The birth of Hindu-led India and Muslim-ruled Pakistan in 1947 from what had been British India was horrifically violent, the start of a religious conflict in which millions died and millions more fled across the new borders toward safety.
The great sorting that occurred after the Partition of India remains the largest forced migration in human history, characterized not just by the bloodshed and tears with which it is often associated, but also by often-overlooked acts of courage and kindness, according to Harvard scholars studying it.
Partition’s echoes still resonate, and not just in the memories of remaining eyewitnesses. They are found in the two nuclear-armed nations’ postures toward each other, in the continuing dispute over their common border, in their modern demographics, in the reduced but still significant religious minorities in each nation, in the neighborhoods that arose where refugee camps once stood, and in the lessons learned that affect similar migrations such as that of Syrians currently fleeing civil war.
Since the fall of 2016, Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute has been taking a new look at Partition, which researchers say remains fertile ground for researchers despite prior work by scholars.
“What we’re trying to capture is this moment in time,” said Jennifer Leaning, the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is an extremely important part of world history.”
Researchers now can deploy tools enabled by advances in technology, computing, and data science, that let them ask fresh questions and take different approaches to answering old ones. In addition, research that relies on memories of eyewitnesses to the 70-year-old episode gains urgency with each passing year.
“Obviously, it’s urgent because those who lived through this trauma inevitably won’t be with us much longer,” said South Asia Institute Director Tarun Khanna, whose family resettled from Pakistan to northern India at the time. “Partition is a super-extensively studied issue, but also it’s my perception that there are many angles that are utterly unstudied.”