A Rejoinder: How do we publicly remember Partition?

By The Caravan | 30 August 2017

On 8 August, Vantage, the web-exclusives section of The Caravan, carried an article titled “Curating the Wound: The Public Memory of Partition Remains Woefully Caste-Blind,” by the scholar Ravinder Kaur. In it, Kaur noted that most records and retellings of Partition have remained oblivious to the disparity between the experiences of those belonging to oppressed-caste communities and those from upper-caste Hindu families. Kaur added that the many recent Partition archives are depoliticised, which may threaten an accurate representation of complex history.

Published below is a rejoinder to the piece by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, which was linked to in the piece. It is followed by Kaur’s response.

Dear Editors,

In her insightful article “Curating the Wound,” Professor Ravinder Kaur rightly points to the dangers of careless collection of oral histories about Partition. In doing so, however, she badly mischaracterises the work and methods of The 1947 Partition Archive, the (oldest such?) organisation which has produced the largest number of stories. Our archive is not “openly accessible on the internet,” as Professor Kaur claims; rather, a subset of story summaries are available on our site, full stories are now being slowly released through Stanford Libraries, and a subset of highly sensitive stories will only be available to qualified scholars at particular universities. Secondly, we have gone to great lengths to capture the diversity of experience that Professor Kaur highlights as crucial. Our stories come from villages, small towns, and large cities, from lower- and upper-caste communities, from all genders (including transgenders), from tribal communities, and so on. Finally, our work does not aim to produce a “depoliticised notion of human suffering,” but to create a new source base—inclusive of all views—with which scholars might challenge the colonial and elite politics that shape existing narratives.

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Ravinder Kaur’s response:

In her rejoinder to my article “Curating the Wound,” Ms Guneeta Bhalla suggests that I have mischaracterised the work of the 1947 Partition Archive in my reading of the ongoing efforts to memorialise Partition in the public domain. She also suggests that I am perhaps not aware of the organisation’s work or methods used to collect the oral histories of Partition survivors. I assure Ms Bhalla that I am familiar with the 1947 Partition Archive , especially with what is available of it in the public domain. There are several emerging or existing archives across South Asia, most which freely accessible, either partially or in full.  These new initiatives to remember Partition, as I noted in my article, are indeed laudable for the spirit behind them.

However, my article was neither a review nor assessment of any specific archive or organisation. My concern remains with the larger question of memorialisation, and how the recent push toward oral histories and testimonies of Partition survivors is shaping up the public history of a collective wound. The question of memorialisation is critical, and a deeply political one, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. What can be remembered in the public domain and what remains unsaid is almost always determined by the politics of the present. As a scholar of Partition, I remain interested in the forces and impulses—material and ideological—that have made this popular form of memorialising Partition history possible. This includes an interest in why some aspects of that history never found a wider currency—I mentioned in the piece, for instance, the example of Dalit refugees of Partition—even though information has long been available in the public domain.

The fact that the project of creating and maintaining a public memory of Partition only took off after six decades in itself calls for reflection. The long silence on the human cost of Partition for roughly half a century should interest us as much as the emerging space in the public domain for it. I suppose Ms Bhalla would agree that the phenomenon of public memorialisation opens far more questions about the unfolding history of the subcontinent than we might have answers for. To that end, I am happy to take up her invitation to engage further with the work of her organisation as I continue to work on this question of public memory.

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