Indefinite Borders Deciding the Definite Fates of Millions

by Rituparna Rana


The 1947 Partition of India is one of the most traumatic and disruptive incidents of the 20th century with which began a period of uncertainty and dislocation. It resulted in rampant violence, rape, murder, and the displacement of millions of refugees across the new borders that were formed. However, the documentation of such an event was very different from the everyday lived experiences of the millions of women, children and families, who had to live with the consequences of the Partition. The Partition of 1947, especially on the side of the Bengal border, is usually either read in terms of the political turmoil that resulted in such an event or it is incorporated in the discourse of National history as the marker of creating the present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This mainstream historical narrative generally lacks the common people’s perspective and their histories get silenced. Apart from dividing the geographical land, the families of people got divided and they had to start their lives once again from scratch. The memories of the horrific incident remained inside their lives but did not get an agency to come forth as a valid form of history. The current Partition scholarship has shifted its focus from the Metanarrative to the micro-narratives. Instead of one accepted history, there is now an increasing demand for personal histories that could open up another perspective of what happened with the common people. Such Partition histories rely on memory as the main source of retelling the past. The narratives of the Partition that were derived from memories of individuals and the community differed from that of the empirical and positivist documentation of history. The recent historical archive, as Vazira Zamindar argues, have tried to relook and revisit the many neglected aspects of the Partition. The foundation of questioning some of the prior presumptions about this historical or political event of 1947 have been a revisiting of the oral narratives that were collected from the actual eyewitnesses of the 1947 Partition. The alternative archive that such personal histories provide adds a very different perspective to the existing knowledge on the 1947 Partition (Zamindar, 2007). The stories of the common people who were forced to go through and live with the consequences of the Partition, provide significant insights into the traumatic effects of violence on the collective psyche over time and become the testimony of the brutality and gruesomeness of the collective violence. In my recent project, I collected about 25 oral histories from the first generation Partition witnesses who lived on the side of Bengal during the Partition. Even though each one of them had a very different story altogether, the emotions and experiences they had as children back then were very similar. It was the same anger and confusion that each of my interviewee had to go through at a very tender age.

A common answer to the question of when was the first time any of my interviewees had heard the term Partition and what they understood by it was that the term Partition was something that was happening all around them, something all the male elders of the household were continuously discussing and debating upon, something that made the women in the house very worried and certainly something that had a very adventurous as well as a dangerous vibe according to these people who were hardly 10 years old back then.It meant no school, no homework and lots of free time to play with friends and no supervision of the elders. It was a busy time. They kept hearing the term ‘Partition’ in the everyday conversations,but the word remained alien to them. It had no context, no prior resemblance, no familiarity and no meaning at all. It was just a word that created an atmosphere of panic all around.

Krishna Lahiri, who was seven years old back in 1947 and was residing in Calcutta, recalls that the sound of the siren meant it was play time for them. Wherever they were, all her brothers, sisters and friends would come running inside their house, as it was the only well-built pucca house in their locality. All her neighbors would come crowding in their living room. The children were locked inside the bedroom. This was the most exciting part for her and her friends. It was time for new toys and dolls. These were the baits given to them to keep them out of danger. For seven year old Krishna, Partition meant a kind of a new adventure. But unfortunately, it was not such a pleasant time for every child during the Partition. Pranab Mukherjee, who was also seven at the time of Partition, had to face the adversities of migrating from their homeland to a new country. They were in Dinajpur in East Pakistan, when migration became inevitable. His father was already in Calcutta, but any mode of communication was impossible during that time. His mother and two sisters were dying of anticipation. Finally,his grandfather decided to disguise as a Muslim and take their family across the Bengal Border to Calcutta. But, little did they know, this journey was going to be way more tragic than they ever could imagine. Pranab’s little sister, who was two years old back then, fell sick of Cholera in the middle of the journey. By the time they reached Calcutta, his sister was already on the verge of dying. Both his grandparents had spent the entire days for a week to bring her back to health. A week later, he recalls, both he and his other sister was locked inside a room and were prohibited from coming outside. But curiosity compelled him to manage somehow to escape out of the room,but he instantly regretted his decision. The sight that he witnessed that day haunts him to this date. It was a rotten, black, tiny corpse, which was beyond recognition, and was folded in a dirty piece of cloth which their grandpa carried away to burn.

For a teenage girl, the Partition brought a kind fear that was very real and very raw. Her own body was in danger of being violated. A 13 years old Bandana Chatterjee who was in Delhi during the time of Partition, did not know what “honor” meant. She did not know that her body was responsible for maintaining the dignity and the honor of her family. All she knew was that on the 14th of August 1947, she saw her father running outside with a bucket of water to extinguish the fire that the mob had started in a house adjacent to hers. That was the first time she saw a house burning. Later that night, she heard her neighbors screaming that the mob was already there, and there was no way out. There were five people residing in her house, her mother, father, younger sister who was nine, herself and a male domestic help. She remembers her mother holding a huge knife, ready to slit her and her sister’s throats. Little Bandana and sister couldn’t understand why her mother would even think of such a thing. All she remembers was begging to her mother to wait for a little more before she took such a decision. She said,“Ma wait, what if they don’t come; what if they miss our home.”Partition became a disgusting and a cruel memory for her that turned a loving and caring mother into a potential murderer who was ready to sacrifice her own daughters to save the family honor.

The concept of Partition, the sheer possibility of dividing a land mass, carving out three different territories from one, the senseless violence, and everything related to it was beyond imagination for the little children who were forced to live through it. All they could understand was that something was happening around them, that took away their freedom, the harmony from their society, their friends and family, and created something that had made everyone afraid. The little ones who had to migrate from East Pakistan to India and were forced to live in refugee camps could not understand why they were living in such conditions when they had a perfectly good house. There was anger that was very different from that of the adults. They were angry because their mango trees were snatched from them, they had to leave the ponds behind where they used to fish daily, they were angry because no one was explaining anything, they were angry because people were telling them they could never go back to their own home again, and that this new chaotic place where the camps were put up was their bright new fate, their new country and they were supposed to be celebrating the freedom of India.They did not understand what was there to be celebrated to live like that, to have no possessions, to lose the people the loved the most. Today, when these witnesses tell their stories, they have learned to rationalize these events, they understand the context, they know what Partition was, what it meant and why it happened. They structure their narratives using the political references, communal differences, talking about the larger good for the Nation-state. But the part where they narrate their experience of living through Partition as a little child, the narrative still remains unclear and full of anger, confusion, and regret.


Rituparna Rana is a final year M.A. student in the Society and Culture Department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India.


Saint, Tarun. Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction. New Delhi; New York: USA: Routledge, 2010.

Butalia, Uravashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books, India, 1998.

Butalia, Urvashi. Partition: The Long Shadow. New Delhi, India: Zubaan Books 2015.

Menon, Ritu; Kamla Bhasin. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Delhi, India: Rutgers University Press, Kali for Women, India, 1998.

Zamindar, Wazira. Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. Colombia: Columbia University Press, 2007.