Updated: Sep 11
CW: Mentions of rape, murder, and mutilation in the context of partition.
To commemorate the independence and freedom from British Rule, The Rights Collective hosted a two part digital series on Partition on August 18th and 28th, with a focus on remembering some of the forgotten stories. We feel as though so many of the narratives around partition have flattened the experiences of communities across South Asia into one singular story, which we know is simply not true. As such, our digital teach-in series aimed to bring forward the marginalised stories and some of the less prominent understandings around Partition.
The Partition of Bengal: "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow"
Very little is said about Bengal when it comes to conversations about South Asia and this directly points to how linear the discourse surrounding Partition actually is, with the historical narrative focusing mostly on Punjab. Culturally, socially, and even historically, there are very few references available that addresses what happened on ‘the other side of the Partition’, and this is a worrying common feature of many conversations among the diaspora too. In order to decolonise Partition, many other accounts need to be brought to the forefront of Partition studies, so we can work towards an inclusive understanding of what was, arguably, the most important point in South Asian history.
Dr. Fatima Rajina‘s PhD with the Centre of Islamic Studies at SOAS looked at British Bangladeshi Muslims in East London and their changing identifications and perceptions of dress and language. During our teach-in, Dr. Rajina discussed the erasure of the partition of Bengal in mainstream narratives and how the actions in 1947 played out in the 1971 Liberation War.
She started by giving us a brief overview of the history of Bengal. In 1905, Bengal was partitioned by Lord Curzon but after much discontent, it was reunited again in 1911. 1911 was also pivotal in creating the All India Muslim League with Muhammed Ali Jinnah becoming the key figurehead.
The politics of borders, and how to draw these borders, and for whom, is a question I grappled with when listening to Dr. Rajina; what are essentially arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, cutting across ethnic, political, and religious communities, changed lives forever. Below is a pamphlet from 1933 drawn up by Cambridge University Law student Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, where he imagined a ‘Pakistan’ and what it could look like. Bengal is labelled ‘Bangistan.’
Partition in 1947 gave birth to two new nations; India and Pakistan. But what was happening on the other side of the border was bubbling discontent and communal violence between Hindus and Muslims across Noakhali, Chittagong (now modern day Bangladesh), and in Kolkata (West Bengal).
The map above illustrates how the district of Sylhet was awarded to East Pakistan from Assam. In the UK today, 95% of Bengalis are from Sylhet. The 14th of August in 1947 led to the creation of the East Pakistan state. It transpired quite quickly so that as soon as Pakistan was created, the concentration of all power would be based in the West wing, including the capital, army base, central parliament, and more. Six months after Partition, Jinnah visited Dhaka University and gave what was a monumental speech which laid the groundwork for the Bangla language movement. He said:
“There can, however, be one lingua franca, that is, the language for inter-communication between the various provinces of the state, and that language should be Urdu and cannot be any other...The state language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu.”
This made no sense. Bangla was the most popular language, overtaking Balochi and Sindhi, and was spoken by over 55% of the population in the whole of Pakistan. Yet, Urdu was chosen as the state language as it was supposedly rooted in ‘Islamic culture’ and mirrored Arabic. Fatima went on to explain that Bengali Muslims were ‘otherised’ and not seen as ‘Muslim enough’ due to their language, and how their behaviours imitated Bengali Hindus. Dr. Fatima points to author Saadia Toor who makes this argument. Urdu was chosen as a key marker for Muslim identity and Bangla became an ethnic marker.
The imposing of Urdu came to be seen as a neocolonial project on the Bengalis, says Fatima, another group of people imposing control and dictating how the Bengalis could behave. The war in 1971 led to the creation of the People's Republic of Bangladesh after Pakistan surrendered.
Dr. Rajina's main message was to highlight the need to see the whole of the Partition story rather than one segment. People across the continent were deeply affected by Partition and some of those stories still haven’t come to the fore. The trauma of 1971 is still very much present in Bengalis from Bangladesh and the legacies of this informs collective memory of how Partition is remembered.
To further substantiate the above, Dr. Eleanor Newbigin discussed the history of Partition and touched upon caste and gender. Partition was about mobility but the social hierarchy in place in India meant people at the bottom of the social strata could not move over to the other side of the border (whether that was because of affordability or accessibility), often because of their caste.
She then took us forward to explore how 1947 inspired hyper-nationalist politics in South Asia, which is evident even today. Dr. Newbigin spoke about how collective memory and storytelling has informed how Partition and independence is remembered. She talks about the sheer scale of violence being subjected to communities by others, but also violence done to the community itself with ‘honour killings’ in order to escape the violence.
We concluded the session with some insightful questions that explored the legacies of Partition in South Asian relations in the UK today. Both Dr. Rajina and Dr. Newbigin gave us much to reflect on, especially on the question of 1971 and how British Bangladeshis in the diaspora today are taking the opportunity to retell their own histories in their own way.
To learn more about the Partition of Bengal, Dr. Rajina recommended Joya Chatterji’s work.
The Gendered Impact of Partition
Building off of part one of the teach-in, part two focused on the gendered impact of partition on women and girls, and how Partition played a role in how gender was constructed as a way to measure progression and civilization in the subcontinent.
Activist and campaigner Amrit Wilson started the teach-in by taking us through the historical events that led up to Partition, starting with the First Indian Mutiny, all the way to the BJP party today.
Partition was a very rushed job. Britain was quick to wash their hands of India and tasked the partitioning of the subcontinent to British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who was given a mere five weeks to separate the land. With independence announced a day before the actual partition plan was unveiled, a wave of violence ensued as people desperately tried to flee to “the other side”. Amrit took us through the different experiences of women which saw the ‘most gruesome and sadistic violence’ such as gang rapes, mutilation, and murder by their own families.
“Patriarchy deemed that to die was better than to be dishonoured, it rules that women's bodies do not belong to themselves, but to their families, communities, and even the state.” - Amrit Wilson, Part Two of ‘Forgotten Histories: Partition Remembered’, The Rights Collective, 2020
There is simply no gender neutral way to look at Partition, because Partition disproportionately affected women, and their lives were so profoundly affected by the sexual violence inflicted on them. Amrit says “history allows us to understand the present, but it also allows us to understand the violence in India today” - there is no way to separate the past from the present, and the lynchings and communal violence of Muslims and Dalits in India today eerily echoes the violence leading up to Partition (our team has written further about the gendered impact of partition in our zine which you can read here).
Dr. Samia Khatun, our other panel member on the teach-in, explored Partition as a concept, rather than Partition as a concrete political event that can be pinned down to one date. She took us through the ways in which Partition became an ordering structure for gender and progress. She stated that the Partition narrative was, and continues to be, viewed from the lens of a geographical ordering where national states are mapped to religious communities. She suggests, rather, that Partition is also a temporal ordering of how progress is seen. She called this the ‘architectural thought of Partition.’
Gender and the status of women operates in this body of thought (as outlined in the slide above), as a marker as to where one is in the march to civilization. In British India when the East India Company officers came into power, they relied on James Mill’s book; ‘The History of British India’ to act as a textbook that underpinned their civilization missions. Dr. Khatun shared an example of this - the practice of widow burning or ‘sati’ was outlawed by the British as they deemed it to be backwards. More specifically, they saw something in the religious template of Hinduism which treated women in this way, and this needed to be removed if civilization was to move forward. However, Samia explained how this was a one-dimensional interpretation of the practice. While in no way supporting ritual burning, it was interesting that the British chose to frame it in the context of gender even when the practice of burning was not simply carried out by women.
In this way, Dr. Khatun tried to surface some of the tensions in our understanding of our history and posed some insightful questions on how we can better challenge our own understandings.
Moving from this, Syma Tariq, our last speaker, talked about the oral history of Partition and how Partition as a historical category remains a deeply unstable terrain. Her research relies on sound, testimony gathering in archives and memory making to show how silences are produced by colonial erasure.
One big theme which emerged was the legacies of Partition and how this is remembered in the subcontinent and in the diaspora. Dr. Khatun notes that it is important we remember that today, we are all partitioned subjects, and to some extent, most of us - if not all - have internalised the divisions and categories placed onto us by Partition.
Thank you to our amazing speakers who so generously shared their time and knowledge with us. We invite you to watch the full recordings for a more in-depth discussion.
Habiba Akhtar is a Project Lead at The Rights Collective. She is a graduate of SOAS University of London with an MA in Human Rights Law and works as a Researcher for the Legal 500 in London.