This summer marks 70 years since the Independence of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the Partition of Punjab and Bengal. These three distinct events, bundled up as they often are as being a single experience, was a tumultuous time for the subcontinent. The region was finally free from imperial rule for the first time in centuries. It was a time of great joy and celebration for many, as well as a vindication of the countless freedom movements which had fought for that very cause. However, such freedom came at an immense cost.
Map of British India in 1909
In the months following August 1947, the largest mass migration in recorded history took place. Around 14 million people from across the subcontinent were displaced simply because of their religious heritage and identity. Muslims who had lived peacefully throughout the region for generations now found themselves fleeing to the newly created state of Pakistan, whilst Hindus and Sikhs on the 'wrong' side of the border were seeking to escape to India. The handover of power from the British to the two new nations was marked by widespread violence, with over 1 million people being killed in inter-communal violence during that summer.
There were also extensive levels of gender-based violence directed at women in all of the communities. During the chaos of Partition, between 50,000 and 75,000 women were systematically abducted and raped by gangs of men from other faith backgrounds. Some men were so concerned about preserving the so-called 'sanctity and honour' of their own communities that they took to murdering their own female relatives rather than see them 'defiled' by others.
The pain and tragedy of this period of history cannot be underestimated. Its impact can still be felt within the South Asian community in contemporary Britain, especially as the wounds of Partition have not yet healed. And yet the relations between the various faith communities had been impressively strong before 1947.
Prior to Partition, the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities had strong interfaith relations, through family relationships, as neighbours, and with places of worship being built side-by-side for the different faiths. There has also been a strong history of benefactors and philanthropists of one faith making donations of money and land to places of worship belonging to other faiths. Cultural and religious festivals were often celebrated by the three main communities in unison, as well as by local members of the smaller faiths. Interfaith cooperation in the subcontinent pre-Partition is not often spoken of, and yet its history is rich with testimonies and accounts.
Badshahi Mosque and Gurdwara Dehra Sahib in Lahore, Punjab
Regional and local identity was always far more important to the people of the subcontinent than anything based on their faiths. In Punjab, for example, many Muslims and Hindus would mark Guru Nanak's birthday by visiting gurdwaras, and Hindus and Sikhs would join in with the Eid celebrations by sharing sweets with their Muslim neighbours. They had come to be seen as pan-Punjabi festivals.
Several other faith communities were also affected by the repercussions of the summer of 1947, including the Zoroastrian, Jain, Bahai, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian communities. Given the fact that Partition is rarely spoken about in an open and frank manner, it's hardly surprising that the stories of minority faiths are quite often overlooked when it comes to this chapter in history.
In the UK, there are approximately 4 million people of South Asian heritage. Each of them can trace their origins back to the subcontinent, and each are likely to have accounts about what happened to their close family, relatives or perhaps even themselves 70 years ago. However, the historical unity between the various communities is largely absent in modern day Britain.
The Grand Trunk Project is an attempt to build a bridge between the various communities and encourage better dialogue amongst them, as well as create and foster long-term sustainable relationships between the respective communities at a local level.
This year's specific project is called #70YearsOn, and its aim is to commemorate the events of 1947 in a way which both celebrates independence of the two nations (Bangladesh did not gain independent statehood from Pakistan until 1971) and acknowledges the displacement and tragedy of those who were killed whilst making their ways over the border, as well as recognising the long history of strong social cohesion between the communities prior to Partition.
#70YearsOn is currently organising local events in 11 areas across the country which will include national events in London. It is empowering local communities to develop their own commemorations which reflect the wishes and feelings of local stakeholders from the three main communities.
The divisions that were caused by Partition are still very raw today, and it continues to have an impact upon how people from the various communities view one other, particularly in contemporary British society. For them, the questions of identity are still based upon the lines which were drawn up on a map of British India by a civil servant of the Empire acting almost in total isolation in 1947.
Given the circumstances, it is understandable why some of those divisions remain deep seated. However, it is by acknowledging the pain of that period of history collectively, by recognising the shared heritage of the communities, and by celebrating the differences between them that we can ultimately start to heal the wounds inflicted 70 years ago.
[Taken from speech at launch of the Grand Trunk Project on 4th July 2017 at Guildhall in the City of London]