Gresham College Lectures

Partition of British India: 75 Years On

November 04, 2022 Gresham College
Gresham College Lectures
Partition of British India: 75 Years On
Show Notes Transcript

The 2022 Royal Historical Society Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture

The partition of British India in 1947 was the world’s largest migration outside war and famine. It may feel like a distant historical event, but 75 years on its impact continues to resonate in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and in Britain. Many of those who lived through that tumultuous time migrated to Britain.

In this lecture, which considers the importance and power of oral history, we will hear first-hand testimonies; understand why many partition survivors chose silence and are speaking now, and how its legacy persists down the generations.


A lecture by Kavita Puri

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/india-partition

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- It's 75 years since the British left India and partitioned it into the dominions of India and Pakistan, partition and independence forever twinned. It may appear an event that happened far away, and is consigned to history, but the ramifications of the decision to divide British India and its people, and the subsequent migration, which became the largest migration outside war and famine that the world has ever seen, can still be felt in the politics of the Indian Subcontinent today, and it endures in the lives of people who lived through that time, many of whom came to Britain, its former colonial ruler. But we are now in the twilight years, where the generation who were born under the British Raj and were witnesses to the end of empire are dwindling, and will soon no longer be with us, and are only just speaking about that time. But there is still time left to record their experiences, and ask what inheritance is bequeathed to subsequent generations, both within families, British South Asian families, and how we as a nation reckon with our colonial past. And these are some of the people that I interviewed for the "Partition Voices" series, and this lecture will focus on that lived experience, which, as I said, is still little known about, and is only just entering the public domain so many years on, the devastating human consequences and cost of the end of the British Raj. We will hear some of their stories tonight, these firsthand accounts of people who now live in Britain, and were caught up in that time, but we will also look at what is passed on, and its wider legacy here in Britain. I argue that partition is British history. The legacy of it and the end of empire exists among us here in contemporary Britain, maybe in people that you know, and maybe never even knew to ask. I want to bring their voices into the room here tonight, and these are some of the people that I spoke to. (reflective piano music) - My name is Gurbakhsh Singh Garca. - Khursid Sultana. - My name is Raj Daswani. - During the partition, we came to East Bengal. - The first town we reached was Fazilka. - We were forced to leave Pakistan. - They were horrible days, horrible for the reputation of both India and Pakistan. - Partition was a huge mistake. It was too quick, it was speeded through. - That parting of each other was most, I would say, unbearable. - I was terrified, I couldn't think of any, that's what I'm telling you, I was so frightened. - Although we got independence, what good it was when you have lost everything? (reflective piano music) - But before we get to hear some of those stories, I just want to look at when partition became inevitable, because it wasn't always so. Britain had direct rule over India since 1858, and as you can see from this map, that includes modern day Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, as well as, of course, India. And it is worth noting that it also had a presence there with the arrival of the East India Company in the 1600s. But resentment against British rule festered, and the by the 20th century, the independence movement gained momentum, hastened by Britain taking India into World War II. And this is King George VI, Emperor of India, inspecting troops in the Midlands in 1940, these are troops from British India. And World War II was a war that Britain didn't ask if India wanted to join, it never gave its consent, it was something that leaders of Congress objected to, in fact they were imprisoned for the duration of the war because of it, largely, and an estimated 2.5 million Indians served in the army during the war. And as religious identity became stronger, many argue stoked by British policies of divide and rule, as these visions of independence became much stronger, precipitated largely also by World War II, there were two competing visions of what independence would look like, and it grew increasingly politicized along religious lines. As the departure of Britain became imminent after World War II, the pressing concern would be how the Muslim minority, which was 1/4 of British India's population, around 100 million, would be protected in a country once the British left. They didn't feel that their rights would be safeguarded by the Hindu majority. And the fight for Muslim rights was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, of the Muslim League. He wanted protection, and he would eventually demand a separate country. And the Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, had a very different view, they wanted India to be united, but a secular India. But the endgame of empire, and the contest for power and territory was conducted against a backdrop of rising communal violence across Northern India, as people of the other religion were targeted. And this is a picture from the 16th of August, 1946, it's Calcutta, and it's what many historians argue was the first partition massacre. There had been localized communal violence before, but the partition massacres, that many historians agree began with this day, was really aimed at destroying, or eliminating people of the other religion. And this day had been called by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as Direction Action Day, in favor of Pakistan, but it quickly descended into bloodshed. On all sides, Muslims and Hindus, many thousands were brutally killed, and the violence then spread to Noakhali, to Tippera, to Bihar, on the outskirts of Delhi, until, by early 1947, many of the huge cities in Punjab had descended into violence. And this growing violence across Northern India was the context for British negotiations of what India would look like once the British left. And Lord Louis Mountbatten, there in the center, was the last viceroy of India, he'd been given the task to oversee the transfer of power, that's Nehru over there, and Jinnah here. And this photograph is taken from the 3rd of June, 1947, and it was a momentous day because this was the three men preparing for an address on All India Radio, it's seven o'clock at night, to not only British India, but the empire, and to Britain, and it was an announcement that India would be partitioned. Nehru had reluctantly agreed, and the reason that Lord Mountbatten gave was that 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. He announced that the populous regions of Punjab, in the west, and Bengal, in the east, would be divided, and these were places where, for many, many generations, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus had lived side by side, largely happily, for many, many years, and their unpicking would be a virtually impossible task. And at this address, he made an announcement which shocked many people,

including some of those in the room:

he said that partition would not take place by June, 1948, which was the date that Prime Minister Clement Attlee had given, he said that partition would take place on the 15th of August, 1947. That would leave 10 weeks in which to divide a nation as complex as India. And the man who was tasked with that division was Cyril Radcliffe, and he was a lawyer who had come from Britain, he had never actually been to India before, he spent a lot of time in the viceroy's house, in Delhi, surrounded by a census, which happened to be out of date, maps, submission requests. He never once visited the villages that he was dissecting. And so the day approached, Independence Day, the 14th of August, 1947, and this is Karachi, they celebrated independence a day early, and Mountbatten went there, and it was a day of great joy. Jinnah spoke in very lofty terms to the people of his country, to all religions,

he said to them:

"You are free to go to your temples, "you are free to go to your mosques, "or to any other place of worship in the state of Pakistan." It was a pluralistic vision of what the new state of Pakistan would be. At midnight, at the Red Fort in New Delhi, Nehru gave his famous address. He said, "Long years ago, "we made a tryst with destiny, "and now, when the time comes "when we shall redeem our pledge, "not wholly or in full measure, "but very substantially. "At the stroke of the midnight hour, "when the world sleeps, "India will awake to life and freedom." And yet, astonishingly, on the 15th of August, when the transfer had been made, nobody had a clue where the boundary line actually was, that was announced two days later, on the 17th of August, 1947. By that time, Radcliffe had already left, apparently, he'd burned his papers, and he took off to England, never once deciding that he would come back to India. He wrote to his stepson to say, "Nobody in India will love me "for the award about the Punjab and Bengal, "there'll be roughly 80 million people with a grievance "who'll be looking for me. "I don't want them to find me." People listened on the radio, they waited for newspapers to tell them where their village, where there city would be, which side of the border. And this is the map of what the division of Bengal and partition looked like. You see, on the left, West Pakistan, which comprised West Punjab, Sindh Province, Balochistan, and the North-West Frontier, and here, you see East Pakistan, they were divided by 1,000 miles. If you took a boat from Karachi all the way to Chittagong, that would take you five days. Jinnah described his new nation as moth-eaten and truncated. And there you see, Kashmir was one example, but places like Hyderabad, all the other princely states, they would decide for themselves which nation they would belong to. But what happened next, nobody had anticipated, not the colonial authorities nor these new governments in India and Pakistan. As people found themselves a minority in these two new countries, they made a choice, or they had to make a choice, whether to stay or to leave. And that wasn't a straightforward choice, how could it be? If you'd been born in a place, generations of your family had lived there, you felt that that was your home, your tie to your land could be stronger than your tie to your religion, and many people tried to stay, but for some, it became too dangerous, and they had to leave. And so people, as you see in this picture, in this iconic picture, as are the others of the American "TIME" photographer Margaret Bourke-White, people just took whatever they could. You can see this family had very little time to leave, they walked by foot, if they had time, they would take their animals, and they would walk in these long lines for safety. And this became, as I said earlier, the largest migration outside war and famine that the world had seen. Around 10 to 12 million people, around the month of partition, so around August to November, were on the move, Hindus and Sikhs in one direction, to India, Muslims to Pakistan. It's estimated 1 million people, on all sides, were killed. Officials say 75,000 women were raped, abducted, and forced to convert to the other religion. The female body became part of the battleground. Other women were killed by their families to save them from so-called dishonor. What remained of the British Army, they had orders not to intervene, only to save the lives of Britishers. The violence and the migration predominantly started in the Punjab, and then it moved to places like Delhi, and this is one of the refugee camps there, and as we'll hear later, the trains became a place to escape across the border, but also, they were incredibly dangerous journeys that people had to take. 1947 was not the end of violence. As I said, the epicenter at that time was Punjab, Bengal, as we heard before, in 1946, had seen a lot of bloodshed, but it then began to move around, particularly Northern India, places like Delhi, the Sindh Province, as refugees streamed in. But mass displacement and violence triggered by partition continued until 1971, when East Bengal, East Pakistan, against huge resistance from West Pakistan, fought for its independence and became Bangladesh. The statistics of partition are overwhelming, but behind every statistic is a human story, even if you can't find them in the official documents, and that's what I wanted to do as the 70th anniversary approached. I was aware that partition, as a historical event, was not well known about in families even with South Asian heritage, and certainly not in wider British society, despite it being one of the defining events of the 20th century, and a part of British history. But it's also a history that so many millions of British South Asian families have a direct or indirect connection to, including our new prime minister, whose paternal family are from the Punjab, their family actually came from a place that is now Pakistan. And there is a direct connection between partition and South Asian migration to Britain, because in the post-war years, many of the people who arrived in Britain came from areas hugely disrupted by partition.

It makes sense:

if your life has already been disrupted, you've already had to move across a border, you go to a new land, you may not even speak the language, that doesn't feel like home, why wouldn't you come to Britain to try your luck, to try and start a new life after the British Nationality Act came into force in 1948 and gave you British citizenship? So people came primarily, in those early post-war years, from places like the Punjab, but also Sylhet and Mirpur too, and they came with their stories, but they didn't talk about them. And silence shrouded so many of those memories of people who came to Britain, and that isn't exceptional to Britain either, that is also the case on the Indian Subcontinent, but there are some reasons for silence here that are different. People who came here were looking ahead, they had to build a new life, largely in a hostile environment, and interestingly, when Indians and Pakistanis came here, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, when they were working in the factories, they were working side by side, they were also fighting together in those early post-war years for equality and against racism. There wasn't much time to dwell on the past. These are also shameful memories, terrible things happened on all sides, there were bystanders, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, nobody wants to talk out loud about these things, but there is also an institutional silence, there are no memorials to the people who died, in Britain or anywhere in the world, no one talks about empire, they certainly didn't when those post-war migrants came, there was no public space for survivors to voice their memories, and then their children, born here, they never learned about partition in school, they didn't even know to ask their parents, they may not even have known what the word partition meant. But silence can be noisy, prejudice persisted, but there were other contradictory clues too. People talked of back home, but home was not the place the family lived now on the Indian Subcontinent, there were gaps in family histories, no-go areas in terms of conversations, and if you listened closely, when people asked, where are you from, there was a hesitation. Do you say it's the place that you were born, or was it the place that you then moved to across a border? 70 years on, I wanted to be part of breaking that silence. My team and I did call-outs, and we contacted grassroots organizations, I never approached people directly, I didn't think that was appropriate, because these are traumatic memories. And children, or mostly grandchildren responded, and I soon realized these stories were everywhere in Britain, and we didn't know. I interviewed colonial British and British South Asians who were eyewitnesses to the end of empire and the bloody birth of two nations, and came to Britain and made it their home. I traveled across Britain, and in living rooms, people opened up, sometimes speaking for the first time of recollections that were traumatic, wistful, and full of longing for a life and land long fled. The stories from the months around partition were the stories that I was asking about. They do not include Kashmir. And I wanted to show the varied experience, of course Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, but also Parsi and Anglo Indian, the geographical, not just Punjab and Bengal, gender as well as class, and they showed the complex tapestry of the partition experience, but they are far from a definitive account. So let's hear some of these stories. This is Gurbakhsh Garca, he was 12 at the time of partition, and he was born in Dhandari Khurd, in the Punjab, and he described a really magical childhood. Something he said really stayed with me for a long time, here he is describing, he was from a Sikh family, how close relations were in his village between the Sikh and the Muslim community. This is Gurbakhsh when I interviewed him back in 2017. - [Gurbakhsh] We didn't really think about religion very much. We knew there were different names, apparently Muslims were merely farmers, they had smaller chunks of land. - [Kavita] Would you celebrate festivals together? - [Gurbakhsh] Yes, at Eid, they'd send sweets to our house, and at Diwali, we'd send sweets to their house, and it was accepted. It was a fairly close relationship all the time. - [Kavita] So close that a Muslim neighbor raised Sikh cousins of Gurbakhsh as her own after a tragedy struck the family. - [Gurbakhsh] Their mother had died when they were little children, and one of her best friends, a Muslim lady, she actually brought them up, they used to suckle, because she had children of the same age, and she looked after those children just like her own. She was just a wonderful, wonderful lady, and she used to bathe me, long before the partition, when I was six or seven, and her children, her sons would take me to the farm, carry me sometimes. We never thought, ever, that, one day, we'll have to separate, and for good. - And so that image of a Muslim woman suckling the Sikh children of her deceased best friend really tells you how intimate relations could be between people. And it's worth remembering that if you were Punjabi, like Gurbakhsh was, you shared the same language, you ate the same kinds of food, you shared traditions, a similar culture, you had much more in common with each other, regardless of your religion, than you would, for example, if you met a Bengali, and ties to your land, as I said, could be stronger than ties to your religion. And what ended up happening in Gurbakhsh's village were all the Muslims left. They didn't think they would leave, they left the keys with his family, they thought they would come back, but they never did. And Gurbakhsh remembers sitting, along with other people in his village, to the radio to hear where his village would be, and they discovered, to their joy, that their village was going to be in India, but that meant that their Muslim friends and neighbors had to leave, and he then witnessed terrible scenes of violence. But he also saw, one day, when he was at an elderly Sikh relative's house, a distant relative's house, a young Muslim girl, and he thinks she had been taken, she was a very beautiful girl, and she was forced to eat pig fat in front of the other Sikh relatives, and he was very disturbed, and he ran home to his mother, he was only 12, and she called these Sikh relatives barbarian. And I asked him, "Do you think that she was being raped by him," he said, "Probably," and I said, "But what did the other people in the village do?" And he said, "Nothing, because we knew that the same thing was happening "to the women on our side." And so that's how people justified that existence, and he said, in the end, he became so inured to dead bodies and violence, and it was something he'd never talked about with his own family members, and he now describes himself as agnostic. This is Harchet Bains, and one morning, he was in West Pakistan, as many Sikhs were, and he was awoken and told that he had to quickly get up as they were to leave suddenly. - [Harchet] We were risen up quite early in the morning and we were told just to start walking, so we started walking behind a cart, which was being pulled by two oxen. It was loaded with food, and clothing, and other stuff, quite full, and some fodder for the animals. And we were quite dazed, and quite annoyed, and very, very unhappy. - [Kavita] For safety, they walked in a line, known as a kafila, or caravan. As they walked, other villages joined them, until the column stretched for miles. They were exhausted and hungry. - [Harchet] We were drinking water from the puddles, which wasn't very clean, it was rainwater, and without proper food, eating leaves and things to survive. Some of the children started crying because they didn't have enough food, and they were tired, they wanted to sleep, and they couldn't do anything, but we were made to walk. - The children were told to walk under the cart for safety, as the line was coming under attack, and young women were targeted too. And so you can see Harchet was one of the many who, we remember those pictures of the long lines, those kafila, he thinks there were miles and miles of them, it took about eight days for his family to get to India. When he arrived, they were given a house that had belonged to a Muslim family, it was all broken, so they were dispersed with other family members, and he remembers going to school, and the Indians who hadn't had to make the migration laughed at them. And so that never felt like home, they never felt like they belonged there, and to this day, he feels that his family lost everything. He has never been back to Pakistan, he never had the chance to say goodbye to his best friend, Muhammad Aziz, they lost everything, and he says, we heard him in the video, "They say we are independent now, "but what good is that when you've lost everything? "It was a great tragedy, "and we didn't like being friends one day "and enemies the next. "We will always curse the authorities, "the British or Indians, "the politicians who made this mess. "I will never forget these tragic events, "I will always remember them, "I will take these things to my grave. "They were bad things, but they happened." In the opposite direction was Iftakhr Ahmed. He came to Britain in 1951, but in 1947, he was 17, in Delhi, alone, and he remembers the Independence Day celebrations, he remembers the fireworks in the air, he remembers singing that the British were leaving, and how delighted everyone was, and he never thought for a moment that he would have to leave. But by September, it was dangerous to be a Muslim in Delhi, and he made a terrifying escape across Delhi to the Jama Masjid, the mosque where Muslims were gathering for safety. He quickly moved to the old fort because conditions were so bad there, and when he heard that there was a train going to Lahore, despite people telling him how dangerous the trains were, he decided to get on it. As he approached, after many days, the border with Pakistan, he got out of the train, and people were cooking and eating, he had no food, and another train came in, and it was a train full of Pakistani military. He was a young man, on his own, with no luggage, and he got in on it. Iftakhr Ahmed now lives in Brighton. Along with other Muslims, he made an epic journey from Delhi to Pakistan. As a young man, he managed to get onto a military train, and was given some advice by the soldiers onboard as they came into Lahore Station. He describes, in harrowing detail, what happened next. - [Iftakhr] They told me, son, this is Pakistan, this is your world, do whatever you want to do. I was tired, and in my mind, I thought I'd come to a safe place, I'm not anymore in danger, what I want to do is to sleep. On a platform, put my head down, I went to sleep. About five o'clock in the morning, I woke up. I could feel all wet, the platform was full with people, I asked, were they all sleeping here? And one man, with a torch, shone it light that, and I got up. Of course, I was laying with the dead bodies, children, women, all cut up their faces, and women's breasts are cut up, they killed all. - [Kavita] During the night, trains had arrived full of dead bodies, which the army had unloaded onto the platform where Iftakhr was sleeping. Unsurprisingly, he quickly left. He was shocked when he walked into the city. - [Iftakhr] Lahore was all burnt, the complete town was burnt, that's what the Pakistanis did, they burned their houses and the people in it. Indians did it to us, but Pakistanis did to them the same. - He'd never spoken about his traumatic experiences to anyone, and this is his son, Nick, who was in the room when I was interviewing Iftakhr, and he was very emotional hearing this story for the first time, and he's now interviewing his dad, and trying to write a memoir with his dad about his life. And Iftakhr said something very interesting: he spent up to 17 years of his life in India, he spent three, four years in Pakistan, and has been in Britain ever since, and he said, "India was mine as well, "no one can take that away." And he wants to go back to his village one last time before he dies, he wants to go to the graves of his mother and father, who were buried in India's earth, as are his grandparents, he remembers his Hindu friends, he wants to see if they're still living, and he can even remember the smell of the alleyways that he used to play in, his childhood game. And so he feels he's Indian still to this day, much more than Pakistan, although he calls himself, actually, English, not British, English because, he says, I was born under the British Raj. And the attachment to the place left, just like Iftakhr feels, is something that I came across time and again with my interviewees, and it wasn't something that I had expected. I thought I would hear stories of violence and horror, but that attachment to the land has persisted in all these years, even if people have never once gone back to visit the place that they had to leave in a hurry. Raj Daswani is a Hindu, he was from the Sindh Province, in Karachi, and when he was a young boy, he used to distribute Quit India leaflets around Karachi, but he never for a moment thought that asking for an independent India would mean that he and his family would have to leave Karachi. He was a teenager, and he was in love with one of his neighbors, who was actually a Muslim, her name was Yasmin, and this is him describing Yasmin, and how they would sometimes look at the Moon together and dream of one day marrying each other. - [Raj] We were 12, 13 years old, living in the same building, we used to meet at the terrace, light a candle, and just talk, and see each other, holding hands with each other. I used to tell her, putting my hands like this against the Moon, that, one day, I'll give you this Moon. - [Kavita] In the first week of September, 1947, Raj's Hindu family decided to leave Pakistan. The mood in Karachi had changed against them with the arrival of Muslim refugees fleeing India. Their longtime Muslim friends and neighbors pleaded with them not to go. - [Raj] Everybody came out, everybody requested us, don't leave, don't leave, and they were crying, physically, they were crying, but there was no way. At that particular time, we had to leave our house. - [Kavita] Raj was heartbroken at leaving the land of his birth, and his first love. - [Raj] That parting of each other was unbearable. She was crying, I was crying, and we held hands again with each other, and slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, we left each other. And I could see that she's looking at me 'til that end. I hoped at that time that I'm going to see her again, because all the Hindus were expecting that, after some time, partition will not be there, and they will return back to their home, but that didn't happen. - [Kavita] And you never heard from her again? - [Raj] No. - And so even with the cataclysmic and dramatic backdrop of partition, and the violence, when you speak to people, sometimes, it's these tiny memories that are the details that are so important to them. When I speak to Raj, what he remembers about leaving Karachi is Yasmin, and he remembers that goodbye, he remembers watching her 'til the very moment 'til he couldn't see her anymore, and he recounts it with such clarity 70 years on. Raj took a boat, and he went to a refugee camp in Mumbai, with thousands of other Sindhis, and he lived there for 12 years. He went back to Karachi in 1992, and he went back to the home that he had once lived in, and he looked up at that terrace, and when he arrived in Karachi, he was so moved he fell to his feet, and he took the dust from the earth and he put it to his forehead, and he said, "Mother, I've come home." And he says, if he had a choice back then, if he had been older, he would have converted to stay, because land, to him, was more important than religion. And when he went, he picked up these stones, which he showed me, he keeps them in his study, in London, and he takes them out, he holds them, he kisses them, and he says it reminds him of that place that was his home, it's his connection to that time, there is nothing else he has from his home in Karachi. And the remnants of things like stones, the things that I have seen in households across Britain, I've seen bricks that people have taken from their old home, I've seen soil that people keep on their Victorian fireplace, in a jar, old tiles, people have told me they even kept dust, because that's all people have, it's the only evidence they have that they once existed too in that place, and it is elevated to an ancestral home. This is Gita, by the way, this is his wife, it's not Yasmin, but he met her at the refugee camp and said she reminded him of Yasmin, that's why he fell in love with her. She's not very happy when he mentions that. (audience laughs) So across homes in Britain are these extraordinary stories that came to light within families and the public space really for the first time during the 70th anniversary, from that generation that lived through partition. But there were some stories that were quite difficult to get to, especially the firsthand stories of the experiences of women who had endured sexual violence. And so we have to accept that, in the historical archives, some stories will always be shrouded in silence. But what is bequeathed? That investigation into the inheritance, including the inheritance of trauma, is only now being looked into. And this is Nirmal Joshi's daughter, and her mother grew up in Lahore, and unlike many of my interviewees, actually, her mother did speak to her about her experiences of partition, and she left, like so many people, a mixed legacy. She told them about a Muslim neighbor that had warned her Hindu family that they needed to leave quickly because there was going to be attacks on the girls, and the Muslim neighbor took them to the train station, but when her mother was finally in India, across the border to safety, she worked in a refugee camp, and she saw terrible things, of women's bodies mutilated, the after-effects of rape, women who had to have forced abortions as a result of rape, and she made it very clear to her daughter, Poonam, that this was happening on all sides, this was not just one group of people. And what Poonam describes now is a very moving scene towards the end of her mother's life, and her mother was in a home, in hospital, in Southall, overlooking, actually, the gurdwara, her mother used to say she could be in Amritsar. It shows how notions of belonging and home are so muddled, actually, but it also shows a connection to the place that was left that her mother, Nirmal, never went back to after she fled, but it's so strong, and it still endures, and it's something that Poonam herself feels tool. - [Poonam] I had my arm around her and it felt like holding a child, she was so tiny. I didn't know what her wishes were for the funeral, so I asked her what her favorite song was, and she sang "Chupke Chupke," by Ghulam Ali, and she sang the song in its entirety to me. - [Kavita] It was a ghazal, a poetic song, by a Pakistani singer, in Urdu. It played at Nirmal Pandit's Hindu funeral. (Ghulam Ali sings "Chupke Chupke" in Urdu) - [Poonam] We played "Chupke" at the beginning, I think it's the song that I most associated with her, I think it's the song that reminded her of Lahore, and when she sang it, we always knew she was happy. (Ghulam Ali sings "Chupke Chupke" in Urdu) - [Kavita] Poonam's wish was to take her mother's ashes to Lahore, where she was born, and years later, fled, never to return while she was still alive. - [Poonam] Her happiest years of her life were those first 17 years in Lahore, she spoke about them with such affection. That was her home, that's where she belonged, and we wanted to take her home. (Ghulam Ali sings "Chupke Chupke" in Urdu) - So what is passed down is hugely complex. Many in the third generation, Poonam was from the second generation, have contacted me over the years, asking how to approach elderly relatives, or regretting that they never asked when they had the time. The final person we're going to speak to is Sparsh, and this is his grandfather, Ishar, and Sparsh had noticed there was always a hush every time partition or Pakistan was mentioned, and he wanted to understand what that was about, so interviewed his grandfather, who told him that his family were actually from a place in Pakistan called Bela, in the Punjab, and Sparsh said, I want to go back there, and his grandfather said, you absolutely can't, you're Hindu, they'll kill you, he was terrified for him, his parents said don't go back. But he did go back, and this is a clip of him. He found the Muslim family that actually saved his Hindu grandfather's life, and this is where we pick up the story. When Sparsh was standing in Bela, he was confronting both the anguish his grandfather felt at leaving, as well as nostalgia for the village Ishar still calls home. - [Sparsh] I told them that you guys literally saved our lives, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your father. - [Kavita] Now, the grandson and great-grandson of the man who saved Ishar, walk with Sparsh through the village. They had something to show him. Friend Sam was behind. - [Sam] And we walk round this big field, past a couple of chickens, and I think a partridge, and Sparsh just says, turn on your camera 'cause I want to be able to send this to my grandfather. - [Kavita] In the footage, three men walk in single file along a dusty path. They reach a courtyard. A building stands at its edge. And then the grandson says to Sparsh. - [Sparsh] This was the mosque that your grandfather used to live next to. - [Kavita] He points to a mud-brick house, saying, this is the land where your grandfather lived. Sparsh walks towards the center of the courtyard. - [Sam] And he kissed the ground, got down on the leaves, and was kissing the ground for probably a minute. - [Kavita] The small group falls silent. - [Sparsh] I mean, it was, it was really emotional, I just broke down in tears. It was just the weight of that moment, I felt like I'd finally made it here. It's not something I ever expected would be possible in my lifetime, given the way these countries are. - [Kavita] Sparsh stands up from the cracked earth, and then two grandsons, one Hindu, one Muslim, embrace for a long time. (Indian string music) - [Sparsh] I think, before that, I felt angry a lot, about having lost something. I think a lot of that fire died down after that day, I feel like I was able to let go, a little bit, of that intergenerational trauma. Because I think if you've grown up being told this was our land, this is where we came from, and we were never able to go back, that's not the story I will tell my children, it will be, ah yeah, we lost this land, but then we went back, so it's like that loop is now complete. - [Kavita] That night, Sparsh WhatsApped his grandfather.

Ishar responded:

"I'm proud of you," he said, "you have touched my motherland, "which I could not explain in words." - And he, like Raj, picked up some stones from his grandfather's homeland, and he gave one to his grandfather, Ishar, he keeps one beside his bed, and he made the rest into a necklace, one that he wears every day, he wants to wear it for the rest of his days, and will pass it on, and another, he gave to his grandfather. So these are some of the stories that I collected. In England, learning about partition, and even empire is not part of the national curriculum. In Wales, from September, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic histories are compulsory, but it's still not clear what parts of colonial history will be taught. Yet it could not be a more British story, one that everyone should know about. That's because it was a British border drawn to divide British India as the British Empire started to be dismantled. Subjects of the Raj came to Britain, and are its citizens, and multiple generations live here in their millions today. Since the 70th anniversary in 2017, there has been an awakening, with the younger generation coming to terms with what the word partition means, and how it relates to their family. There is a hunger to know their history from before their ancestors landed in Britain, and I think being part of the diaspora, where your tie to Britain may be one, two, or perhaps even three generations can feel fragile. Knowing your long history matters. And in homes across Britain, some young people have turned detectives, as this is not a history they were taught at school. They're reading about it, trying to understand their past through interviews with family members, searching the archives, or even doing DNA tests. And living in Britain, they're used to having multiple identities, be it British or Asian, a region from the Indian Subcontinent their family originated from, the place in Britain they grew up, that's just for starters, and their investigations may lead to a discovery that their family's journey began across a border. And accommodating that into their identity can perhaps be easier in Britain than on the Indian Subcontinent, where state narratives themselves can be partitioned. When I was researching the "Partition Voices" project, I couldn't find these stories of the lived experience in the archives. All my testimonies are now with the British Library Sound Archive, so they can be studied, alongside the more formal documents of the time. This lived experience is an important aspect of the history. Of course, after 70 years, memories fade, but even with all the imperfections, it's essential these stories are preserved, of the individuals who were part of the largest migration in human history, because if you listen closely to these testimonies, they tell you something very different from the official evidence of the time, which regularly documented the communal violence and division, it also speaks, as we've heard, to the intimacy of the communities, where people lived largely happily, side by side, in undivided India, where friendships between religions were profound, where a woman of one faith suckled the motherless children of another, where friends and strangers transcended hate to save the other. What people wanted remembered all these years on was that too, not just the horrors and the violence. A manmade border could not erase those emotions, memories, friendships in all that time. And that has sustained, along with a deep attachment to the land left, and it muddies these binary narratives, then and now, particularly in political discourse on the Indian Subcontinent. But it also speaks to the complexity of the experience across gender, class, caste, religion, and geography. I embarked on the collection of testimonies as a journalist, however, the methods, and gathering of the accounts and questioning is similar. I tried to put my interviewees at ease, I would interview them in their home, perhaps in their favorite chair, they would be surrounded by family members, and these are traumatic memories, and they have agreed to them, and I always felt a huge duty of care to them. And there were times in the room where there were many emotions, not just the person speaking, who was recounting these memories for the first time, but perhaps family members who were hearing this for the first time too. And sometimes, it was very clear that the interviewee would be very moved, and I would ask them if they wanted to stop, but I also asked them if they still wanted to continue, I wanted to give them agency over their very personal story. If they wanted to refuse, they did not have to carry on. But towards the end of their days, not one refused, they wanted their story recorded, heard, and respected. People may ask what if it's not accurate, or is biased? But there is bias in most forms of primary evidence. How people remember the past 70 years on is important, and it should be considered from that perspective. My interviewees had surprising clarity about the detail of events from 70 years ago, and their story should be listened to, they are the statistics, their lived experience should not be denied a place in the historical archive. There are, as we discussed, gaps, but I did also speak to perpetrators of violence on all sides, and bystanders, but these stories, again, were not easy to tease out. But the testimonies also serve another purpose too. Historical events like partition endure down the generations in both good and bad ways. The recordings, 70 years on, capture that in all its complexity, that political decisions taken many, many years ago still affect people and generations for decades. And historical events can be taken over by national narratives, as we've seen particularly on the Indian Subcontinent, to suit the politics of the day and foster further division, but these stories counter that, and recall a time when there were Muslims living in Amritsar, and Hindus in Lahore, and that there was collective loss for everyone on the Indian Subcontinent. And we in Britain are living in a moment, in our own country, where families in Britain are coming to terms and reckoning with their own past. This is British history, every single one of us are inheritors of empire and partition, and each generation will interpret that. 75 years on, British South Asian families, and we as a nation, are only just coming to terms with that, we're just at the start, and within families, and as a country, we are all working out what we remember, what we forget, and what we keep our silence over. Thank you. (audience applauds) - [Questioner] Thank you very much, I entirely agree with everything you've said. Can I just say that, I personally, as a young boy, have experienced what you've just said, the Calcutta Riots in '46, and also going there the Punjab to Pakistan, et cetera, however I'm a British citizen now. The thing is, one point is that, despite all that was going on, before Lord Mountbatten arrived, Lord Wavell was trying to get a united India, and at the last moment, he introduced the interim government, which, unfortunately, broke up, but that was a very heroic attempt on his part, to try and keep the thing together. And also, I don't know what you think is the way forward, whether the two countries will eventually come closer together in the years to come? - Thank you for coming, particularly as you lived through that time. I think that, certainly for India and Pakistan, the only way forward and for reconciliation is for acknowledgement that there was collective loss, that all sides suffered, that not one side owns a victim narrative, and I think that we're very far from that at the moment. If you listen to the some of the language and the politics of today, the demonization of the other, that is very recognizable from many decades ago, and sends a chill down many people. And so things are so bad, things are so far apart, you can't even visit the other country if you're a citizen of India or Pakistan, so think reconciliation is so far off. In India, we had Partition Horrors Day, which, again, is insinuating that the horrors happened on one side; it wasn't one side. And so I think that, for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, there has to be that acknowledgement that everyone suffered, and there was loss that persists to this day. But I would say that I have optimism with the third generation, who are asking questions, who are challenging these very narrow narratives that they're hearing from their governments, and actually, social media is changing things, people can connect with the other side, and realize, actually, these young people are not that different from me. And so I think, with the younger generation, perhaps things will change. - [Questioner] I was just wondering, do you think, with regard to the butchery that went on during the partition of Punjab, the fact that Punjab had been the big recruiting area for the British Empire, and that's where the British had recruited their imperial forces from, and the fact there were so many people from a military background milling about in the Punjab, do you think that may have been a factor in the excessive violence that took place? - I think that there is an argument that, because people who were demobbed had access to weaponry, certainly, but sometimes, the rape and abduction of women had nothing to do with weaponry. I think that the butchery in Punjab was almost because people lived so closely together, it was civil war, they cared, they loved each other deeply, and I think that that violence, the intensity of it, it's almost because they were so close. I think it's a factor, but I think it's not the only reason. - Ladies and gentleman, please join me once again thanking Kavita Puri. (audience applauds)