Seeing Kolkata partition museum project in a larger context

Promotion of tolerance

Food, fabric, song, domestic help - there is still much that connects the two Bengals in everyday life, though it has been partitioned for 73 years. The examples I have given above testify to the truth of this statement.

The reason why the Kolkata Partition Museum Project (KPMP) wishes to highlight the continuities between the two Bengals is simple. It is not a call for a utopie reunification of the two Bengals à la East and West Germany. It also has no wish to whitewash our contested histories and the religious fault lines that existed in Bengal that made Partition possible in the first place. And it certainly does not refute the fact that West Bengal (as a federal state within the Republic of India) and East Pakistan Bangladesh have had very different postcolonial trajectories.

Instead, what KPMP simply wishes is to consciously acknowledge that there is still much that is common in our living heritage that goes beyond nationalist rhetoric (whatever that may be at any given moment). And that we need to nurture this commonality, especially in the face of increasing communalism and divisiveness. This will, we believe, both in the short term and long, help in the promotion of tolerance in our societies.

In the museum that we envision, this continuing common living heritage will be given pride of place. And in the run up to the actual museum being established, we intend to have a couple of exhibitions centred around this theme.

Can museums prevent mass violence?

It may be pertinent to discuss here whether museums can play any role in the prevention of mass violence; and in case they don’t, whether they have the potential to play one.

I believe museums do have the “potential'’ to play a role in the prevention of mass violence. That is, however, in the realm of theory. As to whether they have actually done it is something we can answer only by giving concrete examples.

Holocaust memorials have not kept antisemitism at bay - that’s the first thought that comes to mind.18 The twentieth century has been the bloodiest of centuries. But have we really learnt our lessons from history? I am very cynical myself about this point - and it is actually my cynicism that has inspired me to do the work I am doing.

One would have thought the Holocaust would be the final horror of the twentieth century; in fact, in all time to come - but think of the genocides in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda in the second half of the twentieth century.19 Are we done with it? I am not sure.

I think we need to be clear in our minds about what we mean when we talk about the potential role that museums can play in preventing mass-violence. Do we mean preventing violence in a particular geographical area or against a particular community/race? So, are we asking whether Holocaust memorials can prevent antisemitic violence; or whether Holocaust memorials can prevent genocides anywhere in the world? Since it is considered the worst of all in human history.

Could Cambodia prevent Rwanda?20 If a Partition museum had been built in Amritsar in the early 1980s, could/would it have prevented the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi? An enormous amount of partition history, literature, films (all within the domain of public knowledge), and even the collective memory of 1947, with many victims still alive - could not prevent it.

After 1947, in fact, we have witnessed a vicious cycle of violence in India - in 1964, 1984, 1992, and 2002. Can a museum achieve what national history/litera-ture/films/collective memory/family histories could not?

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