In Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Midnight’s Children’, the female body is intentionally juxtaposed to demonstrate her significance to creating the imagined community that is the nation. Before ‘Midnights Children’ are born, the pregnant mother symbolises ‘wholeness’ which is the dream of a unified India. Yet, the birth of her child at the exact moment of Indian independence subsequently coincides with the violence of partition. Through this insight into Rushdie’s novel, we can dissect how the idea of a unified India represented an aspirational ideal for many across India before 1947. Yet, the high politics of India’s partition took strides to define the relations of people, and groups to each other. The stirrings of communal tension between Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in the months leading to partition demonstrated British failings to meet the demands of several groups across the subcontinent. As orchestrators of the Indian independence, British failings to adequately address and shape dialogue between the groups in the state Britain had domain over for over 150 years, burned into a bloody civil war at the stroke of midnight after Nehru declared India to be an independent nation on the 15th August 1947. The subsequent result which followed was that India became divided, and Pakistan emerged in branding as the vanguard for Islam in the subcontinent. In one of the world’s largest migrations, over one million were estimated to have died as a result of partition violence. At times, the study of partition can be ill assumed as a conflict between India’s Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Yet, an accurate assessment of the construction of how India became partitioned exposes the hidden link in the chain; the decline of British power in India.
It is in this light of declining British power, that the study of partition represents a historical epoch in modern British History. Less than 75 years ago, Britain had engineered the creation of the subcontinent as we currently know it today. It did so in a way that exposed the fragilities of one of the oldest imperialisms for Britain, the British in India. The journey of the British in India had begun with the conquests of the East India Company in 1757, and ended with a chaotic, and blood drenched civil war in 1947. Here, partition created the two modern nation states of India and Pakistan. By 1971, the thorniness of the first partition took its own reckoning with the division of East and West Pakistan to create the nation of Bangladesh after a similarly bloody war. Through understanding the journey of the British in India, we begin to make sense of the often chaotic, unplanned and therefore violent nature of British imperialism. In moving forward to the shift to partition India, we are further exposed to how constructions of human difference created in the 18th century, manifested itself with the plan to leave India in 1947. The chaotic nature of planning led to the displacement and deaths of over 2 million as new homes were navigated. A further estimated 2-3 million were later killed in 1971. Clearly, the sores of partition are wounds which are unhealed to this day and have shaped the consciousnesses of both India and Pakistan in the modern day.
Whilst the story of partition appears to be a story worth telling, the question of why should this story be told in our History curriculums today is a question that warrants attention. My claim is to extend beyond zones of cultural relevance to argue that because school X has a X percentage of children from the South Asian community, the study of partition must definitely be placed on the curriculum map. Rather, the case for partition is that students should study one of the most significant consequences of British decolonisation regardless of school context. Partition represents a definitive moment in British state specific history within the modern period. Through understanding the nature of British control in India, students can be exposed to ideas of how the British began to colonise one of the world’s supposed largest democracies, engineered ideas of difference, used India as a base for exporting migrants to and from Britain, and bolstered its sense of self on the world stage. Our understandings of how important India was to Britain for over 150 years is mirrored not just within historical archives, but in literature such as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Great Game’. For example, the ‘Great Game’ positions the idea that the most significant issue pressuring Britain was not the threat of wider invasion into India- but of ‘policing the Raj’ from itself by creating a class of Indian’s as English in character to the colonial power. These understandings present a dynamic to modern British History which stretch away from the inaccurate idea presented in several curriculums as Britain the saviour and bringer of railways in India.
Recent shifts in historiography have demonstrated that the nature of the British Empire in India was less so a well-intentioned mission of the peaceful transition of power, but often an unplanned, chaotic and violent conquest ready to use emergency powers to subdue native populations at an instant as the 20th century progressed. The question of ‘Why was India Partitioned in 1947?’ welcomes the opportunity for students to address what is really meant by physical decolonisation as Britain retreated from having one of its most successful empires. Through studying partition, students are allowed to understand just how significantly modern British History has been shaped by the presence of Britain in other countries over the past 150 years. If stories of partition specifically are left untold, a significant part of Britain’s existence in the modern world is also skipped over. Here, there is a risk of erasing one of Britain’s worst retreats in modern History. To do so, erases the struggles of the bodies that built a significant part of the British Empire, and who were promised dreams of freedom from the imperial yoke. If, as History teachers we are to position our classrooms as places of reckoning for the ills of the past, partition is a historically evidenced case of why such a topic should be on national curriculum maps across the UK.
Fariha Munim, History Teacher, TeachFirst Ambassador, 2020 Aziz Foundation Scholar, London UK