The Partition of India: on fearing the word ‘independence’

Manvir, our brilliant Arts and Culture editor, unpacks the deadly legacy of the partition of the Indian subcontinent…

Independence in India is also known as Partition. Seeing as “divide and rule” was a key British colonial technique, this is possibly the biggest irony of Indian Independence. 

Freedom doesn’t come overnight, and this is quite an obvious fact. This is exactly why the phrase “colonial legacy” exists. However, when you then see people deny the very existence of this concept, it makes one question whether the word “independence” carries with it a false reality of freedom? Does it really provide independence for the former-colony or relinquish moral obligations for the coloniser? The fact that the new border was announced the day after Independence is telling of British desire to not take this burden upon themselves.

The reality of what came overnight was a newly devised border turning one country into two (and eventually three with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971). The man who drew the border, Cyril Radclilffe, had never been to the country before and was given 5 weeks to draw a line. 

Families were forced to uproot their livelihoods in the biggest exodus of its time, as roughly 6.5 million Muslims relocated from India to West Pakistan, and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs went from West Pakistan to India as religious and political tensions were exploited and heightened. 

In the wake of such aggravations, between 200,000 to 2 million people were killed in religious violence. In Punjab, a region divided into two by the new border and where my family happen to come from, no Muslim survived on the Indian side of the border, nor any Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistani territory.  

With this information, independence doesn’t seem as promising as it does on paper, and my concern is that it leaves the independent nation in a rut of problems created by colonialism which can only be redeemed by the oppressor themselves. Independence should not mean that the former colony should stop caring, it should be a declaration of reflection and reparation on both sides. 

It has now been 73 years since Independence was declared, and it is no coincidence that the country my family migrated to was our former coloniser’s. Whether this is colonial legacy in the form of reparation or simply need for a workforce in the ‘60s is a blurred question, but this does not mean that Partition tensions were left behind in India. 

If we take Birmingham, my home town, as a case study: it has the largest South Asian population outside of London. However, within this South Asian population religious and national tensions still exist between the Indian and Pakistani community.  Just a few days ago on Pakistan’s 74th Independence Day, a major face off happened outside of the Consul General of India in Birmingham between pro-Pakistani and pro-Kashmiri groups over the dispute of Kashmir. 

The conflict surrounding Kashmir has been widely heated since Partition, with a war between India and Pakistan over the region taking place as early as 1948. However after the 1948 ceasefire, a UN referendum failed to be conducted and there have since been two more wars between the two countries over the region in both 1965 and 1999. 

On a personal level, religious tension exacerbated by Partition has always been apparent. I remember a trip in primary school to a local Mosque which many Sikh and Hindu children did not participate in. Likewise, a few years later at the start of secondary school I just so happened to become best friends with a Muslim, which certainly inspired some backhanded comments about our religious divide. And while the very existence of our friendship is a lovely “screw you” to that very division, the weariness that came with such friendship still demonstrates the strong distrust between the two communities.

Likewise on a cultural level, the intended insult “Paki” (reference: Bend it like Beckham) is a harsh racial slur that not only highlights the Western war waged on Islam, but also goes in line with Indian religious prejudices against Pakistan, and is a convenient way of staging the Indian diaspora as the “good immigrant”. The phrase itself demonstrates the approval still sought from the ex-coloniser, and in doing so we loop ourselves right back to colonial legacy. 

The point of this article is not exclusive to India. The very meaning of independence should be questioned in every context with any issue, ranging from colonialism to feminism.

Independence is a double-edged sword: with that comes a fear that the symbolism of the word itself means more than the action that comes with it. This is not to say that independence does not mean opportunity for change, but that it should just as equally focus on precaution in order to fully materialise such a powerful word. And if we cannot do that, then the word is meaningless.

Manvir Dobb, Arts and Culture Editor

image sourced from Wikipedia