When Britain granted India independence in 1947, the subcontinent was divided along religious lines, triggering an exodus of an estimated 12 million people amid carnage and violence across the newly carved borders of the two countries, India and Pakistan.
Among the cities that received a massive influx of refugees was the Indian capital, Delhi.
A partition museum that opened in the city three months ago, documents the traumatic legacy of the times through the stories and memorabilia of the men, women and children who came there 76 years ago.
“Delhi was inundated with refugees. They came without any hope, without any home, they had lost their family, they had lost their friends, very often they came with very little money, and they had to start life all over again,” said Kishwar Desai, chairperson of The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust that has set up the museum.
The museum, housed in a revamped Mughal-era building given by the government, is the second one set up by the non-profit group – it opened one in the northern city of Amritsar six years ago.
The purpose is to ensure that future generations can learn of the massive scale of loss and displacement that accompanied the subcontinent’s chaotic division. “It’s a very important but forgotten narrative,” said Desai.
One of the seven galleries in the museum recreates a train in which millions fled across both sides of the border. Even some of the trains were ambushed by mobs.
The journeys were difficult, with refugees clambering onto trains clutching a handful of possessions – some meant to secure livelihoods, others as memorabilia. Some of these items that were carefully preserved by families for decades have been donated to the museum. They are diverse — a sewing machine, a chair, a drum used to store wheat.
In another gallery, a tent symbolizes the sprawling refugee camps that sprang up in the city for those who survived the slaughtering and rioting in which half-a-million to one million people were killed.
There are black and white photographs of the times, newspaper clippings and interviews running on screens of those who made it across the border.
But the exhibits also demonstrate that, despite the violence at that time and the decades-long political rivalry between India and Pakistan that persists, the bond among ordinary people on both sides of the border remains strong.
There is an old electricity meter handed over to an Indian family when it revisited their former home in Pakistan – the Pakistani family living there had kept it in memory of the earlier occupant. A frayed ledger on display belonged to an Indian man who once ran a shop in the neighboring country. It had been carefully preserved by the shop’s new owner in Pakistan.
“These small things, memories which are kept alive by both sides, add to the fact that there is still hope,” said Desai. “Even if politically, it is a very difficult narrative, when people from here go back to Pakistan, the contact is just wonderful. They are treated like VIP’s (very important persons). People say come in, this is your own home, and this happens on both sides of the border.”
Many survivors of partition carry no bitterness. Like Ashok Kumar Talwar, who has donated a brass bowl to the museum – it was among the handful of things his family had carried when they brought him to Delhi as a five-year-old.
Why a brass bowl? “I don’t know,” he answers. He speculates that it is probably because his family thought they would be able to return and reclaim their more precious possessions like jewelry, so they only carried what they needed during the journey.
Talwar’s family still fondly calls him “Shaukat,” a Muslim name given to him in Pakistan by his father’s student. And he has not forgotten his Pakistani roots. “I am fond of Pakistani things. I watch Pakistani movies and shows on TV. I have friends who are Muslim in the city. I am doing very well with them. There is no enmity at the grassroot level.”
The political relationship is starkly different – ties between the two bitter South Asian rivals have been in deep freeze for nearly eight years.
Many visitors to the museum are young people. Some draw a lesson from an event that left a deep mark on millions in both India and Pakistan but about which they had so far learned largely from fiction or movies.
For Sangeeta Geet, a postgraduate student, the museum highlighted the dangers of polarization that she says is driven by politicians on both sides of the border.
“We should learn from 1947. Here we can see what happens when we divide on the basis of religion,” said Geet. “So, we should step forward toward peace.”
That is the message the museum reinforces in the last section. Here a red mail box “of dreams and hope” underlines the hope that two countries with a shared heritage can have a better future. Visitors can write down their thoughts on postcards – many have said they had no idea what an older generation had experienced.
“We want people to leave the museum saying this should never happen again,” said Desai, who grew up hearing stories of partition from her parents, who also had to leave their homes in Pakistan in 1947.