Canon Michael Roden

Now that our first South Asian Heritage Month is over and, armed with facemasks, children are gradually returning to school; what should we be teaching them to prepare them for life in the coming decades?  Lockdown has taught us how much we all need each other and how much we need to be good neighbours.  BLM has taught us that we have challenges ahead to build a cohesive society. With Brexit now inevitable, we need to weave a new positive national narrative. As we put together this new narrative we need to address the parts that are missing in order to understand all the communities that make up Britain today.

Why, therefore,  are we so shy of teaching South Asian history in schools? After all, Britain has millions of citizens with roots in South Asia and you would think, therefore, that South Asian history should now be a part of the history curriculum mix. At present, however, it definitely isn’t, so why is it avoided? Many British Asians, with family roots in the sub-continent, still feel misunderstood and their histories marginalized. And the number one reason is that South Asian history contains unaddressed trauma – the terrible suffering and grief around the time of Partition, which remain largely unresolved and continue to embitter international and inter-communal relations.

How to address this trauma? Ten years ago, I put together a forum to try to work out a way forward. I admit that I come from a bit left field on this but bear with me.  As a Church of England parish priest, I have spent many years listening to and praying through a lot of individual suffering and grief in inner city, rural, suburban and small-town communities. Sometimes I have been called upon to approve graves and monuments. So when it was my turn to be the chair of the local interfaith network in Hitchin near Luton , I started to listen to the stories of elderly members of local South Asian families. I came across shocking levels of grief, previously hidden to me. Whilst I am frequently in the company of both ‘ordinary’ and traumatic personal grief, the grief of the first generation of British Asians of different religions blew my mind. So many had been displaced by the terrible suffering at the Partition of British India and suffered in silence. No monument or other focus exists to mitigate the pain.

This grief was rarely mentioned in well-established courtly rituals of interfaith dialogue and even appeared to be deliberately avoided. I found out that if you wish to make sure you have almost no one attending an inter-faith meeting you simply put ‘the Partition of India’ into the title. However balanced  the programme is, or authoritative the speakers are from the different communities,  it makes no difference. Even if you have excellent, really warm, relationships with people of different faiths and invite them in person, chances are that they will glaze over at the proposal and stare into the middle distance. Afterwards, however, you may well find yourself taken aside to be told two impassioned things:

  1. strongly advised not to go ahead with your proposed meeting 
  2. an astonishing and horrifying piece of family suffering.

At this point you may conclude that I was ignorant and out of my depth. I was. I realised that I shared this ignorance with most of the British public. With two other clergy colleagues Canon Ed Probert (Salisbury cathedral) and Rev Martin Henwood (Dartford)  we spent sabbatical time in India, talking to people of all different faiths. When we came home, we booked Coventry Cathedral, a symbolic building of post-war reconciliation, for a seminar. We invited in a diverse group. We used the symbolism of the Cathedral to pull in new major partners for a national seminar on a reconciliation initiative. Academic partners include the Royal Holloway College (London), Leeds University, The University of Manchester, and University of Cambridge Centre for South Asian Studies. Media partners include Lion Television and Museum curators from Birmingham and Coventry. The conference was supported by the Runnymede Trust, the National Society (Church of England Schools), individual teachers and a government minister. 

We asked two questions:

  • Should we now teach the history of Partition?
  • if so, how?    

Three reasons emerged that indicated why interfaith discussions have failed to address this trauma and why historians find it so difficult to teach:

The events were so painful. The level of suffering in deaths and displacement was so immense that in local, national and international inter-faith circles that it has been studiously avoided in public discourse. 

The events, presided over by the British, had deeply shameful local consequences. 

The events are hard to discuss well. There are still first-generation victims, and the different diaspora faith communities in Britain each have their own communal narrative

Mike, a Cypriot history teacher in Luton told us:

I come from a divided island, I thought it would be important to teach the events around the partition of India. I read it up very reverently and began to teach the history in a school with a majority of British Asians. The children whose great -grandparents or grandparents came from the Sub Continent leant forward with extreme interest. At last, their history was being taught! The next day they turned up, having questioned their parents, saying ‘where did you get all this stuff from because it is all wrong!’.   

These unhealed narratives from different faith communities can be summarised in ten traumatic words:  

‘let me tell you what those people did to us’.

So should we continue to leave the field well alone? No! – because if we blank off each other’s story, we will never build a peaceful society in which measured interaction is possible. So, let’s think about the history of Partition. I was shocked at my own lack of knowledge on the subject and realised that I wasn’t alone in this ignorance. It wasn’t being addressed in our interfaith conversations, nor were my children being taught about it in school.

We need to face these problems:

  • how do we build a society that moves beyond a single narrative of the past to an appreciation of the variety of narratives?
  • Can an appreciation of the variety of narratives help us form a new national narrative. If so, can this blended narrative be honest and robust enough to be discussed and help both inter-personal and inter-communal understanding ?

In short, how do we process our different narratives and live together well? 

Our seminar and our collection of partners led to the Partition History Project (PHP), aiming to examine the roots of these tensions in the terrible events of the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan. Something very different was needed, and with very different partnerships from what had been happening. With this impetus we were able to engage Church of England Schools at a national level. And we also had several academic partners ,Professor Joya Chatterji (Trinity Cambridge),  Professor Sarah Ansari (Royal Holloway, London) and Professor Will Gould (Leeds), and together we started to pitch programmes to the BBC. 

It was a major breakthrough when one of the people from our Coventry seminar, Richard Bradley of LION TV, managed to nudge the BBC into taking on a commissioning editor for programmes on the Partition. And our external nudging chimed in with internal efforts from some great people within the BBC such as Kavita Puri, Fatima Salaria, and Anita Rani. 23 powerful documentaries on Partition during 2017 had a stunning effect. A common theme among those people interviewed for these was the experience of partition terrible mutual loss. The fact that many more people in Britain have now some knowledge of the events owes much to the quiet influence of our academic colleagues on these projects. 

The focus of our activity at all levels has been to enable people of different faiths to engage with the very difficult issues that face and confront them, enabling reconciliation not just to be spoken about, but actually to happen.

in Britain, the terrible events around the time of the Partition have been a taboo subject for over 70 years. But how should we teach it? Right now, if the events of 1947 are taught at all, it is found much easier to teach about the struggle for freedom from colonial rule, than to face the extreme suffering that happened during this period of divorce. Whilst this painful story is not widely known or publicly acknowledged in Britain, the trauma still resonates in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and amongst British Asians today. 

The end of the centuries’-old British Empire in India in 1947 was absolutely not a footnote in the development of modern Britain. Until 2017, however, from a glance at the GCSE History syllabus, or a consideration of the TV series of recent decades you would get the impression that it was. In these we tended to find either the Raj, or the independent modern world, while the moment that bridges the two received little attention. 

But there is artistic potential even in tragedy. So we teamed up with Sudha Bhuchar, writer of a fine children’s play on the Partition, ‘Child of the Divide’. In 2017 we staged it, and provided for schools education materials based on the drama.  The PHP then gained funding (£34k) from the Kirby Laing Foundation, and a further Arts Council grant (£100K) to tour the play all over Britain, enabling informed and imaginative conversations with schoolchildren from diverse ethnic and faith backgrounds. 

The Partition History Project grew out of a desire to find constructive ways to address the continuing but unacknowledged pain of past trauma. ‘Child of the Divide’ demonstrated that the arts can prove helpful in bridging the gaps caused by parallel historical and communal memories. Many other artistic channels may exist to continue this important endeavour.

The PHP is among the founding organizations of South Asian Heritage Month, which launched in July 2020.

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