It has taken 70 years to set up a museum dedicated to one of the great upheavals of history. Raymond Whitaker went to Amritsar to learn more

Two of the worst tragedies of the 20th century took place in the 1940s: the greatest genocide and the greatest involuntary migration in human history. Yet while there are memorials and museums around the world devoted to the Holocaust, there has been nothing similar to mark the partition of India, in which over 12 million people were uprooted and between one and two million died.

Now that is changing. In Amritsar’s pink Victorian-era Town Hall, 70 years to the day since the hastily-drawn line between India and Pakistan was revealed, the Partition Museum is opening its doors. The Town Hall’s bell, cast in 1897, will be rung, and the Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, will declare the institution open on August 17, which the state has agreed to mark annually as Partition Day. At last there will be a repository for the records, the objects, and above all the human stories associated with that moment of dislocation and misery.

The museum is just in time to preserve the memories of the last generation who remember Partition – memories which in many cases have been suppressed. In the words of Kishwar Desai, chair of the trust which set up the institution, ‘In India, thus far, we have excelled at collective amnesia. This has especially been applicable to the partition of India – a narrative which we should have carefully preserved – because in that exodus from a much-loved home lay the essence of a generation’s grief and resilience. This trauma was probably passed on to the next generation, whilst still cocooned in silence.’

It is especially appropriate that the museum should be in Punjab which, like Bengal, was split in two by Partition. Amritsar is only 35 miles from Lahore, but an international border divides what were once regarded as twin cities: the former the business and commercial hub, the latter the centre for culture and the professions. Apart from its role as the holy city of the Sikhs, Amritsar was also a centre of resistance to British rule. A short walk from the museum, along the marble-paved path to the Golden Temple, is Jallianwala Bagh, where General Reginald Dyer’s troops shot down hundreds of protesters in April 1919.

The tree of hope and a message on one of its leaves

Last autumn a ‘curtain-raiser’ exhibition opened in four rooms of one of the Town Hall’s side extensions, focusing closely on the events of 1947. But having expanded to its full 17,000 square feet, including some of the building’s grandest halls, the museum can now extend its historical scope much earlier and later, reaching further back than the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre to the roots of the independence movement, and beyond the immediate aftermath of Partition to the decades during which millions of displaced people built a new life.

Acres of documents from Britain’s old India Office, the British Library and New Delhi government files are being digitised, and will be available for research. But Mallika Ahluwalia, a Harvard-educated co-founder and chief executive officer of the Partition Museum, stresses that it aims at a wider public. ‘We want to it to be interactive, not sleepy like many Indian museums – a people’s museum,’ she said as we examined the preliminary exhibition.

Even the ‘curtain-raiser’ illustrated her point, with video screens and sound recordings relaying oral histories of Partition, and displays of precious objects those driven from their homes had chosen to take with them, including a handsome Phulkari coat and an elaborate lock. Though the massacres that occurred during Partition are well-known, the exhibition discloses how many died from disease, starvation and exhaustion, with the newly independent governments of India and Pakistan completely overwhelmed.

On all sides there were jarring discoveries. Why was there a well in the centre of one room? Because, Ahluwalia explained, women were often urged or forced to jump to their deaths, to prevent them being ‘dishonoured’ during the migration. ‘We want to highlight what happened to women,’ she said, adding that 10 of the museum’s 11 trustees are female. The four founders, all women and all from families affected by Partition, originally thought they would organise an exhibition in Delhi to mark the 70th anniversary. Instead they ended with a permanent museum, and are rushing to collect the memories of the Partition generation before they pass away.

The museum is just in time to preserve the memories of the last generation who remember Partition

‘Both my maternal grandparents were in Lahore at Partition,’ said Ahluwalia. ‘My grandmother’s family lost almost everything, because even though they had to leave, they were convinced that they would be back in three weeks, and didn’t take much.’

For those not acquainted with the finer detail of Partition, a video interview with the veteran Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar reveals the startling insouciance with which the subcontinent was carved up. Long after 1947, Nayar went to London and tracked down Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the British jurist appointed as head of the commission to draw up boundaries between India and Pakistan. Chosen precisely because he had never been to India before, and was therefore thought impartial, Radcliffe and the commission were given barely six weeks to do their job.

In the video, ceaselessly recycled on a screen in the museum, the journalist says he was told by Radcliffe that Lahore had initially been awarded to India, but since India gained Kolkata, Lahore went to what was then West Pakistan. ‘By every standard, Lahore was yours,’ Nayar quotes Radcliffe as saying. Horrified by the calamities of Partition, the lawyer burned his papers, refused his fee and never returned to the subcontinent. According to Nayar, Radcliffe told him: ‘Those people who died, their blood is on my head.’

Mallika Ahluwalia, co-founder and CEO, in the museum's upper room
Mallika Ahluwalia, co-founder and CEO, in the museum’s upper room

The chaos and panic of Partition is recreated in one of the smaller rooms of the museum, using the latest audio-visual techniques, before the visitor enters the migration gallery, in which a railway platform has been recreated, with the actual suitcases used by some migrants. Upstairs, in the largest room, is the refuge gallery, which recreates the camps in which many people found themselves for months, if not years. Inside a canvas tent is a charpoy and cooking utensils that were brought from Pakistan.

Among the wealth of material donated to the museum are heart-rending letters between Hindu and Muslim friends separated by Partition, and pleas to the authorities to help find missing family members – most of which, we learn, were never answered. Inevitably, most of the testimonies are from the Indian side of the divide, though the museum has collected oral histories in Pakistan, and obtained others from Pakistani organisations.

Though the massacres that occurred during Partition are well-known, the exhibition discloses how many died from disease, starvation and exhaustion

The final room in Amritsar Town Hall is a ‘gallery of hope’, documenting how families made a fresh start in their new surroundings. As in the preliminary exhibition, there is a ‘tree of hope’, woven out of barbed wire, on which visitors are invited to hang paper ‘leaves’ with their responses. The speed with which the first tree filled up with eloquent messages shows how much of a need the museum has fulfilled – so much so that it could be the first of several.

‘We want to have sister museums around India, and beyond – Pakistan, Bangladesh, even the United Kingdom,’ said Mallika Ahluwalia. It would be a fitting use for some of the many colonial buildings the Raj scattered around the subcontinent.

A former Asia Editor of  The Independent and Foreign Editor of  The Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs

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