Partition Memorial Project
Updated: Sep 26
The Partition of India, 1947
The Partition of colonial India in 1947 that dislocated close to 20 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and resulted in the formation of India and Pakistan. The Partition was particularly violent and brutal. The communal riots that ensued between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of the Partition, left over 2 million dead. But that’s not all.
Over 300,000 women were abducted and raped during the partition riots, on both sides of the newly created border.
Bangladesh War of Liberation, 1971
In 1947, when India was partitioned, Pakistan was created as East and West Pakistan. The two wings of Pakistan were separated by over 2000 kilometers. To make maters worse, the two regions were culturally very distinct from each other. The governance of both regions from East Pakistan created a lot of infrastructural as well as cultural conflicts between East and West Pakistan.
Some four decades later, the people from East Pakistan started demanding sovereign status. This resulted in basically, a second Partition, this time of Pakistan, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. This resulted in a very bloody war in 1971 called the Bangladesh War of Liberation. This military conflict was marked by extreme brutality.
As a result of the 1971 war, over 10 million refugees were forced into migrating to India, and over 20 million were displaced internally.
The Pakistani army systematically used rape as a weapon of war. About 200,000-400,000 women were raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
Monuments and their Failures
For decades, there was not a monument for the Partition in India or Pakistan. Construction work on a Partition memorial was initiated in Lahore, Pakistan in the early 2000s. I visited it in 2011, and found the construction site abandoned, the half-constructed building falling into ruin.
In 2017, private citizens in Punjab, India came together to finally build a monument to the Partition of 1947. The Partition Museum Project www.partitionmuseum.org was established seventy years after the Partition. The museum has positioned itself as a “people’s museum” and focuses on objects, photographs, and oral histories of survivors of the Partition.
Surprisingly, Bangladesh has been much further ahead in memorializing the Liberation War of 1971. When I visited there in 2013, I was able to visit the Martyred Intellectual Memorial, the Liberation War Museum and another museum that was built on top of a mass grave.
However, the women are still missing from these museums and memorials. Perhaps it is because the memorials and museums are state actors invested in the nationalist project of nation-building. But once again, the women have been rendered invisible. While I understand the cultural weight of these memories of abduction and rape, I am saddened to see this elision 70 years on in India, and 50 years on in Bangladesh.
How do you memorialize unbearable memories?
I founded the Partition Memorial Project in 2008, as an MFA graduate student in University of Wisconsin – Madison. It is an anti-memorial and exists online at www.partitionmemorialproject.org and physically whenever there is an opportunity to exhibit one of the projects.
The five main projects in the Partition Memorial Project are –
Read more about What the Body Remembers anti-memorial and the counter-memory of women it seeks to reveal.
Read more about Silent Waters anti-memorial and the counter-memory of forced migration and displacement it seeks to reveal.
Read more about Remembering the Crooked Line anti-memorial and the counter-memory embedded in the partitions around the world in the 20th century it seeks to reveal.
Read more about Broken Column anti-memorial and the counter-memory suppressed in monuments and architectural spaces it seeks to reveal.
Read more about the Handful of Dust anti-memorial and the counter-memories suppressed in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 it seeks to reveal.
Sources of my research
My research for this body of work on the Partitions has included mining the rich body of knowledge found in memory culture, as well as literary works of fiction and non-fiction that investigate the Partition.
I also owe a huge debt to literary works, in particular, Ismat Chugtai’s “The Crooked Line,” and Attia Hossain’s “Sunlight on a Broken Column,” Shauna Singh Baldwin's "What the Body Remembers," for their insightful examination of the Partition through a gendered lens. Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan." In terms of movies, Deepa Mehta's "Fire," and Sabiha Sumar's "Khamosh Paani (Silent Waters)," have been particularly impactful.
The feminist historiography on the Partition in Urvashi Butalia’s “The Other Side of Silence,” and Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon’s “Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition,” has been absolutely invaluable to my work.
James E Young’s writings on counter-memory and anti-memorials have been absolutely crucial to articulating the underlying conceptual theses of my work.
Andreas Huyssen, a prominent cultural scholar coined the term, “memory sculptures,” in his book, “Present Pasts,” to write about contemporary post-minimalist sculptures that refer to past memories of trauma buried in collective memories of the nation.
Last, but not the least, Michele Foucault has been a big presence in the sub-text of my work, as I study and navigate his works, particularly, "Language, Counter-Memory, and Practice," and other important texts.
My artistic inspirations
The two artists that have influenced me deeply are Doris Salcedo and Nandini Malini.
Doris Salcedo is from Columbia and makes absolutely exquisite post-minimalist sculptural works about the victims of the brutal acts of political violence that have been going on in Columbia for decades. More about her can be found on www.art21.org/artist/doris-salcedo/ and on the internet. Andreas Huyssen, a prominent cultural scholar calls her work “memory sculptures,” in his book, “Present Pasts.”
Nalini Malini is a pre-eminent contemporary artist from India, and has made some significant works on the painful experiences of women in the Partition, and the cycles of communal violence and rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. The works specifically referencing Partition are “Remembering Toba Tek Singh,” and “Mother India.”