Interrogating the Silence Around the Partition of India

Daniya Rahman in conversation with Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain

The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India
has been collated and edited by Alok Sarin, practising Clinical Psychiatrist at Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi and Sanjeev Jain, Professor of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru. The book tries to bring together the issues of partitioning and dividing the human experience, and its impact on the cultural life, including medical and psychological health. The contributors include social scientists, literary critics and psychiatrists, who try to engage in this debate at various levels. This diversity of approach emphasises the complexity of constructing issues related to mental health, at both an individual and societal level. This book is a reminder to the discipline of psychiatry that it must remain broad-based and multifaceted in its approach to address mental health problems and human suffering and is the editors’ attempt at initiating conversations both within and outside the field of psychiatry.

Image Courtesy:
Daniya Rahman:  One of the most powerful aspects of trauma, whether individual or collective, is the inability to speak of that trauma. Is that there isn’t as much oral evidence as one would expect in a public space? Or, is there oral evidence in languages other than English, which we do not have access to? Do you both think that Dr. Narendra Nath’s book The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, was successfully able to provide the multidisciplinary gaze that you’d set out to depict?
Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain: We hope so. It is a multidisciplinary gaze, as the various historians and social scientist contributors to the volume attest. We did not have much access to resources in other languages, but have used first-hand accounts of doctors, workers and people as close to the ground as we could. The lack of voices is a persistent concern in all historical recapitulation, but the lack of any effort to chronicle and preserve these is major handicap. 

DR: As you have also discussed in your article, ‘Balm and Salve: The Effect of the Partition on Planning and Delivering Health Care’, the new colonial discourse of psychiatry opened up new dimensions to the understanding of the normal and the abnormal, through a systematisation of mental health conditions, what rupture did the event of partition make in that and how do you think, the Indian mental healthcare institutions dealt with the aftermath of partition?
SJ: There was no new colonial discourse on psychiatry as such. The majority of psychiatric services were in the mental hospitals, and the few other services do not seem to have left any records of specifically dealing with these issues. The psychiatrists at that time were all trained in the UK or the USA and were contributing to, and participating in the metropolitan medicine and psychiatry of the early 20th century. The partitioning of the patients of the mental hospitals was a process, that showed how even the most marginalised were ground up by the inexorable bureaucratic process of drawing lines that divided lands, bodies and minds. For a while, the teaching courses suggested that topics such as mob psychology be studied, but these were soon abandoned. Some psychiatrists did try to formulate a new vision for social psychiatry, but these too were ignored after a while, as psychiatry became very different from the 1960s. We had no generation of social scientists and psychiatrists (Hannah Arendt, William Reich, Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi etc.) who would place trauma amongst other issues in the mainstream consciousness and conscience of the people.

DR: We see the survivors not being able to give voice to their experiences, how difficult was it dealing with such conditions, with the silence that came with the trauma of partition and the guilt and complicity that was the response of the collective trauma of this event?
AS: There are many different ways of looking at the themes of trauma, dislocation, migration, violence and disempowerment. To complicate this, the emotional overlays of sadness, guilt, remorse, despair and a sense of complicity will all influence the way that both individual and collective memory, respond and resolve, if at all. Our attempt is neither to replicate or to validate earlier work, nor to attempt a definitive answer- it is more an effort to interrogate the silences. We do this, in a sense, sideways, by looking at both the medical services and institutions, and by encouraging dialogue in the social sciences.

DR: Conversely, there is a debate regarding the place of the truth in the recounting of the survivors’ memory in a post-traumatic condition. How did the mental healthcare institutions, the public healthcare sector, and the government navigate that? What was the situation broadly, within the asylums, and other psychiatric institutions, in the wake of partition?
AS and SJ: We have tried to rely on documentation created during the period as eye-witness accounts.  Though there is apocryphal evidence of some ambiguities in the accounts, we have not been able to vouchsafe that. On the other hand, the numbers transferred across the border, the difference in numbers and concerns as what fate had befallen those who were unaccounted, debates of who (regional administration or the central) would look after these patients suggests that there was considerable confusion. A new asylum was hastily created in Amritsar, and plans for one in Delhi were drawn up. Details are in the book.

DR: What is the current situation like, with the new generations who have never directly experienced the violence of Partition, but have imbibed those memories through the narratives of others? Do they have a sense of inherited trauma being transmitted upon them? How are they dealing with it? How are the mental healthcare institutions dealing with it?
AS and SJ: Since we have never had a considered response, no formal accounting, no formal judicial or medical issues discussed (the special issue of the Indian Medical Gazette that was supposed to discuss this never appeared) there is little formal active discussion of these issues. It is part of a mythical past, a lost ‘paradise’, and the processes that caused this are justifiably looked at with some rancour. One is unsure about how people are ‘dealing with it’ means. It is not a conscious process, since there are no efforts to memorialise or acknowledge the events. How much this erasure from consciousness contributes to a social ennui and lack of ‘rootedness’ may be speculated upon. The regularity with which other partitions are created and fomented has been a political and psychological reality. What this fractured and fractionated sense of identity means to us in South Asia, both as professionals and citizens, should be a matter of concern. This concern is not palpable, and thus the concern about the ‘silence’.

Daniya Rahman is a member of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers’ Forum.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum



Related Articles