In this article, Jinny Sehra, Legal Training Manager and deputy chair of the NBCPA, shares her father’s partition story.
Growing up in the eighties, I considered myself a daddy’s girl and would do anything to grab his attention away from five other siblings. I would do this by engaging in deep conversations with my father about his upbringing and his journey to the UK. I would say “Dad, why did you come here (the UK)?” He would always reply in the same way “To give you and our family a better life”.
My Sikh father arrived in the UK in the early ’60s when the UK was still re-building the country after the second world war, people would come from the Indian sub-continent and work in industries such as textiles, mills, and construction.. My father couldn’t speak a word of English and relied on relatives that had arrived before he did to show him the ropes. My father immediately set to work, trying to raise some money to send to my mother and daughter, so they could join him.
I grew up in Leeds, West Yorkshire, the daughter of a working-class family. My parents ran the local corner shop.
My parents worked hard to provide for us, they would be in the shop by 5am every day, sorting out the daily newspapers, for delivery and would close it at 10:30 pm, exhausted.
Most days, my father would sit in a back room and wait for the distinctive sound of a cheap bell to let him know, we had a customer while waiting, he would read his newspaper The Daily Jang. (The Daily Jang is an Urdu newspaper based in Karachi, Pakistan. It is the oldest newspaper of Pakistan in continuous publication since its foundation in 1939).
Being interested in calligraphy, I was fascinated with Urdu, the beautiful natural flowing lines and shapes the words would form, in the newspaper. I asked my father why he was reading an Urdu newspaper, rather than a Punjabi one (my mother tongue). He told me that this was the language he was taught to read and write at school. It was on that very day that I realised my father was also a victim of the partition.
My father told me that, as a 10-year-old boy, he woke up one day and was told he would move away from everything he knew including his best friends, school, home, and his community. My father was born in Punjab but on the now wrong side (now Pakistan) and would endure months of homelessness, poverty, and loss of family.
In 1858, the British crown directly ruled the Punjab, and the rest of British India. By 1947, the province had been divided into East Punjab and West Punjab because of the partition, in the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan. So, his home/state was effectively torn in half, forcing a complete upheaval and a trauma he carried with him until his dying day.
There are thousands of books, articles, and personal stories about the devastation of the partition and over the years, I spent hours reading about the violence, rapes and murders. Death camps were formed, and journalists were quoted saying that the scenes and brutality based on nationality alone were reminiscent of the Nazi death camps.
The British finally left India after 300 years and India got its independence and was partitioned into two nation-states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
In what is considered one of the greatest migrations in history, millions of Muslims who trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter is now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction.
The figures are shocking beyond belief; it is estimated that 75 thousand women were raped, and many of them were disfigured or dismembered. By 1948, as the great migration ended, over fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million men, women and innocent children were dead.
The partition created a deep-rooted divide between Indians and Pakistanis that still exist today. My parents’ generation, both Indian and Pakistanis still carry with them, the unspeakable memories, of a time best forgotten. The aftermath of the partition has also created different narratives, created by both Pakistani and Indian historians cementing the divide.
When I asked my father to share details his own partition stories, I watched, the way his expression would change to sadness, and at that moment, he would sink deep in thought, he would then quickly change the subject or be saved by the timely shop bell.
Sadly, my father passed away in 1997 taking the majority of his partition stories with him, but, as promised, he did give me the opportunity for a better life and I honour him every day for doing so.