Enduring trauma: the legacy of partition
In 1947, British India was split in two, sparking a wave of violence that defined the new nations for decades. On the 75th anniversary of partition, Kavita Puri looks at how subsequent generations in south Asia and the UK have come to terms with its legacy
75 years ago, Britain’s control over 400 million people on the Indian subcontinent ceased. It was the beginning of the end of the British empire. On 14 August 1947, people in Pakistan proudly marked the creation of the new dominion with a ceremony in Karachi, attended by the governor-general Muhammed Ali Jinnah. A day later, led by India’s new prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indians celebrated the British departure.
British India had been carved up into two countries, Pakistan and India, largely along religious lines. The former included East Pakistan, separated from West Pakistan by almost 1,000 miles.
The movement for independence had begun many decades earlier. The British had formally arrived in India in the 1600s, establishing trading posts under the British East India Company, and India came under direct British rule in 1858. The nationalist movement began in the late 19th century and gained huge momentum following the Second World War – a conflict in which 2.5 million soldiers from what is today
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh served.
Listen: Historian Ghee Bowman tells the stories of a group of Muslims in the British Expeditionary Force who were part of the famous evacuation from the beaches of France in 1940
As religious identity became stronger – stoked, many commentators have argued, by British policies of divide and rule – two competing visions of independence emerged, which grew increasingly politicised along religious lines. The Congress Party, led by Nehru, wanted India to remain united in a secular state once the British left. But by 1940, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, felt that India’s almost 100 million Muslims – a quarter of the population – would be marginalised by the Hindu majority.
He wanted safeguards to be put in place, and even a separate homeland. The endgame of empire was conducted against a backdrop of rising communal violence across northern India, as people from the “other” religion were targeted. Before, there had been localised communal violence but this was on a different scale altogether. The watershed moment was the Calcutta Killings of August 1946. Jinnah had called a “Direct Action Day” in favour of the establishment of Pakistan, but it precipitated thousands of deaths of Muslims and Hindus. Unrest and bloodshed then spread to Noakhali, Tippera, Bihar and close to Delhi and then, from early 1947 onwards, to the major cities in Punjab.
This violence, from the summer of 1946 on, was related to the end of empire and the contest for power and territory, and sought to humiliate and even destroy those of the “other” religion. In some cases, it involved a high degree of planning and organisation by paramilitary groups. In other cases, people carried out attacks in response to killings or abductions in their own communities.
By early 1947, the British government under Clement Attlee announced it would leave India by June 1948 at the latest. The pressing political question became not when the British would go, but what India’s future would look like once the British had departed. This was the context in which discussions of the exit strategy of the British from colonial India took place between Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah.
- Read more | 10 big questions about the British empire
On 3 June 1947, Mountbatten gave a momentous address on All India Radio, in which he said: “There can be no question of coercing any large areas in which one community has a majority to live against their will under a government in which another community has a majority – and the only alternative to coercion is partition.” Nehru had reluctantly agreed to the plan.
The provinces of Bengal and Punjab would be divided: areas in which Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had lived closely together for generations, speaking the same language with a shared culture, food and traditions. To divide them was a virtually impossible task. Mountbatten also announced that the transfer date would be moved earlier. Partition would now take place in a breathtaking 10 weeks.
More like this
Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never visited India before, had 40 days in which to draw a boundary line. He stayed mainly at Mountbatten’s house in Delhi surrounded by maps, sub-missions and reports. He never once visited the places that he had been tasked with dissecting.
Remarkably, while celebrations in India and Pakistan were under way on 14 and 15 August 1947, no one knew where the boundary line was to be drawn. That detail wouldn’t be announced until 17 August, by which time Radcliffe was already on a plane out of India. Writing to his stepson, he noted: “Nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal, and there will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me.” He reportedly burned his papers and never returned.
- Read more | 10 historical turning points for modern India
The former colonial authorities and new Indian and Pakistani governments had not anticipated what would happen next. Finding themselves a minority in their new countries, people left the places they had called home for generations, carrying what they could as they made treacherous journeys by foot, train or – if they were fortunate – plane. Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India, while Muslims fled to Pakistan. In the months immediately following partition, between 10 and 12 million people were on the move in these opposite directions – the largest migration in history outside war and famine.
It was a migration fraught with danger and violence: an estimated 1 million people were killed, and around 75,000 women and young girls were raped, abducted or forced to undergo religious conversion.
The fledgling countries of India and Pakistan descended into chaos and bloodshed, with the British army given orders not to intervene. This painful birth shaped the identities of the two new nations.
It was not the end of the violence in the region, either. East and West Pakistan were largely united in religion but there were profound differences in language, culture and proximity to the seat of power in Islamabad. In 1971, against huge resistance from West Pakistan, East Pakistan fought for its independence and became Bangladesh.
Because of this violence and brutality, the anniversary of partition is always bittersweet, mixing happiness at independence with pain at the devastation and loss that ensued. Indeed, when we think about partition it is easy to be overwhelmed by the statistics. Yet it’s important to remember that behind every single number is a human story, even if they can be hard to find in the official documents of the time.
Five years ago, for the 70th anniversary, I led the BBC’s Partition Voices project, in which I spoke to British south Asian and colonial British eyewitnesses about this traumatic time. After issuing callouts to see if anyone wanted to tell their stories, I was shocked to find that there were too many to record. These were testimonies of epic migrations, of horror, of painful goodbyes and friends never seen again – and of a profound, enduring loss of leaving behind a land that had been lived in for so long.
Listen to our interview with Kavita about her BBC Radio 4 series Partition Voices, which tells the story of the turbulent birth of India and Pakistan through interviews with those who lived through it:
After 70 years, these eyewitnesses paint a complex picture. Of course there was violence. But they also want people to remember that they lived at a time of deep ties and friendships between the religions in undivided India, and that neighbours, friends and strangers transcended hate to help save and rescue people of the “other” religion.
What endures after all these years is a strong attachment to the place that was left. So many who had never returned in seven decades said they still wanted to do so one last time before they died. They hoped to see their childhood home, to see if the best friend they had no time to say goodbye to was alive or whether the tree they played in still stood. These first-hand accounts are now kept in the British Library Sound Archive, where they can be read alongside official political and civil-service documents.
The 70th anniversary was significant because silence had for so long shrouded so many partition stories. The 2011 census reveals that, a decade ago, there were 3 million people in England and Wales with south Asian heritage, and the 70th anniversary began to show how many British south Asians have a connection to, or a story about, partition.
In the postwar years, many of those who came to Britain from the Indian subcontinent were from areas disrupted by partition, including Punjab, Sylhet and Mirpur. People often arrived with traumatic memories, but never spoke of them. They were trying to forge a new life, and there was no time to look to the past. Unlike on the Indian subcontinent, in those early years in Britain, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have largely worked together to fight for equality and against racism.
But that wasn’t the only reason for the silence. In partition, people on all sides did terrible things that aren’t easy to speak about. There is an institutional silence, too: partition is not taught widely in schools, and there was no public space to speak of it.
Five years ago, TV and radio programmes marking the anniversary focused for the first time on lived experiences within the diaspora. As silence gradually began to break, subsequent generations of British south Asians realised this was a story taking place within their own families – and one which they may have heard only fragments of, if at all.
I was surprised by how many of those contacting me did not even know the word “partition”. Scrolling through comments on social media following the broadcasts, it seemed to me that British people were starting to understand the scale of the historical event, and to realise this was not about somewhere far away, but a legacy persisting within these isles today.
- "Does every generation have to prove itself in Britain?" Kavita Puri on the experiences of South Asians in Britain in the 1990s and beyond
Voices from the past
Since then, much has changed. In homes across Britain there has been a quiet awakening within families, particularly from the third or even fourth generation, as people try to understand their family history. Many have been in touch asking about the best way to broach the subject. For some it is already too late, as those from the partition generation have died, meaning that they have to find other ways to research their past.
But the way in which we talk about the British empire and its aftermath has changed, too. It has become a noisy national conversation, a process accelerated by the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States in 2020. Those protests sparked calls for a more inclusive telling of history within the curriculum, one including the stories of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and offering a better understanding of the violence and exploitation of Britain’s colonial past and the nation’s ties to empire and migration.
In the past five years, a whole host of oral histories have been recorded of the experiences of the partition generation – not just in Britain, but in the Indian subcontinent and the diaspora, too. In India, testimonies of the lived experience started to be documented from the late 1990s, beginning with Urvashi Butalia’s groundbreaking 1998 book The Other Side of Silence. But historians working at the time of the 50th and 60th anniversaries, both here and on the Indian subcontinent, realised that many people were still not ready to speak about partition widely.
Oral historian Anam Zakaria, whose paternal grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan, is the author of the 2015 book The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians. Zakaria says that, although significant efforts are now taking place to archive the memory of partition, these testimonies are being recorded at the same time that “a dehumanisation and demonisation of the ‘other’ also prevails, due to certain stories of partition being appropriated or silenced by the state to foster its own national projects”.
As a result, younger generations – who are increasingly curious about partition – can have a selective narrative of one-sided violence. Yet that’s why oral histories of partition are so important: because they offer a more nuanced picture. “While official histories tend to homogenise experiences, oral histories offer a way to understand the varied experiences across class, caste, gender, religion, geography and more,” she says.
The partition of India explained
- 8 landmark moments in the bloody road to partition
- The partition of India: everything you wanted to know (podcast)
- The chaotic conquest of India
- After Partition: colony politics and the rise of communism in Bengal
- 10 historical turning points for modern India
- The pioneering migrants who came to 1950s Britain from India
And, for the first time, oral historians have begun to look into what is passed on through the generations – knowingly or unknowingly – through both trauma and nostalgia. Aanchal Malhotra’s grandparents lived and migrated from what became Pakistan, and her bestselling book In the Language of Remembering explores this inheritance. She memorably describes it as “second-hand sadness, second-hand loss, second-hand pain”, and asks: “Can all these emotions still be felt in their second-handedness?”
Malhotra argues that, on the Indian subcontinent, this bequeathed trauma can be mixed up with a sense of present-day nationalism and an anger towards the people that caused their family members to leave. She says there are specific regions in which people are still particularly vulnerable to the after-effects and disruptions of partition, including north-east India and Kashmir. For them, she argues, “partition is an everyday thing”.
But there is another, contradictory emotion that can be passed on from the partition generation: a deep attachment to the place left behind. Those who could return often take a memento – a stone, a tile, a brick – as evidence that they lived in that land once. That remnant of a previous existence lives today in homes in Britain. Malhotra has seen it in her many recordings with descendants in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as well as the diaspora; and I have experienced it in Britain, too – sometimes quite viscerally.
One of my interviewees, Sparsh, wears a pebble around his neck from the ancestral home in what is Pakistan that his grandfather fled; Binita’s fireplace in Manchester contains soil from today’s Bangladesh, the place where her father was born and from which he then escaped; and Maz has a family heirloom from her Pakistani grandmother, a sari from India. These are profound ties to the places their ancestors left, which shape how they think of their already complex identities as part of the diaspora. Malhotra believes there is now a reckoning starting on a personal level, that some in the younger generation are coming to terms with the word “partition”, and what it means to them.
Remembering and forgetting
On the Indian subcontinent, however, there is no such collective or national reckoning. There is no memorial marking the lives lost or those who migrated overseas. Malhotra argues that in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, there is no shared understanding of what happened because it meant different things for different people. “For India, it meant the loss of territory, the loss of people,” she says. “For Pakistan, it was the gaining of nationhood. And for Bangladesh, [the conflict of] 1971 overshadows much of 1947.”
She believes that, for any form of reckoning and reconciliation to take place on the subcontinent, there needs to be a shared understanding of the truth of what happened. That would mean reaching an awareness of the full complexity of partition, as well as a recognition that all sides were culpable, just as all sides suffered.
That seems far off. In 2021, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced that on 14 August, the day on which Pakistan marks its independence, India will hold “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day” to remind India of its suffering and sacrifices. The fear is that this could stoke old hatreds, emphasising the horrors of the era from only one side rather than focusing on a sense of shared anguish or people’s more peaceful memories of life in undivided India.
It is always a choice for an individual, or the state, to remember, or forget. Seventy-five years on, the personal and national are colliding, and the eyewitness generation are just about still with us. The inheritors of this difficult history here and on the Indian subcontinent must decide what is passed on, both within families and nationally. On the Indian subcontinent, it is a moment to decide whether to use the memory to heal, or to weaponise it to foster divisive nationalism.
In Britain, it is a moment to reflect on empire and its end, to tell the story fully, and explain why Britain looks the way it does today. Both here and on the Indian subcontinent, we are only just at the beginning of grappling with the complex legacy of partition.
Kavita Puri is a journalist, author and BBC broadcaster. A new edition of her book Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, marking the 75th anniversary, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
Inheritors of Partition, presented by Kavita Puri, aired on BBC Radio 4 on 8 August, and is available to listen to on BBC Sounds here
This article was taken from the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine