The legacy of partition: an interview with Babita Sharma

As new BBC Two series Dangerous Borders: A Journey across Indian & Pakistan begins, journalist Babita Sharma talks to History Extra about travelling the length of the 2,000-mile border between the two countries and discovering the lives of the people who live in the still volatile region, 70 years on from the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan… 

(Image Credit: BBC/October Films)

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945 and after decades of campaigns and protest to end British colonial rule in India, it was announced in 1946 that the Raj would withdraw. In March 1947, Louis Mountbatten was appointed the final viceroy of India. He was sent by British prime minister Clement Atlee to oversee the departure, and to address the growing tensions between political and religious parties that had resulted in brutal violence, particularly in north and east India.

Within months of Mountbatten’s arrival, a partition plan was swiftly drawn up which would split India into two separate nations: India (with a majority Hindu population) and Pakistan (with a majority Muslim population). A huge amount was left undecided, from the geography of the border to a plan for the mass migration across the new divide. Following the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in August 1947, between 12 and 15 million people were forced to journey hundreds of miles; the period was scarred by split families and communities, suffering and uncertainty, and extreme ethnic violence.

The father of journalist and presenter Babita Sharma was one of the millions or people displaced by partition. Together with fellow journalist Adnan Sarwar, Sharma travelled the still volatile border of Pakistan and India 70 years on, discovering more about the lives of those who lived there. Ahead of her new BBC Two series, she talked to History Extra about her 2,000-mile journey…

 

Q: In Dangerous Borders, you explore the varied legacy of partition in India and Pakistan today. Can you tell us a little about where you start and a few of the stories you explore in your series? 

A: We began our journey in Adipur in the state of Gujarat, India, which became the entry point into the nation for a lot of people leaving the vast area of Sindh province during partition. When the border was drawn up, people from the Sindhi community found themselves broken and separated, so they travelled to Adipur. Back then it was virtually nothing, an area of shacks and shanty towns that made a refugee village. Fast-forward 70 years and it’s a bustling, vibrant, economically successful place, which has really carved out its own successful story of partition.

In the first episode, we explore a remarkable event held each April in Adipur, as the town hosts a Charlie Chaplin parade. The sun is at its highest and the heat is 45C, and this Indian town has parades and flotillas, music and bands, and everyone is dressed up as Charlie Chaplin.


(Image Credit: BBC/October Films)
 

This is down to one man in Adipur, born during partition, who felt an affinity with the comic actor after hearing that Chaplin had met Mahatma Ghandi in Downing Street in 1931. Apparently, the two struck up an unlikely friendship after the meeting. Chaplin, himself a refugee, seemed to take a lot of inspiration from Gandhi and his messages of hope, respect and peace. Every year, the parade ends at the temple where some of Gandhi’s ashes are scattered.

It’s quite a bizarre event. Everyone is wearing hats and sticks and the moustache and they all waddle around and do Charlie Chaplin jokes! It shows how the people of Gujarat just want to embrace life and celebrate two people that, for them, symbolised so much. 

 

Q: You have a personal connection to partition, as your father’s family moved from a town which is now in Pakistan, to Delhi in India. What do you know about your father’s journey? 

A: My father was born in a small place called Sialkot in what is now Pakistan. My grandfather was an architect who travelled the length of India designing canals: his job would often take him to Delhi and Mumbai. In 1945-6, my grandfather was working in Delhi and, as partition became a more likely prospect, he was increasingly concerned about the family that he’d left behind in Sialkot, including my father who was four years old at the time.

My grandfather was good friends with a Muslim man, Uzam Niddin, who promised my grandfather he would buy train tickets for his family and send them from Sialkot, across the border into Punjab and to safe passage. That’s the story of partition that I grew up with: my father and his family were essentially displaced along with millions of other Hindus who had to cross the border into what we now know to be India, because of the impending plan that was outlined by the British. 

 

Q: What are his memories of the journey?

A: Dad recalls it quite vividly, going from the familiarity of Sialkot into something that was completely unknown, via a train journey that lasted for hours and hours. You’d think that once he crossed onto the India side he would reach some peace or safety, but once in Delhi the tragedy and the destruction of what had happened became more and more apparent. There were still mass killings and dead bodies crossing the border from either side, and my father lived right by one of the main train stations in Delhi, which became a hub for corpses coming in and out. It’s shocking to think this happened regularly for years after the partition was formally agreed. 

It’s only now, at the age of 76, that my father has been able to talk about it. He almost laughs it off, because it’s so difficult to comprehend what they saw through young eyes. The trauma is so deep rooted that it’s better to laugh it off, or not talk about it for decades. When we watched the trailer together for this documentary, he admitted was a difficult experience for him.


Journalist and presenter Babita Sharma pictured beside a sign to Sialkot, Pakistan, the birthplace of her father. She could not visit the town during filming due to her Indian visa. (Image credit: Babita Sharma)

 

Q: How much did the people in these varied communities know about the process of partition or how the new border was being created? 

A: People who weren’t in administrative assemblies or part of the political process did not have a clue. There was no consultation, nothing like town hall meetings detailing what was going to happen. They would know, through public figures and through talk in the community, that – as they would put it – ‘shit was going to hit the fan’. But nobody actually knew when, how or what. 

My father’s family left the year before it happened because they knew that the situation would get worse and worse. My grandfather was well known in the community and he knew problems ahead. He knew there would be no planning and no structure so everyone had to fend for themselves. It was so shocking because in my dad’s community, everyone – Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims – all lived together. There was no separation until that point.

 

Q: What did you find out about what life was like for many of the people who crossed the border? 

A: As you travel the border from south to north, the communities are so diverse. Each was affected in different ways by partition. Some of the people we met in Gujarat told us how communities were able to rehouse themselves to get back on their feet. There was also an agreement that some money was put aside for the housing of the Sindh community in Gujarat, and they knew that every little bit would help.

If you go further north, into Punjab and Kashmir, the story is very different. I don’t think that anyone involved in the decision envisaged what 12 million people trying to move from one side to the other would look like. There was a massive influx of people from both sides. It boiled down to community and it was what people were willing to do for one another.

The people of Punjab really struggled, and it’s a struggle that is even still apparent today. There is a massive drug and alcohol problem in Punjab that is affecting old and young. We went to a rehab clinic, where a doctor told us that partition has contributed to the problem, because people don’t want to talk about what they saw or experienced. They look for a form of escape, and drugs and alcohol is an easy way out. 

Simply because families moved to Britain or elsewhere, like my family, doesn’t mean they escaped the memories of partition. Often, families that emigrated might have achieved economic success and set up families abroad but, as the doctor told me, there is still an emotional wound. This struck a chord with me and it seemed that the stories I had heard came full circle. 

For my family, moving to Delhi might have been seen as a lifeline, but the house that my father moved into was left empty by a Muslim family fleeing to Pakistan. It’s unimaginable for us to comprehend what that meant, to be living among friends and neighbours and suddenly moved. That’s why the trauma is so engraved in people’s hearts and minds.


Babita Sharma with Border control officer, India. (Image credit: BBC/October Films)

 

Q: What did you discover about the legacy of partition? 

A: The biggest thing that fascinated me about this programme is the difference between people’s experiences. Looking at many of the other stories that have come out of this BBC series of programmes on partition, you realise that for many, this is the first time they are talking about it because somehow after 70 years, people feel they can.  

For me, Kashmir was the saddest place to visit, because the people are living the reality of partition every single day. On Fridays, after prayers at a mosque in Srinagar [the summer capital of Kashmir], there is often a standoff between the Indian army and the young Kashmiri boys. Everybody knows that it’s going to happen, and it’s become almost a show of might between the two sides. It’s very sad because violence can escalate, and you see tear gas on the streets. Businesses know that after midday on Friday, they will have to pull down their shutters. We heard of stories of young Kashmiri boys being kidnapped or murdered, or killings of soldiers in the Indian Army.

This is today’s partition. If you think the rest of the partition process was a mess, Kashmir is where the biggest mess is. Further north there is a ‘line of control’ (LoC) which isn’t a border you can see, but an imaginary border created by the Indian and Pakistani army. If you go back to Kashmir in the 1920s and 30s, it was one of the most vibrant and exciting places, alive with music, art and culture. It has the most incredible landscape of stunning mountains and ravines, but it’s sad to think that many don’t see it because war and the legacy of partition mean that tourists stay away. 

When we travelled further north into the very remote region called Ladakh, we came across more untold stories of people who are called the ‘divided families’. Separated from their brothers and sisters by just a few miles, tensions between India and Pakistan and the history of partition have created separated lives. Many families have been split for four or five decades and they live in a state of limbo. With no recognised identities, they live on the LoC. Their existence in ‘no man’s land’ means they have to endure a long, drawn-out bureaucratic process to even apply for access to cross the border and visit their loved ones. For the lucky few, a journey that may take a day could take a month, but at least they may get to cast their eyes on their parents or siblings. It’s heart-breaking and it’s these voices that need to be heard. 

 

The first episode of Dangerous Borders: A Journey across India & Pakistan is available on the BBC iPlayer and the second episode will air on Monday 21 August. The programme is part of 70 Years On: The Partition Story, a major season across BBC One and Two which brings to life some of the forgotten voices of partition and reveals the legacy partition leaves us with today.

Yasmin Kahn explores partition in pictures in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now. 

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