Review: The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India

Review: The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India

The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, edited by psychiatrists Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin, does not contain much in the way of clinical descriptions and treatments of people who became psychiatrically unwell in the build-up to and aftermath of the chaotic, violent and traumatic division of the subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan.

There is very good reason for this: as Jain and Sarin discuss in Chapter 1, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, both at the time of Partition and in subsequent decades, were largely silent about the psychological effects of the forced displacement and communal violence that characterized the Partition, and the long-term impact they would have. This diverse edited collection, drawing on many disciplines, weaves a rich and detailed account that not only addresses psychiatry’s silence on the Partition, but also explores how Partition’s psychological impact was ultimately represented, engaged, and ignored, in various discourses. This book will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of colonial India, the Partition, refugee movements in South Asia, and the history of psychiatry in India.

Part of the reason for Indian psychiatry’s silence was that it was still in its infancy in 1947, and mainly confined to the asylum. In the years following Partition, psychiatrists were preoccupied with the upheaval and disruption of health care services. In Chapter 2, Anirudh Kala and Sarin recount how patients in mental hospitals were not spared the consequences of the resultant population exchange, as they too were exchanged between hospitals across the new border. Doctors and hospital staff became targets of communal violence, and were also displaced according to religious affiliation. In Chapter 3, Jain explores the Partition’s impact on the planning and delivery of psychiatric and other health care services, exploring the interface between politics, civic life, and medicine in 1940s India. We learn that the silence of psychiatrists was not because of a lack of awareness that there would be severe and long-standing psychological consequences. In fact, there was a significant awareness of the consequences, but the documenting of the psychological trauma, as well as provision of relief, was left to local family and community networks and a few charitable organizations. The distancing of the mental health professions from the events of the Partition had lasting consequences for how psychology and mental health were thought about in South Asia: individuals became redefined as a part of community and clan networks, a ‘perverse reaffirmation of the colonial gaze’ (p.57).

The colonial gaze, and psychiatry’s role in it, is explored further by Jain in Chapter 5. While stereotypes of the ‘native’ mind as uncivilized and backwards were a common feature of colonial psychiatry around the world, what is interesting is that in India these stereotypes were not apparent at the outset of British colonization in India, only appearing by the mid-nineteenth century as ‘race’ increasingly become an issue in British studies of the mind. It is only after 1850 that the Indian mind is seen as inferior to the European. In addition to this alleged inferiority, British colonial psychiatry also emphasized and entrenched differences within Indian society through the study of differences based on religion, caste, and geographical region. The emphasis on difference and the stereotypes associated with them reached its tragic peak with Partition, the events of which continue to be memorialized in India in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms, promoting a continued lack of guilt, responsibility, and remorse. There are millions of victims, but, apparently, no one is guilty. The guilt of perpetrators ‘is conveniently and automatically banished’ (p.232) because the grief of victims is not addressed, says Pratima Murthy in the final chapter. The non-resolution of grief and lack of reconciliation has present day implications, and those who survived the Partition recognize a resurgence of the very same ideas that led to it in more recent incidents of communal violence, as Moushumi Basu writes in Chapter 4.

It is perhaps only in literature and art that ‘the silence of complicit majorities, and of subsequently complicit generations, has been faced’ (p.207), and the details of Partition violence represented and engaged with, says Sukeshi Kamra in her chapter on the production, and roots of, the rhetoric of violence around the Partition. Hina Nandrajog’s chapter provides a survey of select literature on the Partition that engages with the experiences of refugees who have been estranged from their roots and traumatized by violence, and how they coped with the loss of homeland, meaning, and identity. Interestingly, it is these very themes of uprooting and loss of homeland that preoccupied psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in post-WW2 Europe, and about which they wrote extensively. What in Europe was the domain of psychiatry was, in post-Independence India, the task of literature. Literature’s role was not limited to fiction and poetry, though, as Ayesha Kidwai shows in her examination of autobiographies and contemporary diaries of women social workers who did what they could within the limitations of their role as employees of the new state to rescue, or ‘recover’, thousands of abducted women.

Literature is further explored by Tarun Saint, who studies its role in the re-enactment of historical trauma, and we learn that literature of the period repeatedly invoked metaphors of madness to explain the seemingly inexplicable calamitous violence. This was not only a literary metaphor, and Gandhi often invoked it, as shown by Sharma and Sabharwal in their chapter on representations of Gandhi in the print media. Official discourse also frequently appropriated this metaphor. Commonplace descriptions of the seemingly senseless violence as ‘madness’ and a ‘temporary aberration’, however, were distinctly unhelpful. If the violence and brutality are madness, Murthy writes in the final chapter, their treatment can be ignored, ‘much as madmen had been ignored for centuries’ (p.230).

Though the book is on the Partition of India, it is largely the Indian post-Partition context that is addressed, with little mention of the impact of Partition in the new Pakistani state. This is a curious omission, and one that is not explicated, but it does not detract from the book’s timely contribution.

More curious is the frequent comparison between the attention paid to the psychological consequences of the Holocaust and the absence of any comparable concern for the consequences of Partition. Part of this is accounted for by the small numbers of intelligentsia in India at the time, who were too small to comprehend or comment on the events (p.56). Another reason, Kala and Sarin suggest, for the absence of an equal concern for the former subjects of Empire, is racism: ‘the racism over which such hand-wringing occurred in Europe is in evidence in the indifference towards people considered less important’ (p.32). Jain makes a similar suggestion: ‘One could assume that the psychological trauma of non-Europeans was not likely to be of sufficient academic concern in the West’ (p.56). Without discounting the importance of racism as a possible factor, it is not, however, immediately obvious why or if the two events are comparable, apart from being massive traumatic events and defining moments in their nations’ history. The perpetrators of the Holocaust lost and were made to admit guilt. On the other hand, India, Kala and Sarin write, ‘never had a questioning of the events’ of Partition, and no ‘conscious acceptance of guilt or blame’ (p.32). Moreover, rather than suffering defeat, as the Nazis did, the climactic events of the Partition of India resulted in both ‘sides’ getting their independent state.


  1. European lunatic asylums had existed in India since the mid-18th century, with ‘native lunatic asylums’ emerging in the mid-19th century.

‘Native tourists’: Belonging and alienation in the Greek return to Imbros.

‘Native tourists’: Belonging and alienation in the Greek return to Imbros.

The Philippines: A haven for Jewish refugees, 1937 to 1941?

The Philippines: A haven for Jewish refugees, 1937 to 1941?