Partitioning Territory, Partitioning Time



In this text, Syma Tariq refuses to interpret the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent as a punctual event with a beginning and an end. Rather, she conceptualizes it as a process that can be reconstituted (in an always non-exhaustive manner) through its sonic dimension embodied by the many stories — in their subjective temporalities — of those who experienced the State crystallization of national identities.

Map Subcontinent Funambulist
A political cartography of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947. / Map by Léopold Lambert and Shivangi Mariam Raj, with inputs from Akanksha Kumar and Nilanjana Bhattacharjee (2021).

It’s difficult to pinpoint the end of colonialism, if you believe that it ended. In the context of the British Raj, however, the task is seemingly easier thanks to a clearly defined and often repeated time-stamp: midnight, on August 14-15, 1947. This specific moment is etched into the collective memory of the Indian Subcontinent and its scattered peoples, as well as in the minds of those who lament/defend this shameful period of empire. From one day to the next, so it goes, centuries of colonialism in this part of the world ended, and two independent nation States — India and (East and West) Pakistan — were born, a birth marked by communal and gendered violence and chaos at a scale still somewhat unfathomable today.

The brand new border in the West, splitting Punjab in haste with no consideration of the complex, syncretic and ancient communities it cut through, facilitated mass hostility and horror that still plagues public memory. The boundary line re-drawn in Bengal in the East was one of multiple “partitions”: 1905, 1947, and 1971, after the Bangla language movement led to the bloody liberation war with West Pakistan’s military regime and the creation of independent Bangladesh.

Like the British partitioning of Ireland in 1922 and of Palestine in 1947 (three months after India), long-lasting imperial policies of “divide and rule” were substituted by a new summary mode: divide and leave. Binary identitarian lines were now markers of nationhood, and anyone left on the “wrong” side of these religious-territorial borders no longer fully belonged. These partitions share another characteristic, one that is usually left out of the history books and mainstream discussions: the devastation of the colonial record by the exiting British, who burned, destroyed or hid masses of evidence relating to its rule over 37 former dependencies. The decades-long secrecy surrounding the remains of colonial files that were not destroyed, locked up in the “migrated archives” of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the U.K., was revealed in 2011 after a court case connected to the Kenyan uprising and Mau Mau massacre forced its hand to admit to its holdings. This erasure is still ongoing: the U.K. ministerial veto on releasing the Mountbatten papers to researchers — believed to contain much more evidence on the Partition — is currently being challenged, with little optimism that they will ever be seen.

As described by Japanese researcher Shohei Sato, Britain should have theoretically handed over every document in the colonial territories to each of the new governments, but some papers were deemed too sensitive or inconvenient to be passed on. From 1947 onwards, British officials swiftly engaged in a massive and shady programme relating to its administrative records. Under the clandestine and widespread Operation Legacy, as detailed by British journalist Ian Cobain in his book The History Thieves, officials were advised to destroy any documents, anywhere, that would “embarrass” the British State.

So as fires raged across the Indian subcontinent, its history also went up in flames. Palls of smoke hung in the Delhi sky for around two weeks, according to journalists who witnessed the bonfire of documents outside its government building. In some ways, the Partition restarted the clock of the world, the ashes of empire strewn across a landscape of ground zeroes, a disappearing act conveniently obscured by the violent transition of historical epochs.

My research on the India/Pakistan Partition focuses on its sonic-archival forms and the prevalence of oral histories and testimony in the wake of colonial rule, erasure and abandonment.

It is apparent that the Partition is much more than an event that happened at a certain time, a time that had a clear beginning and a clear end, a time that can be encapsulated by stories that have easy beginnings and endings.

It is apparent that the Partition is much more than an event that happened at a certain time, a time that had a clear beginning and a clear end, a time that can be encapsulated by stories that have easy beginnings and endings. The horrors and violence of the Partition are well documented, but its legacies need reiterating at a contemporary moment where racial and religious division as well as Islamophobia determines politics in both South Asia and the U.K.. Over the course of my research, the increasing violence against Muslims in India and Indian-occupied Kashmiris has brought Partition into public discourse again. The government’s implementation of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, and the feminist-led backlash against these laws, have resulted in Indian Muslims being told a chilling phrase: to “go to the graveyard, or go to Pakistan” — a similar sentiment is also expressed towards Assamese Muslims to “go back” to Bangladesh. The mass exodus — enforced with no warning or aid — from cities into rural areas during India’s COVID-19 shutdown in 2020 was a disturbing evocation of the mass displacement and total disregard for ordinary people’s lives that haunts the language-image of the Partition.

Partition’s effects stretch backwards in time as well. In London, a monument to Major General Sir Henry Havelock stands in Trafalgar Square for his “bravery” during the “campaign” in India in 1857-1858. This campaign, depending on one’s position, is also known as the First War of Independence or the Sepoy Mutiny. In essence it was the first struggle of resistance against the Raj that was widespread enough to threaten colonial rule, and involved Indians of all faiths and classes. After the resistance was quashed, the colonial administration — now officially administered by the British crown — enshrined in law a brutal regime of collective punishment, ingraining new stereotypes of race, religion and caste to separate Hindus and Muslims socially and politically, partitioning them long before colonial cartographers were drafted in nearly a century later.

Today, these same post-mutiny laws are still used to quash dissent — including anti-NRC protests in contemporary India. The apparent timelessness of Havelock’s statue, easily overlooked due to its proximity to the more famous Nelson’s Column, is a problematic public signifier of social memory, thousands of miles away from the region which was shaped forever by the military brutality it celebrates, its permanence in a prime spot of the city so far unquestioned as a part of the U.K.’s heritage. With all its complexities, “Partition” has become an increasingly loaded term, and to wield it in the context of memory means to grapple with temporality just as much as geography.

After the several decades of silence on the Partition — a period of time marked by trauma and cultural taboo both in the former colonies and the former heart of empire — it has become a little easier to speak about, as long as certain parameters are present: of visibility, of palatability, and of colonial silence. This involves a kind of temporal framing that verges on the apolitical — liberal norms of speech tell us that documenting witnesses of horror and violence is an unproblematic solution to its ongoing effects. A largely cited motivation for the archival and cultural projects that now depend on such witness voices is at first a coherent and justifiable one: the ageing Partition generation’s stories are to be lost forever if they are not recorded, and so, time is running out to hear them. If we consider the destruction of the colonial record, the pressure of recording these witness accounts becomes even more immense. Many voices are left out of the archives, of course, with the event-memory of the hegemonic classes most often prevailing. Sanitized oral history, of the kind that is designated to the inevitability of the past and the enclosure of the post-colonized archive, has been the backbone of a “‘memorial industry’ that has grown out of the belated realization of Partition as collective trauma,” according to Ananya Kabir in “Hieroglyphs and Broken Links: Remediated Script and Partition Effects in Pakistan” (2009).

The capacity of storytelling to disrupt the received timelines of history, however, also holds a lot of power. The Italian communist oral historian Alessandro Portelli points out that to tell a story “is to take arms against the threat of time, to resist time, or to harness time. That a tale is a confrontation with time is the attempt to carve out a special time in which to place the tale — a time outside of time, a time without time.” Considering the rhythms of speech, velocity of the narrative and the spatial and subjective dimensions of the story means fixed timelines are always disrupted. On top of already fraught questions of how to create historical meaning through personal narratives, this messy act of witnessing challenges the idea of linear chronology. In an oral narrative, for example, several years can be glossed over in a matter of minutes, whereby a moment deemed notable enough can be devoted to many interviews over several days in its telling and retelling.

The collapsing and expansion of time in stories told and preserved, about a time that has uneasy beginnings and endings as it is, means that the relationship between time and storytelling, shaped by the collector’s presence in the current time, is embedded in the practices and politics of listening. Sometimes dates are misremembered. Sometimes experiences of the present seeps into memories of the past. Aligning human experience to the patterns of historical discourse involves intersubjective encounters that are always contingent on the time they take place. And no story is told the same twice.

The idea of the Partition as a (sonic) condition, rather than as an event that is fixed to a temporal moment, therefore emerges from an Arendtian position: the Partition as labor, a condition of life itself. This flip, which rejects the givenness of beginnings and endings, means to reject colonial ideas of progress, of chronological cause and consequence, of the idea that modernity marches onwards, only disturbed by moments of irrational violence that hinges on the social inevitability of conflict that defines “non-modern” peoples.

It means refusing the universalizing timelines that have been imposed on troubled and subjugated histories, listening to the stories that fill archives, museums, books, and family homes in ways that instead centers the timeful-ness of the everyday, revealed through multiple languages, subject positions, silences and sounds.

It means refusing the universalizing timelines that have been imposed on troubled and subjugated histories, listening to the stories that fill archives, museums, books, and family homes in ways that instead centers the timeful-ness of the everyday, revealed through multiple languages, subject positions, silences and sounds. As listening to stories of the Partition reveals, time does not in fact run out, but goes on and on — implicating the undocumented as well as the documented across multiple geographies and histories.

Considering Partition as a sonic condition is then an exercise in conceiving the present as inseparable from the events of the past and imaginations of the future, a future that does not look (or sound) the same for every body on all sides of its dividing lines. The settler-colonial mentalities that have shaped the destinies of so many in Kashmir, North-West Frontier Provinces, Balochistan, Assam, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and other parts of the Indian Subcontinent depend of course on historical silencing, but also on the persistent repetition of violence and contestations against injustice that are never preserved. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay describes, whoever resists being properly archivable along a linear time line under established categories becomes a violator of the already accomplished past,and thus, the present.

Is violence only worth remembering when it happens at a certain place and time? In a time of renewed North-South inequality through global medical apartheid, it is clear that some lives are more grievable than others. The fact that State or State-supported archives put people in their “right time” as well as their “right place” is a complex tool of erasure to consider. In a series of ongoing audio essays called Partitioned Listening, initially produced as part of Nottingham Contemporary’s online public programme Sonic Continuum, I question the idea of the event — one that is finite, and which we imagine ourselves as standing outside of — through speech and listening, encompassing oral histories, archival television footage, songs of protest, performance and music. While time might be a human universal, the ways in which it is measured, perceived and demarcated are not, and so listening becomes a tool in which we can rethink historically instituted timelines. Listening (rather than looking or reading) demands our temporal attentions in intimate ways, and so, amid the conditions of borderization and division (partition), we are also implicated in these processes. For example, what do I hear when I hear the term “riot?” How are time and place instituted through its utterance? What images are conjured? Whose bodies are ensnared?

The Partition’s oral archive is a pertinent as well as problematic site for the investigation of the relationship between collective memory and collective oblivion; pertinent due to the diversity and nuance of the information it holds and the richness that testimony embodies, and problematic because of the opacity and silences that archives, as temporal as well as physical institutions, always contain. To conceive the Partition as a sonic condition then imagines it as a state where recognition and relation, as well as division, are constantly produced. Listening to stories can be a way to overcome the partitioning of people and places, finding expansive commonalities of experience in what is said as well as what is not. It is also an exercise in resisting the partitioning of past, present, and future. ■