70 Years Later, India And Pakistan Still Feel Impact Of Partition

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 6:49 pm
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Seventy years ago this week, Britain granted independence to the Indian subcontinent which was partitioned into two countries - Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The separation was violent and incredibly deadly. Estimates vary, but most say over a million people were killed. This time of year, both Pakistan and India celebrate their national days, holidays that are deeply interrelated, marking an event that a diminishing number of their citizens can actually recall.

Well, NPR's Diaa Hadid and Julie McCarthy are in the two countries, Diaa in Pakistan and Julie in India. And they've been talking to people about the partition of 1947 and join us now. Diaa, hi.


SIEGEL: And hello, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hello, Robert. Hello, Diaa.

SIEGEL: And, Julie, let's start with you. Take us back to 1947 and remind us of what was happening in those countries after partition.

MCCARTHY: Well, partition was this enormous human cyclone, really. Fourteen million would move from one country, Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan into India while in the opposite direction the Muslims were flowing out of India and into the new Islamic state of Pakistan. And Muslims had been agitating for their own state, feeling marginalized. And this whole enterprise becomes a runaway train in the months leading up to the actual formal announcement. I mean, there's killings, there's rapes, abductions, suicides on both sides of the border. But the most significant thing in partition is that it literally carves up the Indian subcontinent. And they live with the repercussions of that today.

SIEGEL: Now, both of you spoke with people who lived through the partition. And, Diaa, tell us first about whom you met.

HADID: Right. So I met Mohammed Qureishi. He's an 83-year-old man who lives in Lahore. Now, Mohammed was actually born in India in a city called Amritsar. It was a Sikh-dominated city. And during the violence of partition, they felt compelled to flee even though they wanted to stay. And so they managed to get on one of the trains that was leaving Amritsar to Lahore. But this in itself was an incredibly dangerous prospect because so many people fleeing on trains either towards India or towards Pakistan were butchered on the way. And these later became known as the ghost trains because of the eerie silence of the corpses that were arriving to these newfound states. So Mohammed got onto one of these trains with his family, and he's been in Lahore ever since. And yet he still yearns for his birthplace.

MOHAMMED QUREISHI: (Through interpreter) We decided almost 40 years ago that if relations normalize, then we would go back our home. And I would directly go to my house. And...

Put my foot at the - before my house.

HADID: Now, you can hear at the end of that - that's the translator. That's my colleague, Abdi Sitad (ph), translating for Mohammed. And Mohammed jumps in because he really wants to make sure that I've understood that he wants to put his feet back in the home where he was born.

SIEGEL: Mohammed, who left his birthplace in Amritsar in India for now Lahore in Pakistan. Diaa, you spoke with him. Julie, whom did you talk to about memories of the partition?

MCCARTHY: You had very similar sort of gushing emotions from old men who have a deep attachment despite what happened to them. They have these vivid memories. D.D. Arora barely made it out of Pakistan alive. He was 16. And he was not there with his family. He was studying. And he talked about how overnight his school became this refugee center for 50,000 people. But his escape was also so harrowing. He boards a train and learns that the one in front of him has been attacked, everyone slaughtered. Now, these trains were like moving cities, Robert. They were so long. And he describes having to get out and walk around the train. Here is D.D. Arora. And we've used a voiceover to help you understand him better here.

D D ARORA: (Through interpreter) The track was full of bodies. We thought we'd be killed if we didn't move from there. We had seen the mob shouting, leave this country, otherwise you will be killed. A mob is a horrible thing. I found that even your friends, Muslim friends - nobody recognizes you. People had become like animals.

MCCARTHY: Arora actually breaks out in sobs remembering all of this. And, you know, there were a lot of people who just refused to talk. It was simply too painful for them.

SIEGEL: You're describing catastrophic stories that affected people right at the beginning of Indian independence, right at the beginning of Pakistan's existence. But it's 70 years ago. How does partition still shape the India and the Pakistan that we see today? Julie, I'll ask you first.

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, in India today and in recent years, it's very much a kind of formative, defining framework. In fact, what we have on this side of the border is a kind of Hindu swagger. And it subtly reminds minorities, especially the Muslims, that India is majority Hindu. And the underlying message there is if you don't like it, you can go next door to Pakistan. And you don't have to search too hard to find this kind of Hindu belligerence.

You find it in this upsurge of lynchings involving outfits that protect cows, an animal that's regarded as sacred by Hindus. There's a crackdown on free speech. You, you know, let a Bollywood star - many of them are Muslim - say something even remotely critical of India and a ton of bricks comes down on them. And it's silenced them. And I have to say, Robert, that I really discovered the Muslims that I spoke with about partition and about what's happened 70 years on really unwilling to go on the record about how they feel about things today. They're afraid. That's what the climate is now.

SIEGEL: And, Diaa Hadid in Pakistan, how would you say partition still shapes that country as we see it today?

HADID: Here the emphasis is on how Muslims were the victims of Hindus and Sikhs. And this also filters down to the very young generations. I was speaking to an oral historian who was working on a project that was meant to build goodwill between Pakistani and Indian children by sending each other postcards. She had two big shocks trying to implement this project.

The first was quite a few schools rejected her because they didn't want their children speaking to Indians. And then when she finally made it into a classroom, she said some of the kids just refused to write postcards to Indians because they hated them so much. These are children who have never met someone from the other side. And what's really interesting about this is that the partition generation, those who experienced the terrifying flight from their homes into Pakistan, are often the people who are the most nuanced.

But you don't hear their voices. And nor do you hear this other thing that I found quite interesting, that many people who survived the horrors of partition survived because they were helped by people who were meant to be their enemies. People took unbelievable personal risks to help each other. And those are stories that we just don't hear today.

SIEGEL: Julie, among young people or children in India, do you sense the same thing, a resistance to any kind of dealings with Pakistan?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think the Indians do tend to have a greater reserve about looking toward Pakistan. But there's also deep curiosity. I mean, a lot of people asked me because I lived there for years, you know, what are their clothes like? I love their soap operas. Tell me more. What's it like over there? So there is certainly a curiosity. But what there is not is the sentimentality that the older generation has for Pakistan.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi and Diaa Hadid in Islamabad talking about the 70th anniversary of the partition which created the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Thanks to both of you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

HADID: Thank you.

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