Posted by: John Elliott | August 25, 2017

70 years on, an outpouring of people’s stories on Partition

The British legacy – seven decades of unrest and border fighting

The history of the tortuous creation of India and Pakistan as separate countries 70 years ago has been written and recorded on a massive scale in the past two or three weeks on British television, along with other media on the Indian subcontinent as well as the UK and internationally.

The writers and speakers have not for the most part been politicians or historians, but ordinary people of all ages who have been telling their personal stories for the first time in public, stories about one of the cruellest and most vicious events in modern history, and how it affected them and their families.

The surge of coverage in the past few weeks is important because it is filling in gaps of history that has led to decades of fighting between what are now two nuclear powers. It is a history of countless tales of horror, suffering, death and unbelievable ethnic cleansing from an ageing generation, whose tales should not be forgotten any more than the horrors of the second world war’s holocaust.

This widespread focus on the Partition of Pakistan from India has side-lined the actual independence of two countries, whose 70th anniversary came on August 15. It has also side-lined what has happened since then to them (and Bangladesh, which separated from Pakistan in 1971). Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, that became independent six months later has been scarcely mentioned.

Mass migration

Estimates of the largest mass migration in history vary between 200,000 and over 1m for the number of people who died as 15m-17m Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs struggled across the border that was not formally fixed till the day after August 15. As many as 100,000 women are believed to have been abducted, raped, sometimes sold into prostitution or forcibly married, according to Urvashi Butalia, a Delhi-based Indian writer who is updating a book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

The Partition generation, now in their 70s and older, who suffered and survived, have not generally been prepared before to open up painful memories, in the same way that troops returning from battlefields bottle up their experiences of death and destruction. Now, with the distance of 70 years, they feel able to pour out their memories and, according to many accounts, are keen to do so.

At the same time, there is a new generation of their grandchildren who want to know their families’ histories and ask questions of their parents and grandparents that they have never wanted or been allowed to explore before. It is not part of British schools’  history curriculum.

Flow India A Brush with Life 2

Schoolchildren look at paintings of Partition by Satish Gujral in Delhi

“It’s often said that memory jumps a generation, so that could explain why younger people are becoming more interested in the stories of their grandparents,” says Butalia, adding that opening up is not something sudden. “It’s been happening for the last few years, I think it’s just that anniversaries become ways to talk about these things.”

This has been specially evident from many of the television interviews and radio coverage that has swamped the BBC in recent weeks. Many of both countries’ diasporas have influential positions in the media, academia and elsewhere. International interest in India has grown in recent years as it has emerged as an increasingly successful but far from efficient economy and as a controversial society.

In India too there has been a focus on the subject. A series of articles looking at “the weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever”on the news website even includes one on how “food cultures” were changed.

I became aware of this opening-up trend in February last year at a Delhi exhibition, A Brush with Life , showing works by Satish Gujral, now 91, a prominent Indian artist. The paintings included his little known but harrowing depictions of Partition (above). At a discussion during the exhibition, he talked emotionally about how, age 20, he had stayed on in Lahore to help his father evacuate refugees before leaving and saw “murder, rape, and other brutality”.

The next focus came with the opening of a Partition museum in the Indian city of Amritsar in Punjab, a state that was split in two and suffered some of the worst cruelty

BBC Radio - Partition Voices

BBC Radio – Partition Voices

And then I arrived in London a few weeks ago, readying myself to write a 70th anniversary piece on this blog and found the BBC’s saturation coverage of Partition. This link illustrates  how much (but not all) that the British broadcaster has done, ranging from reportage to interviews and historical flashbacks and including radio discussions and a radio dramatisation in seven parts of Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie , who was among those interviewed.

The BBC press office has not answered my questions about the total number of programmes that were aired, the number of viewers and listeners, and how co-ordinated it all was. Many tv viewers and radio listeners must have been turned off by the welter of coverage, but I have also met people in the UK with no India links who have drawn in by the stories they have been hearing and have wanted to know more.

“My father broke his silence after nearly 70 years to speak about what happened to him during the partition of British India. Seventy years. A lifetime,” says Kavita Puri, a journalist who travelled widely in Britain collecting BBC stories. Her father, a Hindu, has never been back to the place of his birth in Lahore, Pakistan, but he specially wanted to talk to her about was how Muslim neighbours there saved his family’s life.

There have been sometimes angry debates and articles arguing about who was to blame for such a catastrophe. Many Indians and Pakistanis resent that they are portrayed as rioting killers, without sufficient blame being attached to the British for rushing the handover and the designation of the disputed Line of Control between the two countries in Kashmir.

Exous Krishen Khanna - Saffronart photo

Exodus by Krishen Khanna, a leading Indian artist, now 92, who crossed from Lahore at Partition

“That night ought to have been a moment of great joy for the people of the subcontinent”, says Shelina Janmohamed, a London-based Muslim writer and author of Love in a Headscarf. Speaking on BBC2 Newsnight, she said to loud applause that people talked as if it was the “problem of the colonised that made it all go wrong, when the seeds of this terrible man-made disaster was in the way that independence was granted”.

That man-made disaster and the way independence was granted has led to repeated fighting on the Line of Control for 70 years, with three wars and one near-war. Militants and terrorists have been injected with help from Pakistan’s ISI secret service and army to ferment unrest and killings in Indian Punjab in the 1980s and in Kashmir since then.

One can blame the Pakistan army for the militancy, which enhances its dominant role in the country, and one can also blame India for human rights atrocities in the Kashmir valley and for not trying harder to find solutions – solutions that are much more difficult now that China is stepping up its support for Pakistan.


But maybe there had to be wider knowledge and understanding about how it all began 70 years ago before both countries could shed what Barkha Dutt, an Indian tv journalist and author, whose parents crossed over from Pakistan, describes as “our wariness of truthfully memorializing Partition”. That created “a permanent dysfunction between our nations”. In Pakistan, she says, “lamenting or questioning Partition challenges the very basis of the country’s existence” while, in India, ”we don’t want our proud dawn of independence to be eclipsed by its long shadows”.

Mark Tully, a veteran BBC journalist who has lived in India most of his life, travelled from the north of the country to the south, testing views on Partition. He found that people wanted to “close the chapter, end the bitterness and restore relations with Pakistan…. as two nations but one people”.

It would be good if the leaders in both countries acted on that, pressured by the younger generations who have heard and talked about personal histories over the past few weeks. Sadly, that seems unlikely now that China is playing a growing role in Pakistan’s economic and regional life, using the country as a pawn in its wish to contain India.



    It was a well done documentary except of course it gave huge credence to both Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple who are both attention huggers in their own right. Shashi Tharoor is making a third career out of his Inglorious Empire book and his ardent desire to become Leader of Congress currently it would seem.

    I recall my own Father telling me of events. Jinnah was the main obstruction he felt. Nehru was almost as vain as Mountbatten. Mountbatten was known for not actually making a success of his ventures in the RN but had the gloss of a near royal family member and charm and had met Nehru when he was South East Asia Supreme Commander. Jinnah did not fall under Mountbatten’s charm, whereas Nehru fell for Edwina. My uncle heard Nehru murmur to Edwina ‘it does not matter if 5 million perish….’ when she visited Calcutta. He was IG of Calcutta or Bengal Police.

    Father felt had Liaquat Ali Khan been leader of the Muslim League it would not have evolved as it did with partition. Father spoke Urdu and Hindi and other languages, and I grew up speaking Urdu first before I spoke English and still speak rusty Urdu/Hindi. We had Muslim male Staff who had to be protected when the killing started in Bareilly and Saharanpur to where we moved when father stopped being a colonel in the Jat Regiment at 15th August 1947.

    Both my family and my uncle’s remained in India after independence and helped build the new economy, and I grew up in the new India for which I am very grateful.

    Religious divide is the most terrible cruel violent hurt to afflict countries; we can see that in the Huguenot massacres of France, the Irish Catholic and Protestant divide, that can yet stoke a riot in the west of Scotland and is now tightly controlled but the prejudice still lingers, let alone the running sore in the whole island of Ireland; the Jewish pogroms of Europe were tragically destructive, and then there is Asia with its Muslim, Christian and Buddhist faiths and huge differences. Prejudice in all its forms sadly is alive and well and thriving in our world, very often with two sides of the same religion.

    Papers reveal that Atlee seemed to be in a most indecent hurry largely because Britain post WW2 was bankrupt and he was determined to start the NHS and the Welfare State which were both desperately needed in a shattered land with extreme hardship being felt all around after long courageous years of hardship and tragedy during the war. I can as a little girl in 1951 recall the privations of food rationing and the lack of heating and the bombed out cities all black and dark. It was a world away from the sunlight of my lovely home and life in India. We were home on leave and the food rationing was not lifted till about May 1954 when we returned on leave. I still recall the day my mother was jumping around with joy when the grocer informed her that the rationing had ended, and I recall watching HMY Britannia bringing HM The Queen and Prince Philip home from their Commonwealth Tour. In April1959 I had the opportunity visit Cologne in Germany on a private holiday alone in a German family and saw aged 12 the devastation that was still scarring a German city at the time seemingly invaded by US troops. It was a growing up moment.

    Churchill was odd about imperialism and empire. He was the most outstanding leader of our country and the empire in the war, but by 1945 he was an old man and then he returned to power in 1951. The nation, or the majority, loved him and were immensely grateful for his wartime leadership, and I recall his state funeral in January 1965. But, history has shown that actually younger men and women should lead nations with energy and clarity and a sense of the future. Sadly the Conservatives then and it would seem now, have no idea of who the leader should be. That leaves this nation prey to people like Jeremy Corbyn who would make even Atlee revolve in his grave.

    One thing is blindingly obvious from the whole tragic independence/partition debate that all the politicians were not always thinking of the good of India, the whole subcontinent, but the path they respectively could carve out for themselves within the ending of empire and the birth of a new nation. With naivety and arrogance they carved out a new nation from an ancient great landmass in two separate areas 1000 miles apart, and then discovered the consequences, so terrible that the wound continues to this day. The British played an expedient shameful huge part, but one cannot absolve Indian leaders from the blame for the running sore that afflicts the subcontinent of India to this very day. I wish India and Pakistan and Bangladesh well for the future. I really do, my heart is always pulled towards the land of my birth – India.

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