Orality and the archive: teaching the partition of India through oral histories.

Author:Jayagopalan, Gaana


Last December, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan one step closer to peace talks by choosing to visit his Pakistani counterpart in Lahore for the latter's birthday. The move, the first of its kind in a decade by an Indian Prime Minister, received much attention from media worldwide and was both praised and criticised (BBC, December 25). This was closely followed, only a few weeks later, into the new year of 2016 by a deadly attack on the Pathankot Air Base near the Punjab border in India by terrorists allegedly associated with links to Pakistan. At around the same time, my Indian Writing in English seminar in Bengaluru was discussing the partition of India and Pakistan as a part of the module on narrating the nation. In the context of negotiating one specific aspect of narrating the nation--that of communalism and religious fundamentalism--we were drawn to the historiography of the event--the partition of India--that is often construed responsible for the allegedly growing hatred between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Discussing the partition amidst such political developments was significant for my graduate seminar.

In understanding the various known and familiar aspects of partition, both my students and I recognized certain responses as characteristic (1) when it came to dealing with it: most observations about the partition, we learnt, were framed within the contemporaneity of increasing tensions between the two States ever since they were partitioned. Debates about religious intolerance in the country were always mounted on defining ideal ways of exhibiting nationalism (2). Our discussions very often veered towards problems of ascribing the 'Hindu-Muslim problem' (as it is very often termed here in India), invariably to the partition itself (3). Quite contrarily, the schisms that are often pointed at between the Hindu and Muslim community have other trajectories that are not quite discussed in mainstream historical accounts of the partition either (4).

Therefore, it is in an attempt to locate the human dimensions of the political and territorial event of partition by reading the archive that this paper wishes to explore the strength of oral narratives. The ideas become all the more significant in the context of teaching about partition through a set of oral narratives.

Reading Archives, Teaching Partition

This article explores how teaching partition in an English Studies graduate seminar in Bengaluru, through archives of oral accounts narrating the partition, opened newer trajectories of using oral histories as teaching materials. The course closely read the discursive construction of the knowledge of partition in archival processes of the state vis-a-vis oral accounts collected primarily by Urvashi Butalia (1998, 2000) and Veena Das (2000). The article examines how the teaching of partition through these archives proved to be illuminating in understanding the narrativization of partition as it is prevalent today.

The paper argues that oral histories see immense strength in being read as archives of a different nature as opposed to the State's archivization of partition: the subjecthood of the victim in oral histories, it was observed through our discussions, is an embodied subjectivity as opposed to the effacement of subjectivity in the State's representation. To the State, partition becomes an event of numbers and territorial disputes (an idea carried forward even today in its contemporary negotiations of India-Pakistan relations). Oral histories, on the other hand, are narrativized as witness accounts. These enabled students to recognize the human side of partition thereby creating an affective literacy of partition. The introduction of oral narratives in the classroom led to an affective turn in engaging with an event of great trauma like the partition of India. It enabled us as a class to rethink the modes of knowing and narrating suffering associated with the partition of India. It clearly led us to recognize the location of a voiced subjectivity in such narratives. The flexibility of oral archives enables more voices to be added to the archive unlike the State's record of the "facts" of the event. Urvashi Butalia in her introduction to The Other Side of Silence remarks:

the oral narrative offers a different way of looking at history, a different perspective. For, because such narratives often flow into each other in terms of temporal time, they blur the somewhat rigid timeframes within which history situates itself. Because people locate their memories by different dates, or different timeframes, than the events that mark the beginning and end of histories, their narratives flow above, below, through the disciplinary narratives of history. They offer us a way of turning the historical lens at a somewhat different angle, and to look at what this perspective offers (p 13). Let us now turn to a discussion of some classroom experiences that substantiate the same.

The Partition of India: An Overview

The Partition of India is an important event in the socio-cultural historiography of India. This political event is associated with a territorial division between the two countries. The plan to partition India was announced in June 1947. Consequently, in August 1947, a predominantly Muslim state was created in Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and a predominantly Hindu State in India. The event was accompanied by a movement of several millions of people across the borders of the two states. It was also marked by large scale violence including murder, dacoity, communal hatred, sexual violation, and loss of property among others.

This plan did not foresee the large scale movement of people that ensued. By the time of the political freedom of India and Pakistan, several people had begun to move to and from both the countries. The period was characterized by a growing hatred towards the "other" on either side. Urvashi Butalia recounts one such instance where a Sikh shared his tale of "hatred" that he relived now, full of guilt, regret, and remorse. He says "our entire village took off to a nearby Muslim village on a killing spree. We simply went mad. And it has cost me fifty years of remorse, of sleepless nights--I cannot forget the faces of those we killed" (73). Gyanendra Pandey (2001) makes an interesting observation in this regard. He says that the partition is not to be viewed merely as a "happening" but rather as a "category of understanding the happening" (66). This is a significant insight into understanding the very narratives of the Partition of India.

Engaging with the Partition in Classrooms

The partition of India is introduced to students at school in India at different points in time. The first set of materials that they encounter as resources to understand partition are their textbooks. Popular cultural media, too, have representations of partition. Literary works around partition have been produced within English as well as regional Indian languages, especially Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi. Popular feature films have also built storylines around the event of partition (5).

The students who were enrolled in this graduate seminar were in their first year of the graduate program. The program includes students from different parts of India. The group, therefore, was a mixed one comprising varied cultural backgrounds. Some students hailed from places closely associated with the partition like Punjab, for instance.

The module on partition is a part of their course titled "Indian Writings in English." The objective of this course is to introduce students to specific debates in and around notions of "India" and its contestations, through various literary and cultural texts within the context of emerging work originally written in English. While the texts and contexts of this course have changed every year I have taught it, one framework that has guided this course is narrating the nation: what are the various means by which a nation is narrated and, in effect, comes to be imagined? Novels written by Indians in English inform one aspect of narrating the nation in this course. The Partition is introduced as another aspect among several contesting narratives that show a layered reading of the nation and its imaginations. The module on Partition emerged as a part of a larger unit that negotiates and interrogates various ideas about the nation and nation-state. A key idea that is discussed in this module is violence and the nation-state. It was in the context of discussing issues around communalism, religious fundamentalism, and violence in India that our discussion prompted us to view partition differently.


Initial Classroom Discussions about the Partition

My introduction of the partition to this group of graduate students began with a discussion of commonly held knowledge about the event itself. Partition is a rather familiar referent within the contexts of India's struggle for independence. More often than not, students invoked the major political names of Nehru, Jinnah, Lord Mountbatten associated with India's partition...

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