70 Years on, Outpouring of India’s Stories on Partition

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 over 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 cruelest 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 aging 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 sidelined the actual independence of two countries, whose 70th anniversary came on August 15. It has also sidelined 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.


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.

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

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 intensive 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.


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.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com.