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Oral Testimonies of Partition and Conflict Bring Healing to Communities

Sucheta MahajanFollowing the Indian partition of 1947, between half and one million South Asian men, women and children lost their lives and almost 12 million people fled from their homes. The impact on women was devastating with over 70,000 women believed to have been raped.  

Professor Sucheta Mahajan, whose parents were among those displaced persons, now makes it her life’s work to help tell the stories of partition. ‘My parents came from what is now Pakistan when it was partitioned, so we are a refugee family. I feel very fortunate today that my academic work is not something which is merely professional – I see it as a vocation rather than a profession and it’s very much linked with my own life and the life of my family.’

As a recent SPECTRESS fellow with the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Professor Sucheta Mahajan, a historian from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, talked about cultural trauma and storytelling through her current research project, 'Partitions of India and Ireland: Memory and History'.

Legacies of Partition

In India, the legacy of partition still continues to live on through frequent outbreaks of communal violence between Muslims and Hindus. As was the case with Ireland and the ‘troubles’, imperial departure did not signify the end of conflict. In some ways, this was the basis for the continued parallels that can be drawn between the two former British colonies, in examining the sectarian and inter-communal violence which followed.

Professor Mahajan suggests that perhaps this is why Northern Ireland offered such an apt example for comparison with the Indian situation. ‘That I should look to Ireland wasn’t surprising; Ireland and India were former British colonies that saw strong movements for freedom culminating in the retreat of the imperial power, leaving behind the troubled legacy of a divided nation.’

While the troubles in Ireland saw divisions along sectarian lines between Catholic and Protestant communities, in India the divide was on ethnic lines or ‘communal’ between Muslims and Hindus. Professor Mahajan argues that these divisions had been embedded during colonialism. ‘The use of these divisions by the colonial state was strategic. The communities were portrayed as locked in a conflict centuries old, with the British playing the role of peace keeper.’

While in Ireland, peace came in the form of an official agreement in the 1990s, India’s partition conflict still remains to be resolved.  What has emerged instead, most recently, is a right-wing  regime which builds its political messaging around hatred of the other. Professor Mahajan, whose main themes of research include looking at the relationship between nationalism and colonialism, says that the legacy of the partition in India has been like a ‘bleeding sore.’ ‘Partition in India did not settle the issue – in fact the civil war became worse because of the way the partition boundary was drawn. Large numbers found themselves displaced – yet it was not a comprehensive transfer of population. Hindus were left in Pakistan and so many Muslims were left in India. Today, there, are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan. The two countries subsequently went to war over the Kashmir, a problem that still remains unresolved today.’

There is also a lot of political interest in maintaining these ‘communal’ divides, Professor Mahajan argues. When conflict breaks out, there are groups who want to use that divide to achieve their own political goals. On a national level too, divisions are heightened. ‘History is much politicised in India – it is at the centre of the entire debate between right-wing and liberal secular forces at present. When the right wing regimes come to power the first thing they want to do is change the text books.’  However, as Professor Mahajan would discover, storytelling and oral testimonies can provide a powerful platform for ‘remembering and forgetting’ these contested narratives.

Professor Sucheta Mahajan with Professor Munira MutranOral Histories of Conflict

Thirty years ago, Professor Mahajan and her colleagues embarked on a project to record the oral histories of freedom fighters - people who were part of the nationalist movement which led to independence. This was a significant project which lasted three years and covered many parts of India as well as diverse political strands from peasant movements to industrial workers or underground revolutionary movements. ‘I realised the power of oral history and narratives, especially in a country like India where so many people are illiterate, the oral tradition in terms of folklore is still very strong. The tradition of telling stories, originally about mythology or customs, was now about how people participated in the freedom movement.’

When looking at a way past the divisions, conflict and trauma created by partition, Professor Mahajan asks if there is a universally recognised method for societies to confront their past, and if memorialising and remembering differs between societies.

Having looked at the oral histories from the Holocaust and the various modes of commemoration and memorialisation, Professor Mahajan wondered if this paradigm of comparison was limiting for the Indian case. She argues that in the case of the Holocaust, there were clearly identifiable perpetrators and victims and the genocide ended with the end of World War II. ‘In the Indian conflict Hindus and Muslims continue to live together separately after partition. There are no clear-cut villains and victims.’

Professor Mahajan sees the Northern Ireland Troubles as providing many examples of oral history initiatives from which she felt oral historians in South Asia could model initiatives around storytelling and reconciliation.

Her recent fellowship spent at the Trinity Long Room Hub allowed her to speak about ‘those days’ to people locally involved in the oral history projects in Northern Ireland and to talk to the journalists who made storytelling their mission. ‘When I came here, I felt, rather than looking at the Irish partition of almost a century ago, it would make much more sense from a comparative perspective with India to look at the Troubles. This division between communities in Ireland was very much akin to the conflict still present in India – a continued conflict which has a political expression and which at a cultural and social level sees expression in all kinds of ways.’

Group Shot Research FellowsCultural Barriers

What impressed Professor Mahajan was the extent to which the oral history projects in Ireland came from the community In India too, initiatives have come from ‘below’  mainly through feminist groups who sought to assess the impact of partition on women. In both Ireland and India the experiences of women stand out as powerful common strands. ‘Although in Ireland, incidences of rape and abduction have not been found to have been prevalent as it was in India, the trauma of mothers, of wives and sisters who lost a family member was shared. There was a total connect between the two – we could have been talking about either.’

The differences, however, are stark because of the ongoing communal violence and conflict in India. ‘In Ireland, you are very lucky that the peace settlement has happened and that the conflict is becoming part of the past. What’s very interesting about oral histories in Ireland is how they have become part of a whole effort of reconciliation; they’ve coincided with the political settlement while at a social level there’s an attempt at reconciliation.’

The role of culture in acting as an obstacle or enabler to storytelling is also evident in looking at the differences between Ireland and India and between communities within India itself. In Ireland, Professor Mahajan explains, while storytelling may have been a familiar aspect of Irish culture, there is also a culture of keeping your personal story to yourself and keeping your grief private. In India, on the other hand, it is common for there to be a collective mourning or a public sharing of grief, similar to what might have been witnessed at funerals in Ireland before the 20th century, referred to as ‘Keening’.

In India, it was Hindu women rather than Muslim women who found it more difficult to talk about the sexual assault as a result of the cultural barriers they faced. ‘Where Hindu women had been abducted and forcibly married off or kept by a man from another community in Pakistan, for example, they couldn’t be reunited with their families.’ Professor Mahajan said that once the women were known to have been taken and assaulted, even her own family wouldn’t accept her back. The oral histories project also led to some interesting findings about cultural preconceptions. ‘What we learned through the common feminist project of oral history in India and Pakistan is that Muslim women were more easily accepted back into their families. They were still honour bound and patriarchal like other communities but possibly faced the stigma of ‘pollution’ less”

She recalls when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Terrible riots broke out and Professor Mahajan remembers the attacks which Sikhs were subject to. Professor Mahajan worked in a relief camp for Sikh widows, carrying out rudimentary relief work, but she felt this wasn’t enough. She became part of an initiative to unify these women on a secular basis, or what she calls ‘anti-communal’ work. ‘There were groups from the Sikh gurdwara (temple) who tried to communalise so that they would be part of their constituency. But our women’s group would sing revolutionary songs and involve the widows and children in our activities.’

She says that she is now focused on more ‘popular history’, looking at themes which will reach out to people. ‘I no longer want to write a book which will be on the library shelves for ten people to read.’ This is another way for her to continue her activism through the university and in the face of threats to academic freedom from right-wing political movements in India at present.


Professor Sucheta Mahajan was a speaker at the Trinity Long Room Hub ‘Ireland-India Conference’ which took place in June 2016. Her talk ‘Memory, History and Narratives of Conflict: Partitions, India and Ireland’ can be listened to here:

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895