Tekriwal: The Ghost of Partition in South Asia

Tanisha Tekriwal, Assistant Opinion Editor

In most parts of the Anglophone world, “partition” is just a noun or verb, some word in the English language, but in South Asia it is the past, and the present, and the quickly festering future.
For the largest forced migration in all of human history, the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now-Bangladesh) is largely unknown. Around 15 million people ran across arbitrarily drawn borders sketched by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a man who’d never set foot on the land before, and was given a mere six weeks to decide what was India and Pakistan. Despite all the debate around and defence of British imperialism by the holy metropole, not one Brit has dared to write or speak of Partition, with the exception of poet W. H. Auden, who perhaps could’ve written about something other than Radcliffe’s trauma.
The border ran through farms, cities, and even homes and buildings and brothels. Riots followed, entire villages were burnt and trains came back full of dead bodies. Nearly 1 million people lost their lives to the random fractures engineered by politics and sheer ignorance. Neighbours were suddenly from different countries, institutions divided between lands, families and communities torn apart, and from there followed a history of antagonism between first two — and then three — states which used to be one. There was, and is, no way to return for true return for refugees who left their homes.
This was nearly 70 years ago. Today, most refugees have not been able to return to the places of their childhood, and with there being no comprehensive account of lives lost, dinner tables still sit empty on both sides of the border in houses that will never truly be homes. A friend of mine whose family left Lahore for Amritsar once told me that every family in the state of Punjab — whether it be Pakistani or Indian Punjab— has a Partition story.The people who lived through it have either passed away or are in the last quarters of their lives. Which is not to say that intergenerational trauma doesn’t translate into our contemporary societies — it does.
However, the healing must begin in earlier than that. How can we expect the younger generations of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India to confront a history they didn’t live when we as a people have been so determined to erase it?
Project Dastaan is the brain-child of many a spirited youth desperate in this race against time to attempt to return what is possible to those who lost everything. In 2022, South Asia will mourn 75 years of Partition, and Project Dastaan hopes to reconnect 75 survivors with their childhood homes across borders through 360VR experiences.
The two other branches of this venture, Child of Empire and The Lost Migration, seek to create an interactive VR experience which puts one in the shoes of a migrant in 1947 and to document the journey of refugee Ehsan Siddiqui back to his childhood home in Lucknow, India respectively.
This initiative has been instrumental in helping the nations truly heal beyond the squabble of politicians. The effort is not the first of its kind, however. Endeavours such as the Partition Museum in the Indian city of Amritsar, and the Kartarpur corridor that recently opened between India and Pakistan for Sikh pilgrims, have been vital too.
Project Dastaan directly, openly and unabashedly “aims to act as a step towards mutual understanding between India and Pakistan,” hoping to “bring peace” to the triumvirate of tragedy that Partition birthed in the three states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
One common thought that ties many of the refugees of Partition together is the lack of blame for the other sides’ people, according to the findings of Project Dastaan. It was a collective trauma where all lost, and no one gained. The Project and others like it can provide the perfect segue into the conversation that has been swept under the rug by whole governments for years: peace in South Asia.

The pain of Partition is often ignored in lieu of the frayed relations between India and Pakistan specifically. People ignore it because acknowledging that Partition damaged our community is somehow always equated to erasing the jubilation of independence from colonialism by politicians who have more to gain from nationalist populations than nostalgic ones.

Please do not mistake my poetic choice of the word nostalgia for a yearning for the British Raj. I’m referring to nostalgia for unity, for the kind of wholeness that Partition first tore asunder and then chipped away at for seven decades. During the British Raj, there was a sense of solastalgia: the term means “to be homesick at home” and is commonly applied to the panic that grips humans when the reality of climate change is confronted. It maps onto the panic that gripped colonized people while whole histories and cultures were eaten from the inside out by the rot of colonisation pretty well too.
Understanding and opening conversations about Partition may also provide solutions for Kashmir. Who can deny that Kashmir has not suffered as much as, if differently than, Punjab? This is South Asia’s paradise lost.
I have visited the Partition museum in Amritsar, and I remember the entire experience as hushed people shuffled from one room to another, one ache to another. I read about separated twins, rampages of rape, and stories and more stories embalmed in this monument for what had been lost and could not be retrieved.
And at Wagah-Attari, one of the most militarised borders in our contemporary world, nothing more than some barbed wire, some firearms and two distinct flags, differentiate the people on the two sides of this contentious perimeter.

Tanisha Tekriwal is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.