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News Category: Blog

“Social” Media: How Old Newspapers Help Us Understand Partition

Whenever my Pakistani family and acquaintances discuss the original ‘Brexit’, the 1947 transfer of governance to the new states of India and Pakistan, we mostly talk about communal tensions among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, or focus on contemporary political shenanigans in the region. Though most branches of my family were directly affected by the events of 1947, we rarely discuss its personal and familial impact. This interplay of easy conversation and silences around the Partition is a trope in the inheritances of history and family mythology in many Pakistani and Indian families.  

The academic industry around Partition, however, has recently begun to understand that individual and social experiences, as Ilyas Chattha says, are “Partition history’s integral subject, not just its by-product or an aberration”.

We learn more about this world-changing event from the stories of men, women and children who were not in the top tiers of the Muslim League or Indian National Congress parties whose history has come to define this seminal event in the world’s memory.  

As a researcher on The Mittal Institute’s collaborative Partition project, my goal has been to find and understand several pairs of opposites – care and violence, survival and death – as they co-existed in South Asia immediately before and after August 1947. In this massive, under-documented humanitarian episode, the ‘human’ element needs to be better represented in all its complexity.  


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The echo chambers of nationalism present a challenge in developing a three-dimensional model of how the millions of people were affected by Partition, making it harder to conceptualize a true ‘people’s history’. A significant portion of this historiographic focus, certainly in the English language, has been on what would become ‘Indian’ stories, for a variety of reasons.

In the case of Pakistan, at least, the archives that could give shape to a subaltern narrative are lost, scattered or obscured behind concentric circles of privacy, without a will to even look. The country’s fledgling bureaucracy, as well as citizenry, lacked the pre-existing infrastructure and wealth that existed across the border, resulting in a relative flattening of Partition narratives in circulation.  

In the face of this, the rare academics who give time and attention to Pakistan have recently relied extensively on oral histories and also on media analysis to substantiate the description of the human toll of Partition – and, therefore, independence – beyond statistics (assuming these statistics even exist or can be traced).  

Newspapers, along with radio, in Urdu and English, were the main platforms available for displaced people (and those concerned with them) to make a case for themselves. There are classifieds advertizing business opportunities and details of lost loved ones, and passionate letters to the editor that signal discontent to state authorities.

Government organs and functionaries also relied on the tools of media to communicate with their new citizens, as they sought to shape that very citizenry.

There were photographs of politicians in ‘charismatic’ mode speaking and posing among refugees, who were often shown in either classic images of destitution and despair, or occasionally as heroic survivors, much like the new state of Pakistan, which claimed as part of its mystique a resilience in the face of many threats to its independence and security.  

Of course, these resources were most available to those with certain privileges. In a region with relatively low literacy, and where rural areas were particularly affected by disruption and displacement, English and Urdu-language media were not truly representative of the struggles and joys of life of over five million refugees (and the deduction and absence of a similarly-sized population of non-Muslim evacuees).  

The themes that emerge from the layout and content of a newspaper like Dawn, even when addressing the needs of the less privileged, can at best merely hint at the overall picture of what the newly-realized Pakistan meant for the lived experience of each of its constituents, especially those whose experience resisted easy packaging within bigger stories of the successful and best-possible emergence of the Pakistani state.   

With this caveat, I have selected clippings from a newspaper with socialist-leaning bona fides called the Pakistan Times (edited by eminent cultural figure Faiz Ahmad Faiz) to show how news around the partition was expressed and shared by individuals, providing insight into the motivations and struggles that official histories have glossed over.  

To contextualize these clippings, it is important to note that Pakistan was caught up in a frenzy of ‘pioneership’. Reporting on the Partition, into 1948, shared space with tales of battle and suffering in Kashmir and Palestine/Israel, lending an almost cosmological significance to local problems, which seemed to be reflected on the wider global stage.

It is also important to note that newspapers, as the original ‘social’ media, contained multiple voices, including dissenting ones. Hence, we have a remarkably regular series of messages by West Punjab’s civil supplies department, announcements about open meetings with police, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction with government actions, and direct communications between estranged friends and relatives (including non-Muslims).  

Nabil carefully scanning old newspaper clippings

Nabil loading microfilm into the computer at Widener Library

In selecting these clippings, I have chosen to highlight stories of unexpected relationships as well as glimpses into the lived experience of refugees and those individuals and organizations in relationship with these displaced.  

The economy of displacement included, in small ways, the continuation of connections between Muslim and non-Muslim, as private transactions around property occurred before sufficient government management of property exchange between departing evacuees and incoming refugees.  

The elite and upper middle classes were called out for aspects of their lifestyles during the ongoing emergency, and daily requests for aid to the national fund for refugee assistance (alongside reports of conspicuous donations made by schools, professional associations, townships etc.) emphasized generosity as a civic virtue of the new regime.

Newspapers facilitated communication in a period where other media were not as reliable. Refugees drew attention to the difficulties they faced in navigating their new lives. The government of Indore in India even used Pakistani newspapers to connect with potential incoming migrants. 

This archive, like most, is a static one, so we do not know the antecedents or after-life of any of these pieces of newspaper art and literature (what, for example, was the Hindu or Sikh refugee’s response to the Indore announcement?); nonetheless, these excerpts allow us to focus our lines of inquiry as researchers on the texture of the social fabric of the newly formed dominions, with neatness and linearity in some cases, and deep complexity in others. 


Nabil A Khan is a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, led by Professor Jennifer Leaning, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. This is the first in a series of blog posts about SAI’s Partition Project.

SAI responds to Executive Order

The South Asia Institute (SAI) fully endorses Harvard President Drew Faust’s response to the Trump Administration’s executive order restricting travel to the United States.

We offer our full support to Harvard students, faculty, staff and affiliates, regardless of their country of origin or religious background, alongside the Harvard International Office and the university’s Global Support Services. We encourage all South Asia scholars to apply for our programs.

The work of universities in the world has never been more vital. The SAI is committed to the advancement of global scholarship and understanding, and our work in this fascinating, important region will continue. Across many borders, our diverse students and scholars are aiming to generate knowledge and insights that transcend and outlive any temporary barriers to progress.

Harvard President Drew Faust: We Are All Harvard


Harvard International Office

Harvard Global Support Services

Student voices: The Politics of Knowledge

In search of a South Asian climate: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

In search of a South Asian climate: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

This is part of a series of reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Joshua Ehrlich, PhD Candidate, Department of History

A summer research grant from the South Asia Institute took me recently to a handful of archives across the UK: three in Scotland and one in London. The research was primarily in English and Indo-Persian source materials connected with my dissertation, “The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge.” These materials ranged from the mundane to the mystical; from the collections and correspondence of administrators to the poems and petitions of scholars. My project aims to give a new account of the political and ideological uses of knowledge in South Asia, in the eventful decades around 1800. Such materials are its evidentiary bread and butter.

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Student voices: Researching History Textbooks in Sri Lanka

At the Jaffna Fort

At the Jaffna Fort

This is part of a series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Sarani Jayawardena, Harvard College ’17

A history textbook is a complex item, lying at the intersection between ethnic politics and education policy. I did not think about that as a student in school – then, the history textbook was something to read, memorize, and cough back up at end-of-year examinations. But when governments write curricula or textbooks, the history textbook starts to mean much more. It becomes a tool by which the state can transmit its historical narrative, its version of the official past of a country. It becomes a direct articulation of what the state considers an accurate narrative and a desirable national identity for its citizens.

Yet “national history” is subjective: differences in identity – whether by race, religion, language, social status, class, or gender– can drastically alter personal conceptions of history. Thus multi-ethnic countries face a multiplicity of versions of past and conceptions of identity. Many South Asian nations have witnessed ‘textbook controversies’ or ‘textbook wars’ because of this complexity.

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Student voices: Nepal in recovery

Peng4This is part of a series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Haibei PengMaster in Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2017

Haibei traveled to Nepal over the summer to work on her research project ‘The Nested Scale of Time: to protect and display biodiversity in South Asia through research on agriculture and seed bank.’

With the generous support from SAI Research Grant, I traveled through Nepal in May, 2016 for two weeks to conduct my thesis research on traditional Nepalese architecture and post-earthquake reconstruction in Kathmandu. During the two weeks I spent in Nepal, I traveled through Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan national forest while talking to local residents, friends, foreign workers, volunteers and international organizations. Even though Nepal remains a poor country with bad infrastructure and is still recovering from the earthquake disaster, people here are all very friendly, welcoming and seem to share a happy attitude towards life and their country. Below are some of the most stimulating findings from my research.

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Alum Q+A: Saving the environment and improving women’s lives, one pad at a time

ruralgirls2This is part of a series of profiles of Harvard alumni who are young entrepreneurs in South Asia.

Menstrual hygiene is an obstacle for women in many developing countries, including India. Even as the use of sanitary pads becomes more widespread, new environmental problems have emerged for proper disposal.

Saathi, founded by several MIT/Harvard graduates who met while studying mechanical engineering, is trying to change that. They have developed an eco-friendly pad made entirely from local banana fiber that is fully compostable and bio-degradable.

SAI recently spoke with three of the founders, Kristin Kagetsu, CEO, Amrita Saigal, CFO, and Grace Kane, CTO, to learn more about the product and how they hope it improves the lives of women in India.

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Empowering girls through education


Shantha Sinha, left, with Jacqueline Bhabha

By Anisha Gopi, Project Manager

On July 25th, 2016 the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) and Tata Trusts hosted the second webinar of a multi-part series on Women’s Empowerment. The webinar titled ‘Empowering Girls through educational access and opportunity:  What enables deprived girls to succeed’ was led by Professor Shantha Sinha, one of India’s leading child rights activists and founder of M. Venkatarangaiya (MV) Foundation. Professor Sinha was formerly the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and has been honoured with the Raman Magsaysay Award and the Padma Shri. The webinar was moderated by Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

The 90 minute webinar focused on factors enabling girls to attend school, challenges faced by school-going girls and successful strategies for ensuring girls have access to secondary education. It was attended by grassroots practitioners, students and academicians from India, the US and the UK.

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Contribute to SAI’s Summer Blog!

tumblr_inline_nqk5t15pVG1rpydu2_500SAI welcomes submissions for its summer blog from Harvard students, faculty, alumni, and affiliates on an array of topics pertaining to South Asia. Submissions that were previously published elsewhere are welcome.

Examples of posts can include: student travel adventures in South Asia, an update on an organization you are working in South Asia, commentary on current events, discussions about your research project, news about student organizations, opinion pieces, and more. Photo collections are welcome!

As SAI’s work is cross-school and interdisciplinary, we especially look for posts related to our research areas: global health, humanities and art, religion, urbanism, social enterprise, education, gender issues, science, and more.

Here are some examples of past posts:

If you would like to contribute or have questions, please email


Student voices: The exhilaration of breaking news

This is part of a recurring series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant during the winter session.

Click here to read more reports from students.

Shaiba Rather, Harvard College ‘17
Internship with NDTV in India

This winter break, I was as up to date on the news as I ever have been and probably ever will be. As a research intern for New Delhi Television (NDTV), I read every Indian national paper, Kashmiri local papers, and even top US headlines. NDTV demanded that I constantly be informed of India’s happenings; it was challenging but surely rewarding. NDTV put me in an environment where my team members urged be to desire to know more.

The command center from which the editing staff would piece together the final show layout

The command center from which the editing staff would piece together the final show layout

I spent my month working behind Barkha Dutt, not only one of NDTV’s lead anchors but also one of the program’s editors. Ms. Dutt is best known for her coverage of the Kargil War and her frequent shows on Kashmir. Ms. Dutt has not only received numerous accolades as the Best Talk Show host but also earned a civilian honor from the government of India. To even start to work on her show, “The Buck Stops Here,” was intimidating to say the least.

To my relief, Ms. Dutt greeted me with a smile and a hug, transforming a TV legend into a friend. We shared our achievements and ambitions and then it was off to work. My primary role was as a research assistant. My job was to always make sure Ms. Dutt could do her job. After reading any and every newspaper I could get my hands on for the day, I would prep Ms. Dutt with the days happenings. We would quickly determine what the show’s focus for the evening would be, and then everything was a blur from there. People would carry two phones at a time and call whomever they could, trying to find the perfect panelists. We’d brainstorm clever show titles and impactful sub-titles. It was a crazed last second dash but by 9pm every Tuesday and Thursday, we’d have a show.

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Update from the field: Crafts in the Indian capital

SAI’s Livelihood Creation project is underway on the ground in India. The research project, supported by the Tata Trusts, aims to build knowledge and capacity around three key areas: rural livelihood creation (emphasis on the handicrafts and handloom sectors); educational, social and economic empowerment of women; and science and technology-based interventions for poverty alleviation.

By Kundan Madireddy, Project Manager and Dr. Shashank Shah, Project Director

Delhi has been India’s capital for several centuries. The British built New Delhi as the capital of India and Old Delhi served as a capital during the rule of the Mughal Dynasty. With the largest population among Indian metros, Delhi houses about 25 million people and is bordered by the state of Haryana on three sides (North, West and South) and Uttar Pradesh on the East. Delhi has been witness to various invasions and struggles for nearly a dozen centuries, right up to the independence struggle from the British colonizers. It is said that Delhi was built and broken down nine times by various invaders. New Delhi is the tenth version of Delhi in about 1,200 years.

Scripturally, the city is considered to be the capital of the Pandavas in the famous Indian epic, Mahabharata, where it is referred to as Indraprastha. Delhi is also a famous tourist attraction due to its many heritage structures and monuments which include the Red Fort (Lal Qila), Old Fort (Purana Qila), Qutub Minar, Iron Pillar, Jama Masjid, Lotus Temple amongst many others. The Swaminarayan Akshardham built on the banks of Yamuna as recently as 2005 was acknowledged as the world’s largest Hindu temple. So Delhi is a historians’ and architecture lovers’ paradise!

Handicrafts are quite popular in Delhi. Crafts from all states find a place here due to a lot of demand from locals and tourists coming from across India and the globe.  Even historically, arts and crafts found significant patronage from different rulers and dynasties that ruled Delhi. Each of these flourished and have been bequeathed generation to generation. As part of its field visits to study crafts organizations across India, the Harvard SAI team visited four organizations in Delhi.

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