I started this blog after an increased interest in my family history. I wanted to write something a bit different to the ‘how to’ family history blogs. Lately my posts have taken a different turn, according to how I have been feeling about the world in general. However, my own family history is particularly relevant at the moment. And in a far more direct way than usual. It is seventy years this week since Partition in India.
This anniversary has led to a flurry of articles and documentaries, many of which are making use of testimony from the dwindling number of eye witnesses. These testimonies have attested to the previous reluctance to discuss what happened during Partition. But over a million people died and at least fifteen million were displaced. Due to arbitrary lines drawn on maps by the escaping British.
My own paternal family were (are) Anglo-Indian, as mentioned on previous posts. Their community existed on the fringes of ‘real’ British society. Mostly Christian, mostly European-dressed but not white, they had developed their own way of life. (The photo, which has appeared on this blog before, is of my grandmother - in white - at school.) Their numbers were substantial at this point. A distant relation of mine, Sir Henry Gidney, had even managed to represent them at the independence negotiations in the Thirties.
But when Independence actually came and Partition happened, the British had little sense of what was about to be unleashed. The terror, the violence, the frantic movement of millions of people.
Anglo-Indians were endangered by their positions as ‘assistants’ to the British. But on a day to day basis, they were endangered simply by having to live in a country where random and terrible violence could break out at any time. Watch some of the documentaries currently on iPlayer and you get a glimpse of hell.
Some of my family left almost immediately. My grandfather stuck it out until 1949, two years after Partition. But then he upped sticks and took flight remarkably quickly. He, my grandmother, her mother and brother and my father were all on a ship within days of being caught in a riot, by all accounts. Presumably, in waiting, he had had the relative luxury, not afforded to so many, of being able to plan a little as regards money. They were not supposed to take much out of the country. I don't know if he planned the destination but since his sister-in-law was already in the UK, it seems there was a choice not to join his own parents and siblings in New Zealand.
Since my father subsequently married an English girl, I clearly have reason to be grateful for this move. Who would wish themselves from existence after all? But in reading the many accounts being published at the moment, I can see that my family were terribly fortunate in many ways. Although I am sure, in leaving everything they had ever known, it didn’t feel that way. Their lives in India were comfortable and their position was one of relative privilege in some ways, despite the discrimination and resentment against them.
Partition is a word which has been used thoughtlessly for seventy years now. It makes it sound like it was a kind of natural phenomenon that a country was summarily split by civil servants. And as the current wave of comment is finally admitting, the event is still not given the notice or importance that should be attached to it. Younger generations are barely aware - if at all - that Pakistan is only seventy years old. You could wonder, for example, how much the arbitrary agreement to Muslim state in India has contributed ever since to the ideas of Caliphate which fuel Islamic extremists. If it could happen there, why not elsewhere? State sponsored religious sectarianism, anyone?
I hope you will take the time to read or watch some of the anniversary pieces. And take a moment to explain it to your children. Independence was long overdue but its accomplishment was an appalling example of the kind of governmental arrogance and gung ho which still exists in our world today. The actions of these ‘players’ reverberate amongst ordinary people for generations. Just ask those desperate people still trying to escape across the Mediterranean.