Ttwo sisters gave me a piece of paper that was faded and yellow. On it were typed words from their father. He had died in the 1990s and his last request had been that his ashes be divided and scattered in three different places: the Punjabi village in present-day Pakistan where he was born, the Ganges River at Haridwar in India, and at the Severn Bridge in England. These three places shaped his life, from moving to India from Pakistan during the partition, and then his migration to Britain. He felt that he belonged in each of them and wanted a part of him to remain, both in death and in life.
Five years ago I began collecting testimonials from the people of Britain who lived through the tumultuous events of the partition. I soon realized that it was not a story from far away, but a story that was all around us in Britain, with a lasting legacy.
The partition of British India along religious lines in 1947, into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, resulted in the largest non-wartime migration and famine in human history. When people were outnumbered in a new country, an estimated 10-12 million people moved across a new frontier, leaving behind homes that had been lived in for generations. About a million people were killed in communal violence. More than 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped and forced to convert to the “other” religion.
So many families in Britain have some connection with the division, as those who migrated from the Indian subcontinent in the early post-war years largely came from places disrupted by it. They came to rebuild the country and their own lives. They came with those memories, which were rarely spoken out loud. But in 2017, on the 70th anniversary of the partition, that silence began to break.
I traveled through Great Britain and was told shocking stories. I met a man with a 70-year-old scar indelibly etched on his arm by a poisoned spear. I can’t forget the sound of pain he made when he explained that he was left for dead and nearly died when a mob entered his village. I listened as an elderly man sounded almost childish as he described the horrors of waking up on a platform full of corpses. One woman talked about her uncles planning to kill all the girls in her family to save them from dishonor, as was the fear of sexual assault. Her grandmother talked them down. So many stories like this had been largely hidden for decades, by people living among us who still have nightmares from that time. And we never knew.
But the partition generation also told other stories that they want to be remembered. Of a people that lived side by side for generations – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – with common languages, food and culture. There were deep friendships; they would share each other’s sorrows and joys regardless of religion. A man told me how a Muslim woman from his village breastfed his Sikh nieces after their mother died. What could be more intimate? There were also accounts of friends and strangers who transcended hatred to save that of the ‘other’ religion. A man told me that on the day a Muslim mob killed his father, his Muslim neighbor saved his sister and 30 other Sikh girls by housing them in his house.
Now that generation is wondering aloud if they will ever visit their ancestral home before they die. Will they ever see the childhood best friend they never had time to say goodbye to? Is a favorite tree they climbed still standing?
What I could never have imagined when I embarked on these interviews was that the legacy of the division in the UK could be so varied and complex. Trauma and fear can be passed on, even in silence. But so was that lasting bond with the land that was left, even if no one returned. Sometimes that attachment is palpable. I’ve seen descendants keep soil in a pot from Bangladesh on their fireplaces, or wear a pebble from Pakistan around their necks every day, or cherish a rescued heirloom from India—all places their ancestors left 75 years ago. These objects are often their only connection to that time and place. It is proof that their family once existed in that country, and it is significant for these young people today.
In all that time, the border has never been able to erase this history, memories or emotion. And in the five years since the 70th anniversary, there has been a quiet awakening to this hidden past among the descendants of those who experienced it.
For some families, that meant a new understanding of the word “partition” itself, and how their older relatives were affected. For others, it has been the realization that the beginning of their family story can be traced back entirely to another country, across a border.
Many of those who have contacted me to share their stories were of the third generation. They wanted to know their history beyond their ancestors who came here. They asked: “How do I ask my relative about their past if the subject has never been discussed before?” Others said: “I wish I had asked when my relatives were alive.” They now have to find other ways to delve into their history. All over our country, these heirs try to summarize their family’s past: start conversations with relatives, visit archives, learn about their history, do TUSEN tests and in some cases even return to the long-fugitive country.
The writer Elif Shafak notes that it is the third generation descended from immigrants who dig into memory: they have “older memories even than their parents. Their mothers and fathers say to them, ‘This is your home, forget all that. ‘” For the people I spoke to, identity, in all its complexity, matters.
Of course, these are not just personal stories within families – they are part of our shared history. That’s because it was a British frontier, drawn to divide British India when the British Empire began to be dismantled. Nationals of the Raj came to Britain and are its citizens, and several generations today live by the millions on these islands. Partition, the end of the empire and subsequent migration to the land of the former colonial ruler could not be a more British story – one that everyone should know and learn. Yet it is not a compulsory part of the national curriculum in England. In Wales, black, Asian and ethnic minorities will be required to school from September.
As we approach the anniversary of August, it is always bittersweet: joy at independence, but sadness at the loss suffered that endures. A few days ago, a daughter sent me an email informing me that her father, one of my interviewees, had passed away at the age of 92. A reminder that our link with this time is waning.
Seventy-five years later in Britain we are all the heirs of division and empire. We must decide what to do with this legacy; decide what is remembered and what is forgotten. The legacy will live on in ways we don’t know yet. It happened a long time ago, but somehow I feel like we’re just beginning to come to terms with it – both within families and in Britain.