By Shuhada Mannan – Secondary School History Teacher
The British Empire is taught in every secondary school in the UK. In Key Stage Three, the colonisation of India is usually taught as the ‘Jewel in the Crown of the Empire’, a story of trade and the civilisation mission. As a 12-year-old student, when learning about India you think of the transformation of British colonial rule as the abolition of sati*, the construction of Mumbai, sanitation and the introduction of the enlightened English tongue. Least of all, you learn that India was not one homogeneous space where lived ‘Indians’. Some were Muslim and some Hindu, but the religious diversity did not end there. There is no mention of Bengalis, Gujaratis, Punjabis and Tamils to name a few, and the diversity of both ethnicity and religion is overlooked.
Present day Pakistan and Bangladesh are not taught as part of that India. It might be given a quick mention by the teacher and referenced on a map, but quickly you move on to look at railways, cotton and Gandhi. The Partition of an entire sub-continent which had lived united as one for centuries is missing from the narrative. The biggest recorded mass migration in history, the death and displacement of millions and the geographical reshaping of the region, appears not to be a noteworthy legacy of British colonialism. Partition destroyed lives and separated families, it was characterised by bloody mass violence and corruption. A once flourishing region became an unstable sub-continent, but we remember the railways. While railways may be important, they are not a key marker of two centuries of the British Rule.
I was one of the lucky few that did get to learn about Partition at school. But even during my A-Levels, the best we got was a two hour lesson, which consisted of a two hour documentary. The course specification ended at Partition, this documentary was just a favour to most of the class that were from a South Asian background. The course itself was a brilliant insight into British colonialism in India, it was just a shame Partition was not part of it. Looking back, this was just as confusing as a high school history teacher, as it was as a student. The Partition shaped the lives of over a billion people living in the sub-continent and abroad. The legacy is felt everyday with the rising religious tensions in all three affected countries.
Why don’t we teach partition in schools?
There are certain periods in history that are compulsory topics in British schools. The Transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust and both World Wars are all compulsory topics and rightly so. These are established narratives; the Slave Trade was bad; the Holocaust was bad and the good side won in both Wars. There is a 1947 shaped gap in the curriculum which is reflective of higher education in this country more broadly. It leaves teachers wanting to teach what they’ve specialised in and have established narratives to teach. Should it be taught as a conflict of religion or a legacy of colonialism? To avoid these discussions altogether, we are more comfortable to ignore it.
If we start to give Partition its due importance, then the art that was colonial line-drawing will need its own module. The partition of Africa and the Middle East. Where do we stop? Too many questions which are too easy to ignore! But it is vital that we have these discussions.
What needs to change?
There has already been a shift in schools to teach Empire and the effects of colonialism more critically to bring balance and historical accuracy, much to the dismay of Michael Gove who feels we teach history ‘riddled with post-colonial guilt.’ There are movements like ‘Justice 2 History’, working to bring representation to diverse histories by training teachers and providing guidance to schools. The South Asian population of Britain is 4.9%, with around 18.4% in London, not enough has been done to represent our history, which is ingrained in British history.
The partition of India, especially the nature in which it was implemented, was a direct result of colonialism and it should be taught as such. Partition has a place in the History curriculum, it also has a place in Citizenship and Geography, but is missing from all aspects of the curriculum. Perhaps an approach of history from the bottom-up, looking at human experience and not just politics. The diversity of this country needs to be reflected in its education system. My final remark is that the event of 1947, the lead up and the Partition should be a core module which gives this crucial moment in history, its due.
*sati is the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre