Memories of a land divided
18 March 2013
A historian reflects on the challenges of reconstructing the lesser-known history of the Sylhet Partition many decades after the event.
… invisible suitcases, not the physical, perhaps cardboard, variety containing a few meaning-drained mementoes: we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time.
~ Salman Rushdie in Shame
Historian Peter Geyl famously stated that history is a never-ending argument. This is particularly true of oral history, where the historian examines the testimony of living people, and not just archival documents, in order to reconstruct and interpret a specific historical event or personality on the basis of memories and perceptions.
Since the 1980s, this methodology has been used increasingly in the study of the 1947 Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Historians are beginning to put on “stouter boots” – as the English historian R H Tawney put it – entering the field to collect and document testimonies from eyewitnesses and survivors in order to understand the impact of Partition on the everyday lives of ordinary people from the Punjab, Bengal, and more recently, Sylhet. Given the dearth of published historical works on Sylhet, it is not entirely surprising that a large chunk of the current knowledge about Partition there should come from an array of oral sources. Like many oral history projects, the story of Sylhet’s Patition is also evolving, emerging and incomplete. Some may ask: does this kind of memory have the ability to produce a narrative that is authentic, dependable and verifiable?
Several factors add to the complexities involved in reconstructing the experience of Partition in Sylhet after a hurriedly organised referendum on 6 and 7 July 1947. The oral historian studying those events more than 60 years later faces huge difficulty in finding eyewitnesses, most of whom are now in their late seventies or early eighties. Also, like all diasporas, discussions about the root cause of their dispersal understandably provokes sentimental reactions from those old enough to remember, who still nurse the pain and powerlessness of being evicted from their ancestral homeland.
Though some memoirs and other deeply personal pieces are available in the vernacular, the oral historian must begin almost from scratch. There is also a difference in the way Assam’s two valleys – the largely Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley – retrospectively interpret the cession of almost the entire district of Sylhet to East Pakistan. This is due to the different ways in which the postcolonial histories of the two valleys have evolved, particularly in relation to the Assamese language and culture. Then, there is the historian’s own perspective, particularly if he or she is of Sylheti origin, which is equally invaluable in providing insights through the lived experiences of his or her own family members and friends. With all these factors in mind, I read historian Binayak Dutta’s critique of my August 2012 piece in this magazine on memories of Sylhet Partition with interest.Finding memoriesIn his November 2012 article, Dutta rightly points out that “…thousands of testimonies of the Sylhet Referendum were never recorded.” I realised this fact about ten years ago when I started my own research on the subject. Trained in anthropological fieldwork during my doctoral studies, my principal concern was to document as many Sylheti eyewitness accounts as I could find in my then-immediate neighbourhood – Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, West Bengal – as well as overseas, via the Internet. By this time, historians elsewhere in northern India were already publishing richly documented studies of Partition memories from the perspectives of women, migrants, workers and many other such groups who until then had been marginalised in Partition history. However, the same was not being done for Sylhetis. With the passing of the generation that witnessed the Partition of Sylhet, there was a real risk that this rich source of oral history might be lost forever.
Locating respondents for interviews, however, was not easy. Most people with memories of the Sylhet Referendum and Partition were aged, and beset either by fading memories, ill health or both. Secondly, it was difficult to identify eyewitnesses even when I had leads, because some had by then moved away from their old residences in Northeast India. However, I did eventually meet several respondents who were generous enough to spare a lot of time resurrecting long-forgotten memories of 1947. I recollect with gratitude the generous hospitality and fascinating conversations with people who had themselves played significant roles during the Sylhet Referendum and Partition, particularly with the eminent historian Sujit Choudhury, then living in Karimganj, Assam. In retrospect, two of my biggest advantages were that I was myself an Indian of Sylheti origin, with roots in both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, and that during this period I was able to spend time with many older friends and members of my extended family, who often provided detailed accounts of those times.
This research, perhaps the first time that oral histories were collected for a study of the Sylhet Referendum and Partition, produced my article ‘Denial and resistance: Sylheti Partition ‘refugees’ in Assam’ (Contemporary South Asia, 2001). This was also the laboratory in which my first understanding of a people’s perspective of Sylhet Partition began to take shape. I found that the Sylheti bhadralok – the middle and upper classes – were resistant to the idea that they were Partition ‘ refugees’; that the lives of educated, middle-class Sylhetis already straddled both Assamese valleys since the pre-Partition days, cushioning their post-Partition transition to life in Indian Assam, where many of them already had jobs and property; that the Sylhetis helped each other, and the new arrivals settled in the same areas of Assam where earlier Sylheti economic migrants resided; that rumours and stories filtering in from other parts of India made the Sylheti bhadralok fearful about staying in East Pakistan, and many of them fled out of fear of anticipated violence and not because of actual violence. I realised that the Sylheti experience of Partition is unique and nuanced, and differs considerably from the narratives of Punjabis and Bengalis in other parts of the country. This work was only the beginning of my journey into the complexities of the Sylheti experience.
A couple of years later, I launched my second major research project on the topic. The methodology was much the same, except that I had broadened the base of respondents to include Sylheti Muslims as well. Again, my research assistant and I looked within our respective communities in the early stages of our fieldwork. My assistant dug deep into the histories of the Muslim population in Barak Valley, while I focused on Sylheti Hindus settled in the both the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys, and also in West Bengal and overseas. After the publication of a short article in Economic and Political Weekly in 2008, I received several emails from Sylhetis resettled around the world who shared with me their nostalgia, their sense of loss, and their memories of Partition. Some of them even sent me little-known booklets and pamphlets which they had carefully preserved for years. My respondent base had begun to grow in unexpected ways.
In this phase of my research the objective was to re-imagine the popular mood in Sylhet from just after the announcement of the Referendum in July 1947 till the actual Partition on 14 August 1947 and immediately afterwards. It became necessary to explore the differences in the way the Hindus and Muslims remembered those times, and the reasons for these differences. At the conclusion of the research, it emerged that although there were major differences in the two communities’ hopes and expectations from the Referendum, in the ultimate analysis they were equal victims of the Referendum and Partition. In the words of one Muslim respondent, “Ganovote to hoilo manusher ichcha janar lagia, kintu manushe to janlo na kene amrare agla kara hoilo. The Referendum was organised to know what the people’s wish was, but the people never got to know why they were separated.”
In this history there were no winners, only losers; the Partition was a people’s tragedy. Everyone, whether Hindu or Muslim, suffered and lost tremendously. Many farmers who had voted to join East Pakistan were forced to stay back because their lands had unexpectedly fallen on the Indian side of the border; others who had voted to stay in India found themselves equally unexpectedly located on the Pakistani side, and decided to leave. Fear, tension and rumours filled the air, and created panic. Families were separated, land was divided between brothers and relatives, jobs were lost, homes were abandoned and countries were left behind. Neither community was emotionally, financially or physically prepared to deal with the unexpected outcomes of Partition. While it was widely hoped that the Referendum would lead to a considered, unanimous and clear decision on which new country to join, the vivisection of Sylhet based on religious composition and geography led to confusion, disappointment and large-scale displacement for both Hindus and Muslims.
Was the story of my family as happy and exceptional as Dutta seems to suggest in his critique? In spite of his comparatively affluent socio-economic background and British education, my father carried painful memories of loss throughout his life, even though he was only ten years old in 1947. From this pain would spring his thousand-and-one stories about the desher bari he had left as a child, one fateful morning in August 1947. My greatest inheritance from him was his nostalgia. Did my grandfather not grieve the loss of his home in Sylhet, though he was successfully reinstated to his position in the civil service by the Assam government as promised? I quote from an article my friend Neeta Singh and I wrote in 2010:
Bidding farewell to the land of his forefathers was perhaps the most painful and difficult decision that he [my grandfather] had had to make in his entire life. But he had little time for tears or goodbyes, as he drove his family from his provincial posting to their ancestral home along the Sylhet-Shillong highway. It was the last night that he would spend in the ancestral home that his grandfather had so lovingly built some eighty-five years earlier.Addressing the critiqueDutta makes three arguments in his critique of my article. First, while referring to my account of my grandfather’s experience of Partition, he writes that “biographies can sometimes cloud larger community experiences, especially if they build broad generalisations based on the details of, at most, a few lives.” Second, he takes issue with my contention that the educated Sylhetis did not suffer as much as their Punjabi or Bengali counterparts in the re-settlement process. He recounts the unfortunate experiences of Sylheti Partition migrants and argues that such accounts “run counter to the relatively happy tale of the Dasgupta family, and strike at the root of Dasgupta’s suggestion that educated Sylhetis were able to build decent lives for themselves after Partition despite the loss of land and property.” Thirdly, he suggests that in the Sylheti case the word ‘displacees’ may be more appropriate than the term ‘diaspora’, which I used to refer to the resettled Sylheti population.
First, the article in question – co-authored with Neeta Singh – was a purely personal piece, and not a research paper published in an academic journal. In the introduction to the article, we clarified that we would explore the experiences of the Partition diaspora through the histories of our own family members, who were eyewitnesses to the region’s division. The entire piece was written in the first person and accompanied by old photographs of Neeta’s father and my grandfather, around whose lives the article was fashioned. It was not a record of general history, but just a short account of these two persons’ experiences against the larger backdrop of India’s Partition and how we related to it so many years later. Almost at the start of the article I proposed that “my grandfather had an easier time than many others [Sylhetis] in relocating his family after 1947”. Far from presenting him as the archetype of the Sylheti Partition migrant, I instead implied just the opposite. His testimony was highlighted simply because the purpose of the article was to highlight our respective family histories, on the eve of the Partition’s 65th anniversary. Neeta and I also represented the Partition diaspora in Southeast Asia which, like us, carried the pain of a lost homeland.
I also stated explicitly in my article that,
during the last ten years of documenting Sylheti eyewitness accounts of Partition and the referendum, many Sylhetis told me that despite the promises, not all government employees had been successfully reinstated in Assam. I met several Sylhetis whose parents or relatives fought lengthy legal battles to regain their former positions. However, for my grandfather, life took a more optimistic turn.
I don’t deny that such traumatic events caused agony to those concerned, and agree with Dutta that the Assam government perhaps did not have the intention of keeping its promise to reinstate civil servants from Sylhet. I also highlight the diverse Partition experience of the Sylhetis who were separated by several socio-economic factors. But just as Dutta argues for the stories of the sufferers, their hardship certainly does not diminish the significance of my grandfather’s experience, which in fact adds to the same complexity of the Sylheti experience that he refers to.
Second, Dutta claims that I discount “…the violence and trauma experienced by Sylhetis displaced from their ancestral homes”, quoting Meghna Guhathakurta to remind us “that violence is not to be measured only by ‘external’ acts of murder, loot or abduction; fear itself can be a physical and psychological violation.” Here, Dutta surprisingly misses my comment in a 2001 paper, which he refers to in his piece, where I wrote that the primary factor for out-migration among displaced Sylhetis was a “psychological pressure, a fear of what could happen if they stayed back, rather than what had actually happened or was happening to them at that time.” I went on to note that “every new instance of violence against Hindus elsewhere in India gave a push to fresh out-migration [from Sylhet] into Assam.” Nowhere in my writings do I deny the psychological factors which led many Sylhetis to flee. I suggest only that there were “no major instances of physical violence or violent expulsions” in Sylhet, as compared to the Partition experience elsewhere on India’s western border. In fact, he seems to agree with one of my major points in the same 2001 paper that not all Sylhetis were refugees because their lives had historically straddled both valleys of Assam, and that though many of them lost their homes and properties in Sylhet, the desher baari, their jobs and properties in Assam, the towner baari, remained relatively untouched.
Finally, Dutta suggests that I should have used the word ‘displacement’ and not ‘diaspora’ when referring to the Sylhet Partition migrants. The etymology of the word ‘diaspora’ comes from the Jewish ‘dispersal’, most often due to persecution, or the fear of the same. Diaspora is about dispersal, memory, belonging, and home, while ‘displacement’ focuses on the event of dispersal. In its essence, a diaspora is characterised by its sense of yearning for the homeland, and a curious attachment to its traditions, religions and languages. V S Naipaul once wrote that his grandfather, a labourer from the erstwhile United Provinces, “carried his village with him” to Trinidad . Naipaul’s grandfather’s journey to Trinidad “had been final”, but “a few reassuring relationships, a strip of land, and he could satisfyingly recreate an eastern Uttar Pradesh village in central Trinidad.” Salman Rushdie, in his novel Shame, adds that the longing for the homeland is countered by the desire to belong to a new home, so the migrant remains a creature of the edge, “the peripheral man”. These are feelings and tensions all too familiar to those who left Sylhet after Partition, and by that broader measure theirs is a diaspora and not a single displacement.
After relocation to the valleys of Assam, and elsewhere in the world, the Sylhetis remain caught somewhere between reality, imagination and nostalgia. Contemporary Sylheti identity, writes Sukalpa Bhattacharjee, has been constructed through reclaiming ‘Sylhetiness’ via folk songs, popular culture, historical and social narratives. Hemanga Biswas, one of Sylhet’s best-known poets, freedom fighters and leftist intellectuals, expressed the lingering sorrow of Partition in his soulful poetry. Biswas had a great talent for incorporating patriotism into the many genres of East Bengali folk songs. “Aamar mon kande-re Padma-r chorer laigya. My heart cries for the islands on the river Padma,” he sings. “Aamar obhagya-r ontor kande-re pora desher laigya. My unlucky heart cries out for my poor country.”
Sylhet did not have a Saadat Hasan Manto like the Punjab did, but in the works of Hemanga Biswas, still popular among Sylhetis, the heartrending sadness of Partition is put into simple, straightforward, everyday Sylheti language. Biswas focused on intensely personal stories that sometimes diverged from historical narratives, yet still managed to highlight the bigger picture. Community history and personal narrative are not necessarily separate, and if there is such a gap in Partition studies, it is in urgent need of exploration.
~ Anindita Dasgupta is an Associate Professor of History at Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her book on Sylhet’s Partition is forthcoming from Manohar Publications.