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Reading Room: Partition Voices

17 Oct 2019
Reviewed by Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur FAIIA

Partition Voices accounts for the survivors of mass atrocities that took place during India’s partition. Their voices are not just apart of South Asian History, but also British history. 

This is an important, interesting and elegantly written book. “It is no crime to be a refugee,” says one of the persons interviewed for the book. The story of refugees is the story of transience, fragility, rootlessness and impermanence. With refugees turned migrants, doubly so. For the children of refugee-turned migrants, their past ancestral land now lies in “enemy” territory.

Partition Voices grew out of a BBC Radio 4 program, hosted by Puri, to mark the 70th anniversary of the British departure from the subcontinent. Puri interviewed survivors of the mass atrocities attending partitioned independence. Just 8,000 Indians lived in Britain on partition’s eve. By 1951 South Asians had increased to 43,000 and today there are three million. Back home the differences were deep enough to kill and be killed. In Britain they were all “Asians” and fought together for workers’ rights and against both serious and casual racism. 

The 23 chapters tell the story of one person or family each who witnessed and were scarred by the trauma at a tender age. The book is deeply personal. Many who had left ancestral villages and homes amidst the barbaric savagery in which up to one million were killed, reopened old wounds and painful memories for the first time. Often the stories, while cathartic for the authors, were eye-openers for children, grandchildren and colleagues. Yet the book is also universal in the themes of loss, dispossession and re-rooting in distant foreign lands and cultures and, in the face of shared adversity and common adversaries in the new home, bonding together. 

It’s important because, through the human stories, it makes a substantial argument to telling effect: “This is part of British history – not niche British South Asian history.” Born as subjects of the Raj, their lives torn apart by the division of India, they died as citizens of the United Kingdom. It’s interesting because of the humanity (and inhumanity) involved, the lack of emotional-cum-intellectual closure on that painful chapter in British and Indian history, the diversity in the shared story in which different communities are connected by numerous threads, and the triumph of the human spirit often against all the odds. The affection of many British who lived in India under the Raj is a revelation: the fleeing migrants were not the only ones to suffer loss of familiar homelands. It is important and interesting also because it documents for the record how for centuries, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived peacefully and harmoniously next to one another. This is exactly what made them vulnerable when inter-communal relations were shattered into a million shards.

There are glimpses of poignancy in people who went back to touch their ‘mother soil’ to their foreheads to re-connect with the land of their ancestors, or even just to sight once again a fondly remembered tree of childhood climbing years. A Muslim man forced to flee India spends but four years in Pakistan before moving to England. Along with England, India is still home to him because, with his own and grandfather’s birth there and his mum and dad buried there, “India was mine as well”: as heartbreaking a line for me as any in the book. The centrepiece in the Edinburgh drawing room of a Hindu man in his mid-70s is a brick from his ancestral home in Pakistan, retrieved during a relatively recent visit as a tangible memento of childhood memories from an innocent age. He is lucky to be alive. Fleeing their home for India, his eldest brother was unable to board the train so the whole family got off and took a later train. Everyone in the first train was butchered.

The most painful chapter is that dealing with the atrocities against women. An estimated 75,000, mostly women and children, were kidnapped, raped and abducted. Women’s bodies became part of the battleground over which men from the two new nations fought to violate and establish control over the “Other.” Breasts were chopped and sometimes tattooed with religious or nationalist symbols. Conversely, to protect the honour of the individual, family and community, 90 women jumped into a well to escape invading mobs; some survived because there was not enough water to drown them all. Another 25 women aged 10-40 were beheaded by their own family members, mute and unprotesting so that the only sound was the swish and cut of the sword as the blade rose and fell. How does a little boy deal with the memory of seeing his young sister die and her decapitated head roll off?

Leavening the inhumanity, there are also glimpses of grace under duress. Seventy years later, despite still-raw memories, many are keen to recall incidents of kindness, courage and humanity amidst the carnage and the terror. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived together for centuries as a community bound by shared language, culture and customs. Families exchanged sweets on one another’s religious festivals and weddings. The bonds were so strong that when the murderous riots started, villagers banded together to protect those of the minority faith amongst them from marauding gangs of rapists and killers. An elderly Sikh man took a heavily-pregnant Muslim woman under his shelter so the rest of her family could flee to safety. When young men demanded she be handed over, he rebuked them, saying as his guest she was his daughter. He delivered her safely back to her family at the border.

Karam Singh Hamdard was born and grew up in a village in Indian Punjab. On 3 September 1947, just 19 days after partition, a large gang of armed Muslims raided the village and massacred as many as they could. A Muslim neighbour who they considered a friend informed the crowd that Hamdard’s injured mother was trapped in a house; they should set it on fire. She managed to jump out a window and was found safe. His father was shot dead and his last words to his son were: “God bless you.” A sister was one of 30-40 women given shelter by a Muslim neighbour who hid them from the marauding mob. Hamdard himself was stabbed unconscious with a poison-tipped spear and was lucky to survive. He still finds the events of that day incomprehensible.

Gurbaksh Garcha was a 12-year boy at the time. He recalls a gang of Sikhs armed with swords and spears approaching his grandfather as he worked the fertile fields of Punjab, inquiring after Muslim labourers. His strapping grandfather ticked them off: ‘They are my children. They have been working with me since they were little boys. You will have to kill me before you touch them. If you touch me, the whole village will be here and you won’t escape’. The village was right alongside the main railway line from Delhi to Lahore and soon they became familiar with the ghost trains carrying their gruesome load of slaughtered bodies in both directions, each fresh trainload creating a new frenzy of revenge killings. A year later Gurbaksh and his grandfather discovered lush growth near the railway tracks in patches that had been fertilised with the blood and bones of the dead from the trains.

There are moments of tenderness. Clearing her late mother’s room in 2009, a daughter finds handwritten notes from the 1980s. Only then does she discover her parents were originally from Pakistan, not India. Her mum, a closet poet, had written of sleeping under the stars on an open roof in Pakistan on her wedding night, and waking up the next morning to be told to pack quickly, they are escaping to India. There is a lovely poem of that night and morning, as delicate as the fine latticework you find in the Taj Mahal. Encountering racism experienced as the Other, as a child the daughter would stand before a mirror and wonder if she was different because she had come from outer space. As a clinical student one of her first tasks is to sew a skinhead’s skull cut open in a razor attack. She wryly notes the difference in his attitude to her before and after surgery.

There is the occasional unexpected snippet of humour. In a photo taken in the late 1980s, writes Puri, the mother “looks youthful and content (she had just eaten a particularly juicy mango).” When Puri’s dad first came to England, shocked by the cold grey weather of Middlesbrough, he wrote home: “I see the sun never rises on the British empire.”  

Having seen children torn from their mother’s lap and killed, with mothers being murdered only after this outrage against humanity, Puri’s dad chooses inclusion over hate as his final decision. At his request, his funeral was conducted according to Hindu rites, followed by readings from Sikh, Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy books. These are the green shoots of optimism for nourishing faith in humanity’s future.

Ramesh Thakur FAIIA, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, is emeritus professor of the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.