Memories, Pain, Remorse: A Partition Portrait Gallery

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Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty


Rosalind Miller’s largely unseen photographs – taken 25 years ago and reflecting on events half-a-century before that – touch on one of the most sensitive and painful aspects of India’s past: how the extraordinary events of Partition impacted the lives of otherwise ordinary people.

The trauma of Partition in 1947 is still customarily told in terms of high politics: Jinnah’s determination to carve out a separate Muslim nation of Pakistan; Nehru’s unsuccessful attempt to avoid the partitioning of British India; and Mountbatten’s unseemly haste in handing over power regardless of the consequences of an ill-planned British withdrawal.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of independence, I persuaded the BBC to allow me to make a radio series on Partition: not about the geopolitics of how independence was achieved but about the lived experience of that time. For four months, I travelled across South Asia talking to more than 200 people who had lived through Partition. The radio programmes are available online; the audio recordings are now in the archive of SOAS University of London.

Miller, a photographer and friend, came out from London and revisited some of those I had interviewed in Delhi and Punjab, taking memorable portraits of those caught up in the tragedy of Partition. We both travelled in Punjab, on separate journeys, with the journalist Asit Jolly, and without his help and friendship our missions would have been much diminished.

A quarter-of-a-century after Miller created that Partition photographic archive, a selection of her images is presented here as a photo gallery – the first such collection of her work – along with a brief account of the Partition stories of those whose portraits she captured.

Parkashwanti

Parkashwanti lived at the Gandhi Vanita Ashram in Jalandhar. She was aged about seventy in 1997 and, with other women in the institution, worked in the sewing room making sheets, mosquito nets and kit bags for the Punjab police. She was one of a handful of women in the ashram who had been in this and similar institutions ever since the aftermath of Partition. “I’ve waited 50 years to tell my story,” Parkashwanti said, “so please be patient.”

Parkashwanti.

When her village in West Punjab was attacked at Partition, she and her husband and young son took refuge in a rice mill. They were repeatedly robbed. Her husband was taken away, searched, and the money and jewellery he had tried to hide was taken from him. When he rejoined his wife in their refuge in the rice mill, he warned that she was in particular danger. “He said: ‘they are going to dishonour you. They are taking away young girls. It would be better if they killed you. If you agree, I’ll kill you myself.’”

“Before I knew what was happening, he hit me with a big sword. Look, here – here on my jaw. I’ve still got the wound,” she exclaimed pointing to her face. “It was my husband who hit me. My son was also hit twice. I didn’t know what was happening. I was in terrible pain. I felt as though a mountain was being thrown on top of me.”

When Parkashwanti came round, a boy gave her a drink of water, and two young women helped to hide her. She discovered that the looters had killed her husband and her son. In the small hours of the morning, she went to look for their bodies; her son’s body had already started bloating.

After a desperate ordeal, she and others – dazed and half-starved – were taken by truck to Lahore and then, a few days later, given permission to come to Amritsar. She was pregnant and later gave birth to a daughter.

Ram Dev and Krishna Devi

Ram Dev and Krishna Devi.

Ram Dev and Krishna Devi lived in Chandigarh having moved from West Punjab at Partition. In the spring of 1947, Ram Dev was in Lahore working for Punjab University. He was involved with the RSS. In March, some Hindu men in Lahore attacked a Muslim locality. “I was one of them,” he said.

“In the area attacked, there were a lot of milkmen and wooden sheds, and a lot of haystacks. There were hundreds of tons of wood. Someone threw kerosene; someone threw a bomb. For twenty miles, you could see the smoke. There were thousands of buffalos there. The entire milk supply of Lahore came from there.”

Ram Dev recounted that he was arrested for involvement in rioting, and several months later, shortly after independence, was sent to Amritsar in what he described as an exchange of prisoners.

His wife, Krishna Devi, was forced out of her home village in West Punjab and moved into a temporary camp in Chiniot village. “Our refugee camp was in a school. We didn’t get any food there. Sometimes people used to make rotis over the cremation fires. Things were so bad that people, even my nephew, if others were making chapatis, they would just grab two and run.”

She was eventually put on a train to the Indian side of the Partition line. “15th August meant nothing to me. People didn’t register that it was independence day. They were just crying and mourning. No one thought we would have to leave our homes like this.”

Shingara Singh

Shingara Singh, a stout Jat Sikh farmer and family patriarch, lived at Sultanwind near Amritsar. He recounted how as a teenager he had helped clear the bodies of those massacred at Jallianwala Bagh. At Partition, he was part of a local gang nicknamed ‘the crows’.

“I and my friends took our horses around. And we had pukka rifles and we had other weapons. The Muslims killed lots of our people on the other side, so we killed over here. First, we fired at them. And when they started running, we went after them with swords. And in one street, I remember, we killed six people.”

Shingara Singh.

He was briefly detained in Lahore jail, adding that he had only been to Lahore in shackles. He kept several swords from Partition time but said that during the Khalistan trouble they were taken away by the police.

Shingara Singh was unusual among those interviewed in expressing no remorse for perpetrating violence at Partition. “My anger has not yet cooled down,” he declared

Khorshed Italia

Khorshed Italia lived in Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi – in the flat that had been her home since 1937. In the summer of 1947, she was a volunteer welfare worker at Lady Hardinge Hospital working with displaced women. She was asked to go to the Old Fort and help the women being brought to Delhi on refugee trains or by truck.

“First a truck came with all women: old, young, middle aged. Whoever used to come, they used to give us a report: their wife is missing; their mother is missing; their sister is missing. Each time the women came, we had to ask: who do you belong to? what is your name? And then the lady doctors used to examine them, whether they were raped.”

She would meet trains coming in to Old Delhi station. “The railway would inform the hospital that a train is carrying all refugees. There would be over a hundred welfare workers for one train. The main aim was to rescue the women and see that they don’t go astray, because all these brothel people used to wait at the platform trying to grab them.”

Khorshed Italia.

“Young girls, eighteen, nineteen, were brutally raped,” Khorshed Italia recalled with a shudder. “You could see their busts swollen, teeth marks all over. I would come home and vomit.” The women were taken to a camp where they were given medical treatment and in some cases abortions were arranged.

“A stage came when men came to ask for their women, and the moment he knew she was pregnant: ‘no, I won’t take her back’.” Fifty years on, Khorshed Italia was still indignant at the attitude of some of the men. “When an educated man came, he wouldn’t take his women back. Very few did. They didn’t want them back. Mind you, a villager would come and say ‘Never mind, it’s not her fault’ and accept her.”

“So it was the villagers who took the women who were pregnant. But educated men did not.”

All photos by Rosalind Miller.

Rosalind Miller’s photographs are held in collections including the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Andrew Whitehead was, in 1997, the BBC India correspondent. He is now an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and also teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

This article was first published on The Wire.