As the South Asian subcontinent marks its independence from the British empire, Gouri Sharma discusses calls for a deeper look at the emotional and mental scars inflicted by the Partition of 1947


Today, I’ll be joining millions of Indians around the world to mark 71 years since India’s independence from the British. For me, it won’t be a day of celebration, but rather a remembrance of one of the darkest moments in the history of the subcontinent, when millions lost their lives, homes and their sense of self and community, members of my family included. It was an event that turned friends into foes, everyday people into refugees and created divisions along religious lines that were cut so deep, the effects are still being felt today.

Going back to your roots. Gouri Sharma during her recent travels in India (Image: Elise Cribier-Delande)

In the years that have followed, a vast amount of literature – books, plays, poems and academic studies – have been written on the historical and political significance of the Partition. Yet there is one area of study that’s so far been neglected. According to two prominent Indian psychiatrists, Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, there has been little discussion in medical circles around the impact the Partition had on mental health. In an effort to start this difficult conversation, they have brought together experts across various fields for an anthology on the topic.

Described as the ‘first-ever effort to analyse India’s Partition through a mental health perspective’, The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India features a series of essays from literary critics, social scientists and psychiatrists, to name a few, that examine not just the impact on mental health of survivors, but the current trans-generational effects of it.

The editors say the book, which was released earlier this year, is an attempt to interrogate the silences around mental health. “The events of the Partition are now often, on the surface, seen as fossilised, as something that happened a long time ago, and in another place. However, like a fossil, the extrapolations and ideologies derived from these events seem etched in stone. Their mnemonic symbolism permeates politics and social life even today,” Sarin and Jain told me in a recent email interview.

Drawing from a number of sources like first-hand accounts from doctors, official records and literature, the book explores some important psychological dimensions, including what led to the division of minds and the creation of the ‘other’, refugee trauma and the impact of gender-based violence.

“The creation and amplification of differences, which distorts what should otherwise be a celebration of diversity, has an impact on personal and social well being. This manipulation is often a political machination, often at odds with the lived experience. The dividing of minds, the destruction of social cohesion, and a loss of optimism that entails, has an impact on mental health,” they said.

The book also raises an important point around accountability and justice, comparing Europe’s detailed look at the psychological impact of the Holocaust, and its declaration that it would never happen again. In India, no such trial or commission has ever been held to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, and a ‘metaphor of madness’ has been routinely used to explain why such horrific violence occurred. As a result, many emotional and mental wounds are likely to still be open.

“Psychiatry, which relies on engagement with both biological and psycho-social processes, gets handicapped if enough attention is not paid to one or the other. By neglecting to address the psychological trauma of the Partition, and a conscious reappraisal of the events that preceded and followed, there is no sense of ‘it should not be allowed to happen again’,” they added.

Present-day India

India marks 71 years of Independence from the British today (Image: Elise Cribier-Delande).

The book looks at this aspect in detail, citing present-day examples that show how this violence has been recurring. Moushumi Basu’s, chapter, entitled ‘Partitioning of minds and Legitimisation of difference’, looks at an incident in 2013 in a district in Uttar Pradesh, in which communal violence between Muslims and Jat Hindus left 62 dead and forced around 40,000 people from their homes. As Basu, an academic, says: “At the centre lay a latent fear of the other, built around the perceptions of irreconcilable ‘differences’, and the fear of annihilation, made real by actual acts of violence of one community against another. For many of the elders who had witnessed the 1947 Partition, Muzaffarnagar in 2013 marked the resurgence of the very ideas that had resulted in the division of British India into two sovereign states, India and Pakistan.”

How far then, can the problems that we see in India today, with an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for Muslims, Dalits and other minorities, as well as being ranked the world’s most dangerous place for women in a recent poll,  be a legacy of 1947?

“To some extent, this is quite likely,” the editors told me. “As one of the authors Professor Kamra points out, the entire rhetoric of public discourse is vitiated by a heightened sense of affectivity, with exclusion and distancing, and as a consequence, anger, hatred and retributive, and thus justifiable, violence as recurring themes. The symbolism of women’s bodies and minds, the targeted and horrific sexual violence, the valorisation of the suicides and the ‘exchange’ of women reflect a particular attitude, the ripples of which are apparent even now. Especially if the person happens to be the ‘other’, whomever the other may be.”

Moving forward

Image result for badshahi masjid lahore
The Badshai Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan. Historically, different cultures and religions have long existed in the subcontinent. (Image: Wikimedia)

Having recently finished the book, I will remember my ancestors today with a better understanding of the trauma they lived through. As refugees who fled Lahore to Delhi, they lost their land, their home and their livelihoods. It was hard for the family to rebuild, but somehow they did, and today their many grandchildren are where we are  – writing this piece, going to work in London, raising a young family and so on.

The book led to me to explore the extent to which unhealed traumas of our ancestors can be passed down through the generations, yet reading it wasn’t a wholly sombre experience. In fact, I finished it feeling more positive.  

I’ve learnt that acknowledging the psychological and emotional trauma that we carry because of the Partition is the first step towards healing from it. I’ve understood that we can honour our ancestors by aligning ourselves more to the people we were BEFORE the Partition and the division of hearts and minds, when the strength of our community ties – our clothes, language and food – overpowered our religious differences. The subcontinent may not have been ready to deal with the mental and emotional scars of the Partition before, but maybe we can be the generation to start the healing process. On this Independence Day, this would be my hope.

The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India was published by Sage

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Gouri Sharma spent five years working on the production desk of Al Jazeera’s flagship media critique show, Listening Post. She writes on issues of identity, colonialism and culture within the context of current affairs. Twitter: @Gouri_Sharma

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