Beyond the Partition: An invitation for the future

It was the second day of my workshop with eighth graders at Ecole Mondiale. We began by reviewing what we had learnt about the Partition of 1947 through the previous day’s discussions.

I built on their responses by encouraging them to think about the two-nation theory, asked them if they agreed with the idea that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together in one country, sought their opinion on the condition of minorities in India and Pakistan, and prodded them to guess why textbooks construct Gandhi and Jinnah as heroes or villains depending on which country we live in.

In order to emphasize that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were not the only communities affected, I showed them journalist Shiraz Hassan’s photograph of a ‘Jai Jinendra’ sign from what used to be a Jain temple in Rawalpindi, and also spoke briefly about Parsis at the time of Partition.

I was moved by the effort and heart they put into an activity that got them to imagine they were living in 1947, and had been instructed by their parents to pack their bags overnight for a train that would take them to their new homeland the following morning. What would they take along with them?

Some of the answers were: clothes to wear, food to eat, first aid kit to take care of medical emergencies, jewellery to sell, board games for entertainment, firearms to protect the family, money to buy supplies, documents for identification, paper and pen to write letters to loved ones, a flip phone to communicate in case of danger, a picture of the current house to celebrate fond memories, and religious objects needed for prayer and worship.

I was a bit shaken by a question that came from one of the girls in our class. “Sir, did they have pepper sprays in 1947?” The students around her laughed but it gave me an opportunity to draw attention to the gendered nature of violence, and how women’s bodies were attacked because of the cultural associations with ‘community honour’.

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Aanchal Malhotra on TheWire.in

After this, we watched a video titled ‘The Memory Keeper: Remembering Partition Through Objects’, featuring archivist Aanchal Malhotra and produced by TheWire.in, wherein she speaks about Partition history through utensils carried by her grandparents who lived in a refugee camp. We also watched Nina Sabnani’s animation film Mukand and Riaz, and the Google Reunion video featuring the story of Indian and Pakistan grandchildren who make it possible for their grandparents to meet. We engaged with these audio-visual texts by reflecting on the strengths and limitations of oral history narratives in contributing to our understanding of the past and present.

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Screen grab from Nina Sabnani’s film ‘Mukand and Riaz’

The workshop concluded with an invitation to think about the future we can build together. The text that guided us in this process was a short piece titled ‘An anti-national friendship’ written by journalist Saim Saeed for Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, wherein he lovingly recounts some moments from the time he spent with his Indian friend Amey Charnalia at the Mahindra United World College in Maharashtra. Pakistani citizens rarely get a scholarship to study in India but Saim did.

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Saim Saeed (left) with Amey Charnalia (right)

The students also came up with ideas about the artefacts they would like to place in a Partition museum if they had the power to decide. This short exercise was a way to consolidate what we had learnt together over the course of two days. I came home feeling grateful for the opportunity to work with them.

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