August 15, 1947: A date that many Indians view as the birth of a democracy, a reinstatement of human rights, and the end of a 200-year struggle for independence. Many in the world see this date as the end of a revolution that resulted in the birth of two independent nations-Pakistan and India. However, silenced by the sound of firecrackers lit in celebration on this day are the screams of the millions of people uprooted from their homes, murdered, and sexually assaulted in the Partition of India-one of the great forgotten tragedies of the 20th century, which carries pain that endures 74 years later in the hearts of many Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Kashmiris. This causes one to wonder: How did a hastily drawn border result in an incident that took the lives of over 3 million people and start conflicts that continue to persist today?
History of the Partition
Partition is known by many as a mark in the creation of India and Pakistan. When WWII ended, the British were left with little resources to control their biggest colonial power, India. This resulted in the British having to make a hasty and messy exit out of the region. The British government sent Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had no previous knowledge of the area’s cultural background, to make the final decision on what was to be done with South Asia. He decided to split the north-eastern Indian region of Bengal in half along religious lines into East and West Bengal. Muslim-majority East Bengal initially formed part of Pakistan but later became Bangladesh. In the northwest of India, Punjab was divided, with half of it becoming Pakistan and the other remaining in India. After this division of the land took place, one of the greatest migrations in human history began. Millions of Muslims went to West and East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, many of these people never made it to their destination. Across the subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for thousands of years attacked each other in a harrowing outbreak of violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. In Punjab and Bengal, there were countless accounts of massacres, forced conversions, mass abductions, and sexual violence. By 1948, as the migration died down, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. One hastily drawn line led to the destruction of the lives of millions and the obliteration of years of intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture.
Impacts of the Partition
A large amount of the conflict in present day Kashmir, Punjab, Bangladesh, East India, Gujarat, and other areas finds roots in the bloodshed of August 1947. Kashmir was a princely state during the partition and even up to this day has not been given independence–instead it has been divided between India and Pakistan for years. Punjab, one of the wealthiest areas before partition, faced an economic decline due to its proximity to the border. A large amount of Punjab’s history and culture were lost through a series of land ruptures that took away the identity of the land and its people. Bangladesh also went through a series of land disputes, first becoming part of East Pakistan and then fighting for independence in 1971. On the other side of the border, many groups in Pakistan such as Ahmadis, Hindus, and Sikhs still face persecution as minorities in the area–a direct effect of the partition. These are only a few examples of the many marginalized groups in the Indian subcontinent that still do not get to experience the azadi (freedom) that they fought for 73 years ago.
The Significance of Partition: 73 years later
August 14th and 15th are dates that weigh heavy on the hearts and minds of every South Asian. The batwara (partition) symbolizes the breaking of families, peoples, communities, and memories and is deeply rooted in these two dates. Many descendants of the Partition carry the pain of batwara deep within them, often finding it difficult to celebrate “independence.” These individuals view these dates as a marker of mutual genocide and a rupture of land that has led to years of intergenerational trauma.
This trauma is engrossed within the body of every descendant of the partition and therefore makes it extremely difficult for these individuals to dismiss the price they paid for freedom. It is crucial to acknowledge that under the weight of these borders, hundreds of families, whose stories are yet to be told, have been suppressed into the soil of a land which was once theirs.
As I reflect on the weight of this day, I think of the perspective raised by Asif Noorani Sahib. He wrote about how he stood at the Radcliffe Line on the border of Pakistan and India and watched the birds fly from one side to the other, observing how no border existed in the sky. As he watched he thought to himself, “What nationality is this natural world?”
This Independence Day, it is vital for communities around the world to remember the history of how this began, how far we have come, and how far we have to go to ensure that the voices of the partition are no longer muffled and the fight for independence continues.
Ishreet is a rising senior at Terre Haute South Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Indiana. In her last three years working with STAND, she has helped educate women through Women For Women International and has also worked closely with Destiny Rescue in efforts to help rescue children trapped in prostitution and slavery. Ishreet also has worked to educate her community on various societal issues such as Islamaphobia by hosting workshops through the local CANDLES Holocaust Museum. In addition to working with STAND, she has also helped to organize events with Together We Remember to memorialize victims of identity based violence in her community. Ishreet will be working with STAND in the 2020-2021 school year as the Kashmir Action Committee lead in efforts to raise awareness of the conflicts surrounding the area and achieve STAND’s goal of being a voice for the people of Kashmir.