Film Discussion to Explore Legacy of 1947 Partition, As Anti-Muslim Violence Surges In India


Filmmaker Mara Ahmed

(WXIR-Rochester) Mara Ahmed is a Rochester-based filmmaker whose documentary A Thin Wall (2015) explores the history of the 1947 Partition of India through the intimate recollections of families like her own, and that of co-producer Surbhi Dewan.

Ahmed grew up in Pakistan, but her mother's family is from India. Dewan is from India, but her family is from Pakistan. When the two first met, Ahmed says it was obvious to both of them that they were meant to make a film together.

Their approach to making A Thin Wall is a purposeful departure from the way this history is typically recounted as a grand drama revolving around a few "Great Men," like Gandhi and Nehru.

"We didn't want to do that," Ahmed says. "We really focused on the stories of the people on the ground whose lives were disrupted, and sometimes even decimated by the partition, [people] who didn't have a say in how the partition happened, or why it even happened in the first place."

The question of why partition happened is bound up with the end of British colonialism and the local struggle to create sovereign states, in the face of the West's continued influence in the region.

When Ahmed's film first came out in 2015, she says some people thought this was all ancient history. But as she prepares to screen her film again on Saturday at Rochester's Douglass Auditorium, she says the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim violence under India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrates the partition's continued relevance and resonance.

"All these ideas about purity and what it means to be Indian or what it means to be Pakistani I think are extremely relevant in today's context," Ahmed says.

One of the people who will join Ahmed for Saturday's screening and discussion is Hibah Arshad. She's first generation Indian-American whose family moved to the United States in the early 90's.

Arshad says that while many people felt that India should be for Hindus and Pakistan should be established for Muslims, her parents raised her to believe otherwise.

"My parents have always raised us to appreciate the secular fabric of India. It's a country that is home to people of all religions," Arshad says.

"It's difficult to see this new wave taking over with Prime Minister Modi and his political party," says Arshad. "They're trying to make this claim that some people are less Indian and some people are more."

In the last year, Modi's Hindu Nationalist party, the BJP, managed to push through a constitutional change stripping the majority-Muslim state of Kashmir of its historical autonomy, as well as an amendment excluding Muslim immigrants from a newly created path to citizenship.

Thomas Gibson is an anthropologist at the University of Rochester who will also participate in Saturday's screening and discussion. He says the recent resurgence of Hindu Nationalism in India is part of a broader trend toward religious nationalism throughout South and Southeast Asia.

"India is just the most recent example of this," he says. "During the colonial period, the local religion often became a way to organize resistance against the colonial state. And then after independence that in some cases grew into an authoritarian form."

But Gibson notes that India's Hindu Nationalist movement also has parallels with rightwing authoritarian movements closer to home. He points to the 50,000-person "Howdy Modi" rally Trump hosted for the Indian Prime Minister in Houston back in September.

"Trump seemed to have no problem at all embracing Modi as just like himself," Gibson says, adding that both of them had risen to power by fomenting Islamophobia.

"For a fascist it doesn't matter who the Other is, as long as there is an Other that you can make people be afraid of."

Saturday's screening of A Thin Wall will be the last chance Rochester gets to see and discuss Ahmed's work with her before she moves away later this spring.

And as she reflects on her years spent here, she considers herself fortunate to have been able to cross so many of the divides that characterize this city through her intellectual, political, and artistic work.

After all, Rochester is a city of "thin walls" too -- separating white and black, professional and working class, immigrant and US-born.

"A lot of my work is rooted in being able to cross a lot of those borders within Rochester and all the segregation and separation that exists here. And so I think it has shaped my work as well because I was able to talk to so many people across those separations," Ahmed says.

Through the act of crossing, Ahmed has provided this community with a bridge, her artistic work a testimony to a profound truth: "What you realize any time you have dialogue across any border is that, at the end of the day, the commonalities, the similarities are so much more overwhelming than the differences."

The screening and discussion of A Thin Wall, by Mara Ahmed and Surbhi Dewan, was scheduled take place Saturday, March 14th beginning at 6pm at the Douglass Auditorium as part of 540WMain Learning Academy's 2020 Fundraising Campaign. Due to recommendations of local health officials aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, the screening was canceled.


DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at