On 75th anniversary of India’s Partition, many look past the bloodshed

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As India and Pakistan prepare to mark the 75th anniversary of Partition on Aug. 15, retired Indian army Col. Nirmal Singh is in his New Delhi home remembering the moments that convinced him as a 16-year-old Sikh boy of “humanity’s goodness.”

Above them all is the memory of a Hindu woman hiding Mr. Singh and his siblings in her compartment on a train headed across the new border. 

Why We Wrote This

What does an honest history of Partition look like? Formal efforts to understand the chaotic events of 1947 are increasingly making space for tales of heroism, humanity, and kindness.

The chaotic and violent cleaving in 1947 of British colonial India into two independent states displaced some 14 million people and resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million others. But for Mr. Singh, it’s this moment of courage and compassion that stands out amid a paroxysm of sectarian hatred.

Although there was a time when his focus on “humanity’s goodness” in conjunction with Partition would have been an anomaly, recent years have seen a rise in memorializing the more positive human qualities that were also part of a searingly traumatic time, experts say.

“We should never minimize the reality of the lives lost or disregard the enduring trauma that people still feel,” says Aanchal Malhotra, an Indian oral historian who writes extensively on Partition. “But at the same time, the stories that point to human qualities like hope and compassion and goodness are also part of Partition’s legacy, and they deserve to be told.”

As a survivor of Partition – the chaotic and violent cleaving in August 1947 of British colonial India into two independent states – Nirmal Singh might be excused or even pitied if he were bitter, or sad, or still traumatized today by events he says came close to snuffing out his young life.

But as Hindu-majority India and mostly Muslim Pakistan prepare to mark the 75th anniversary of Partition on Aug. 15, the nonagenarian retired Indian army colonel is spending time in his New Delhi home remembering – and cherishing – the moments that convinced him as a 16-year-old Sikh boy of “humanity’s goodness.”

Above them all is the memory of the Hindu woman who put her own family in great danger by hiding Mr. Singh and his siblings in her second-class compartment on a train headed from the Pakistani to the Indian side of the new border.

Why We Wrote This

What does an honest history of Partition look like? Formal efforts to understand the chaotic events of 1947 are increasingly making space for tales of heroism, humanity, and kindness.

When Mr. Singh foolishly cracked open a compartment window in desperate pursuit of some fresh air, the mob outside the train instantly began chanting “Sikhs! Sikhs! Sikhs!” and calling for their death.

“But when some of the rioters pounded on the compartment door and demanded the Sikhs be turned over, the Hindu woman insisted she was alone with her daughters,” Mr. Singh recalls.

“It worked, and they went away,” he says. “I remember thinking it was the greatest act of bravery I’d ever seen.”

For Mr. Singh, Partition’s anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the acts of courage and compassion between neighbors, or even strangers, of another faith that he witnessed in the midst of a paroxysm of sectarian hatred.



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