Indian Partition, East African Expulsion and its Impact
As part of Mental Health Week, Dr Rima Lamba has written a series of guest articles for us on intergenerational trauma within the South Asian community in the U.K. We hope you find them insightful and thought-provoking. Read Part 1 of this piece here.
Trigger Warning: This article contains references to sexual violence and rape.
After almost 200 years of being ruled by the British Raj, India finally gained independence in 1947. With freedom came splitting of the country with not only a new India, but a new nation for Muslims, known as the Western province and the Eastern province of Pakistan (East Pakistan later became Bangladesh). This was The Partition, and it was the largest mass migration in history, with ordinary people losing homes, livelihood, country and along the way – families. Punjab, a state in the North West of India, experienced severe and unfathomable bloodshed. India entered a form of community splitting as part of her new survival. The citizens of India were not only splitting away from Britain, they were also splitting from communities they had lived with for years. There was open rage against hundreds of years of oppression. Britain quickly removed itself from this region of the world, especially considering the financial losses suffered through two recent World Wars.
In 2000, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that around 14 million people were displaced. Whilst records on deaths have remained unclear, with figures ranging between 200,000 to 2 million, it seems there is an acceptance among scholars that 1 million died because of Partition. Millions were caught on the wrong side of the border and were fleeing to reach a new world, a new space. Hindu’s and Sikh’s were mostly on one side and Muslim’s on the other; families that had lived side-by-side for years had entered into civil war and were willing to kill or be killed. A long oppressive history marred with poverty, loss, slavery, powerlessness, and trauma were expressed through rage by Indian civilians of that time. There were large-scale arson attacks, violent killings of innocent men, women, and children; there were lootings and amidst this chaos, people were travelling hundreds of miles to their “new country”.
Arguably, the biggest price was paid by women who were violently raped (often gang raped) and abducted in masses. This violent weapon of war was utilised by all religious communities as a way of dishonouring and disarming the enemy. The process of separating and individuating was bloody and violent for India, and a persecutory anxiety had engulfed people, in which “the other” was seen as an intruder, who may harm them and their new freedom. This “othering” manifested in religious violence. But this mass violence was also rooted in adverse experiences associated with colonial rule, causing it to become a land breaking free from oppression.
Swarms of people arrived into “new” India, and into West and East Pakistan from places they once called “home” and “country”. Now they were to live as refugees, wondering what home would look like and how they would survive on this new piece of land, once part of a whole and now divided into three separate pieces. Some had chosen not to leave and continued to stay on their ancestral land, knowing they may well end up becoming a minority in the region and potentially face persecution.
Between 1947 and 1949, both India and Pakistan’s government ratified an agreement to repatriate the abducted women to their respective religious communities and countries. Up to 100,000 women were thought to be abducted (although true figures remain unclear). There are still stories in families, where abducted women never returned.
Suffice to say, losses were experienced on all sides. Conversations of this time rarely come up unless something triggers it. In my own social relationships, a friend’s grandmother shared that before The Partition, the Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim communities generally lived in social unity. But after Partition, it changed. With the birth of separation and freedom, came division. This division lived across waters, too, in Africa, where approximately 2 million Indians had been previously transported to East Africa and other British Colonies from 1834 and right up until the end of the First World War.
In August 1972, merely 25 years after Partition and only a decade before my own birth, Ugandan Asians were faced with expulsion by Idi Amin, the President of Uganda at the time. It seemed a destiny of displacement was inescapable for Ugandan South Asians (mainly Gujaratis) too, who became “twice migrants”. If the Partition was Punjab’s terror, then the Ugandan Asian expulsion was the Gujarati community’s living nightmare.
Many arrived in the U.K. and began their lives in British refugee camps. One such person in the refugee camp was my own great grandfather. My mother has often shared the story of her grandfather being held at gunpoint, thrown out of his home, and told to leave his livelihood behind. The words “concentration camps” are forever printed in the minds of many people, given their association to the mass genocide inflicted on the Jewish community. Yet only a few decades after the Holocaust, these words were uttered once again by Idi Amin as a threat to South Asian people if they did not leave his country. The same xenophobia and subsequent splitting that we see elements of in Britain in recent years took over Uganda during that time. Utilising populist politics, East African’s were pitted against South Asians, sowing the seeds of discontent in racial and civilian relations. To understand this further, we need to turn our attention, once again to history.
Approximately, two million Indians were transported into East Africa and various other British Colonies between 1834 and right up until World War I ended. They were brought as indentured labourers. Their role was to do menial jobs, including building Uganda’s railroad system. “Wages” were minimal, and the work involved gruelling hours of hardship, which today would be questioned as human rights violations.
The South Asian people were brought into Uganda on ships after signing contracts drawn up by British officials in India. Given the poor literacy levels in India at that time, many had little idea of the contractual terms they were committing to. Those who agreed to the terms and conditions were trying to escape extreme poverty and famine, which were common during the time of British rule in India. The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 alone wiped out an estimated 10 million people from the Northern and Eastern regions of the Indian subcontinent. So, these contracts gave hope that a new land would provide escape and freedom from poverty and starvation.
The system of indentured labour was formed after the abolition of slavery. Essentially it was disguised slavery in which Indians were used to replace the freed African slaves working on sugar and coffee plantations. In 1917, after many years of abusive labour, the British government abolished the system of indentured labour. Slowly, the South Asian community built a free life for themselves in Uganda. Many became successful business owners, skilled labourers, and professionals; they became the middle-class. However, a social hierarchy formed over time at the top were White British, then South Asians, then Africans. Slowly, the economic success of the South Asian community and their lack of integration with the indigenous community of Uganda started becoming a source of tension. Divisions over wealth and class were taking hold, a system in which Africans were being exploited. A 1972 memorandum by the Central Intelligence Agency reported that whilst the Ugandan South Asians made up less than one percent of the East African nations (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania), they were thought to control around 80 percent of private trade (although exact estimates were unclear).
In 1962, like many commonwealth nations, Uganda gained her independence from Britain and a decade later, Idi Amin threatened the Asian community, Idi Amin threatened the Asian community, telling them if they stay, they will feel like they are “sitting on fire”. The inequality between the South Asian and Ugandan indigenous population was an issue on fire. This was all occurring on the back of Britain’s colonial rule in Africa, in which Idi Amin desired to teach the UK “a lesson”, leaving the Indian’s caught in a deadly crossfire. Almost 80,000 Ugandan South Asians picked themselves up and left, looking for safety and refuge once again.
The UK took in almost 30,000 and the remaining community left for other nations near and far. They were living through displacement again, with no sense of how they would gain safety and belonging in the British community, which was struggling with its own inequalities of race and class.
Look out for part 3 for more on the bio-psychosocial and community consequences of these histories.
Dr. Rima Lamba is a UK based, Chartered Counselling Psychologist. She has set up a private practice specialising in women and mother's mental health and well-being, called Blue River Psychology. She has a keen interest in how intergenerational, patriarchal and racial traumas or stories intersect and influence the diverse lives and identity of women, including those who embark on motherhood. Instagram: @blueriverpsychology