future generations of the populace, both who reside in the subcontinent as well as members of the diaspora. Efforts to this end are being taken through creation of digital repositories like ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’ which garners as much information as is possible through personal interviews, and makes it available to netizens on the world-wide-web. Akin to this is the founding of the Partition Museum in Amritsar’s Town Hall last year on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of this fateful event. Inspired by Holocaust museums in several cities of the world, it is aimed at preserving memorabilia belonging to victims and survivors as also newspaper clippings and photographs of those turbulent times. As recently as April this year, Netaji Subhas Open University of West Bengal in India and Khulna University of Bangladesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding to carry on an international project titled “Mapping Partition Memory, Amnesia & Literature in Middle and Southern Bengal: An Indo-Bangladesh Perspective”. Interestingly, in contemporary Britain too there has been an endeavour lately to increase public opinion with the objective of incorporating the history of the Indian Partition into British school curricula.3 All these miscellaneous enterprises testify to the seminal importance of Partition Studies in the present times and establish its relevance in the days to come, since it pertains to a topic which still looms large in the backdrop of South Asian affairs at home and around the world.


  1. Pakistani movies like Kartar Singh in 1959 (Dir. Saifuddin Saif), Tauba in 1964 (Dir. S. A. Hafiz), Lakhon Mein Eik in 1967 (Dir. Raza Mir), Behen Bhai in 1968 (Dir. Hasan Tariq), Pehli Nazar in 1977 (Dir. Islam Dar), Khaak aur Khaun in 1979 (Dir. Masud Pervaiz), Jannat Ke Talaash in 1999 (Dir. Hasan Askari), Khamosh Pani in 2003 (Dir. Sabiha Sumar), and the television serial Dastaan in 2010 (Dir. Haissam Hussain) have ably taken up the many facets associated with the 1947 Partition. The 1999 feature film Chitra Nodir Pare [On the Banks of River Chitra] directed by Tanvir Mokkamel from Bangladesh too revolved around the theme and has been well-received.
  2. Two of them, ‘Aman ki Aasha’ [denoting ‘Hope for peace’] aiming to strengthen the Indo-Pak peace and ‘Milne Do’ [meaning ‘Let people meet’] working towards removing stringent restrictions with respect to Indo-Pak visa, have gained substantial popularity in recent times.
  3. According to a report dated 21 July, 2018 in the Bengali daily Bartaman published from Kolkata in West Bengal, this move has received endorsement from many residents of England belonging to a subcontinental origin, including the British Member of Parliament [House of Commons] Virendra Kumar Sharma and British Broadcasting Corporation presenter Anita Rani (4).

Works Cited

Bagchi, Jashodhara, and Subhoranjan Dasgupta, eds. The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India. 2 vols. Kolkata: Stree, 2003; 2009.

Bhalla, Alok, ed. Stories about the Partition of India. 3 vols. 1994. Rpt. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1999.

– – – .    Stories about the Partition of India. Vol. 4. New Delhi: Manohar, 2012.

Bhattacharya, Nirmal Kanti, and Dipendu Das, eds. Barbed Wire Fence: Stories of         Displacement from the Barak Valley of Assam. New Delhi: Niyogi, 2012.

Chakravarty, Tapati. “The Paradox of a Fleeting Presence: Partition and Bengali Literature.” Settar and Gupta 2: 261-81.

Cowasjee, Saros, and K. S. Duggal, eds. When The British Left India: Stories on the         Partitioning of India, 1947. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1987.

– – – .     Orphans of the Storm: Stories on the Partition of India. New Delhi: UBS Publishers, 1995.             

Daruwalla, Keki N. “In a High Wind.” Settar and Gupta 2:199-209.

Fraser, Bashabi, ed. Bengal Partition Stories: An Unclosed Chapter. London: Anthem Press, 2008.

Hasan, Mushirul, ed. India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom. 2 vols. Delhi: Roli International Books, 1995.

Kothari, Rita. Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition. New Delhi: Penguin, 2009.

– – – . The Burden of Refuge: The Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat. Chennai: Orient Longman, 2007.

Nandy, Ashis. “The Days of The Hyaena.” [Foreword] Mapmaking: Partition Stories from Two Bengals. Ed. D. Sengupta. 2003. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Amaryllis, 2011. xi- xviii.

Rai, Alok. “The Trauma of Independence: Some Aspects of Progressive Hindi Literature, 1945-47.” Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and Partition. Ed. Mushirul Hasan, New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2000. 351-70.

Ravikant, and Tarun K.Saint, eds. Translating Partition. New Delhi: Katha, 2001.

Roy, Prafulla. Set at Odds: Stories of the Partition and Beyond. Ed. John W. Hood. New Delhi: Srishti, 2002.

Settar, S. and Indira B. Gupta, eds. Pangs of Partition. 2 Vols. New Delhi: Manohar, 2002.

Dr. Debasri Basu, Assistant Professor, is currently teaching at the Post-Graduate Department of English, Maulana Azad College in Kolkata, India. Having researched on the topic of Partition Literature in the context of the Indian subcontinent, she was subsequently awarded her doctoral degree by the Department of English, University of Calcutta. She also professes an avid interest in British Literature of the eighteenth century, miscellaneous Indian Writings in English, Bengali, Hindi and English translation, as well as Resistance Literature and Popular Culture.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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