By Aina J Khan and Thaslima Begum | The Guardian |
The story of India’s bloody partition in August 1947, that led to the deaths of at least 1 million Indians and the displacement of around 15 million, is a very British one. In what was to become the British Raj’s swan song after two centuries of colonial rule, Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge who had never visited colonial India before, was appointed in July 1947 to carve through the ancient land within weeks. The borders for two independent states were drawn on religious lines: Hindu-majority India, and Muslim-majority West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
In just a few months, thousands of years of cultural exchange and co-existence between India’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, nightmarishly unravelled into panic, then terror, with millions rushing for the hastily established new borders as violence erupted.
Seventy-five years after partition, the generation who lived through it are dying out. In Britain today, almost half of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities are from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian backgrounds, but few speak about the horrors they witnessed.
On a hot summer’s day in Stoke Newington, north London, Dabirul Choudhury, is sipping a cold glass of lemonade. “We believed in many things,” says the 102-year-old. “But partition wasn’t one of them.
“Our home in Sylhet was surrounded by orange orchards and the smell lingered in the air for miles around,” recalls Choudhury, a devout Muslim. Even today, the smell of oranges brings back sweet pre-partition memories. “We would often share such fruit among our Hindu neighbours, who we lived with peacefully, side by side.”
When the riots first began, Choudhury was in his 20s and had been studying literature at Murari Chand college. A lover of words, Choudhury feels the trouble that followed came down to a barrier in communication. “People suddenly stopped speaking to each other. Neighbours, friends – even strangers who would otherwise greet one another in the street,” says Choudhury. “This created an air of mistrust. Nobody really knew what everyone else was thinking.”
Choudhury’s older brother had started a grassroots movement to campaign against the break-up of India and made Choudhury attend protests with him. “There was always a big turnout: men and women, young and old, Hindu and Muslim, would march through Sylhet together in procession, shouting anti-partition slogans.”
After partition, Choudhury recalls empty classrooms. “Our college, the first in Sylhet, had been founded by a local Hindu nobleman and was attended by people from all walks of life,” says Choudhury. “It was heartbreaking to watch our Hindu brothers and sisters leave their home town, since most of them didn’t want to.”
For Sylhetis like Choudhury, the history of partition which mainly focuses on India and Pakistan, often overlooks their unique experiences. After partition, the north-east of India was transformed into a geographical oddity. A Muslim and Bengali-majority district in Assam province, Sylhet held a referendum after Assam announced it would join India and it remained part of Assam until it joined East Pakistan in 1947. “We didn’t have to migrate to be impacted by the 1947 partition,” says Choudhury. “Partition came to us – in several forms, over the course of several years.”
The creation of East Pakistan demonstrated just how difficult it was to translate the dream of a Muslim homeland in India into a geographical reality. More than 42% of Bengal’s non-Muslims found themselves in Pakistan, while a huge number of Bengal’s Muslims were forced to migrate eastwards. By 1948, it was estimated that 800,000 people from India had migrated to East Bengal, while 1 million people from East Bengal had migrated to India.
Divided by thousands of miles of Indian territory, East and West Pakistan shared an Islamic identity, but in language, ethnicity and culture, they were very different. Soon West Pakistan began imposing its language and political customs on the East. After a brutal crackdown on protesting Bengali students by the Pakistani army, guerrilla groups from the East began an open revolt against West Pakistan, culminating in the creation of an independent Bangladesh in 1971.
Choudhury moved to England with his wife in 1960, where they settled in St Albans with their three children. Last year, Choudhury was awarded an OBE for raising £420,000 for charity after walking laps in his garden while fasting during Ramadan. “Even after all this time, I wonder, was it worth it?” he asks. “It’s difficult to look back without horror at the savagery that took place during partition. But to move forward, we must do so with compassion. We are defined not by our borders but ultimately how we treat one another.”
Read the full story, ‘‘A Sikh soldier pulled me out of the rubble’: survivors recall India’s violent partition – and reflect on its legacy’ (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2022), here.
(Asia Samachar, x 2022)
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