Curating the Wound: The Public Memory of Partition Remains Woefully Caste-Blind

Even though the narratives of Partition continue to attract great currency in the public sphere, they remain confined to the accounts of upper-caste survivors. Popperfoto/Getty Images
08 August, 2017

In the heart of Delhi, near Karol Bagh, is a sprawling neighborhood named Rehgar Pura that hums with the sounds and sights of urban life. The streets are lined with narrow buildings, residences stacked above bustling commercial establishments—wholesale and retail shops, godowns and small leather and garment production units. The neighborhood is well known in the city as a primary trading hub for leather goods. Yet for all its commercial renown and central location, Rehgar Pura barely marks a presence in the social landscape of the city. It is one of many invisible neighbourhoods, which, despite their long histories, do not feature in city guidebooks. Yet Rehgar Pura is a prime site of South Asian history even in its invisibility. It is entrenched in the politics of the formation of modern India and Pakistan—the history of Partition.

It wasn’t until 2001, when I began my archival work on the history of Partition migration and resettlement, that I first discovered these connections. In the now-defunct archives of the erstwhile Ministry of Rehabilitation—it was later merged with the home ministry as a department—Rehgar Pura was listed as a site of resettlement for the “Harijan” community displaced during the violent upheavals of Partition. (The term “Harijan” was most popularly employed by Mohandas Gandhi, to refer to those belonging to Scheduled Caste communities. The term is widely considered condescending.) I was no stranger to this neighborhood—I was born about two kilometres from it, and had been a frequent visitor to the bazaar through my childhood. What was unfamiliar to me was how Rehgar Pura was deeply woven into—and yet concealed within—the story of Partition migration and resettlement.

At the turn of the twentieth century, this location was a marked site for the Dalit residents of Delhi, many of whom were employed in the city municipality as sweepers. It was also to become a site of resettlement for the newly arrived Dalit refugees from West Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated and set apart from the “regular” resettlement locations meant for upper-caste refugees. In 1947 and 1948, the urban refugees classified as Harijan, Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and “untouchables” were offered resettlement in this location by the newly-liberated postcolonial Indian state.

The first annual report of the relief and rehabilitation ministry—between 1947 and 1948—mentions the establishment of the “Harijan section” of the ministry, which specifically undertook the project of the resettlement of oppressed-caste refugees. The project included: rural rehabilitation of Dalit families in Karnal, in Haryana, and Gang Nagar in Rajasthan’s city of Bikaner; securing employment for Dalit refugees as sweepers and construction workers, and the establishment of “Harijan” bastis, or settlements, in Ahmedabad and Delhi. The scheme launched by the government in Delhi included the setting up of two cooperative housing societies for Dalit refugees, both called the Rameshwari Nehru Cooperative Housing Societies, in the Rehgar Pura area. The ministry noted in its report that, between April and August 1948, it spent Rs 2,000 on “Harijan” relief, and that these societies were started with a share capital of Rs 4,000. Their tenants were offered tiny mud huts covered with tarpaulin as shelters.

That this form of support for rehabilitation was strikingly different from what was offered to the upper-caste refugees becomes clear when we locate it in the larger perspective of the state policy. Around the same time, for example, the government offered the children of refugees studying abroad low-interest loans worth GBP 7,171, or USD 39,710. The chances that this group of beneficiaries included any Dalits are next to zero. Similarly, the permanent resettlement schemes for the upper-caste refugees consisted of better-planned and more spacious residences, in areas such as Nizamuddin, Rajinder Nagar, Kingsway Camp, and Ramesh Nagar—even today, many of these continue to be upscale and expensive neighbourhoods. In other words, the very apparatus of the state resettlement programmes was built upon caste and class distinctions, even as the word “caste” found no mention in the settlement policies.

This spatial separation also resulted in discursive separation from the history of Partition, and an absence in the popular narratives of the trauma and loss experienced by millions of people across the subcontinent. In fact, these accounts are nearly absent from the accounts of Partition migration—with a few notable exceptions, the history of the era remains oblivious to caste.

In recent times, the urgency to record and document the lived experiences of the now ageing survivors has fueled several popular initiatives of oral-history archives. Like the citizen journalists who have arisen as a by-product of social media, digitally empowered citizen historians now seek testimonies of Partition survivors in public interest. These testimonies are not stored in a state archive, and are openly accessible on the internet. For the first time, the history of Partition is the subject of a museumthat collects and exhibits memories and objects that we are left with. These are laudable projects, and the involvement of young citizen historians is commendable. The past is mediated to a new generation so that the collective wound continues to be remembered. To underline non-partisanship, these efforts are publicised as apolitical, which focus solely on the personal experiences of Partition.

Yet there is something deeply unsettling about this increasingly depoliticised notion of human suffering: it fails to recognise that what we choose to remember or forget, to publicly speak or remain silent about, are deeply political gestures. This is the disturbing paradox of contemporary Partition historiography—even as the project of maintaining oral history and the memorialisation of Partition continues to attract great currency outside of academia and in the public sphere, it remains confined to the narratives of upper-caste survivors. If the stories of Dalit refugees occupied a tentative space a decade ago, they still remain on the edges of Partition history. The question, at once old and new, is: whose wounds can be preserved, exhibited, and remembered in the public domain?

The domain of memory that Partition history now inhabits—where it is visible and plentiful—increasingly irons out the complexities of Partition politics to narrate moving, simple accounts of human suffering. The “human” subject in this project is often a free-floating agent disconnected from the realm of politics—a word almost invoked with disapproval, and which is understood largely as state- or national-level negotiations by prominent leaders. That personal and collective negotiations, transgressions and compromises underpinning disorderly social relations in everyday life is barely acknowledged. The near-absence of Rehgar Pura from the spatial map of Partition is a result of this: it is a sign of discomfort with the politics of caste, and the fear of politicising a tragedy.

To put it another way, the space for complexities and contradictions is steadily erased once the project of memory overshadows the project of critical history. Public remembrance secedes from the messiness of everyday life—it excludes the Dalit refugees that were already edged out of history, the wealthy migrants who were able to exchange property, the victims who happened to be aggressors too, or the bureaucratic machinery that created a hierarchy that ironically favored the already resourceful elite.

The project of memorialisation, too, often holds suffering as sacred, and therefore beyond debate. Yet, when the historical wound of Partition is being curated for display, even dressed up afresh for public consumption, we need to be ever more attentive to the part of it that is left outside the public gaze.