Uprooted by partition: ‘I feel I don’t belong in England. I’m a very proud Punjabi’

Impact of ‘traumatic period’ still lingers with those now based in UK – and their families – 75 years on

After living in Britain for nearly half a century, Pabitra Ghosh is still gripped by a rootlessness borne after being displaced from modern-day Bangladesh as a child.

When a communal riot broke out in 1950, Ghosh, then five, fled with his family across the newly carved Indian border from East Pakistan. The train journey was both “bedlam” and “traumatic” as they abandoned their home to start afresh in Kolkata.

“All the Hindus in the area, we had to flee, to escape. It was a traumatic period of my life,” said Ghosh, now 76. “I don’t regard Britain as my home. I have been living in this country for the last 40-odd years, but that sense of rootlessness is still there.”

15 August marks the 75th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in India, and the poorly planned carving of Pakistan from India, known as partition, which triggered convulsions of Muslim-Hindu violence.

Pabitra Ghosh, who was displaced from modern-day Bangladesh as a child, with his wife, Jane, in 2017
Pabitra Ghosh, who was displaced from modern-day Bangladesh as a child, with his wife, Jane, in 2017. Photograph: Handout

For many, the history of partition has a long, generational tail.

The 1947 division resulted in one of the largest migrations in modern history and one of the worst calamities of the 20th century. An estimated 1 million people were killed in the ensuing violence, and nearly 15 million people crossed newly drawn borders into a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, creating enduring political and religious faultlines. In 1971, Bangladesh was formed from East Pakistan following a bloody war of independence.

In efforts to preserve history, initiatives around the world have worked to gather oral testimonies. Others have called on the UK education system to teach the legacy of partition, in what critics say should “acknowledge the impact of the British Empire and results of colonialism.”

Some individuals the Guardian spoke to, who identify as Anglo-Indian, described privileged lives in India that were lost upon migrating to England following partition. Others witnessed the violence of partition, resulting in lifelong trauma. Others witnessed the violence of partition, resulting in lifelong trauma.

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“What the British did to us, dividing one country into three countries was not a good thing, but you can’t say the British alone did it,” said Ghosh, whose one wish is to return to the village near Dhaka he frequented as a child.

Surinder Shani was 12 when his family fled riots in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to Jalandhar, India. “It was very frightening,” said Shani.

Now 87, Shani recalls seeing murdered Sikhs and Hindus and the burning of houses in Rawalpindi. He witnessed further violence in Jalandar, he said, as Muslims were killed by Sikhs.

“I do feel that I do not belong in England,” said Shani, who feels his experience of partition has shaped his children. “It’s something in my gene. I’m very, very proud of being Punjabi.”

For Navtej Kaur Purewal, a Soas University of London professor working on a project exploring the legacy of partition, it is a question of what is commemorated, and how. “It’s not as if we’ve forgotten, it’s just that there really isn’t any space to have even today those critical conversations about empire,” said Purewal, noting the recent celebration of the Queen’s 70 years on the throne.

Banwari Lal was a student in Firozpur, a city in India’s north now bordering Pakistan, at the time of partition. Then 21 and agnostic, he recalls following a friend to his rooftop and looking down on the bodies of nearly 100 murdered people.

“I can never forget that kind of brutality,” said Lal, now 96. “I remember one child, he tried to raise his head and dropped down again.”

It was one of many events Lal recalls with striking clarity. One morning, while walking along a road stretching to Fazilka, another border city, he spotted people who had travelled from Delhi, left behind by a caravan crossinginto Pakistan.

Enlisting friends, they fit nearly 15 people in the back of a horse-drawn carriage to catch up with the caravan. “We were really very sad in every way,” said Lal. “Not that India was divided, but the people, they suffered.”

The suffering was palpable for Zabada Sheikh, 51, who up until her father’s death, listened to his stories of fleeing Mandar, Kashmir, at the age of eight to Pakistan, a year after partition.

Sheikh, born in the Midlands to a blended family of Hindus and Muslims, was instilled with the idea that nothing was definite. There remained a packed suitcase atop a wardrobe, her parents living with the belief they could be kicked out of the country at any moment.

“I grew up with that sense of insecurity I think our parents had because my dad had to leave his ancestral home,” said Sheikh. “I think we felt that as much as he loved England, at any time he might be kicked out. They instilled that insecurity into us as well.”

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Geneva Abdul

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