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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005) 89-110

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Generations of Memory:

Remembering Partition in India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine

I had lost everything, forty people of our family were martyred, but the happiness I found when I saw the Pakistan flag flying at the Pakistan border is still living in every cell of my body.
—Hurmat Bibi, after more than four decades, remembering her 1947 flight from Nikodar in East Punjab
How much blood has to be spilled until we understand that land is not holier than people's lives?
—Ilan Leibowitz, Israeli Knesset member, July 2004

On 14–15 August 1947 in India—and again, nine months later, on 14 May 1948 in Palestine—the bitterly contested problem of postcolonial governance and social order in each British territory was "resolved" by the partition of the land on the basis of ethnicity.1 Since then, indigenous and foreign historians (and, to a lesser extent, anthropologists) have produced two enormous sets of literature on the origins and consequences of partition in South Asia and the Middle East. Each historiography or ethnography is produced, and received, in the context of a highly charged political debate within each respective society concerning partition's national and regional legacy.

However, very little scholarship has compared these historically simultaneous partition and nation-building processes or the ways in which they are remembered. In an effort to suggest a research agenda for comparative partition historiography and ethnography, I examine how partition's meaning and memory have been constituted, and reconstituted, in each national community.2 By considering partition's memory across national borders and regional distances, I hope to suggest an expanded framework in which the unresolved legacy of these cataclysmic events can be assessed: a larger space for reflection than might otherwise be permitted within the familiar, separate boundaries of each community's bitterly contested, intensely polarized, internally oriented discourse. [End Page 89]

The first part of this article reflects on the meaning of "partition" in each population's collective memory.3 The second part examines how the state-building project in India, Pakistan, and Israel, and the emerging Palestinian national-liberation project, shaped dominant versions of respective "first generation" partition narratives. The third part analyzes how these dominant historical narratives have been reenvisioned by scholars within the second, "hinge generation" of Indians and Pakistanis,4 and Israelis and Palestinians.5

What Does "Remembering Partition" Mean?

Partition, the political division of formerly integrated territory, in these cases refers to a set of interrelated historical events that remain fraught with intense emotional significance for millions who lived through them, and their children and grandchildren. In this context, it is useful to understand "partition" as a code word evoking layers of psychologically heightened, politically resonant meaning. In psychoanalytic terms, "partition" can be seen as a set of associations to which an individual has invested a high degree of psychic energy and identification; to use Freud's analogy, it is as if such "cathected" associations are infused with an electric current. ("Cathexis" is James Strachey's pseudoscientific translation of Freud's original, more resonant term: Besetzung, or "occupying," i.e., libidinal energy occupying, or attaching itself to, an object.)

At the outset, then, it is essential to recognize that "partition" has no consistent meaning for populations across these cases and can only be understood in the context of detailed, specific memories, images, and stories remembered and transmitted by individuals. "Partition" means Lahore, Delhi, or Bombay; Kashmir, Punjab, or Bengal; Jaffa, Haifa, or Jerusalem. To one family (or part of a family) the association confirms a homeland secured, to another a home lost forever. Still, it is useful to create a rough map of partition's domain in each regional context, in order to suggest an approximate baseline for comparisons within and across the cases, and to understand how this Besetzung operates in similar and different ways in each context.

Evoking "1947" and "1948"

To Indians and Pakistanis...


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