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Specters of memory: Individual and collective memory of 1947 Partition of British India


‘It was pitch black as the train eventually started moving. As the clouds moved to give way to the moonlight, all I could see outside were human corpses.’

Bari Dadi, a Partition survivor 

Belonging to the third generation of Partition migrants in Pakistan, I have grown up listening to such horrific stories of violence experienced by my grandparents, their friends and family members during their migration from Delhi to Karachi, the former being modern-day India’s capital, while the latter a city in Pakistan. While these stories were passed down as family tradition and formed the crux of my familial identity, they were not a part of my history lessons in school. All I learned was a chronology of events that culminated in the creation of Pakistan on 14th August 1947. In 1984, a political party claiming to advance Muhajirs’ rights also surfaced in Karachi. Muhajir is the politico-legal term that refers to the people who migrated from North India to present-day southern Pakistan during Partition. Despite the dominance of the term Muhajir in Pakistan and the ubiquitous reference to the 1947 migration, schools focus only on the events leading up to the Partition, and not the migration and human tragedies associated with Partition. 


Through my academic research and teaching in diverse classrooms in Karachi, I strive to bridge the gap between the national memory of Partition recounted in schools and the individual memory of Partition passed down in thousands of families. As part of my research in Karachi, the Pakistani city that houses the majority Muhajir population, I conducted an oral history interview with my grandmother’s sister. Called Bari Dadi by the people around her, she and her family migrated to Pakistan in September 1947, after communal riots engulfed her neighborhood. She was 18 years old and seven months pregnant at that time. During the interview, Bari Dadi narrated her arduous journey and the challenges she and her family faced once they had migrated to Pakistan. Having had to abandon most of their possessions and savings, her family did not have sufficient finances, and had to live off the bare minimum. Through the analysis of Bari Dadi’s oral history account, I argue that oral history narratives and individual stories should be a part of school history lessons as they allow for a more empathetic and multi-perspective understanding of historical conflicts such as the Partition.


The Indian subcontinent was liberated of colonial rule in August 1947, and two independent and autonomous states – India and Pakistan – were created. This set into motion one of the largest mass migrations in modern history, with the displacement of 14 million people, who however did not all move on the given date [1]. Needless to say, this migration was far from peaceful. It was marked by extreme violence including abductions, killings and rapes on a mass scale. Vazira Zamindar (2007) uses the term long Partition to highlight how Partition was not just an event that happened on a given date but rather a process which continues to impact people’s lives even today [2].

One cannot help but notice the discrepancies in Pakistan’s official historiography. The school textbooks used in government schools and sanctioned by the state-level curriculum board exhibit a conspicuous absence of any experiences of this migration. Interestingly, this silence on the violence in Partition is also present in Indian and British textbooks [3]. A glance at the table of contents of Mutaalla e Pakistan, a grade 9 history book, reveals a listing of multiple conferences, plans and addresses by political leaders between 1940 and 1947. This sequence of events culminates in the following statement: 

‘Two autonomous countries, Pakistan and India, emerged on the world map. Pakistan announced its independence on 14th August 1947 and India announced its independence on 15th August 1947.’

Mutaalla e Pakistan, Grade 9 History textbook [4]


It can be argued that the positing of a violent process as a linear trajectory has resulted in the dehumanization of a tragic process that marks a point of rupture in the collective history of the Indian subcontinent. Consequently, Partition lives in two distinct spheres: one that is owned and presented by the state, and the other that is owned and passed on in familial traditions. While the first peripherally mentions the mass migration, the other builds an understanding of Partition through the lived experience of migration. For instance, the official narrative claims that Pakistan was envisioned as a territory for Muslims of India where they could practice their religion freely. As such, the official narrative presumed that any and all Muslims who migrated to Pakistan at the time did so because of religious motivation. On the contrary, Bari Dadi’s oral history account revealed that her family fled for perceived security in the new country. In opposition to the state narrative, her family had intended to return to Delhi once things settled down, and to this day, trace their identity as Delhiites despite residing in Karachi. 


Oral narratives provide insight into the chronological events by showing us their human face. In doing so, they become opportunities for building compassion and empathy. Yet, they are often dismissed as mere stories. What academics and institutions often fail to recognize is that oral stories constitute a ‘rigorous method for documenting historical events, rituals and cultural practices’ (Dayton-Woods et al. 2012, 77) [5]. Given that stories provide rich, personal and human accounts, they have the potential of being used to reimagine the largest migration and the most significant event in the history of Pakistan from a more humanistic and empathetic lens. As such, stories present alternatives to the largely unchallenged official narrative and provide engagement opportunities in history classrooms which, as of now, remain shrouded in the learning of facts and grand narratives.


In this short paper, I highlighted how the state narrative of Partition constructs a national memory which however remains colored in nationalism and politics. The underlying themes and complex intersection of religion, race, class and gender are often absent from this narrative. Drawing from my research on the contradiction between state and individual narratives and my experience as a teacher and student in a history classroom, I discussed how oral narratives present a rich opportunity for exploring this intersection and for allowing the development of empathy, compassion and critical thinking. The argument is not to favor one narrative over the other, rather, to use both to provide students with the space to critically engage with identity and memory on a more personal level, eventually aiding in improved learning in history classrooms.


Notes and references

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. ‘Human Migration’.


[2] Zamindar, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali. 2007. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia. New York: Columbia University Press.


[3] For additional reading, see Chhabra, Meenakshi. 2017. ‘A Human Rights And History Education Model For Teaching About Historical Events Of Mass Violence: The 1947 British India Partition’. PROSPECTS 47(1-2), 149-162.


[4] Choudhary, Muhammad Hussain, and Azam, Uzma. 2007. Mutaalla Pakistan. Islamabad: Punjab Textbook Board.

[5] Dayton-Wood, Amy; Hammonds, Laren; Matherson, Lisa; and Tollison, Leah. 2012. ‘Bridging Gaps and Preserving Memories through Oral History Research and Writing’. English Journal, 101(4), 77-82.


Fatima Aizaz

With an undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, Fatima Aizaz brings together diverse disciplines in her practice in the field of education. She is currently working with Zindagi Trust, a local NGO that aims to reform the education system in Pakistan through policy advocacy and school reform. Fatima Aizaz has a profound interest in history, particularly on identity formation, and strongly believes in the power of a multi-perspective history education in building a more empathetic and tolerant society. To this end, she remains engaged in pursuing academic history, while simultaneously working with school teachers and students.

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