The myth of a temporary aberration called Partition 

Edited by Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin, The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, broadens the conversations on Partition while raising questions of contemporary relevance to psychiatry

The recent surge in mob lynching and hate crime, invariably targeting the minorities, brings to mind a sense of pervasive madness, of reprisal against an ‘other’, perceived as threatening. Is this acrimony a legacy of Partition and the accompanying communalisation?

Millions were uprooted and displaced by this bloody division, which found expression in memoirs, oral narratives, and academic works but especially in fiction, be it Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, among other novels, or iconic stories like Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. Ironically, the effect of Partition on the psyche of the victims or bystanders and, indeed, their successive generations eluded the attention of mental health specialists. What explains this silence? Was it the sheer trauma post the Partition? Or was it because of how medicine, in general, and psychiatry in particular, developed in colonial India? Was the madness temporary or more enduring? Such questions and more are explored in this rich and varied volume edited by veteran psychiatrists Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin, who juxtapose their perspective with those of literary criticism, cultural studies, gender studies, sociology, history and politics.

The widespread psychological damage caused is vividly captured in Sarin and Kala’s chronicling of how inmates of the Lahore asylum were mindlessly divided up between the two countries, without ascertaining their choice, and then forgotten, leaving them in a limbo not unlike Manto’s Bishan Singh. Jain complements this picture by detailing the targeting of hospitals and the migration of doctors and hospital staff in Delhi and how the breakdown of health services in general hindered the building of a mental healthcare system to treat individual trauma, leaving the community and family networks to provide relief.

Collective suffering
How did this 'division of minds and hearts', as Ismat Chugtai put it, come about? Is partitioning a process rather than an event? Comparing the cases of Darfur, Yugoslavia, Palestine and Maoist insurgency, Moushumi Basu suggests differences of religion, caste, community, or race, or even ideology were part of everyday life, but when hyped by a powerful social group or even the state, to build up a narrative of social and psychological behaviour against an 'other', could become forces of division. The use of medical professionals by Nazis is legend, but interestingly leaders Kardovic and Raskovic in Yugoslavia were former psychiatrists, who, by helping to create a collective memory of Serbian suffering, propelled a movement targeting non-Serbs, especially the Bosnian Muslims.

How does the logic of difference appear when extended to India? Sanjeev Jain shows that by 1943, the differences in social behaviour of Hindus and Muslims were considered sufficient to label them as separate entities and there was awareness that psychological complexes were ‘writ large over Indian politics’. This reaction underlay the landmark UNESCO study by psychologists Gardner Murphy and Pars Ram on how the communities had grown apart socially and the ameliorative measures needed.

The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India is published by Sage Publications

A different aspect of such logic, Jain points out, was reflected in the colonialist construction of the ‘native mind’, incapable of deep psychological and political thought, which in turn influenced the definition of ‘mental illness’ in non-Western, societies, that came to be seen as primitive. Physical methods rather than psychotherapies, current in the West, thus became the treatment of choice for psychiatrists in India.

The trope of the madness unleashed figures prominently in fiction around Partition. Reading Manto’s story collection Black Margins, and the satirical memoir of Fikr Tausvi or Ramlal Bhatia alongside Joginder Paul’s story Dera Baba Nanak, written 50 years later, literary critic Tarun Saint questions the notion of the madness being temporary, highlighting how the memories of Partition still haunt people — a reaffirmation of the generational transmission of trauma.

Wounds of the mind
Another view of madness as a temporary aberration is seen in Anjana Sharma and Gopa Sabharwal’s chronicling of Gandhi’s stay in Calcutta and in Delhi in September 1947, fasting to protest the rioting and reaching out to the besieged communities in his mission to restore peace. Unable to accept the reality of Partition, Gandhi comes across, unusually, as a victim and a survivor, like those he addresses.

The trauma suffered by ordinary people who were uprooted on both sides and became refugees in their own homes, besides women who had been abducted and were then rescued and rehabilitated in the aftermath of the Partition is of contemporary relevance for psychiatrists. Drawing on Partition fiction in several tongues, Hina Nandrajog shows how refugees struggling to put down fresh roots, evolved a slew of survival strategies, but once they had established themselves, memories of homes and places left behind, often romanticised, came back to haunt them and were carried over to succeeding generations. The insecurity they suffered, however, found an echo in distrust and aggression, which pervaded their personal and public life.

The plight of the abducted women in India and in Pakistan, out of which, barely a quarter were rescued or recovered by social workers, like Mridula Sarabhai and Anees Kidwai, under a 1949 Act, was unenviable. Some of them had to marry their captors and start families. These women faced the choice of giving up their spouses and children, returning to their lost families, but also risking non-acceptance by them. What did rehabilitation mean to such women? Could it serve to heal their minds’ wounds?

To better understand the roots of a mental illness and its treatment, veteran psychiatrist Pratima Murthy, summing up, emphasises that it is important to study ‘the mind in the context of social turmoil’ and to grasp the complexity of human experience that shapes it.

The first of its kind, this luminous volume is valuable for broadening the conversations on Partition and raising questions of contemporary relevance to psychiatry. To yield answers may entail collaborations between specialists in mental health and other disciplines. But, developing a body of scientific knowledge to understand not only individual but collective trauma resulting from Partition’s long shadow would be helpful both for clinicians and for those evolving strategies to counter the bigotry and intolerance rampant today.

(Kamini Mahadevan is a Bangalore-based editorial consultant)
(Photo: By Unknown., Public Domain,

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