Why Has the Partition of India Been Historical Taboo For So Long? | History Hit

Why Has the Partition of India Been Historical Taboo For So Long?

History Hit Podcast with Anita Rani

17 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on History Hit TV.

Dan Snow and Anita discuss her family's heartrending experience living through Indian Partition.
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The Partition of India in 1947 and the violence that came from it is talked about, but not in any great depth. It involved a division of India, specifically the Punjab and Bengal regions, into India and Pakistan, along primarily religious lines.

It saw Muslims granted their own state in Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs residing in Pakistan were forced to leave.

I think I can speak on behalf of the majority of South Asian families who are from the areas that Partition most affected when I say that it’s such a stain on their history that people just don’t talk about it.

There’s an entire generation of people who are, sadly, dying and they have just never spoken about what happened during Partition because it was so brutal.

When I discovered through the Who Do You Think You Are? television programme some of the things that survivors went through, it surprised me less and less that they don’t talk about it.

Those things were simply not discussed. So I was always aware of it, but nobody sat around and talked about it.

Missing documents

Emergency trains crowded with desperate refugees during Partition. Credit: Sridharbsbu / Commons

At a far more banal level, there simply isn’t the same level of documentation on the tragedy as there is on other tragedies. But there is also a tragedy with stories that aren’t from the Western world where there aren’t documents and things don’t tend to be recorded in the same way.

There’s a lot of oral history, but there aren’t as many official files, and what official files do exist often remain classified.

The only reason that we were able to discover so much about my grandfather on Who Do You Think You Are? is because my grandfather was in the British-Indian Army.

2017 was the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the Indian Raj which caused such an epidemic of bloodshed. Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at Oxford University, and author of 'The Great Partition' draws on her research and family recollections to deliver the powerful story of partition.
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That meant there was documentation about where he lived and who he was and details about his family. Otherwise, some things were recorded, but it was really those British Army documents that put the puzzle together and allowed me to find out exactly where his family were at the time of Partition.

Once I’d done the programme, what both struck me and saddened me was how many British-Asian kids were getting in touch to say they had no idea; that they might have “vaguely heard Granny say something”, but that they really didn’t know anything about it.

Or they would say they knew their family had endured Partition, but that nobody had spoken about it. It feels like there was a shroud put over what had taken place and that nobody was allowed to talk about it.

Generational divides

You can see it with my mother. She was really overwhelmed by visiting the house where my grandfather lived, and meeting this guy who knew my grandfather.

My mum’s way of coping with what happened means that she doesn’t have as many questions about Partition and has never had as many questions as me. So while I was able to stand in the house where my grandfather’s first family were killed, I really don’t think my mum could have coped with hearing and seeing that level of detail.

In this episode, Dan talks to David Gilmour about the British in India. David Gilmour's new book is a vast exploration of the social history of India. David Gilmour is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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I think it’s a generational thing. That generation are a very stoic generation. It’s the same generation that lived through World War Two. She grew up in India in the 1960s and they didn’t even study Partition in school. For her, all she wanted to know about was her Dad. But for me, it was really important to know the rest.

The reason that the Who Do You Think You Are? programme and things like this podcast are so important, is because nobody has spoken about it.

For the people of that region, it’s our Holocaust.

It’s the stain on the history of India, of Pakistan, of Britain, and in the same moment that all of this horror and murder and chaos was taking place, people were celebrating the birth of a nation, and the independence of another.You end up with a response to the bloodshed that is almost like a collective silence.

How do you begin to confront what you’ve witnessed when it’s something so horrible? How do you start to even begin? Where do you begin to talk about it? I think it does take a generation or two, doesn’t it?

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History Hit Podcast with Anita Rani