To Forget or not to Forget: Lessons from the past, relationships for the future

To Forget or not to Forget: Lessons from the past, relationships for the future

The Founder of the Partition Museum in India reflects on the some of the lessons of the past that can help strengthen the UK-India relationship. A country should never forget the lessons of the past. In forgetting lies the possibility of making the same mistakes again. The leaders and the people both should, with responsibility, understand that the past is a prelude, and a natural historical process, through which ideas of nationalism and territorial boundaries evolve. A country could have passed through difficult times, barbaric times or even enlightened times -all have created the nation as it stands today. The nation will only be able to interpret its own dilemmas and challenges if it records its history truthfully-along with the difficult choices that were forced upon its people. There should be no attempt to cover up the faults or mistakes of its leaders, either. Some people have recommended an amnesia over certain tragic episodes (such as the Partition, which till a few years ago, was barely talked about) -but to deliberately forget would carry an ever present danger that the country might fall into the same trap once more. Or that future generations would be oblivious to the facts.

Learning from history

Thus, India has faced its own fraught history with the British - comprising of invasions, battles, colonisation, slavery, White supremacy in all its shades. But we have to read the historical narrative unflinchingly - at the same time realising that even if India was previously marginalised and exploited - today, as a sovereign country, this is longer the case. With a strong indigenous, homegrown leadership -India is a sought-after nation, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It now sets its own terms and agendas. If it got a pride of place during the recent
, it was because the UK has realised that an independent India, the world's largest democracy, is a power to be reckoned with. This is an India confident of confronting the difficult moments of the past; capable of opening up hidden chapters of history and examining them - without impacting the present
. Rather than develop amnesia, India can examine the good, bad and ugly side of our partner nations knowing full well that while we will never forget, and may not even forgive - we can move forward, in charge of our own history. Therefore, I firmly believe that asking for apologies from the UK over its colonial past is not the way forward. What is the meaning of an apology which is dragged out And how can it ever rectify the damage that was done 100 years ago Rather than that, we should rectify the flawed and forgotten narratives out of which Indo-UK history has been created.

Documenting the past

As an empowered nation, we owe it to our children and future generations that they receive not a selective truth, but the whole truth. This is particularly true of some tragic episodes that stand out: the Bengal Famine, the forced conscription during World Wars I and II (as there has been an attempt to romanticise the participation of Indian soldiers), the Jallianwala Bagh massacre - and of course, the complete breakdown of law and order during the Partition of India, causing the loss of countless lives and homes of over 18 million people. Till less than two years ago, there was no Museum or public space that captured the years of the colonial rule and this was a big missing link in our understanding of contemporary history. It is this narrative of India under colonial rule, culminating with the Partition, which we have placed in the world's first Partition Museum, at the Town Hall in Amritsar - because the Partition was not a brainwave that emerged suddenly out of the minds of leaders in the 30s and 40s but a systemic policy of divide and rule followed by the British, who did not really comprehend the holistic, undivided culture of India. This was even reflected in the Army, where instead of an Indian Army comprising of a single unit, different regiments such as a Gurkha regiment, a Sikh regiment etc sprung up. All policies were made for the defence of the Empire and not for the protection and security of the people, who sadly, as we saw during many of the calamities reflected above, were dispensable.

Holding up a mirror

But this is the past, and that is important for us to remember. This is a past that will not recur if we understand the process under which a country as vast as India was suppressed and divided. By holding up a mirror we also understand better why it has taken us this long to be able to comprehend the true nature of the price our ancestors paid. And what made it possible for a country thousands of miles away to control us through a handful of civil servants, Governor Generals, Viceroys etc. Sometimes the gap of years helps us construct this mirror with more care and understanding, and not with a desire for vengefulness. In a world that is increasingly inter-connected, where populations are fluid and moving constantly and where nationalities and identities are not bound by birth, it is pragmatic to accept that what happened in the earlier centuries was under very different circumstances. That was a time when knowledge and information was jealously guarded and the subaltern populations only knew what was communicated to them. Now these facts can no longer be hidden, information is instantly shared and fortunately contemporary history still has existing records which can be re-examined through a fresh perspective, as we have done at the Partition Museum.

Oral histories

When we first began work on the Museum, many did try to dissuade us that we were going into a very difficult and contested area, one over which there had been a forced silence for many years. However, this is a people's museum and we began by collecting oral histories, experiences and objects all from the time of the Partition in 1947. Slowly as the word spread, people began to contact us and donate memories, memorabilia and money. Today the Museum, which began as an idea three years ago, is spread over 14 galleries in Amritsar and receives thousands of visitors each week. The material has come from all over the world and the Museum tells the story of how 18 million lost their homes in the world's largest human migration. It talks of their sacrifice and courage, and how so many of them rose from the dust to help build the nation they had migrated to. It is a Museum which explores the joint history of four countries - the UK, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most importantly, it tells the story of how a shared culture and past was divided, overnight, during the British Raj, leading eventually to three different countries - all of whom carry memories of the forced division. I must also point out that we received unstinting support from UK academics and organisations to access research, photographs and other material which was required for the Museum narrative, as most of the documents pre-1947 all lie in the UK. We have also received support from members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, some of whom have even visited the building at Amritsar and followed its development.

Looking ahead

Through the exhibition we are also able to interpret world events today, and shape the dialogue around India where pluralism and multiple faiths had lived together side by side till this mammoth division caused a rift. Despite the rift, however, India has continued its story of being inclusive. This is what we commemorate in the last gallery in the museum - the Gallery of Hope. In this gallery, we display the positive stories of how communities continue to live and work together triumphing over divisions. It is in this context that we view our growing relationship with the UK - with whom we have a shared history. While some of this history is painful and will always be troubling to revisit, we must remember it. But we must acknowledge the enormous potential the
relationship offers in the present day - because this time it is among equals.
Kishwar Desai is an author and Chair of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust, behind the Partition Museum in Amritsar, India.

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