Partition and the British Identity

It’s absolutely true to assert that Partition is as central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews; branded painfully onto South Asian consciousness by memories of unimaginable violence. Yet the identity never examined is that of the British then, and now.

There has been – in Britain – a disavowal of Indian history and the impacts of the violence partition unleashed, as well as the conscious actions over decades by the British in India to create that violence.

From their ‘hill stations‘ – spaces created along the lines of a rigid apartheid – British colonial administrators drew lines on maps which engraved in soil and across generations the trauma of being uprooted, of losing connections to land and peoples built up over centuries, tearing apart a millennial fabric of a shared culture.

Partition was not a joyous moment; even as Independence from centuries of wealth extraction and exploitation should have been for both countries.

  • At the moment of their birth, neither nation knew where their borders were because these minor details were witheld from them. Let that sink in.
  • A botched process of partition saw the slaughter of more than a million people; some 15 million were displaced.

Untold numbers were maimed, mutilated, dismembered and disfigured. Countless lives were scarred. Even in exit, the British managed to mess up their legacy, snatching defeat from the jaws of a potential moral victory.

In the final analysis, the truth is that Britain’s exit enabled a myth of “après nous, le déluge”: the idea that Britain’s rule in India was functional and somehow civilising (rather than venal, murderous, extractive and ignorant), and that things fell apart only once the British left.

The blame for a disaster of this magnitude comes down to centuries of chaotic, violent, unresponsive and wilfully divisive rule in which the Raj’s end was no different to its entire tawdry existence.

Where was this awful behaviour learned?

In failing to face up to this shared past, modern British people now struggle to see the future. The modern British identity has no idea what its governors have in store for it. That’s a big problem.

Today India has the world’s largest middle class after China. It took decades and massive social change to get there following independence. Yet, much as we’re experiencing in the West, those gains seem transitory. In that sense, the picture over there doesn’t look that different to the one over here. But it is different in many ways. Indian doctors are remaining in India where the growing middle class pay for healthcare in swish clinics, hospitals and surgeries. Investment is being ploughed back into the economy rather than being exported elsewhere. There are jobs. And whilst life is awful for many, it’s also awfully good for many.

So, let’s look at Britain.

Britain’s traditional ruling class has reasserted itself and held power in one form or another for more than four decades. In that time deregulation and ‘market forces’ have been the driving mantra.

  • Once state owned and run utilities like water and power now cost every consumer extraordinary amounts …
  • Climate change is having appreciable effects – Yay! Let’s have an Industrial Revolution on the proceeds of colonial plunder and slavery.
  • Food is scarce for many – Bear in mind the mass and organised starvations the British were responsible for in India; deliberate acts of genocide.
  • The divide between those that have and those that don’t are growing exponentially
  • The once public realm is privatised to deliver shareholder value at the expense of taxpayers – Well, hello East India Company!

In an echo of British rule in India, it’s always someone else’s fault.

British rule in India worked largely because it pitted one group against another to extract value by every means possible: Hindu against Muslim; Punjabi against Gujarati; Bengali against Nepali; Christian against Jew; Zoroastrians against Jains … it was vile and it destroyed a long treasured and nurtured sense of community.

Towards the end of that rule, it took the form of a painful partition designed to make both India and Pakistan reliant on Britain in the full expectation that it would continue the the relationship of bully and bullied. But it didn’t really work out that way.

Countries like India need Britain far less than Britain needs them. Don’t expect Brown people on bended knee before some British non-entity today.

While countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh may face many of the impacts of climate change, it is increasingly understood that the problem began here in Britain with an industrial revolution funded by the vast amounts plundered from India and from the profits of slavery.

As with so much of life in times of change, reflecting and learning matter. Learning and reflection enable adaptation. And adaptation enables any entity – whether individual, collective or national – to survive. Despite everything, those countries are surviving against sometimes insuperable odds.

Wisdom comes from reflection.

History teaches us lessons. What matters is whether you are prepared to learn.