Dr Eleanor Newbigin's Foreword
How we see and describe the events of August 1947 in British India has changed a lot over the 70 years since they took place. At the time, Indian and Pakistani leaders proclaimed the end of colonial enslavement and the birth of a free nation. Indian leaders, particularly representatives of the Indian National Congress, expressed sorrow that independence had come, in their eyes ‘at the cost’ of partition, but they were pleased to win new political freedom. Many Pakistani leaders felt that August 1947 marked a two-fold freedom: a freedom from British colonialism and from Hindu-majority rule.
British leaders had a different view of colonial rule. They argued that far from enslaving India, British rule had helped to prepare the two new nations for self-government. From their perspective, the British were leaving India now because their job was done. For all these leaders, therefore, 14th/15th August 1947 was heralded to mark independence – that is a positive event of state power and reformation.
These views greatly influenced the first historical accounts of 1947, some of which were written by political leaders and people who had been involved in negotiating the transfer of power. Early histories were written to explain, or often justify, the outcome of these negotiations. They helped to legitimise the post-1947 world order (the power of the governments of India and Pakistan, and Britain’s loss of empire) rather than encouraging people to question it.
A new understanding of 1947 began to emerge in the 1980s. The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984, who were Sikh soldiers. The Sikh community had historically been based in Punjab, an area that was divided by the border between India and Pakistan that was created in 1947. The creation of the border was a source of a lot of anxiety, particularly for the Sikhs who lived right in the middle of the land that would be divided. Politicians only announced the exact position of the border a day after the end of British rule – on 16th August 1947. As people became scared about their future, there was a surge of violence between the different religious groups in the region. Muslim groups attacked Sikhs and Hindus, who attacked them in return. The violence forced many Sikh families to move as refugees to Delhi, the new Indian capital. For these communities, August 1947 had always been a time of violence, loss and sorrow, not celebration or ‘independence’, but their accounts and experiences had not ever been given much thought by historians.
When the Sikh soldiers shot the Prime Minister, Delhi residents attacked members of the Sikh community living in the city. Thousands of people were killed. Many older members of the Sikh community felt that this violence was like a replay of the partition violence of 1947. They began to talk about these earlier experiences more freely and many people, including historians, began to listen. By the early twentieth century a different view of 1947 had begun to emerge, a view that looked not at state power and political ‘independence’ but at social history and individual grief. While histories of ‘independence’ stressed the difference between India and Pakistan, the personal accounts of partition showed how ordinary people from all religious communities had suffered. While the earlier histories of ‘independence’ worked to settle the new political status-quo, the social histories of ‘partition’ have given rise to new questions about 1947 and its legacies which we are still exploring today.