After 70 years, remembering Partition through the diaspora

Seventy years ago, South Asia was cleaved apart. Families were split, people were killed, some regions were divided and others were awkwardly glued together. It birthed some of the nation-states many British South Asians consider part of their ill-defined identities: Pakistan and later, after an unsuccessful two-decade experiment as East Pakistan, Bangladesh.

We tend to have a singular image of Partition – the violence, chaos and grief in Punjab – but rarely lend our time to the rest of its legacy, whether that was the tragedies elsewhere in the region, how it shaped the lives of minorities transported to new lands or left lost by shifted borders or the unique impact it has on families in Britain, where marriage and proximity brought together nations that had been divided.

To mark this anniversary, we asked a few British South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Sikh – some a mixture) to tell us how they think about Partition.

“The family heard nothing of him after that; funeral prayers were performed and full mourning ensued…”

Jasim Malik (Pakistan)

My grandfather migrated to Lahore from Amritsar, within the now-partitioned Punjab province. A few weeks after the event, he returned across the border to Amritsar with his cousin to retrieve some belongings but, as they arrived, the train station was engulfed by riots and my grandfather was immediately forced to return to Lahore. His cousin, however, got lost in the sudden violence. The family heard nothing of him after that; funeral prayers were performed and full mourning ensued as the family joined the millions already grieving. Then, remarkably, he turned up unannounced on their doorstep an entire month later, having been given secret shelter by a generous Sikh family in India who indisputably saved his life by hiding him as mobs hunted for ‘the other’ on the streets of Amritsar.

That up to a million people died in less than a month, in a ‘conflict’ that involved no conventional armies, is breath-taking. It is given remarkably little recognition as a major world event of the 20th century. The colossal and shared victory of independence from colonial rule is thus decidedly bittersweet. But it was out of this unforgiving violence that the patriotic fervour of the first generation of Pakistanis was born.

Living in any developed country provides a debilitating level of insulation from the troubles of the rest of the world. How can a Londoner relate to refugees or those living through civil war? It makes real empathy an uphill struggle. But by retaining the stories of our elders and the collective memory of the founding saga of their nation, we can try to remain a part of an idea that was always bigger than the sum of its parts.

Forced to leave their homes, refugees created by Partition jump on trains to their new destinations (Columbia)
“They thought it was temporary, they left the fridge on and worried about the bills”

Laila Sumpton (India, Pakistan)

The BBC’s recent documentary ‘My family, partition and me’ begins by stating simplistically that Hindu and Sikh leaders wanted to keep India united, but Muslim leaders wanted a state of their own. However, there were Muslims like my great grandfather and grandfather who spent their lives, and risked their lives, campaigning for a united secular India.

My mother, grandfather and grandmother are Muslims from both sides of Punjab (Gujarat, a small village in modern Pakistan, and Batala, now in India) who chose to be Indian, whilst the majority of the family chose to become Pakistani. My grandfather, Azim Husain, lost two homes during Partition — his father’s in Lahore was taken over by the state when he did not return and the ancestral home in Batala was taken by Sikhs. I am only just beginning to piece together the stories, there are a lot more details that my 91-year-old grandma needs to tell me. My generation has a duty to capture these stories from adults who lived through that time and remember the pre-Partition subcontinent, before those memories fade away forever.

The majority of my great aunts and uncles were either in or moved to Pakistan from India, leaving my grandparents in Delhi, one great aunt in Lucknow and another in Kashmir. My 16-year-old great aunt was studying at a convent school in Kashmir when Partition happened. The nuns locked the school, telling the girls to pick a country and make their own way there whilst they headed for their own plane back to the UK. My great aunt crossed Kashmir in a tonga with just her school bag, winding their way to Lahore. Remarkably she arrived and was reunited with her parents who had got the last plane from Delhi. They thought it was temporary, they left the fridge on and worried about the bills.

Laila Sumpton’s grandparents before Partition

My grandparents were opposed to Partition and chose to stay in Delhi, they were at times forbidden from visiting relatives in Pakistan, who were worried about having Indians in their houses. My grandfather was following in the footsteps of his father, who was passionately opposed to Partition, a founder of the Unionist party and possibly assassinated (if my great aunt was to be believed) for his work mobilising Muslims in Punjab to this movement.

I had relatives who were in Pakistani the army, navy, air force, whilst my grandfather was one of the very few remaining Muslims in the Indian civil service. My mother’s young cousin in Pakistan used to call up her Pakistani air force uncles asking for them to please not bomb her Uncle Azim in Delhi. My grandma would listen to the Indian radio triumphantly telling of how the troops were approaching Lahore, and whilst everyone celebrated she was worrying about all of her family there.

When my Indian mother visited her Pakistani cousins as a child in the 60’s, they used to tell her to cover her eyes — as she was probably an Indian spy. My great uncle was from Hyderabad but was in the army stationed in Rawalpindi and after Partition he never saw his six sisters again. Even his widow (my great aunt) was not permitted to gain a visa to visit them after he died.

My grandfather was an Indian diplomat (and his brother a Pakistani diplomat) and the Kutch agreement was signed by my grandfather for India and his brother-in-law for Pakistan. When it came to dividing the Indian embassy’s library in London my grandfather was called on to take India’s share. His cousin took Pakistan’s.

My cousins grew up in Karachi in the 70’s and their text book showed the Pakistani border extending far beyond Delhi, before the internet could tell them otherwise. I have been brought up by grandparents and a mother who are proudly Indian, and when I visit all my proudly Pakistani relatives in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi I am sometimes asked to compare the countries and decide which is better.

Which country has the best mangoes or cricket team leads to long arguments and my grandma always joked that the British wanted to engineer Partition to break up what would have been the world’s best cricket team! When I applied for a family visit visa to Pakistan the embassy did not believe that I could have family there – when both my grandmother (born in 1924) and mother were both born in India. I found myself explaining Partition.

Anila Dhami (India)

I wonder if I am the only person who feels detached from the story of the partition? I have heard scarce stories about distant family members who died as a result of a line being drawn between two nations divided by a coloniser. I have heard of the accounts of bloodshed and war as people fought for a land, an identity, and a place to call ‘home’, all because a line was drawn by a coloniser. I wonder why two religions living harmoniously decided to let their lives be colonised by an Other? And I continue to wonder why British Asians have continued to draw a line between the Muslim and Sikh and Hindu communities in the UK — continuing to be colonised.

I wonder if I am the only person who does not feel hybrid to a point of no identity? Not affected by Diaspora? Not immersed in drawing lines, building walls, scrambling for land, or a finding it difficult to find a place called ‘home’?

The other day, I was in an Uber and the driver asked: ‘where are you from?’ To this question, I always reply ‘Essex — but my parents are from India’ — understanding that the colour of my skin gives away my heritage though I identify as being British, for I have lived in Essex my entire life. He replied: ‘I thought you were Pakistan because your name is a Pakistani name’. And I replied: ‘Yes, I like that’.

A name is one of our first port of calls for creating an identity. From the moment we are born we are given a name. And I love that my name ‘Anila’ has Hindu, Sikh, Pakistani, Bengali, Gujarati origins, because it makes me unidentifiable to a single — but rather identifiable to a One.

And that is, I think, why I have never been immersed in the story of the partition. Because I believe fundamentally that humans transcend identity, religions, boundaries, structures, lines, and land. Why should people have died fighting for all of those, when they could have loved knowing we are all of those and none? We are all One.

Kaamil Ahmed (Bangladesh)

Meet a British-Bangladeshi and they will probably have roots in Sylhet, the land of tea and Shatkhora in the country’s northeastern reaches. Few know much at all about Partition, even though our district voted in a referendum to rejoin Bengal, and essentially East Pakistan, after a period under British rule joined to Assam, now part of North-Eastern India. We also might not know much about the violence inflicted on both bodies and families — my father says there are people in our village who still sneak across the border, to see their relatives distanced by it. Even now, human rights groups denounce the freedom with which border guards release their triggers.

I have worked as a journalist in Bangladesh, going to places and speaking to people who rarely enter your bubble of family visits. In a country that prides itself on its nationhood, on a second independence from injustice, it is hard not to struggle with how Bangladesh’s own minorities – a legacy of British rule and Partition. The Urdu-speaking Biharis who moved at Partition but were left stranded as turbulent East Pakistan transformed into something new and now live in camps. The Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, affixed to a nation that struggled to understand them but wanted their land. The Rohingya, the 100,000s lingering in camps on the border with Myanmar, forced out of one country and unwanted by another because a border descended on a land where people, armies and kingdoms once shifted both ways.

Refugees camps in Punjab and Karachi (Columbia)
“The whole idea of the Indian Muslim is often forgotten”

Rayhan Chouglay (India, Pakistan)

Partition is the story that defines my very identity. As a British Muslim (half-Indian, half-Pakistani) my identity encompasses the story’s very essence – reflecting on my family’s own story explains why.

At the time of Partition my family is living in India and is Muslim. They are living on India’s West Coast, now in Maharashtra but then part of Bombay State.

My paternal grandfather, at age 23, was orphaned at a young age. He decided to move to Pakistan, around the time of Partition, with my grandmother, not immediately but a few months later. He moved to Karachi — first on his own but shortly afterwards joined by my grandmother – in what was then West Pakistan and it was there he settled for many years. There my aunt, first uncle and father were born. By the 1950s they moved back to India, where my second uncle and my second aunt were born and by the 1960s were moving again – to High Wycombe, here in the UK, where my third uncle was born. The family has been there ever since. Some members stayed in India and Pakistan and still live there now.

My maternal grandfather and his brother both decided to also go to Pakistan explore its opportunities. Their father was part of India’s agriculture ministry and they soon felt there were no better opportunities for them in Pakistan – they moved back. So it was in India that my maternal grandparents settled, where my mother was born and where she grew up. She moved to the UK when she married my father, 30 years ago now, and they moved to London. My mother’s family is still largely in India but naturally there are members of the family who live around the world, some even in Pakistan.

On reflection, being a Muslim is the one main identity that is consistent, indeed it is partly the reason I always identify myself as Muslim first and all the other aspects afterwards. Unfortunately, the whole idea of the Indian Muslim is often sadly forgotten. By that I mean that because of the creation of Pakistan, those not in the know assume that someone cannot be Indian and Muslim. Frequently on hearing I am half-Indian, half-Pakistani they assume my Indian mother is Hindu or a revert. Over 100 million people are often misidentified – reinforcing the theme of identity which runs through Partition. So being an Indian Muslim has become, in recent years, the part of my identity I try to promote the most.

Jenny Chowdhury (Bangladesh, India)

I personally have been always interested in my family’s history, asking my father from an early age about his journey to the UK. I have a connection with my family in both Bangladesh and India because my parents took me to visit them because they feel it is important for my siblings and I to have that connection with their home countries. I feel that my home is both here, and in India. I feel nostalgic when I think about India, especially when I watch documentaries about Partition. My grandparents are passing away and I feel that it is important to record their stories. I feel proud of my parents, for having the courage to move to a new country with no one to lean on and for providing us with a great education and helping us embark on our own individual journeys. I studied a few modules on India at university to get a better understanding of the British Raj. I, myself, have recently interviewed people of our generation to give their thoughts on how they feel about Partition. One of them, a British-Bangladeshi man, told me he knew Partition set off a chain of problems:

“But on a personal level, it meant Nana having to leave his ancestral home and move to [Village Name] in Bangladesh to start a new life … but if it wasn’t for the move… my mum and dad (whose family had lived in Bangladesh for generations) would never have met and married … and I would not be typing to respond to you… as I would not exist… so you could say I view Partition as the reason why I exist.”