The Partition Museum, Amritsar

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The Partition Museum is an attempt to preserve the history and memories of 1947, that saw the creation of India and Pakistan and as a result the partition of Punjab and Bengal. Located in Amritsar the museum deals with mostly the effects of partition on Punjab rather Bengal. It is the initiative of Lady Kishwar Desai and The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, along with other organisations. The Partition Museum is in Amritsar’s Town Hall and located in the newly renovated area near Hall Bazaar. The renovation work is a delight in the hustle and bustle of the walled city of Amritsar. The surrounding area all carry remnants from the colonial period and ironically the museum itself is housed in the colonial Town Hall built in the 19th century.

The museum contains mainly pictures, a few artefacts and newspaper clippings from the independence period. It is spread across 3-4 rooms which use multimedia, visual and documentary sources to illustrate and memorialize the Partition. It is therefore a small exhibition and largely provides an overview of what happened.

I wish I could have connected better with the endeavours and intentions of the museum but it left me feeling empty and concerned with the lack of reflection. The museum unfortunately reflects the elite vision with which it was conceptualised. Having spent the last sixteen years working on the history of Partition, I realise that people still need to learn more about this period. But sadly, seventy years on we hardly have any empathy for the collective guilt that we all share in this legacy. The newspapers presented were from the Indian perspective, the horrors of violence were those perpetrated by Muslims against Hindus and Sikhs. Had we been on the other side of the Radcliffe Line, I imagine similar one-sided accounts would be shown of how Muslims were killed at the hands of Hindus and Sikhs. So, when do we move away from this communalized history of partition that still lingers on?

The pictures and voices shared were not of the ordinary people suffering but of prominent people and those who have come to “symbolise” partition history. This is certainly not a people’s history. Even the Tree of Hope presented me with little hope as it was covered in nationalistic and jingoistic slogans written by school children and visitors. Hardly giving secular India hope for the future. Instead the Tree of Hope just reinforces the new powerful and bullish India, unleashed by Modi’s vision.

My main concerns were with the well that has been installed in the museum. It is obviously designed to educate people but what sort of story is it trying to tell us? By simply stating that many women were forced to or rather martyred themselves by jumping into the wells is simplifying a very complex history. Women as the torch bearers of community honour were in some cases (we can hardly guess the numbers) forced to jump into wells by the patriarch of the family or community. Some went willingly but others were more reluctant; afraid of what was expected of them. We can most poignantly see this in the film Kamosh Pani. And so, to show this well in the middle of exhibition represents what exactly? If this was the original location, as in Jallianwala Bagh, it would make sense but to install it for effect is problematic. What kind of history and memory is being preserved by these acts to recreate history selectively? With little intellectual engagement with these selective symbolic fragments from our collective past we can only serve to re-enforce the communalised identities that led to 1947 in the first place.

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