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Partition, Remembrance, and the Numbing of the Diaspora

16 Aug , 2017  

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Amongst the vast swathes of prime-time television documentaries, social media posts and online think pieces, one cannot help but notice a recurring theme in discussions surrounding partition: the centrality of “past” experience. But what is the importance of this? Why is the way in which we remember partition an activity to reflect upon? And why is it significant to South Asia’s diaspora?

Partition is overtly represented as “past”. Black and white palettes help to visually place partition at a time when many of us were either incredibly young or decades away from life. Grainy pictures and pixelated video footage actively work to remove partition from “modern”, Western society, and as a result, the audiences who are engaging in remembrance are positioned as nothing more than passive spectators of the horrors of a partition, distanced using visual significations of the past… of history.

Within the popular imaginary, there is an overt link between partition and colonial rule. The creation of “sovereign nation-states” India and West Pakistan, which was partitioned further to create Bangladesh in 1971, portray partition as a tangible “end” of a British colonial occupancy spanning over two-hundred years, first under the East India Company and later under the British Raj. The grave carelessness of a post-war Britain, increasing pressure from South Asian political organisations and the grassroots activities of various anti-colonial movements across South Asia are some factors in explaining why partition happened. Such forces pressed for the decolonisation of South Asia and its peoples from the grip of the British. Discussions around partition almost always refer to British colonialism in one way, shape or form, meaning the two ideas have become inextricably linked.

Considering these representations together, partition is understood as the apparent breaking point of British colonial rule deeply historicised within collective memory. For the diaspora, especially the young, partition is an event marred by mass movement, familial trauma and incomprehensible loss of life. Specifically, the event centres on older generations and their struggles through partition and further difficulties as international migrants. This template is largely reproduced within partition documentaries, think: young diasporic South Asian researches the impact of partition on their ancestral lineage and maps the difficulties their families faced following 1947. This is the one of the general forms of partition representation in popular culture and, as stated, this has the effect of distancing partition, and by extension the process of decolonisation, from the younger generations within South Asian diaspora.

I do not doubt that the remembrance of partition is an incredibly important activity as doing so fosters an appreciation for what members of our communities have experienced, what they have fought for and how hard they have worked to build a new life for the majority of us. I, myself, have found that speaking to my nana (mother’s father) about partition is an integral way to understand the immediate ramifications of territorial decolonisation and his subsequent journey to the United Kingdom. However, my research into the fallout of partition does not end there, as whenever I speak with my parents about their upbringings and their experiences as second-generation South Asian migrants, the on-going process of decolonisation and partition are still prominent in my thoughts. My qualm does not lie in how older peoples are the “subject” of partition remembrance. My issue is with the portrayal of younger generations as nothing but passive spectators to partition, and by extension, the process of decolonisation in which partition was so integral. Power structures existing before partition are embedded within British social and political institutions and decolonisation should be considered a process, rather than something ending in 1947.

Historicising partition – placing it firmly within the past – is important as it distances the experiences of colonialism from diasporic youth, almost forwarding it as a “closed” chapter within the histories of South Asia and Britain. From this, the process of decolonisation and the politics it entails are diminished in importance. Older generations are understood as the subjects of colonial violence, the peak of which was reached in 1947.

How we remember partition dictates how we understand the past, colonialism and decolonisation. It makes sense to juxtapose the colonial violence of the past with contemporary battles which South Asian communities face: rampant homophobia, anti-blackness and transphobia are to name but a few issues. Discussing 1947 with no relation to how it shapes the contemporary will numb the diaspora as to the consequences of colonialism and the need for decolonial politics. Popular culture addresses the violence of colonialism within partition but there is very little to link it to the lives of younger generations today.

When discussing partition, it is necessary to acknowledge that colonialism did not end with Cyril Radcliffe’s cartographical experiment. The psyche of formerly colonised peoples is left in a discursive knot, one which hours of careful, painstakingly slow combing cannot undo. Constructing diasporic youth as distant and unaffected by colonialism is a great tragedy in how we remember partition, colonialism and its effects.

Acknowledging the immense difficulties of our ancestors and accepting that decolonisation is an ongoing process are not mutually exclusive. Whether it be in deconstructing hierarchies of race, sexuality or gender, or attempting to understand complex relations between South Asian communities, acknowledging that colonial forces have shaped, and continue to shape, our everyday lives is an important step in a progressive politics which seeks social equity, justice and inclusion.


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