India Independence Day: What the partition means to young south Asians like me, 75 years on

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Tomorrow marks 75 years since the partition of India. It marks 75 years since the largest mass-migration in history, in which a subcontinent was split in two, with families, friends and communities torn apart, furthering a lifetime of division.

As a young British Pakistani, this day evokes mixed feelings. I feel pride that the subcontinent was able to be freed from the hundreds of years of hardship and economic decline caused by the British empire, but heartbroken at the horrors that quickly ensued.

For those who don’t know – which is many of us, given the gaping holes in the history curriculum – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh once made up one nation.

It was a nation of rich histories, cultural traditions, various religions and languages. People of all faiths and backgrounds generally coexisted, and the country was one of the wealthiest in the world, with a variety of popular exports such as spices and silks, and good international relations with others.

But then, starting in the 1500s, multiple European powers began colonising India through coastal trading settlements. From the 1600s, Britain’s East India Company – a trading corporation later taken over by the British empire – stood as the primary colonial power, and with its rule came the beginning of the end for India as it once was.

As a trading corporation, the East India Company brought corruption, and enforced slave labour, ruinous taxation, and even torture during its dominance in the region. Its methods included making people work in extreme heat with stones tied to their backs, and tying people to the tails of animals to be dragged through the streets.

As a colonial power, Britain led by a policy of divide and rule. It categorised Indians by religious identity, a gross oversimplification of the richly diverse communities that existed within India, and oversaw atrocities like the Bengal famine, in which as many as 4 million people died as food and resources were diverted from those in modern-day Bangladesh and east India and given instead to the British. This took place during the prime-ministership of Winston Churchill, who described Indians as “beastly people with a beastly religion” who were “breeding like rabbits”.

The financial strain brought about by the Second World War meant that Britain could hold on to its colony no longer. The British government announced in June 1947 that it would depart by August, and that the country would be separated into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, as requested by Muslim leaders who felt that the religious divides stoked by Britain couldn’t be repaired. Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been to India, was appointed to draw the border line in a mere few weeks. By the day independence came, unimaginable violence ensued.

As nigh on 20 million people scrambled to move across the newly drawn borders, families and communities were ripped apart. It is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died in the fighting.

Trains of people arrived full of dead bodies; women were tortured and raped, leading many others to commit suicide in fear of violence. The streets were filled with blood. Among those killed during the partition was my great-grandfather, who was murdered in front of his family as they attempted to cross the Punjab.

As I reflect on that event, I can only imagine what my great-grandmother, my grandmother and her siblings must have gone through. I wish I could have spoken to my grandmother, who passed away when I was 11, about the events that ensued, and learned about her family’s life both pre- and post-partition. I wish I could have helped her open up about her traumas, rather than let them harden her, and I wish I could have shown her how once-severed ties are being repaired in a new generation of British south Asians.

The generational trauma caused by the partition undoubtedly runs deep in the lives of the south Asian diaspora. It is only now, 75 years later, that many are choosing to tell their stories of the horrors that occurred and the impact on their families. But, as I learn more about the partition, I often can’t help but cry.

I cry for a nation torn apart, for a traumatised yet stoic generation of elders, for the women against whom violence was perpetrated. I cry over the religious divides that persist today, and the impact of man-made borders: a forgotten history that affected so many.

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I also can’t help but feel anger at the British empire, which we’re taught to celebrate and be proud of. How can I feel this way about an institution that caused the deaths of millions of people? I feel anger about the lack of official recognition of its crimes, and the pitiful reparations offered to those affected.

Whether it’s in the region of Kashmir, where a humanitarian crisis is taking place now, or in India, where Muslim minorities are subjected to violence and political discrimination, or in Pakistan, where religious minorities are also targeted – the colonial legacies of the partition live on in the suffering experienced in these nations, and in the hatred that exists despite the fact that many of these people were once neighbours, relatives, and members of intertwined communities.

But, looking forward, I feel proud that as a community, young British south Asians today are repairing the cultural and religious ties that were broken by the partition, and that we are taking it upon ourselves to learn about the history of our countries. Whether it’s through art, music or simple conversation, self-education is playing a key role in rebuilding the relations that existed pre-partition, and in helping us work together for a better future as a wider community.

Despite what the British empire did to India and the lifelong divisions it attempted to stoke, there has always been far more that unites us than divides us, which is what I’m choosing to remember 75 years on.