Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world, lit up with the colours of the Pakistani flag to celebrate the 70th independence anniversary of Pakistan, 14th August 2017
Despite the fact that I am British born and bred (I cried when England lost in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against those bloody Germans), Pakistan is never too far from my mind. My parents are from there, as are many other relatives. A large part of my language, clothing, food, culture, and customs comes from the mother land. Even as I write this blog I am wearing black jeans and a salmon coloured kameez, and I know I have kebabs and curry to look forward to for my dinner. On an almost daily basis I will see the flag of Pakistan somewhere on the streets of Birmingham, and should someone ask me where I am from originally, from ‘back home’, the answer given will be Pakistan. Add to this the fact that my neighbours recently came back from a two week holiday in Pakistan (which they loved).
Aside from my personal links to Pakistan, the Islamic Republic is always in the news, and 2017 in particular has been an intense news-worthy year for Pakistan. Here are just some of the things that have happened so far this year:
- Pakistan were crowned International Cricket Council Champions, beating arch rivals India in the final, during the holy month of Ramadhaan.
Pakistani cricketer Hasan Ali celebrates taking a wicket against South Africa.
- Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign after he was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court, which dismissed him after a damning corruption probe into his family wealth. The whole affair is more commonly known as ‘fontgate’.
- One of the most controversial trials in Pakistani history ended with the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf declared a fugitive and his property ordered confiscated after he failed to show in court over the assassination 10 years ago of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
- Malala Yousafzai, the unofficial daughter and voice of Pakistan, was awarded an honorary Canadian citizenship, she became the youngest person to address the House of Commons of Canada, she gained a place at Oxford University to study a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, she was recognised as the youngest ever United Nations Messenger of Peace, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa, and she was awarded the Ellis Island International Medal of Honor.
- Trouble in Kashmir still rages on, with constant clashes between Kashmiri youth and Indian security forces.
- Monsoon floods have hit much of the Indian subcontinent, including parts of Pakistan, with at least 23 dead in Karachi after torrential rains. This despite the fact that earlier this year parts of Pakistan were experiencing drought.
- The issue of transgender rights has taken off this year in Pakistan in a big way.
- An oil truck fire tragically killed over 150 people, with many of the victims dying as they tried to steal petrol from the over turned tanker as it exploded.
- Pakistan continues to strengthen ties with China, both political and financial (Pakistan’s close relationship with China goes back to 1950, when it became one of the first countries to recognise the new communist regime).
- Whilst America deals with the all too real Hurricane Harvey, Pakistan was hit recently by the words of Hurricane Trump, who accused Pakistan of not doing enough in the war on terror. His uninformed outburst led to the following letter in the Daily Times of Pakistan…
Sir: Pakistan has suffered more losses than American in the war on terror. Pakistan’s war on terror has cost $118 billion; according to the State Bank of Pakistan. About 5,498 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives compared to 2,386 American soldiers in Afghanistan. A total of 80,000 Pakistanis have been killed in the US-led war on terror. Besides, the war badly affected Foreign Direct Investment in the country. For instance, the total FDI during the Musharraf regime was $18 billion. It reached to only $6 billion between 2008 and 2015. Moreover, five million people, from 2004 to 2014, have been displaced, according to the International Displacement Centre. Instead of accusing Pakistan of harboring terrorists, Trump should realize that Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and is committed to addressing the issue. Saddam Hussain Samo, Karachi
Stern words indeed. However, the main news story for Pakistan in 2017 is surely the 70th anniversary of the partition. Aside from the expected celebrations, we’ve had books such as Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India by Shashi Tharoor, and the highly rated Partition: The Story Of Indian Independence And The Creation Of Pakistan In 1947 by Barney White-Spunner.
We’ve even had a movie. Viceroy’s House (2017) is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who has also directed Bride & Prejudice (2004), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and Bhaji On The Beach (1993).
Whilst the New York Times called it “a handsome, fleet look at the months leading up to India’s independence from Britain in 1947…a great screen epic…impeccable production design and some fine performances”, the writer Fatima Bhutto (granddaughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar, niece of Prime Minister Benazir and the daughter of Murtaza, all three of whom were murdered or executed) was considerably more scathing. In a Guardian article she wrote: “If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely empire continues to run in the minds of some today.” The full article is well worth reading, as is the response from Gurinder Chadha.
The partition of India was a major reshaping of geo-political boundaries that still shakes the world to this day. Two nuclear powers now live side-by-side, sharing a very hostile 2,000 mile border, all in the shadow of partition. To mark such a momentous historical event, the BBC have made a series of brilliant documentaries as part of their 70 Years On: Partition Stories project. The documentaries should still be available on BBC iPlayer, if not then YouTube should have them in some form.
One of the interesting facts I learned from watching these documentaries was that the birthplace of Pakistan was the university city of Cambridge, 3 Humberstone Road to be more precise. This is where the word ‘Pakistan’ was first written down in 1933 by a student named Chaudhry Rehmat Ali. He coined the word in that particular way because each letter stands for a different part of Pakistan: P is for Punjab, A is for Afghanistan (or the North-West Frontier province), K is for Kashmir, S is for Sind, and the remaining ‘tan’ is for Baluchistan. An ‘i’ was added to ease pronunciation (as in Afghan-i-stan). Overall, the name itself means ‘land of the pure’, which is why it had this powerful ideological resonance that made it popular so very quickly.
All the documentaries are worth watching. Each one, in its own way, attempts to lance the boil of all those negative myths about the creation of Pakistan. Details of these documentaries are presented below, along with a selection of quotes that hopefully avoid the cheap narratives that many of us have of Pakistan as a land of bombs, burkas, floods, drones, and the last residence of the worlds most wanted terrorist. As much as one can, enjoy…
A two part documentary first shown on BBC Two on 09 Aug 2017. Anita Rani presents the extraordinary and emotional stories of three British families – one Muslim, one Hindu, and one British colonial – who lived in India 70 years ago, at the time of partition. Anita begins her own partition journey as she and her mother Lucky become the first members of their family to return to what is now Pakistan since the partition of India. In the Punjabi village where her Sikh grandfather’s first family were slaughtered, Anita meets locals who were eyewitnesses to that terrible event.
A three part documentary first shown on BBC Two on 14 Aug 2017. Journalists Babita Sharma and Adnan Sarwar go on their epic journey along the still-contentious border that divides India and Pakistan. 70 years after the partition they travel either side of the 2,000-mile border to discover the realities of the lives there. During their travels they encounter Pakistani female boxers, an all woman motorcycle group in India, militant protestors in Kashmir, Sufi mystics in Lahore, fashion designers in Karachi, Sikh separatists in Amritsar, low caste salt farmers, a Charlie Chaplin festival in Adipur, and many others.
The first statement of Churchill after India got independence in 1947 was that India is not going to survive because there is nothing which unifies it.
I have met a lot of British who come here to India, they ask me the same question, “Do you feel that we were responsible for this?” I say, “Yes, when you were ruling this place. And if you leave a country which is divided, the ruler has to take the onus on. You cannot say that ‘We were not responsible.’ You were.”
Partition is the reality of this country. It’s the way this country was born. It’s in these people. You can’t know Pakistan unless you know partition.
It is estimated that up to two million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus died and over 14 million people were forced to move during partition. You should know the history of people to understand where they are now. Maybe if you don’t understand the way Pakistanis and Indians are, why they are always angry with each other, why they are always arguing with each other, just go back a little bit and have a look at partition. It’s the complete desperation of it.
Seven decades of bitter separation have cost both Pakistan and India dearly. Not just in terms of military spending and lost lives, but also at the cost of trade, which would massively benefit the two nations. On this journey, I’ve seen so many reasons to be positive, and it’s all down to the people that I’ve met, who, despite all the problems, are just getting on with things and moving this country forward into the 21st century. The Pakistan that I’ve met today is a young country, it’s a 70-year-old country, and it’s trying to work itself out. It’s trying to work itself out with that really awkward conversation it’s got to have with its neighbour. About how they fell out 70 years ago. I’m leaving Pakistan with a real sense of optimism for the future. And not just for this country, but for myself, as a British Pakistani. This is the end of my journey here in Pakistan. It’s not the end of my relationship with Pakistan. I feel more of a Pakistani, feel like it’s more of me, and I feel like it’s just going to get more and more deeper as I visit this country more. This is a part of me.
A one part documentary first shown on BBC Two on 15 Aug 2017. This documentary tells the story of the seven days that led up to the independence of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the last days of the British Raj. It moves through each dramatic day, drawing on oral histories of survivors who were eye witnesses to the complex human tragedy that unfolded.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, was sent to Delhi as the last Viceroy. Mountbatten was sent out to effect a peaceful and rapid transfer of power. But, in reality, it wasn’t like that at all because, on the ground, there was already quite a lot of violence occurring between the main religious communities.
For centuries, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had shared the country, but with British rule weakening, conflict had erupted between the Hindus and the Sikhs on one side and the minority Muslims on the other.
For people on the ground, it looks completely different. They are dealing with bloodshed, uncertainty, rumours, anxiety. So there’s a real disconnect between what’s happening in Delhi and what people are actually experiencing.
Ordinary people had no clue as to what was going on. Imagine being in the village, where your access to news is so limited. What would come to you would be by word-of-mouth, hearsay, rumour. And there were so many decisions to make. Would they stay where they are, would they be travelling? Where would they be travelling to?
It’s really hard to imagine now what it must be like to say to somebody, “You’ve got to go and leave everything, leave your house, your property, your friends, your community, everything.” Older people, especially, are quite often digging their heels in and they say, “Well, I’ve been here all my life, why should I leave? My ancestors are buried here. This is the land that I have tilled. I’m not going to move.” But others are leaving, because of anticipation of violence and because of sheer uncertainty about what’s happening and what’s going on. It’s heartbreaking for people to be making these decisions. They had to leave property behind, they had to leave families behind and just embark on an unknown journey. It must have been absolutely traumatic.
Many people imagined they would come back, so they left their keys with their neighbours, buried things in their courtyards and they said, “Right, I will come back. I’m just going temporarily, for safety.” But, of course, they didn’t. They never came back.
For many, the move meant uprooting their lives. But no sacrifice was too great to make for their religious freedom. Nobody had a clue that there would be this exodus. Somebody said, “Well, “there’ll be a few thousands moving here and there.” Mountbatten said some of the educated might leave. But the scale of the movement was absolutely unforeseen by everyone involved in the partition. There are 12 to 15 million people on the move. It’s one of the biggest refugee migrations of the 20th century.
Imagine what it’s like to be one of these refugees. They’re trudging miles and miles along those hard, dusty roads. There are rumours that the wells have been poisoned, so it’s hard to get water. People are giving birth along the road, people are dying along the road and, constantly, over everything, is this fear that the other side are going to swoop down and attack while you’re passing through their territory.
The British are not saying anything. They’re not interested. They’re ready to get on to their boats and planes and be back in Britain. There is absolutely no instruction, no orders, no directions coming down from the British. They have washed their hands of India.
Some people are moving literally because they’re running for their lives. Their friends have been attacked, so they’re really on the run. But others are far more moving along ideological lines. People are thinking, “Do I believe in this new state enough to go and risk moving there? Am I really going to have a better job there? Are things really going to be as bright as the propaganda is suggesting?”
The common understanding of the violence in the villages is that suddenly Hindus and Muslims picked up pitchforks and started attacking one another, even neighbours who’d lived side-by-side for generations. But that was only a small part of the violence. Really, what made the violence take off and expand and grow so large, was that it was organised. There are small groups of militia bands, oftentimes ex-soldiers armed with weapons, that would go round from village to village, gather up other supporters, so a band of 50 might become 500, might become 5,000, then they would attack and they would wipe out entire villages.
For women, the partition is a tragedy of epic proportions, because tens of thousands of women are raped and there’s terrible sexual violence against women. Women have really hard lives in India before independence. They are like property in many ways. But they’re also the upholders of the family honour. And if women are raped or violated, that’s seen as bringing not just shame on them but on the whole community, on their whole society. And so it becomes a weapon of war, used by both sides very extensively, because the women themselves are seen almost somehow as symbols of these new nation states, and so it’s a horrific situation where women’s bodies are actually being used to kind of mark out and create the new states.
The feeling that you might actually risk your women falling into the hands of the enemy, to the other, was so shameful, such a taboo, that some men would rather kill their daughters or their wives than actually have them fall into the hands of the other. There was a sense, a really profoundly misogynist sense, that a woman’s chastity was worth more than her life.
The death and destruction in the week leading up to partition is spreading, dividing and destroying hundreds of thousands of families across Punjab. I don’t think the British had any idea about the scale of violence that was going to take place in 1947. So, in that sense, the British really didn’t understand, I don’t think, the nature of the implications of what they were proposing in the partition of India.
Now, with the clock running out, thousands of details, large and small, are still up in the air. Nobody’s ever done anything like this before and it’s absolutely astonishing in its recklessness. There is no sense of how this is going to be done. This whole process is a good example of just how difficult it is to split any political entity, this big, that has been held together for so long. It involved everything from the big questions of who is going to get how many fighter planes from the Indian army, of currency, who is going to print it and how, to the smallest things, the police band, who is going to get which instruments from it. We see the division of the army, we see some of the great treasures of archaeological India being divided down to the actual beads on necklaces. We see the encyclopaedias being divided, sometimes, by letter in the alphabet. The pettiness is astonishing. I mean, rugs, ceiling fans, cutlery, pieces of stationery, boxes of paper clips. I mean, things were being counted out with forensic detail. There was a ratio of 4:1, India-Pakistan, because of the respective size of the countries, and so these things were being kind of carved out.
One of the most poignant elements of this moment is, where are the so-called insane going to go? There is a very major insane asylum in Lahore. It has Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. And it opens up this absurd bureaucratic debate – do the mad, who have been certified as people who do not belong to society, should they also be now divided up as Indians or Pakistanis?
What is so peculiar and unique for this time is the fact that almost everyone is drawn into this macabre narrative of violence. The ordinary householder going about their business, the regular professional man, everyone is baying for blood, everyone’s out there on the streets and ready to attack the rival community.
How do you know how you will react under this kind of pressure? At a time of such great chaos, where there’s a total breakdown of law and order? You may never envisage that you could be someone who kills someone and yet that is what happened…But, equally, there are stories at this time of extreme bravery, where people really put themselves on the line to protect people.
Partition, when it became inevitable, could have happened in a different way. It could have been more organised, it could have been dragged over time and people could have moved in a manner that was more safe and secure, over a period of months or maybe even a year. It was the rush of partition that created the tragedy, not just the partition itself.
It was hard for anyone, if you were faced with the mob from your own community, to resist that. Even if you didn’t want to participate in the killing yourself, for individuals to try and stand against this was virtually impossible, so the best they could do – and many, many people did do this – was to shelter friends or neighbours, individually try and get them away to safety.
The rail network has always been seen as one of the great successes of Britain’s Indian Empire. But now, with only three days before the Raj is finally over, trains are becoming the dark symbol of its chaotic end. This is when killers on all sides begin to discover that they provide the perfect means to identify and destroy the enemy. The direction that you’re travelling in gave off your ethnic identity, because if you’re travelling towards Pakistan, you must be Muslim. If you’re travelling from Pakistan towards India, you must be either a Hindu or Sikh. And this week leading up to independence is when train massacres really start in earnest. Trains become the centre of violence in this period. Targeting people who are moving from one part of the country to another in the hope of safety, in the hope of being with their co-religionists, but this becomes the most perilous journey of their lives and the carnage is excessive and complete and bloody. The violence on the trains is absolutely horrific. These are contained spaces and people can’t run out, as they’re attacked. The perpetrators just move from carriage to carriage, hacking people to death as they move along. And, as the train pulled into its destination, almost completely, the entire train would be full of corpses. As the massacre spread, whether your train is attacked or reaches its destination safely is just a question of fate.
In the space of the train carriage, what happens is your identity became reduced, largely to your religion. You might be a civil servant, you might be a teacher, you might be a gardener, but at that moment you become a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Christian and I think that is a really important facet of the violence because it reduced people’s identities to that of religion and it meant that they became targets for systematic religious violence.
There are some people who don’t agree that their identity is just about being Hindu, Sikh or Muslim and there are people who are trying to bring peace, who are trying to bring people together and they are just sort of drowned out, really, by the wave of hostility and violence that takes place.
It was the madness that was around the people, religious fanaticism and then it’s a vicious circle. It’s a very sad thing. The partition of this country was a misfortune for humanity.
Somehow, all these leaders had convinced themselves that it was not going to be as big a deal as it was. That it could be managed. This kind of enormous, nation-breaking, continent-splitting project could be managed without vast loss of life, without vast crisis and, of course, they were wrong.
Nehru and Jinnah are about to become leaders of these new countries and to have control over them but, actually, they’re worried about the states they are going to inherit. Everything that these men had fought for their whole adult lives was now coming apart at the seams, so they are really traumatised, these leaders, by what’s happening, but they just keep going, really because what else can they do? The agreement has been made with the British, independence is coming, come what may, and they have to just keep ploughing ahead.
Why would somebody just carrying on a normal profession in their daily lives be suddenly eager to kill as many members of the other community as they wished to? That, in a sense, for us, seems like madness.
It’s one of the really dark mysteries at the heart of partition, is why ordinary people could turn into killers. I think the best answer that we have is that people were just so whipped up through demonisation of the other and the sense that you have to kill or be killed, that they were fulling themselves into thinking they were killing in self-defence.
Partition turns just regular people into killers and that’s a chilling thing to think of…If you’re caught up in those times, that is the only way in which you can defend your communities. Attack becomes the only form of defence…This is not to justify, of course, what went on, but this is what was going through people’s minds.
Jinnah is happy that he’s achieved a separate state, but, at the same time, there’s this lingering doubt, because Pakistan is really trying to rise from the ashes at this time. I mean, it’s not actually a fully functioning state. One in five people is a refugee in West Pakistan. So, there’s a paradox there, because, on one hand, people want to celebrate independence but, at the same time, it’s starting them in the face that millions have been moved and this terrible death and destruction and it’s not just been done to them, they’ve also been acting out and involved in that violence themselves.
People are rejoicing, ready to welcome their long-awaited liberty. There was unbounded joy…After decades of doing everything they could to make sure this day would never come, the British have planned an elaborate handover ceremony tomorrow, in Delhi. But, for the 100,000 refugees crowding into camps around the capital, there is little to celebrate. These refugees, who’ve lost so much in the run-up to independence, don’t fit in with the upbeat narrative of the day. The British, were, of course, keen to orchestrate these images of a smooth transfer of power. You know, the whole thing was so well orchestrated, it was a spectacle. But, in reality, these smooth narratives of the transfer of power really need to be placed alongside these individual stories of trauma, of uprootment, of migration and violence, of killings and murder. And this was the reality of what was going on in some parts of India.
On 15th August, 1947, Britain’s Indian Empire was over. India and Pakistan were now independent, although the border between them, the Radcliffe Line, would still not be announced for another two days. Britain proclaimed to the world that the handover of power had been a great success.
Independence meant different things for different people. For the Indian elite, independence was a great moment of celebration. But, for the poverty stricken man who’s been uprooted and has migrated over miles, who has lost his means of livelihood, lost property, what does independence mean? It means absolutely nothing.
One of the legacies of partition was the way in which violence scaled up from being about individuals, but families, about conflict between communities and religions, into something much bigger, violence between armies, violence between nations. This one week transformed the world we live in today. If you look at Pakistan and India right now, this border that was created in this week is the most dangerous border in the world.
For me, the tragedy is that the war has never ended. It’s really become a cold war, at times it’s been a hot war, there have been three wars between the countries. So, really, we’re still seeing that fight that went on in 1947, replayed and replayed. It’s never really come to an end. Memories of that time still echo and rebound now, in that relationship between the two countries.
A one part documentary first shown on BBC Two on 22 Aug 2017. British film-maker Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend It Like Beckham and Viceroy’s House, travels from Southall to Delhi to find out about the partition of India – one of the most seismic events of the 20th century.
Growing up in an Indian or Pakistani family, there’s one piece of history that we all know about. It’s an event that’s had a huge impact on all our lives. The partition of India. In 1947, the British divided India in two, creating a newly independent India, and a new country, Pakistan. People of different faiths turned on each other. 17 million people became refugees overnight. And over a million lost their lives. It was a seismic event that tore apart millions of lives including my own family’s. But why did this happen? Like so much of history, the answer depends on who gets to tell it.
After six years of World War II, Britain was bankrupt and India was a massive drain on British resources. So the British announced elections for an Indian national government, to help them run the country in the lead up to independence. But these elections would divide the Indian people even further along religious lines. While Congress campaigned for a united India, the Muslim League declared that a vote for them was a vote for Pakistan. But Hindu hardliners dismissed Pakistan as an absurd concept. These were the elections that really brought religion into politics. By taking up the slogan of ‘a vote for Pakistan is a vote for Islam’, Jinnah changed everything. Once he started that kind of sloganeering, other communities started questioning themselves. You had the Sikhs calling for their own separate homeland. This was not what the Indian Congress had been fighting for. Religious identity was being used by all parties to turn the Indian people against each other.
There was a perception that matters were spiralling out of control. The British felt that they didn’t want to be holding the reins while this happened. They didn’t want to be blamed. Therefore, they thought, if they made their exit sooner rather than later, the Indians could kill themselves, and it wouldn’t be the British’s problem. That seems a cynical way of putting it, but I think, almost certainly, that seems to have been their thinking. They were rats leaving a sinking ship…The British scuttled. They actually sank the ship first. And then they swam away from it.
Nobody was happy with the Mountbatten plan. The Muslims ended up with a Pakistan which they called “moth-eaten.” The Hindus ended up with a divided India. And the Sikhs lost huge tracts of their religious and holy lands. Everybody was unhappy, except the British, who couldn’t wait to get out fast enough.
The day after independence, the precise details of the line dividing the Punjab and Bengal was announced. Millions of people found themselves on the wrong side of the border. On the Indian side, gangs of Sikhs and Hindus attacked Muslims. On the Pakistan side, gangs of Muslims attacked Hindus and Sikhs. This was largely the work of organised militia, grabbing land and property…As many Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs died. Everybody was a victim.
For every Sikh and Hindu woman who was killed, a Muslim woman was killed too. The violence was on all sides. Both Nehru and Jinnah expressed their dismay at the violence. But neither they, nor the British, had planned for the scale of the upheaval. An estimated 17 million people fled their homes. And at least a million men, women and children lost their lives.
During the Cold War, Pakistan became a loyal ally to the west, just as Churchill had wanted.
Pakistan’s relations with India have been beset by distrust and conflict. There have been three wars between the two countries since 1947. And today, they both have nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Yet, there was nothing inevitable about partition. It was politicians, not ordinary Indians, who were the driving force behind it. First the British, with divide and rule, and then some of India’s leaders encouraged religious difference as a weapon to win power.