This essay considers a set of photographs taken in early 1947 in Lahore and in Punjab when the region was still united in India. The images traveled from India to Australia in 1948, and a single image journeyed to the world's first Partition Museum in Amritsar in 2017. They represent a moment of tangled relations between object, history, migration, and technology. The photographer was young and, like his subjects, was unaware of the horror that would erupt outside the frame a few months after the photographs were taken. The British government placed great burdens on the shoulders of young men, as hinted at in the images. Seventy-five years later, viewers are privy to that knowledge, which lends a layer of pathos to the images. This essay draws on oral history and family photographs to explore a time, experience, and place just before one of the great tragic migrations of twentieth-century history.
This essay considers the travels of a set of photographs as they crossed between continents and generations. As part of my early research into technologies in pre-Partition India, I used vernacular photographs, specifically my family-owned photos, to stimulate the memories of people who lived in railway colonies along the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Line (GIPR) as close to Independence in 1947 as possible. These are not the usual family photos, but they were taken by my father and circulated in our family when we were of an age to understand their history. However, several small photographs taken in Lahore in 1947 and carried to Western Australia in 1948 came to my notice, as a researcher, in 2007, and one photograph (fig. 1) came to be included in the world's first Partition Museum in Amritsar in 2017. The images encode an invisible history of migration and movement and a particular experience at a moment of great change. Other photographs taken by my father during the 1947 migration reveal a bird's-eye view from the top of trains to the mountains and empty landscapes. They do not include photos of massacres, kalfilas (lines of people traveling mostly on foot), or camps. However, they evidence layers of life and history, both seen and unseen. The Partition of India in 1947 involved an agonizing six-month migration of Hindus to India and Muslims to East and West Pakistan. As the Partition took place, so did the withdrawal of the British military from India, leaving very few soldiers behind to oversee the process. The Gurkhas were part of the British Indian army and stayed on to act as aides to the civil power. Thus my father as a young soldier in the British Indian army remained in India until early 1948. Despite a trope of abandonment, these soldiers were among the last soldiers to leave India.
My father, Leslie Nixon, was a Domiciled European (a permanent resident of unmixed descent born in India), born in a railway community in Agra in 1925, and for most of his adult life, he was an avid photographer. Perhaps to start with, he may have been more taken with the technology of the instrument than the art of the image.1 However, the scenes he captured reflect a genuine curiosity about the world he lived in, and as the photographs demonstrate, even as a twenty-year-old soldier serving in the Indian army, he had a mature eye for composition and balance. Street photographs of Lahore and Dharamsala, a soldier's view from the trains, and other subjects photographed in railway towns on the GIPR line offer a catalog of life in central India and Gurkha training camps and rituals through the lens of a young soldier. This became the visual vernacular of my father's life in 1946–47; in retrospect the photographs create a calm gloss over the coming tragedy punctuated with hints about events, up to and during the last years of colonial rule in India. These early indicators of the approaching catastrophe of 1947 are unnervingly apparent to a contemporary viewer. Leslie Nixon's engagement with his world and experimentation with photography also reflect a fascination with a relatively new and affordable technology in the form of a portable camera.
Photography was taken up with alacrity in India from the 1890s onward. However, specialist image making with clumsy, fragile early equipment was eventually overtaken first by the arrival of photographic studios and then by the popularity of affordable portable cameras. To limit the function of photography in colonial India to surveillance narrows the role that it had in the early part of colonial history and ignores all the other uses it was put to in recording work groups, housing, families, and street scenes. Indeed its relatively swift uptake and the building of portrait studios attest to its popularity.
In colonial India photography had evolved from being a useful tool for official record keeping to one conducive to self-recording. This was the case in smaller railway towns such as Damoh and Itarsi that lay beyond the purview of the colonial authorities. As cameras became more portable, they could be taken into more intimate spaces of home and beyond.
This development is reflected in my father's photographs. In the Lahore station series, he captured a spontaneity that is almost touristic, for the subjects are unposed except perhaps for the “Khan” holding a child in figure 2. In figure 3 the image of the three young women and their long dark plaits provides a finely balanced scene capturing movement and youth in the symmetry of clothing and hair.
An ordinary street scene from 1947 now has a resonance beyond the constraints of time and place. During the months leading up to Partition, the far north of Punjab was not as familiar to Nixon as Central India and the towns along the GIPR lines or school in the Shivalik Hills and in Dharamsala. Most of his photographs were in black and white, but I found several exceptional panoramas in colored positives or transparencies. A note in his portable negative folder records the date, time of day, weather, and lens he used. For example, a series on the Gurkha mess at Dharamsala includes black and white photographs (fig. 4), color notes “Film ‘620 Dufoy [sic],’” and a composite panorama of the mess. The Dufaycolor reproduction in positives that he refers to adds a painterly quality to the images.2 He could not remember what kind of camera he owned, but it might have been a Kodak as Kodaks used 620 film.
In the Gurkha Regimental Association newsletter of 1947 there is a brief description of the situation in Dharamshala, where Nixon was cantoned with the First Gurkha Rifles. The whole Punjab had been classified as “a disturbed area under the provisions of the Punjab safety Ordinance.”3 There were virtually no police left in the area, as 90 percent of the police force was Muslim, and many of them were among the fifty thousand Muslim refugees in the valley that were evacuated to centers set up in Yol, Jawalamukli, Kotwali, Nurpur, Pathankot, and Amritsar. The camp in Yol (south of Dharamsala) had been an Italian POW camp, but in 1947 it housed refugees, who were tended to by nurses from a Canadian mission. From Yol refugees were walked to Nagrota (fig. 5), a railway siding, where they were put on a small-gauge train, taken to Pathankot, and there handed over to the 7/10th Gurkha Rifles for the next part of their journey to Pakistan. The accounts of this relocation process support Shahran Azhar's assertion that destinations and modes of transport had an impact on the fate of the refugees. Azhar concludes that those taking riskier forms of transportation were more likely than other travelers to be exposed to intense forms of violence.4 Trains were a high-risk form of travel because of overcrowding, set directions, and slow speed. Worse, the hot summer occasioned by the delayed monsoon season that year led passengers to leave open the waist-high windows, making them vulnerable to pike attacks by angry mobs. Nixon and other soldier escorts sat on the top of the trains to allow for a clear line of fire if attacked. Although the original photograph is uncaptioned, the framing of the soldier's body in figure 6 illustrates this position and the clear view it offered.
Figure 6 illustrates the vantage of Gurkhas sitting on the roof space because of crowding inside the carriages. Although Leslie kept some of his written commands, he was mindful of security and perhaps overwhelmed by the horror of what was going on around him, and so he took no more photographs between late August and when he left India in 1948. However, when I asked him to describe several of the scenes he witnessed, the detail he supplied of more excoriating incidents was surprising. He referred to these scenes as burned into his memory.
My father was born into the fourth generation of a railway family, but in 1947 the Partition of India severed this connection, and in 1948 he chose to leave India for Perth, Western Australia. He became part of a tranche of migrants who sought new opportunities and desired distance from the situation in India. However, he never really left India behind; he took his photographs, memories, food preferences, accent, and a haunting guilt with him.
These are the remnants of an ordinary life upended like millions of others, but as lucky as he was to be able to migrate, he could never expunge the experience from his mind. He felt guilt over the violence he witnessed during Partition, when he and his men were outnumbered and forced to go from one scene of devastation to the next. The Gurkha regiments' orders were to aid the civil power during the Partition which meant escorting refugees to safety on trains and buses and on foot. Nixon's regiment, the First KGVsO Gurkha Rifles, was one of the six regiments that would “remain with the Dominion of India” after Independence.5 They were obliged to stay on in India during the population transfer in 1947. However, this role was very different from the remit of a soldier engaged in combat with a known enemy. The role assigned to the troops remaining in India in 1947 involved them in controlling community unrest and safeguarding civilians. There are explicit notes in Nixon's army training materials stating that aid to a civil power did not constitute an act of war. Officers and men were instructed to follow certain steps to restore law and order, first through persuasion and patience, then through the police, and lastly by using minimum military force. The army was to act with local security, such as the police, to maintain order, but this soon proved to be almost impossible in areas that were most affected by evacuations. When talking about his experiences, my father referred to himself as being neutral and compared his role to that of a UN peacekeeper.
In addition to the photographs, Leslie brought out a large number of kukris (ceremonial knives and weapons) from his service with the Gurkhas. However, the possessions that intrigued me most were his tiny black and white photographs, some carefully arranged in an album and others randomly stored inside small, fraying envelopes. It was among his tins of photos and albums that I found the set of images taken in Lahore in early 1947, when it was still a part of India. There were also several of the canals and botanical gardens and some street scenes, but the standout was of the railway station (figure 1). Built in 1862, not long after the 1857 Indian Mutiny (also referred to as the First War of Independence), to accommodate the military, the station is an architecturally arresting assertion of British colonial dominance. It was and still is a beautiful physical articulation of the fraught relationship between colonialism and the state, and it also represented security as a necessary element of colonial rule.6 My father's beautiful little image of the station, which highlights its pleasing architecture, captures a moment of stillness and dynamism, movement, light and shadow; however, an army truck in the background punctures this mood as it signals the military presence before the Partition cut the Punjab in two.
Considered as an object, the photograph of Lahore's train station creates a loop back to a united Punjab. The photograph refers to the work an image does in a complex set of relations, historical contexts, and intentions.7 My father's view of the station and his choice to record the moment captures more than just the station, for it includes three men in the foreground. I noticed that the chappals (sandals) they are wearing resemble the pair he brought with him from India. These accidental inclusions inspired my investigations. Often I was overcome by Roland Barthes's notion of an anterior future, or knowledge of the catastrophic events that awaited the photographer and the images' subjects.8
The colonial rhetoric of civilization and progress was shattered by the violence of Partition as the modern secular space of the train was invaded and a counternarrative of modernity emerged from the wreckage. Kerr refers to trains used during the Partition as “trains of death,” and Aguiar titles one of her chapters on the history of this period “Partition and the Death Train.”9 In almost all accounts of the use of trains to transport refugees, the death rate is highlighted over the survival rates. Religious identities were intensified, depending on the direction the train was traveling as it approached and crossed borderlines.10 This is most poignantly exemplified by the stories that Urvashi Butalia recorded with women who were targets of brutal attacks and abductions. The story Dayayanti Sahgal tells of traveling alone from Lahore to Kulu and her determination to reach it is illustrative of this forced transformation to a new life.11 Aguiar argues that the train has become the “dominant icon” for representing the violence of Partition and “the journey into modern nationhood,”12 but the high cost of Partition destabilized this connection. Aguiar writes about the darker side of modernity in the counternarratives that surfaced particularly in relation to the repurposing of trains during Partition.13
What worked against trains at this time were the very characteristics that made them so modern and efficient at other times. This included the ability to carry large numbers of people in a fixed direction and on a timetable. Historians believe, however, that despite attempts to minimize opportunistic attacks on “refugee specials” by varying the train schedules, some railway officials also disclosed this information to local marauders.14
An ex-Gurkha officer I spoke to shared with me the letters he wrote to his mother when he was nineteen years old. In a letter dated August 29, 1946, he described Ludhiana as a “dangerously disturbed area.” He noted to his mother that in his letters “when I say dead people I shall always mean Muslims, by the way.”15 He described in great detail the agonizing transportation of refugees on a slow and overloaded twenty-eight-coach train traveling from Ambala to Attari, approximately 280 kilometers. He was the only British officer in charge of 4 or 5 Gurkha officers and 120 Gurkha subordinates escorting 9,500 refugees; it took nearly thirty hours with no food or water to complete the journey. Both escorts and refugees were under constant threat of attack from “Sikhs and Hindus who were looting and killing the Muslims.”16 Reynolds's letters convey the immediacy of the violence he had to deal with and the level of responsibility he had to assume at such a young age. These remaining British officers in the Indian army were young and overwhelmed by the enormity of their task. Urvashi Butalia, one of the few writers who comments on the role of Gurkha regiments, notes that “for many who travelled from Pakistan to India and in the other direction at the time the only safe escorts were the Gurkha regiments.”17
With the development of digital technology, it is possible to scan photographs at a high resolution and navigate around them, to feel as if one is inside the landscape, foregrounding elements in the photograph that may have been missed in a casual skim across the surface of the image. For example, when the positives were developed for one image (fig. 7), I saw to my surprise that the image comprised two parts of a composite that had been blended to produce a panorama. A line in the blue of the sky marks a slight shift in the color tone that follows through to the rest of the image. Writing in 1936, Walter Benjamin was also taken by the technological characteristics of photography that allowed the viewer to uncover “what is hidden through enlargement,” revealing “entirely new structural formations of the subject.”18 What the viewer is looking for is not always easily surrendered, so that the “return of what was once there takes the form of a haunting.”19 Seventy-five years after Partition, that haunting is an invisible presence in family history, stories, and photographs handed down to a new generation, powerfully evoking the past and bringing it into the present. The haptic element of holding the photographs embodies the power of the object to capture the emotional resonance of time, place, and memories of my father.
Engagement with cameras by “resident Europeans” was driven by a “desire to keep up with the latest trends and novelties of the continent.” Mahadevan, “Archives and Origins.”
See the section on Dufaycolor in “Short History of Colour Photography.”
Gurkha Regimental Association newsletter, 1948, from the author's personal collection.
Class, in addition to refugees' social identities as Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs, was another determining factor for people most directly affected by and exposed to danger in the transfer of populations. Azhar, “Class Analysis of the Experience of Migration,” 407.
Kerr, “Representation and Representations of the Railways,” 291. Kerr has written extensively about the relationship between railway technology and sociocultural practices in colonial India such as the relationship between the architecture of the Lahore railway station and the British desire to assert their military presence and control.
Butalia, Other Side of Silence, 109–10. Butalia's groundbreaking feminist analysis of the lost voices of abducted women during Partition also comments on the role of Gurkha regiments during the Partition.
Ralph Reynolds, letter of August 29, 1947. Reynolds shared copies of his unpublished correspondence with the author.
Reynolds letter, August 29, 1947.