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‘You See What People Can Do to Other People, People they Lived Side-By-Side With’: Ending the Silence on Partition and Empire

As discussions of Empire and Britain’s imperial history have come to the forefront in 2020, Hardeep Matharu speaks to BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri to explore what she learnt from those who lived through the end of the colonial project in India about divisions tearing societies apart for her book ‘Partition Voices’

The late Gurbakhsh Garcha who came to Britain in 1958 having lived through Partition

‘You See What People Can Do to Other People, People they Lived Side-By-Side With’Ending the Silence on Partition & Empire

As discussions of Empire and Britain’s imperial history have come to the forefront in 2020, Hardeep Matharu speaks to BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri to explore what she learnt from those who lived through the end of the colonial project in India about divisions tearing societies apart for her book Partition Voices

In August 1947, ending hundreds of years of domination over nearly 400 million people on the subcontinent, Britain divided up India and left.

The story of how this came to be and the creation of the new independent states of India and Pakistan – Partition – is British history. Dotted around living rooms across the country are people with extraordinary stories to tell about the darkness of mankind, how communities can be torn apart and the kindness of humanity which also characterises times of trauma. Many of these people will have come to Britain in the post-war years in search of a new life after living through the upheaval of Partition. It is one of the reasons  they are here. And yet, many others living in the UK, sometimes even with these people in their own families, know nothing of it. 

Partition Voices, a collection of testimonies of those living in Britain who experienced Partition, aims to shift this narrative. Published last year by the BBC journalist and author Kavita Puri, it explores the events of the end of the Empire in Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ and brings some much-needed nuance to complex issues of Britain’s colonial past lacking in broader ‘culture war’ discussions today.

With the East India Company setting up trading posts in India in the 1600s, direct rule was assumed over the country by the British when Queen Victoria was declared Empress in 1858. But, following two World Wars and a growing independence movement, the British decided its time was up in the mid-20th Century. However, it would not be leaving behind just one country – but two. For a combination of reasons – religious, political and imperial – India was to be divided and Pakistan created as a new Muslim-majority state. 

Scheduled to take place by June 1948 at the latest, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India tasked with overseeing Britain’s exit, shocked everyone when he moved forward the date of Partition to August 1947.

Sir Cyrill Radcliffe, a lawyer who had never stepped foot in India before, was sent over to work out where the dividing line between India and Pakistan should be drawn. As a result of the border eventually settled on by the British, millions of people – suddenly – found that they were ‘on the wrong side of the line’. Sikhs and Hindus who lived in the north of the country, in areas such as Punjab, and found themselves in the new Pakistan set off for India; while Muslims headed in the other direction, leaving India behind forever. Bloodshed on all sides followed. People’s lives were turned upside down. 

Up to 15 million are estimated to have been uprooted – the largest mass migration in human history outside war and famine. Around one million people are believed to have died.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Muhammad Ali Jinnah at a conference in New Delhi In June 1947 which decided on the division of India. Photo: dpa/DPA/PA Images

Puri – whose late father, Ravi Datt Puri, a Hindu man born in Lahore in modern-day Pakistan, lived through Partition and came to Britain in 1959 – found that a “silence” had pervaded the telling of this history and only learnt of her father’s story almost 70 years after the event.

“Silence shrouds many Partition memories, whether on the Indian subcontinent or here,” she says. “I suppose for that generation, it’s not surprising there was silence. A lot of people who came to Britain in the 50s and 60s were from places which were hugely disrupted by Partition… when they came here they were fighting very different battles – for acceptance, against racism, they didn’t have the luxury of looking back on their pasts and their children who were born here perhaps didn’t know about history on the Indian subcontinent, and didn’t ask. 

“Shame and dishonour are bound up with it, and these are really difficult things to talk about. It’s worth saying that all sides committed terrible atrocities, on all sides there were bystanders, on all sides there were people who put their head above the parapet and transcended the madness and did good things. All these things are quite complicated.”

Although this year’s Black Lives Matter protests have led to fresh and powerful discussions about Britain’s imperial history and its legacy for the UK today, Puri believes an “institutional silence” has also contributed to Partition stories not being heard before.

“When we were growing up, we definitely didn’t learn about Partition or Empire,” she says. “There are no memorials – there aren’t any anywhere in the world to Partition. There isn’t a public space to talk about traumatic memories.”

Belonging and Difference

During Partition, people and communities which had lived side-by-side for generations – of different religions but with the same customs, values and broadly similar lifestyles – turned on each other. Appreciating this, Puri says, was the most striking aspect of gathering her testimonies.

“It’s how you can turn on the other and how you can turn on the other so quickly and how the consequences of that can be so long-lasting,” she says. “That is what scares me and horrifies me and that’s not just exclusive to Partition. It’s Rwanda, it’s the former Yugoslavia, it’s so many places.” 

The testimony of the late Gurbakhsh Garcha encapsulates this particularly well. Having lived through Partition, he came to Britain in 1958 and was Mayor of the London borough of Lewisham in the 1990s.

A Sikh boy of 12 when Partition took place, Gurbakhsh grew up in a village in the Punjab where the majority of people were Sikh and a quarter were Muslim. When Partition happened, and his village remained in India, the Muslim population found it was no longer safe and fled. There are no Muslim families left in his birthplace today.

Of life in Gurbakhsh’s village before the British left India, Puri writes in Partition Voices: “The British Raj was accepted as a fact, and they did not know much about the independence movement. Most of them had never seen a Britisher… It was a harmonious and tight-knit community. Religious difference was barely thought about. No one could have believed that one day they would separate from each other.”

Gurbakhsh’s memories paint a vivid picture of the complexity of belonging and the creation of difference. 

One is that of his Muslim neighbour Mai who raised Gurbakhsh’s Sikh uncle as her own when his mother died – including breastfeeding him. “Gurbakhsh felt part of her family; she part of theirs,” Puri writes. After the new border was declared, Mai was forced to leave the village forever.

Gurbakhsh also told Puri of the day a train slowly passed by. “The doors were open, revealing men, women and children everywhere, some dead, some dying, covered in blood,” she writes.

Another day, at his cousin’s house, an elderly Sikh man arrived with an attractive and distressed young woman. “In front of everyone he taunted her, held out a spoon covered in pork fat and demanding she lick it,” Puri writes in Partition Voices. “Gurbakhsh knew that pork was forbidden [in Islam]… Gurbakhsh now assumes the woman must have been raped by the elderly man and believes the rest of the village knew that. They accepted it, he says, as they knew the Muslims were doing it to Sikh women.”

Another striking memory Gurbakhsh shared with Puri was of his Muslim teacher and two of his sons being murdered by a Sikh gang in his village. “The place they were laid to rest was just a hundred yards from Gurbakhsh’s school,” Puri writes. “Years later there were floods and Gurbakhsh and his friends saw the skeletons of his teacher and sons exposed in shallow graves.”

When she spoke to Gurbakhsh, he was still “angry at the way and manner of the British withdrawal” and felt that his faith in humanity was shaken. 

“How little it takes to turn them into beasts,” is how Puri sums up his thoughts.

Complexity and Heaviness

“That political decisions that are made, and sometimes made in haste, have profound consequences for generations to come,” was another aspect which struck Puri while hearing people’s testimonies. 

“You talk to those Partition survivors 70 years on and they talk to you like they’re a child again, witnessing those horrible things, it never left them,” she says. “And even if they never spoke of it, that doesn’t mean the trauma hasn’t passed through generations. They moved from one country in the Indian subcontinent to the next, it may have been the decision to then migrate to Britain. So these political decisions have huge, huge consequences – I would say even down to the third generation. And they live with us, long, long after the people who took those decisions are no longer with us.”

But people’s experiences were varied. Unexpectedly, Puri says, those who had lived through this time also wanted to emphasise the kindness and meaning they saw around them.  

“Some people would say Partition was a good thing, others would say it wasn’t a good thing, some people would say actually at least we had order under the British,” she recalls. “For every story of horror, there was always a story of hopefulness… I think what people wanted remembered 70 years on were those stories and people felt that, even if they left their land, even if they hadn’t been back for 70 years, they felt very attached to it. It was a visceral attachment, that had never left them.

“What that generation feels and what they remember… they don’t talk about Partition and division and borders, they just remember the place that they lived. That actually transcends other narratives [about Partition] that are much stronger and louder on the Indian subcontinent today.”

Partition Voices also includes the testimonies of British people living in India at the time as Puri wanted to “show how our histories are so interconnected”.

“I don’t think people know much about the history of Britain in India,” she says. “And it is a long history. It’s a history that goes back 400 years, there’s been a presence of South Asians in Britain for 400 years. I thought [British people’s testimonies] should be included, not because their experiences were the same as British South Asians, of course they weren’t, but I think it’s important to see things from their perspective too and they did have a different perspective but it’s still a valid one.” 

In the response to the book, Puri says she has found that third generation South Asians – those whose grandparents migrated to Britain – “are really interested in their history and their place in the country” and that Partition Voices “has prompted them to talk to their family members” about their past.  

She has also been approached by British people who had links to India and Empire as “they too felt they had permission to speak”.

Puri says she hopes every school in the country comes to have a book like Partition Voices becauseif you don’t understand things like Empire and Partition, which then resulted in migration to Britain, you can’t actually understand contemporary Britain”.

On a personal level, speaking to those who had lived through Partition made Puri “see the heaviness in life”. 

“You see what people can do to other people, people they lived side-by-side with, you see the effects of that so many decades on, it doesn’t leave them,” she says. “I think it will probably shape me for the rest of my life.”

‘Partition Voices’ by Kavita Puri is published by Bloomsbury

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