The legacy of Partition in the subcontinent: where do we stand now?
Illustration Credit: Leo Ioviero

The Indian subcontinent: South Asian countries, rich in history and culture. Once united and now divided by a line on a map and a border fashioned by a man who had never stepped foot in the Indian subcontinent. Even those with no link will have heard of the alarming headlines referencing long running conflicts. But what is the true legacy of colonialism?

The history of India goes back several thousands of years, but key conflict which led to eventual divide didn’t begin until the Colonial Era, coming to a head in the 30 years leading up to Partition in 1947. There had always been unspoken tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, but fights, massacres and retaliation became exacerbated during this period. An approximate half a million people were murdered during these uproars and a further one million were made homeless as a result of Partition. Amongst a sea of political and social complexity, India’s campaign for freedom ran during World War II, and came at a time of immense political pressure for the British Empire. Put simply, India’s plight for independence forced Britain’s hand when they were stretched their thinnest. Thus, the Indian leaders and Clement Attlee, British prime minister, agreed to split the subcontinent, fuelled by the Muslim League’s opposition to a Hindu-dominated government after independence.  

The concept of a separate Muslim state was introduced in 1933 by Choudhry Rahmat Ali as a student. The letters in ‘Pakistan’ symbolize Punjab, the Afghanis in the north-west frontier, Kashmir, Sindh and Balochistan and mean the land of the pure in Urdu. Dividing Muslims from Sikhs and Hindus seemed the best solution for everyone, bringing civil violence to a halt.

Partition showed the world the largest human mass migration in history as 15 million people moved and settled into their new homelands. It was a time of change, aspiration and hope for the future. Being made independent from the British Empire after years of protest and a new home surrounded by those who shared their religious beliefs not only created a feeling of safety, but also one of ecstasy. People felt they were liberated and could once again live serenely, side by side with new neighbours. But, as is a trend across ex-colonies, the after effects would haunt people for a lifetime.

Britain had made their bed and left the subcontinent to suffer in it.

At the time of Partition, many people ended up on the wrong side of the border, further complicating an already chaotic situation. They were rejected from their homes if they belonged to ‘the other side’, forcing them to travel as quickly as possible, while avoiding those who actively stood against them. The frequency of this resulted in a ‘second migration’, with migrants wanting security, certainty and to be reunited with their loved ones, who they had been separated from against their wishes. It is estimated that one million people died during the migration due to lack of resources, little support from those in power and even more shocking massacres. For all intents and purposes, Britain had made their bed and left the subcontinent to suffer in it.

Women were pushed out of their traditional roles when migrating, receiving those who had migrated and some of them had no option but to work outside of their homes for the first time in their lives in order to support their families. There are many accounts of the horrific treatment some women were forced to undergo. They were often treated like objects, abducted and sold into a foreign world and several of them suffered from traumatizing sexual mistreatment. Some were never reunited with their families.

Those who were lucky enough to successfully migrate were faced with a different set of problems. Leaving their homes meant leaving any property and larger goods, including houses, shops and livestock. Families and individuals would have to restart, find a new home and work. The process was lengthy and pushed many people into a state of unemployment and poverty. It seemed that the countries’ progress was going the wrong way and central as to why it was initially difficult for them to advance and develop.

Despite the Partition in 1947, the two countries weren’t at rest as the ruler of Kashmir was undecided about which side of the divide it would land on. By October 1947, it was decided that Kashmir would be part of India, heavily influenced by the leader at the time. This decision caused much unrest for the Muslim-majority of Kashmir, unrest that has lasted to the modern day.

In recent years, we’ve seen the people of Kashmir slowly become trapped and cut off from the outside world through social media and the news

Both countries have had continual conflict over the question of Kashmir. Pakistan believes that as a Muslim dominated region, it is part of their territory, whereas India believes that all of Kashmir is rightfully theirs due to the decision of the Maharaja of Kashmir in 1947. An often overlooked voice, Kashmir wishes to exist as a united, independent area. Kashmir currently exists in two parts: one which is a part of Pakistan but is self-governed and the part which is operated by India, the area mainly mentioned in the news. 

In recent years, we’ve seen the people of Kashmir slowly become trapped and cut off from the outside world through social media and the news. At the United Nations human rights body session, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, described it as “turned into the largest prison”, claiming people were being denied basic rights. The political tension between the countries continued to develop during the fight for Kashmir’s freedom.

In 2019, three photographers from Kashmir were awarded the Pulitzer Prize “for their striking images of life in the contested territory of Kashmir as India revoked its independence, executed through a communications blackout”, as said by the Pulitzer Prize board. The image of Kashmir depicted by the photographers and the Pulitzer Prize board is only one aspect of the colonial impacts of Britain. At the time of Partition, Atlee formed a policy which stated that “Kashmir is a dispute to be resolved under the UN resolution and they do not accept the accession of Jammu and Kashmir into India as legal and final”. In short, because of this policy, the issue over Kashmir remains unresolved in the eyes of Britain to this day.

Now, Independence Day is a day of reflection on the blood, sweat and tears of the Partition. It is also a day celebrating the developments and progression both countries have made. Despite celebrating a day apart, the euphoric feeling is the same. 

So what’s the tension like today? The truth is it’s different in every society, some choose to embrace change and diversity around them but it is just as common for there to be feelings of old resent and ‘partition-like’ communities. As part of the next generation, I believe it’s our duty to let go of years-old bitterness whilst commemorating the past.

As a Pakistani who grew up in Britain, I was fortunate enough to not directly be impacted by the long and short-term effects of the Partition so I never really knew about any of the events until I took it upon myself to research about it and ask my family. But why was this necessary? Surely, as a fundamental part of Colonial history with many families migrating to Britain as part of the Commonwealth, it should be studied as part of the core history curriculum at school. However, this is not the case and I question why it isn’t.

British imperialism damaged the country, particularly in the long term, in countless ways. It is accountable for a loss of culture and identity, as the movement of European influence impacted the tradition and language. The Indian subcontinent continues to recover their unique identity, lost in change. 

In many ways, the country was also economically ransacked, which has affected its representation and state for generations. The wealth and history was looted when the beautiful artefacts and pieces of India supposedly became property of the British Empire and even after independence, their stolen fortune wasn’t returned. To this day, it sits in our museums for the country to see instead of in its home country for its true owners to admire and treasure.

Perhaps the destructive history of Britain prevents them from opening the eyes of their new generations to a vital aspect of their past. Does the British education system give us no other choice but to see people of colour only one way; the way in which they’re presented in the rather selective history curriculum?

History doesn’t disappear and we should learn from it to prevent it from happening again. Even if certain events are commonly ignored, I urge each reader to take initiative and expand their horizons of history beyond Europe and appreciate each success, each victory, each flaw and each error made by every country. 

Impacts of colonialism still rest uneasily in the culture and daily life of South Asians and have confused some of us even years after. In the eyes of Western countries, South Asians are cheap labour to be exploited for their benefit.

A clear example of this is fast fashion. International clothing brands provide an endless range of clothing at unbelievably low prices. How? By underpaying and overworking their employees. H&M, a fast fashion giant, was found to be guilty of child labour in Bangladesh by only paying them 15 cents an hour, which is less than half of the minimum wage. Colonialism is supposed to be over, but when South Asians are practically slaves, working day and night for the fast fashion industry, is it really?

The rich variety of languages in the subcontinent are beautiful, yet it is more impressive and ‘better for the future’ to fluently speak languages of the Western World. In recent years, speaking the  native language better than we speak English has become an aspect which is looked down upon by society and this discrimination discourages the youth from embracing their heritage.

The colonial legacy of Partition colours almost every aspect of life for those living in the subcontinent and we can no longer ignore its effects.