After 75 years, the hidden memories of India’s partition are rising up through Britain’s
Two sisters handed me a piece of paper that was faded and yellow. On it were typewritten words from their father. He had died in the 1990s and his final request had been for his ashes to be divided up and scattered in three different places: the Punjabi village in modern-day Pakistan where he’d been born, the River Ganges at Haridwar in India, and by the Severn Bridge in England. These three places made up his life, from displacement to India from Pakistan during partition, and then his migration to Britain. He felt he belonged in each one of them, wanting some part of him to remain, in death as in life.
Five years ago, I started collecting testimonies of the people in Britain who lived through the tumultuous events of partition. I quickly realised it was not a story from far away, but one that was all around us in Britain, with a continuing legacy.
The division of British India along religious lines in 1947, into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, resulted in the largest migration outside wartime and famine in human history. As people found themselves a minority in a new country, an estimated 10-12 million people moved across a new border, leaving homes that had been lived in for generations. About a million people were killed in communal violence. More than 75,000 women were raped, abducted and forced to convert to the “other” religion.
So many families in Britain have a connection with partition, as those who migrated from the Indian subcontinent in the early postwar years were largely from places disrupted by it. They came to rebuild the country and their own lives. They arrived with those memories, which were rarely spoken out loud. But in 2017, during the 70th anniversary of partition, that silence began to break.
I travelled across Britain and was told shattering stories. I met a man with a 70-year-old scar indelibly etched on his arm from a poisoned spear. I cannot forget the sound of anguish he made as he explained he was left for dead, and almost died, as a mob entered his village. I listened as an elderly man sounded almost childlike as he described the horrors of waking up on a train platform full of dead bodies. A woman talked of overhearing her uncles planning to kill all the girls in her family to save them from dishonour, such was the fear of sexual violence. Her grandmother talked them down. So many stories like these had largely been hidden for decades, by people who live among us, and who still have nightmares from that time. And we never knew.
But the partition generation told other stories too, that they want remembered. Of a people who lived side by side for generations – Muslim, Sikh, Hindu – with languages, food and culture in common. There were deep friendships; they would share each other’s sorrow and joy, irrespective of religion. One man told me how a Muslim woman from his village breastfed his Sikh cousins after their mother died. What could be more intimate? There were accounts, too, of friends and strangers transcending hate to save those of the “other” religion. One man told me that on the day a Muslim mob killed his father, his Muslim neighbour saved his sister and 30 other Sikh girls by sheltering them in his home.
Now, that generation wonder out loud 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? Does a favourite tree they climbed up still stand?
What I never imagined when I embarked on these interviews was that the legacy of partition in the UK could be so varied and complex. Trauma and fear can be passed down, even in silence. But so too can that lasting tie to the land that was left, even if no one returned. Sometimes that attachment is tangible. I have seen descendants who keep earth in a jar from Bangladesh on their fireplace, or who wear a pebble from Pakistan around their neck every day, or who cherish a saved heirloom from India – all places their forefathers left 75 years ago. These objects are often their only connection to that time and place. It is proof their family once existed in that land too, and it is meaningful to these young people today.
In all this 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 lived through it.
For some families, that has meant gaining a new understanding of the very word “partition” itself, and how their elderly relatives were affected. For others, it has been the realisation that the beginnings of their family story can be traced to another country entirely, across a border.
Many of those who contacted me to share their stories were third generation. They wanted to know their history beyond their ancestors who came here. They asked: “How do I question my relative about their past if the subject has never been broached before?” Others said: “I wish I had asked while my relatives were alive.” They must now find other ways to delve into their history. All around our country, these inheritors of partition are trying to piece together their family’s past: starting conversations with family members, visiting archives, educating themselves on their history, doing DNA tests and, in some cases, even returning to the land long fled.
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 tell them, ‘This is your home, forget about 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 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 in these isles in their millions today. Partition, the end of empire and the subsequent migration to the land of the former colonial ruler, could not be a more British story – one that everyone needs to know and learn about. Yet, it is not a compulsory part of the national curriculum in England. In Wales, Black, Asian and minority ethnic histories will become mandatory teachings from September.
As we approach the August anniversary, it is always bittersweet: joy at independence, but sadness at the loss suffered, which endures. A few days ago, I was emailed by a daughter to say her father, one of my interviewees, had died at the age of 92. A reminder that our link to this time is dwindling.
Seventy-five years on, in Britain we are all the inheritors of partition and empire. We must decide what to do with this inheritance; decide what is remembered and what is forgotten. The legacy will live on in ways we do not yet know. It happened long ago but, somehow, I feel we are only at the beginning of coming to terms with it – both within families, and in Britain.