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India@70: Overdose of Partition in UK media irks Indians

Programmes and commentary on the Partition in the British media have not gone down well with Indians, who say Britain’s role in the events of 1947 is missing from the narrative.

world Updated: Aug 14, 2017 16:37 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
Partition,British Raj,British media
File photo from September 1947 shows Muslim refugees sitting on the roof of an overcrowded train near New Delhi while trying to flee India. Partition marked a massive upheaval across the subcontinent, as Hindus living for generations in what was to become Pakistan fled their homes overnight. (AP)

August 15 has long been an occasion for the British media to remember the “jewel in the crown”, the empire and pass judgment on how India has fared since independence, but the current focus on Partition hasn’t exactly enthused the Indian community here.

The BBC, in particular, has unleashed a series of Partition-themed programmes across radio, television and the internet, but newspapers are not far behind pillaging the Partition discourse, with much comment from leading writers and commentators.

Missing in the narrative and imagery is Britain’s role and responsibility for the Partition and its fallout. The British view of Partition presents another dimension to 2017, which is billed as the UK-India Year of Culture.

“I’m a little partitioned-out. We are celebrating 70 years of Indian independence and it seems like the only thing we have to show for it is Partition – look at the rash of films and programmes that have cropped up,” said London-based writer Seema Anand.

“Yes, Partition marred the advent of our freedom. Yes, it was the most tragic and awful event and should never be forgotten. But isn’t it also time to get some perspective? It’s been 70 years – both countries have established their identities, they have earned the right to call themselves independent nations, rather than just two halves of a broken state.”

Some recent headlines in the print media were: Partition 70 years on: The violence that created Pakistan and India (Independent); Why Pakistan and India remain in denial 70 years on from partition (The Guardian); The terrible truth about my family’s Partition history (The Daily Telegraph); The real bloody legacy of Partition (The Spectator); and Remembering Partition: 70 years since India-Pakistan divide (Daily Mail).

Several members of the Indian community told Hindustan Times the media focus on Partition almost seemed like a “celebration” of an event that resulted in one of largest movements of refugees. It was the same dominant theme during the 50th anniversary of independence in 1997 and the 60th in 2007, they recalled.

A BBC spokesperson said: “To mark the anniversary, the BBC has commissioned a diverse range of programmes across TV, radio and online in a range of languages. The output utilises a wide variety of voices to provide fresh perspectives and ensure a balance between examining the impact of historical events and looking forward.

“Along with programmes examining the things that unite the two nations today, there will be coverage of commemorative activity in India and Pakistan and a focus on personal stories to show how the events of 70 years ago still have an impact today, with many witnesses telling their stories now, for the first time.”

However, according to Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Forum, it is interesting how BBC and the rest of British media seem to have revived the Partition by concentrating on perpetrators of violence and victims rather than those who managed the period.

“This Partition focus is because they want to feel good about themselves. Why isn’t the British media exposing British culpability and gross incompetence in the violence? The Partition violence is a greater reflection of the shambolic, racist and cruel colonial rule that thrived on dividing rather than co-opting local populations,” he said.

Daya K Thussu, professor and co-director of the Indian Media Centre at the University of Westminster, said: “Despite Britain’s direct responsibility for the Partition, the BBC’s coverage – both in factual and fictional genres – has been to ignore the British role in what was one of the worst tragedies of the 20thcentury.

“An imperial mindset still appears to influence the worldview of the elites of a diminishing power. By focusing on the Partition, the BBC has missed the bigger story about India – the third largest economy in the world (in terms of purchasing power parity) and its growing investment in Britain.”

Visitors from India too have been intrigued watching and reading mainly about Partition here. Kolkata-based economist Kunal Bose said: “India is bigger than Partition; why focus only on Partition? Why rake up the past and vitiate the present with images from Partition? Much has happened in the last 70 years; economic progress, for example; they should be focusing more on that than on Partition.”

First Published: Aug 14, 2017 16:30 IST