The Partition of August 1947 into independent India and newly created West and East Pakistan defined the lives and mindsets of the Indian Subcontinent. After three hundred years in India, as the British Empire crumbled after the Second World War, the attempt to withdraw from the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Empire seemed inevitable.
The nationalist struggle for independence spanned over decades and gave rise to countless independence movements, along with the creation of major political parties such as the Indian National Congress (established in 1885) and the All India Muslim League (established in 1906). The multiple political agendas coupled with the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and a hurried withdrawal of the British at the whim of the last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, resulted in a failed attempt at a unified state. This followed with the creation of division on religious lines, with the Muslim-majority states forming Pakistan and Hindu-majority states remaining as India.
Across the Indian subcontinent, provinces adjoining both West and East Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Bengal, witnessed particularly intense carnage, with mass killings, abductions, arsons, looting and forced conversions, and sexual violence. Over one million people lost their lives. The number of people who migrated between the two newly formed countries are at an estimate to be around 10 to 15 million, making it the largest human migration in recorded history.
The violence, the forced mass migration and confusion of identities post-division seem unquantifiable and so with the presentation of official statistics we fail to humanise history. Before the colonial rule, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs did not strongly define themselves by territory or by religion in opposition to one another.
As William Dalrymple put it,
“in the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings (…). A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.”
Until today, there is a strong cultural memory of how much more inclusive India was prior to the colonial rule.
Many describe 1947 as a ‘moment of madness’ – a time in history where actions of the masses cannot be explained. We fail to remember that beneath the staggering statistics were humans, individual lives who endured unimaginable suffering. There were also many examples of communities coming together, with neighbours saving neighbours and friends saving friends at the risk of losing their own lives.
These are the stories that have inspired The Grand Trunk Project, in hope to shed light on how people would come together in the midst of all the dividing forces around them.