What do you remember from your school history lessons; in fact, what were you taught about the partition of the sub-continent and the creation of India and Pakistan?
It is very much to the credit of Channel 4 and BBC Four that this 75th anniversary of partition has been brought to viewers' attention. A group of programmes have aired that tackle the hardcore history of this seismic event and also examine the effect it has had personally on British Indian and Pakistani families, now two further generations on from those who sought safety here, in a country that was actually responsible for much of their suffering.
During the week of 14 and 15 August – the days in 1947 when Pakistan and India became independent – and the following week, a two-part programme followed the time-line to independence, from the end of the Second World War, when Britain was forced to conclude that it could no longer hold on to India, not just because it had become a financial liability, but also because politically it was becoming impossible to govern.
India 1947: Partition in Colour
uses archive footage, recently brought to life very successfully in colour, plus documentation, read and discussed by a group of writers, historians and academics (most of whom have Indian or Pakistani heritage, and some whose British antecedents participated in the events). While occasionally the footage is repetitious, it graphically illustrates the written word – governmental minutes, letters, newspaper reportage – and turns history into living violence, because, ultimately, this is what partition will be remembered for, and what is its lasting heritage today: three countries, two with nuclear armaments, contested borders and a painful history. Over one million people were killed and 12-18 million were displaced during partition.
Channel 4 and BBC Four have made an attempt to explain to a television-watching public why it is that British Pakistani and British Indians as well as those from the former Bengal, now Bangladesh, belong here and are a part of our own heritage. Clement Attlee referred to the British handing over as 'freeing India', but the question really is, who tied it up in the first place? What the British wanted was out, but at the same time they wanted it to look good. However, it was a government that only had a short-term plan, its Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, had no expertise or knowledge of the country, and it faced two divergent views: that of the Muslims, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the Hindus – with Sikhs and others – led by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Partition in Colour
is a history lesson, but not as taught in English schools. It is kept lively, and, indeed, even shocking, as the roles of Britain and Mountbatten are revealed through diaries and letters that read as if written home from a public school, where those who are not socially acceptable come in for ridicule, such as Jinnah being referred as 'a clot'. Arrogance and outrageous deception had an enormous effect. As the professor of Indian history at Cambridge, Shruti Kapila, comments, 'divide and rule' had for so long been the policy that the violent results were inevitable.
What received much praise and publicity are the emotional, resonant words spoken by Nehru on the eve of independence: 'At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom'. The trouble was, the British had not yet decided on the boundaries between the two countries, leaving hundreds of thousands of frightened people on both sides of the borders (with Bengal separated by 1,000 miles to the east as well) uncertain of where they belonged. Confusion and fear reigned and turned into terror. To flee, or remain on ancestral land and be killed? What kind of sovereignty was this, for whose benefit was this half-baked plan conceived?
Those who remember these times, like those whose families were annihilated in other wars, did not want to talk about their experience with their children, once they had safely rebuilt their lives in Britain, but their grandchildren are starting to ask about their own ancestry.
My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947
takes the story of partition into a personal dimension, as the third generation of Indian and Pakistani origin young approach their grandparents, and take on voyages of discovery, sometimes alone, sometimes with an elderly relative, to find out about the country, town, village or even house that once belonged to their family. The television presenter Anita Rani, who explains that Who Do You Think You Are?
had an impact on her personally, skilfully integrates these stories of British-born young men and women who are researching their own roots on both sides of the border.
Yes, it is emotional at times – how could it not be – but it is also curiously without rancour. Perhaps now it is distant enough to have echoes of the times before partition when Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others actually lived together amicably. Stories of generosity, bravery and human kindness abound, making this, as one would expect, very moving.
Treasures of the Indus
looks at 5,000 years of artistic history, following the Indus River across its plains from source to the sea, led by Sona Datta, the well-known historian, writer and television presenter. This series reinforces the sense of identity for all those whose origins are traced to the sub-continent, whether today's Pakistan, Bangladesh or India. At one time, it seems to have been a more equal culture, with powerful women and a spirituality that spread around the world.
Datta explains that over time the Indus became 'India', almost creating a myth, a view or an idea of what 'India' was. It became a centre of learning, of culture and the arts, important to the trade routes. Invaders, Greeks, Mughals, and, ultimately, the British, all left their mark. A simplistic view of 'India', as perhaps skated over in the curriculum today, does a disservice to those with ancestral connections and deprives the rest of us from knowing how intertwined are our histories.
Fortunately, we in Britain currently have the talents of such artists as Osman Yousefzada on show, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. His work is, to say the least, multi-disciplinary, and was commissioned as a response to the 75th anniversary of India's and Pakistan's independence. He draws on Indian and Pakistani and other South Asian history and culture for inspiration, and in doing so in this very eminent public institution – open to all to appreciate – his work becomes a part of our own contemporary culture.