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DMU academic helps BBC tell 'hidden stories' of Partition

A De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) History academic worked with the BBC to shed light on the hidden history of Partition – exploring the chaos, brutality and lawlessness that followed the final days of the British Raj in India.

INSET Anita Rani copy

Seventy years ago, the rule of the British Raj in India came to a bloody, chaotic end as millions were caught up in the violence when India split to create Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).  

DMU’s Dr Pippa Virdee, an expert in Partition worked with presenter Anita Rani on My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947, which was broadcast this week.

Anita Rani’s maternal grandfather’s family had lost their lives in the violence – something she only learned two years ago while taking part in the family history series Who Do You Think You Are?

Dr Virdee, senior lecturer in Modern South Asian History has spent 16 years collecting accounts from people who lived through that brutal time. She said: “I think these programmes are important to raising awareness about our own histories which we know little about. Many British people know there was an empire but few know about the lived experience and the impact this had on my people. Many of the second and third generation South Asians living in the UK are equally uninformed of this past.  

“Anita Rani’s journey in many ways connects the dots of empire, independence, migration and memories from the perspective of the South Asian diaspora.”

Dr Virdee said there were many factors which played a role in the chaos of the final days of empire in India. The transfer of power was Initially planned for June 1948, then the date was changed to August 1947, which effectively left no time to prepare a smooth transfer of power and even less time to consider how the country would be divided.

Cyril Radcliffe the barrister in charge was given six weeks to draw a line, which was only made public on 17 August. Thus millions of people woke up to a new dawn not knowing which country they belonged to.    

“The violence in the Punjab, and elsewhere in India, also ended the hopes of restoring the May 1946 Cabinet Mission’s proposals for a united India,” said Dr Virdee.

“To a large extent, the British administration was keen to exit as soon as possible to avoid being embroiled in a prolonged civil conflict. On the other hand, the long road to freedom had exhausted many and so they were too focused on the end game to foresee the repercussions of this partition, especially in terms of the forced migration.

Dr Virdee said that the last days of empire in India were rarely seen through the eyes and experiences of the masses, and individual lives that were dramatically transformed through Partition.    

“History in the British education system is still largely Euro-centric but there has been some change in recent times; it is important and right to broaden the curriculum to incorporate a more diverse and comprehensive history. Programmes like these are therefore important in filling that gap in hidden histories.”

Dr Virdee was also on hand to help programme makers with ITV Central to explain the effect of Partition on communities across the East Midlands.

She said: “I have spent the past 16 years collecting accounts of people who experienced this first-hand themselves, in both India and Pakistan. Despite religious differences, there is common thread of the human tragedy that unites them. They have all lost their ancestral homes and lands and they all suffered from this forced migration of people.

“While we unearth these accounts, we should also keep in mind how can these histories help heal the wounds of people permanently divided. How do India and Pakistan reconcile this traumatic history going forward?”

Posted on Friday 18th August 2017

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