Partition history, education, and reconciliation

Meena Megha Malhotra

Seventy-five years on, at a time when the country is witnessing an alarmingly deep fissure in its social fabric, what is the significance and importance of Partition memory for our young today?

Few from the generation that witnessed the Partition are amongst us today. Public memory of that one most significant event in recent history, for several decades, was one of ice-cold numbers and narratives that are primarily rooted in ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Seventy-five years on, for our education system, the Partition continues to be a project for nation-building. This is true of the other side of the border too. As a result, the education system and the textbooks on both sides of the border fuel the bias, rivalry and often underlying hatred that exists – the root causes for which are complex and many. Krishna Kumar’s analysis, in his books Prejudice and Pride and Battle for Peace, on how textbooks do this critically demonstrates how important the nation-building role of history teaching is in both countries.

‘How are political rivalries to be understood in terms of the goals of education? This was the object of my curiosity. How does education shape the rivalry or the hostility? How does this neighbourly hostility shape the education systems of these two countries?

Illustrations: Tanaya Vyas

Education participates in this process in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One gets to feel this instantly when one sits down and listens to a teacher teaching anything to do with, say, from 1920s-1930s onwards, there is a sense of the Partition coming. Both these countries have a sense of a narrative about presenting the freedom struggle, the struggle against colonial rulers, in a way that leads to an end. This end, namely, The Partition and Independence has two different meanings for these two different countries. For India, Partition was a tragic loss in the moment of a great achievement. […] On the other side of the border […] Partition carries with it the idea that it was a moment of birth — the birth of a nation from which its history as a modern nation begins.’1

About the role of history teaching in creation of identities, Kumar says that having history within the curriculum creates a sense of pride in the nation and its past, thereby paving way for collective identities and selfhood. Intrinsic to the construction of this collective self is a parallel construction of the collective ‘other’.

[…] ‘Who we are becomes easier to define if we can say we are different, different from the ‘other’, and this ‘other’ happens to be close by and therefore the task becomes even more convenient. We are what they are not, and this notion of a collective identity as a curricular responsibility falls most heavily on the shoulders of the history teacher. It’s the history teacher whose responsibility it is to create pride in our selves and prejudice towards the ‘other’. Prejudice perhaps is the wrong word – rather, help us recognize what the other is or is not. Even though it’s not done consciously, it happens. Partition is the kind of subject which cannot be ‘properly’ learnt, in the sense that no history syllabus or textbook would like to teach it to you on either side of the border unless that learning resonates with the purpose of History as defined by the state.’2

It is this collective identity that gains its strength from the perception of the ‘other’ that has been the central concern in the work that History for Peace does. What is this ‘other’? How is it being created/misrepresented/manipulated? What can we do to understand this ‘other’ such that it leads to a culture of respect and peace?

These were the burning questions that led to our setting up the cross-border project Teaching Divided Histories, which in turn proved to be the genesis of the history teachers’ network across the subcontinent.

Over a decade ago when we conceived of the Teaching Divided Histories project, although the decades long deafening silence around the horrific events that unfolded at the time had been broken, the popular discourse in the public domain was one of generality. The role of the British in drawing the dividing line; the millions that lost their lives; the violence; the loss of property; much of this in cold statistical numbers and predominantly the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative.

The particular – stories that were told and retold within the walls of homes – were out in the public domain for the first time in the form of Urvashi Butalia’s seminal book The Other Side of Silence only five decades after the Partition. Today, history teachers have a plethora of sources – primary and secondary – at their disposal. Art, cinema, literature, memoirs, individual and collective memories – all of this speaks to us about how families were divided, how friendships were nurtured across borders post separation, how traumas were endured, how lives were rebuilt and much more.

Stories of the Partition that were deliberately perpetuated and others that were silenced are now a thing of the past. Partition in its true sense is a multiplicity of stories – each one weaving a tapestry of fragile truth and holding it together.

All of which is wonderful news for the history teacher who believes in multiplicity of sources and teaches to arouse curiosity, the desire to know more and develop critical thinking skills.

However, while rejoicing over the silences that have broken, let’s take a step back and think of what is the narrative that the current environment needs us to focus on within the multiplicity of sources. What are the questions that we need to bring to the classroom in order to address the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is predominant in our textbooks and in the public domain in virtually every sphere of life?

The witnessing of violence was the starting point of Butalia’s journey of unearthing individual histories of the Partition.

‘Like many Punjabis of my generation, I am from a family of Partition refugees. Memories of Partition, the horror and brutality of the time, the harkening back to an – often mythical – past where Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived together in relative peace and harmony, have formed the staple of stories I have lived with. My mother and father come from Lahore, a city loved and sentimentalized by its inhabitants, which lies only twenty miles inside the Pakistan border. My mother tells of the dangerous journeys she twice made back there to bring her younger brothers and sister to India. My father remembers fleeing Lahore to the sound of guns and crackling fire. I would listen to these stories with my brothers and sister and hardly take them in. We were middle-class Indians who had grown up in a period of relative calm and prosperity, when tolerance and `secularism’ seemed to be winning the argument. These stories – of loot, arson, rape, murder – came out of a different time. They meant little to me.

Then, in October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security guards, both Sikhs. For days afterwards Sikhs all over India were attacked in an orgy of violence and revenge. Many homes were destroyed and thousands died. In the outlying suburbs of Delhi more than three thousand were killed, often by being doused in kerosene and then set alight. They died horrible, macabre deaths. Black burn marks on the ground showed where their bodies had lain. The government – headed by Mrs Gandhi’s son Rajiv – remained indifferent, but several citizens’ groups came together to provide relief, food and shelter. I was among the hundreds of people who worked in these groups. Every day, while we were distributing food and blankets, compiling lists of the dead and missing, and helping with compensation claims, we listened to the stories of the people who had suffered. Often older people, who had come to Delhi as refugees in 1947, would remember that they had been through a similar terror before. “We didn’t think it could happen to us in our own country,” they would say. “This is like Partition again.”

Here, across the River Jamuna, just a few miles from where I lived, ordinary, peaceable people had driven their neighbours from their homes and murdered them for no readily apparent reason than that they were of a different religious community. The stories of Partition no longer seemed quite so remote: people from the same country, the same town, the same village, could still be divided by the politics of their religious difference, and, once divided, could do terrible things to each other.’3

How often have we heard this question: What was it that made neighbours who had lived together in harmony all their lives, turn against each other overnight and become capable of the horrors we now know that were perpetuated? We don’t have the answer. Or perhaps we do and are afraid to confront it.

My own experience of the Partition is through the family I married into. My father-in-law was 18 when the family crossed over and spent months in the refugee camps in Delhi before beginning to rebuild their lives. Up until a decade ago, his Partition memory – the ones he shared – have primarily been of childhood joys and how the community lived and supported each other irrespective of the religion they belonged to. Today the prejudice for ‘musalman’ in his conversations is hard to ignore.

On being asked about the violence, his response is a firm ‘I do not wish to talk about it. What is the use of digging up what we have put behind?’

This reluctance, even after so many years, is hard to understand. Is it a coping mechanism? Is it something that had initially to do with the inherent human survival instinct and now become a belief in leaving the past alone. There is a saying in Hindi – Gade murde mat ukhado (Don’t dig up the dead).

Or does it have to do with people’s own complicity in this history? Butalia says, ‘There had been, at Partition, no good' people and nobad’ ones; virtually every family had a history of being both victims and aggressors in the violence.’

The other question that deeply worries me is: what has happened over the past few years that has changed a 90 year-old’s perception?

We know the answer to this.

The important question is what can we do about it; what are we going to do about it?
Perhaps it is imperative now to highlight Partition stories of solidarity and critically examine how narratives have been and continue to be manipulated in the public domain to leverage political gain.
Perhaps it is crucial to use the powerful Partition stories archives available to us and consciously pitch them against any preconceived notions that we may carry.
Perhaps it is time to recognize and confront our preconceived notions of the ‘other’ and inspire our young to do the same.
Perhaps it is time to critically question why we were born a secular nation and why it is important to preserve the ideals that our constitution is made up of.


  1. Krishna Kumar. ‘Learning to Live with the Past’, Shared Histories (Calcutta: The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, 2021). Published proceedings from a History for Peace conference Shared Histories, Chandigarh, 2019. 22-39; here, p. 27.
  2. Kumar, ‘Learning to live with the Past’: 31.
  3. Urvashi Butalia. The Other Side of Silence, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) Excerpt published by The New York Times, available at [last accessed on 29 March 2023].

The author is Director, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. Her primary responsibility at Seagull has been the PeaceWorks project since 2008 and in 2015 she set up a history teachers network in the subcontinent – History for Peace. She can be reached at

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