The impact of the 1947 Partition still ripples throughout South Asia, 73 years later. However, our knowledge of this historic event is constantly being reevaluated by academics and researchers who have continued to illuminate the details of what occurred. Moderated by Jennifer Leaning, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, this panel explores how new research efforts help us understand the full depth of the history and legacy of Partition.
Category : Partition
“There is nothing as epochal as the cataclysmic event that was visited upon the people of South Asia when decolonization occurred and the British withdrew during the dismantling of the British empire. That forced event — that trauma — continues to shape the lives of two billion of the world’s seven billion people today,” says Professor Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at the Harvard Business School and Director of the Mittal Institute. Despite the abundant historical and political scholarship on the Partition of British India in 1947, there are still gaps in our understanding of the event — and the Mittal Institute’s research team set out to change that.
Most personal accounts of what had transpired during the weeks before and after August 1947 are handed down as inter-generational knowledge. And yet, given the traumatic uprooting and violence of the event, there remains a palpable silence around stories relating to violence against or loss of family members. As a third-generation member of a family that had witnessed the Partition of British India in 1947, I grew up listening to stories full of paradoxes. The stories of my grandparents were replete with instances of compassion between individuals and families despite the raging madness that prevailed throughout the larger community.
The Mittal Institute’s 1947 Partition of British India project seeks to unravel the history behind one of the world’s largest forced migration events, allowing us to understand the implications of mass dislocations across geographies. Despite the amount of established historical and political scholarship on the Partition, there is still much to uncover through oral accounts from minority groups within India — specifically, from Muslim families who did not migrate to Pakistan.
“In 1947, British India was divided into Pakistan and India, resulting in the largest forced migration in the history of migration. Certain records say there were about three million who migrated and were displaced, but studies done at Harvard show that the numbers were much higher — about 10–13 million people. The question becomes: Who lives to tell the story?” asks Meena Sonea Hewett, Executive Director of the Mittal Institute. “Art as a medium is a great way to tell these stories, because it allows for multiple perspectives to be shared about the Partition and the feelings associated with it.”
2018 Visiting Artist Imran Channa is a contemporary artist from Pakistan. His art practice interrogates the intersection between power and knowledge. Channa’s primary focus is on the documentation and dissemination of historical narratives and events. He explores how fabricated narratives can override our collective memory to shape individual and social consciousness and alter human responses. In this interview, we discuss how he first became interested in installation artwork and the benefits of making art abroad.
“On 28th April 2018, I Interviewed Mr. Milkha Singh (Flying Sikh), one of the finest athletes India has ever produced” beamed a very excited Akshay Veer, a Partition ambassador at the Mittal Institute, Harvard University. Akshay was part of a 55 student cohort that worked on a project titled, ‘Looking Back, Informing the Future – The 1947 Partition British India: Implications of Mass Dislocations across Geographies.’ As part of this project, student ambassadors collected and documented oral stories from survivors of the Partition.
The birth of Hindu-led India and Muslim-ruled Pakistan in 1947 from what had been British India was horrifically violent, the start of a religious conflict in which millions died and millions more fled across the new borders toward safety. The great sorting that occurred after the Partition of India remains the largest forced migration in human history, characterized not just by the bloodshed and tears with which it is often associated, but also by often-overlooked acts of courage and kindness, according to Harvard scholars studying it.
“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.” – Nabil A Khan, Visiting Scholar, FXB Center, Harvard