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Indians and Pakistanis work together to realise Partition Museum

Project leaders announce fundraising goals before conference in Delhi

The first museum dedicated to the history of Partition is racing against the clock to open before the 70th anniversary, on 15 August 2017, of the start of the largest forced migration in history. It will house works of art, films, archival material and personal effects of some of the 14 million people who fled their homes following the division of the Indian Empire, formerly under British rule, into the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“It should have been done much earlier, because a lot of the people are now no more,” says the Indian novelist Kishwar Desai, who is spearheading the project. “It needs to be looked at much more intensively.” The project’s leaders will hold a conference in Delhi next month to meet representatives of other commemorative museums, such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

The Memories of Partition Museum will be sited in Amritsar, in the north-western state of Punjab, which saw some of the worst violence during Partition. Punjab was split by a hastily created border after nearly 300 years of British rule ended in 1947. Muslim families fled to escape sectarian riots, while Hindus and Sikhs arrived en masse from Pakistan. In a matter of months, around 14 million people abandoned their homes. As many as two million died. In the book Midnight’s Furies, the historian Nisid Hajiri describes “blood seeping from under... carriage doors” of refugee trains as they crossed the border.

Desai describes the project as a “people’s museum” that will memorialise an event that is often overshadowed by Independence in the teaching of Indian history. Organisers are collecting oral histories from members of the ageing “Partition generation”. Participants include Satish Gujral, an Indian artist born in 1925 in Pakistan. The museum, which will occupy the city’s stately former Town Hall building, expects to benefit from its proximity to the Golden Temple, the holiest place in Sikhism.

The emotions surrounding Partition remain raw. Around 70 people recorded their stories at a presentation by the project’s coordinators at the India Art Fair in January. Survivors and their children were moved to tears, according to Desai, whose own parents and grandparents left their homes and lives behind in Lahore, Pakistan, with little more than suitcases. “They didn’t realise they would never cross that border again,” she says.

The presentation offered a preview of artefacts from the future museum’s collection that were carried across the frontier, including a silk wedding shawl and a book of paintings by the Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai, who died in 1975. The museum is also negotiating to acquire a major private art archive.

Any role for the British Library—which holds some of the most important Partition archives, including early boundary maps and minutes of key meetings—could be controversial. The nature of its involvement is not yet clear, but the two institutions are in conversation and Desai says she is “grateful for the support”. In a recent column, the Indian journalist Kuldeep Nayar denounced any British involvement. “The Partition was a parting kick by the British before they quit,” he wrote.

A trust for the museum was formally unveiled in India in August. Supporters include the Delhi artist Anjolie Ela Menon, who escaped from the city of Rawalpindi in Pakistan during Partition, and Ritu Kumar, one of India’s most famous designers. The architect Ratish Nanda is an adviser to the project. He oversaw the restoration of Humayun’s tomb, a Mughal site in eastern Delhi, which served as a refugee camp in 1947.

Fundraising will kick off in earnest this month. The initial goal is to raise £1m. Desai will appeal to curators, museologists and art historians. “It is the first time [something like this] is happening on this scale in India,” she says.