Introduction to partition and the practice of memory

Mahn, Churnjeet and Murphy, Anne (2018) Introduction to partition and the practice of memory. In: Partition and the Practice of Memory. Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 1-14. ISBN 978-3-319-64515-5

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Abstract

In October 2016, the Partition Museum opened in Amritsar, Punjab with the aim of delivering, ‘a world class, physical museum, dedicated to the memory of the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 — its victims, its survivors and its lasting legacy.’ Claiming to be the first museum of its kind, the museum sits in Amritsar’s Town Hall and is part of the city’s ‘Heritage Mile’ linking the Town Hall to the Golden Temple. The museum contains a representation of a well to signify honour killings and suicide, contains extracts of oral histories, from significant players in the execution of Partition, to ordinary refugees. Red and white are dominant colours through the exhibition space and several maps illustrate the borders and boundaries of the emergent nations. Alongside the 1947 Partition Archive, which collects oral histories from across South Asia on an online platform, the museum represents a significant step towards bringing memories of Partition into contact with the present and for a broad public. Restoring and conserving memories of Partition, and housing and displaying them in a museum, frames such memories in the context of heritage and its management. The conservation of these memories becomes an act of restorative justice, although their caretaking by the state or institutions can complicate the way in which they can be used to interrogate the ongoing effects and legacies of Partition. Across Amristar, new statues to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the architect of the Indian constitution, BR Ambedekar have been erected alongside the augmentation of existing sites of commemoration, such as Jallianwala Bagh. Histories of nation, empire, decolonization, and violence have thus been simultaneously renovated in Amritsar, a kind of cacophony of memory inscribed in the built environment. Heritage can be understood as a practice of memory: a process whereby the past is selectively used for contemporary cultural and ideological imperatives, often around national, ethnic, religious or cultural belonging. Memory can be institutionalised, and through this process it can lose its vital character.