2001 was the year we welcomed my younger brother into the family. It was also the year Hindi Cinema decided to produce an incredibly melodramatic film rooted in India’s gory past. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was my first introduction to the tragedies of Partition. A sappy, one-sided tale of two lovers as they struggle to make sense of an unprecedented post-partition life, Gadar, for a very long time, would serve as the basis of my understanding of the Indian Freedom Struggle and its aftermath—until my history teacher and the elders in my life came to rescue.
For me, personally, the Partition of 1947 exists in the form of vernacular stories retold time and again in the voice of my grandparents, each word soaked in homesickness and melancholy. But for many others, it’s a mere history lesson from school—a distant reality, albeit an important one. Despite this perceptual dissonance, the last seven decades have recognised Partition as a turning point in India’s socio-economic narrative.
From Khushwant Singh’s A Train To Pakistan and Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence to Deepa Mehta’s Earth and M. S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava, there is a ton of literature and cinema trying to comprehend, reiterate, and preserve India’s blood-ridden past. And as someone who has spent hours trying to gauge the extent of India’s struggle for independence, I can safely declare that no amount of fictional art can ever accurately reproduce history.
However, being a young nation of only 71 comes with its own advantages; our colonial past is still pretty evident in our gothic architecture, dak bungalows, the pervasiveness of English language, and Shashi Tharoor’s constant reminder of why Britain owes reparations to India. From Delhi’s Red Fort, where the Indian flag was hoisted for the very first time in independent India, to the Quit India speech at Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai, this country’s freedom struggle, even today, is a glaring reality waiting to be experienced, one city at a time. And what better time of the year than the month of August—our annual celebration of freedom, loss, and victory—to rediscover these historical national treasures.
I. Partition Museum, Amritsar
Oral histories and relics to transport you back in time
Tales of trauma, the pain of losing loved ones and their homes, and rare hand-me-downs now rest in Amritsar’s Town Hall, home to the world’s first ever Partition Museum. An archive of documents, artefacts and art belonging to refugees, and oral histories echoing through the nostalgic corridors of the building, this museum is probably the closest we can ever get to understanding the partition and its grim aftermath. From archival material like newspaper clippings, photographs and letters to memorabilia that has crossed borders and been respectfully preserved for decades, the museum is a growing repository unique in its multimedia experience. Every year it celebrates a host of events, along with the ‘Partition Remembrance Day’ on 17th August. Their upcoming event, on 8 August, called ‘Remembering the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre – 100 Years Later’ is an exhibition and panel discussion on Punjab’s contribution to the freedom struggle, and the horrifying Jallianwala Bagh massacre that left countless dead.
II. Cellular Jail, Andaman and Nicobar Islands
A dive into Andaman’s Kala Pani
Away from India’s peninsular coast, in the murky waters of the Bay of Bengal, is a pruce-coloured starfish-shaped building that was once used to torture political prisoners through solitary confinement. Port Blair’s notorious Cellular Jail, named so because it consists of individual cells only, is now a national memorial dedicated to the incarceration of several freedom fighters. Although back then, it was still a symbol of exemplary British architecture and was often referred to as ‘Kala Pani’ or black water, for prisoners exiled and sent to Cellular Jail were unlikely to ever return. Today, the jail’s tiny prison cells have been transformed into an art gallery and a library dedicated exclusively to the literature on Indian Freedom Struggle. Their Light & Sound Programme takes you through a virtual tour of the atrocities committed by the British and India’s pre-independence history.
III. Tilak Ghat, Chennai
A walk by the beach to take you back in time
Not many know this but Madras, or modern-day Chennai, used to be a hotbed of political activities during the struggle for independence. The sands of Marina beach in Chennai have borne witness to several speeches ripe with passion and patriotism; the voices of Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, and V.O. Chindambaram Pillai have called for action at the Tilak Ghat, which is a row of inscribed granite slabs named by activist Subramania Siva in the memory of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It is here, standing at a lone dias at the beach, opposite the Presidency College, that Mahatma Gandhi announced the non-cooperation movement during a public meeting. The inscriptions on the plaques are both in English and Tamil, making it a fine spot to visit during your evening beach stroll.
IV. Kakori Shaheed Smarak
Of conspiracies and kebabs
The year was 1925 and a group of young revolutionaries had taken it upon themselves to attack the British empire in India by looting one one of their trains passing through the small town of Kakori, located very close to Lucknow. Christened the Kakori Conspiracy, the robbery is remembered even today in the form of the Kakori Shaheed Smarak erected on the outskirts of the city, and is an integral part of Kakori’s heritage. Along with the celebrated Kakori kebabs, a more tender version of Seekh kebabs, invented by the cooks of a grumpy Awadh aristocrat who couldn’t bear to have his food insulted by his British acquaintance.
V. British Residency, Lucknow
Experience the remnants of a six-month long siege
As you enter through the gates of the British Residency in Lucknow, you’re welcomed by neatly trimmed gardens and moss-covered broken walls, which almost tricks you into forgetting about the bloody battles that took place right here. A cluster of colonial buildings whose walls are still adorned with cannon shots from the past, the British Residency has been around for over two centuries. During the sepoy mutiny in 1857, many British officers were forced to take refuge here for almost six months, while the mutineers, armed with axes, shovels, and bayonets, tried to dig their way into the Residency. As one of the two cities that suffered unimaginable destruction during the rebellion of 1857 (the other one being Delhi), Lucknow was in fact never restored to its former glory. The Residency was declared as a memorial instead and is currently a cherished monument of national importance. The compound is also home to a museum, a cemetery, and Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s tomb.
VI. Dandi, Gujarat
Exploring India’s western coast
With a stick in his hand and dozens of followers behind him, a lean Mahatma Gandhi traversed through various hamlets in Gujarat. His non-violent protest against the British Empire’s monopoly on salt production began from Sabarmati, near Ahmedabad and ended in the coastal town of Dandi. Along the way, Gandhi and his supporters halted at multiple places like Ankleshwar, Surat, Vaz etc.
The Sabarmati Ashram, named after the nearby river of Sabarmati, was home to Gandhi’s non-violent endeavours for 13 years. Today it stands as a symbol of Gandhi’s ideologies as well as a storehouse of India’s freedom struggle and Gandhi’s role in it.
VII. Chauri Chaura
The bloody massacre of 1922
The history of Chauri Chaura, a small town near Gorakhpur in Lucknow, is smeared with the blood of innocent lives lost in the pursuit of freedom. In 1922, an incident similar to that of Jallianwala Bagh took place when a bunch of peaceful protesters were targeted by British police officers, an angry mob then retaliated by setting fire to the local police station. While the British did their bit by commemorating the death of its police officers, the demonstrators did not receive the respect they deserved until much later.
Today, the town has, not one, but two memorials built to honour the lives lost during the open fire in 1922. One sits by the lake at Chauri Chaura, while the other, called the Shaheed Smarak (official one constructed by the Government of India), was erected to honour those executed by the British.
VIII. Champaran, Bihar
India’s first successful Satyagraha
In his quest to develop a deeper understanding of the soil he stood on, Mahatma Gandhi found himself in a small town called ‘Champaran’ in Bihar, after he heard about the exploitation of indigo farmers in the area. With an arrest warrant in his name and official orders to leave the city by the next possible train, Gandhi’s friendly visit transformed into a full-fledged act of civil disobedience—making it the first successful Satyagraha in India (even though the word ‘satyagraha’ would not be used until much later).
Today Champaran is known for its quaint, rustic life, a 48-foot tall pillar designed by Nandalal Bose to commemorate Gandhi’s protest against the local British authorities, and the Bhitiharwa Ashram, which is a popular tourist attraction for the unique memorabilia and photographs it has on display.
Feature Image Courtesy: Firstpost.com
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