'It was a massacre for me': South Asians in the UK reflect on 75 years since India's partition

Survivors of the partition. Gilli Salvat, Ramzana and Atiha Chaudry, Jaysica Marvell (left to right)
Survivors of the partition. Gilli Salvat, Ramzana and Atiha Chaudry, Jaysica Marvell (left to right)

by ITV's Multimedia Producer Khadija Kothia

On 15 August 1947, India was declared an independent nation after nearly 200 years of British colonial subjugation.

Less known was that the line drawn across the map that divided the subcontinent into two new nations, India and Pakistan, caused one of modern history's largest and most violent mass migrations.

As the two nations turn 75, ITV News spoke to multiple generations of South Asian women living in the UK about how their families remember partition.

Remembering partition Ramzana Chaudry was only eight years old when tensions broke out between religious communities living in Jalandar, her hometown in north-west India.

By June 1947, her entire Muslim-majority neighbourhood fled her hometown on foot, walking hundreds of miles in search of a new home across the Punjab border. She spent the next few months in refugee camps with little food and under military surveillance. It was at this time that she saw the first trains carrying hundreds of murdered civilians pass through the borders.

Coaches of a train stand atilt after a Muslim band derailed its engine and coaches, 1947. About 200 train occupants were slain in the attack Credit: AP

Nearly 2000 kilometres east of the border that split Punjab between India and Pakistan, five-year-old Gilli Salvat gleefully watched hundreds of Indian flags rising around Calcutta, east India, on independence day.

Her father, meanwhile, feared the worst of the violence.

By 1950 her family also fled the country on a boat travelling from Bombay to London.

“I saw tears in my dad’s eyes as the boat drifted away from the port" she says. "They knew they were never going to see their homeland again.”

A family of Muslim refugees huddle under a roughly constructed tent shelter in New Delhi, 1947 at a camp housing approx. 20,000 people Credit: AP

"Collective amnesia"

There has been a sort of “collective amnesia” about the violent events of 1947 across the subcontinent and British memory, Professor Sarah Ansari says, who specialises in teaching the history of partition at Royal Holloway, University of London.   "For people in India who were not happy at the partitioning of the country, the partition is a kind of bit of a shameful moment.

"For people in Pakistan, it's why their country came into being." For decades, Ramzana felt too traumatised to speak about the horrors she witnessed that day.

Jaysica, 46, grew up knowing little about her great grandparents, whose rich lives as academics and writers were torn apart when her Hindu family were forced to leave Karachi, which was placed on the side of Muslim-majority Pakistan. Not knowing about her family's history left Jaysica feeling "a constant state of displacement," she says. "As a young child living in New York or in Gibraltar, you definitely feel less sense of worth because you don't have that place in history."

Jaysica Marvell (mid) celebrating Independence Day in Gibraltar, 1987. She now has mixed feelings about the day after learning of partition

Restoring history

The questions new generations of Indians are asking their parents and elders about their history has become an integral part of preserving the everyday experiences of partition in history.

Capturing these testimonies has become even more important in recent years, with only the last generation of survivors remaining, says Professor Shruti Kapila, a lecturer of modern Indian history at the University of Cambridge.

But having more conversations about the partition has helped to break down the taboo about discussing the partition.

"The older people I was talking to were very traumatised and refused to talk about it until they saw other people sharing their stories," Ramzana's daughter Atiha Chaudry says.

"Then they came over to me and said, 'I want to share my story now'.

"I don't think it's been talked about in the open," she says. "That's the problem."

Finally hearing about her family's history in 1947 has also helped Atiha to find her life's work collecting oral testimonies of the partition.

"I would hope that some of this is going to encourage our next generations to talk to their grandparents and ask about their story."

Jaysica says her childhood would have been "very different" had she been aware of her family's past.

"If I'd had that (education) when I was younger I think things would have been very different for me," she says. "I think you would have had a sense of pride."

Ramzana Chaudry, 85, with her daughter, Atiha Chaudry. Ramzana was five when she was fled across the border in 1947 from India Credit: Atiha Chaudry

A very British history

But the history of partition is not "simply about South Asian immigrants," Professor Kapila says. "The story of empire is the story of modern Britain."

Jasvir Singh OBE, who co-founded the South Asia Heritage Month in 2017 agrees.

With one in every 20 people in the UK being of South Asian heritage, "this is really a British history, rather than the history of South Asia alone," Singh says.

But Gilli was shocked at how little the children at her school in London knew about India when she joined in the 1950s.

"They called me a 'Red Indian' and thought I came from America," she says. "The British had been in India for two hundred years, and these kids knew nothing about it."

Gilli Salvat, 80, who left India at age eight from her home-city Calcutta, close to the India-East Pakistan border Credit: Gilli Salvat

Even now, Professor Ansari blames the lack of discussion about partition on the absence of South Asian history in schools. "If we talked about South Asian history more, then inevitably partition would have come into play," she says.

South Asian grassroots organisations such as the South Asia Heritage Trust have aimed to fill in the gaps over the past few years. Numerous exhibitions and talks have been organised annually during South Asia Heritage Month which is running between 18 July and 17 August in 2022.

Commemorating the day Gilli, who grew up asking her father about the partition, says she feels "proud" of India's 75-year achievement but worries about the increasing marginalisation of Muslims and other religious minorities in India.

“There is a side to me that thinks it went downhill," she said.

She has spent the past few decades connecting with her heritage through working with the Bangladeshi immigrant community in East London, meeting old friends for Sunday lunch every few months at The Calcutta Club in London.

Now aged 80, Gilli and her partner sponsor Anglo-Indian children living in the Calcutta slums close to the hills her mother grew up in. “It’s my identification to my mother,” she says. Yet, Monday's anniversary won't be an easy day for many others in the UK whose families experienced partition. Independence day "was never a happy occasion" in Atiha's house growing up.

Having lost her parents so soon after migrating to Pakistan, her mother Ramzana still finds it "too hard" to think about partition often "because she starts getting flashes of what they saw at the time", she says.

"It's not a celebration. It's a sadness." Jaysica, whose family faced poverty, death and their citizenship after they left Karachi in the 1940s, says she has "really mixed feeling about it".

"Partition for my family was not a celebration. It was a massacre."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from 17th-century Red Fort on Independence Day in New Delhi, Monday, 2022 Credit: AP

Students of a school form a numeric 75 during preparations for Independence Day celebrations in Kolkata, India, Friday 12 August 2022 Credit: AP

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