Published on 10/08/2022
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Indian national flag pictured behind barbed wire fence
  • Aston University academic discusses need to understand what resulted in up to two million deaths
  • The partition formed part of a global pattern of expanding nation-states, fitting populations to borders, and decolonisation throughout the 20th century
  • Debate now needed to find ways to accommodate human diversity rather than pulling people apart

The partition of India at the end of the Second World War was not an “evil scheme” but a case of being “overtaken by events”, according to an academic at Aston University.

Dr Volker Prott, a senior lecturer in modern history, spoke about the legacy of India and Pakistan’s independence in the latest episode of the ‘Society matters’ podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

Dr Prott said there was a “bitter irony” in “celebrating” the 75th anniversary of the partition and independence of India and Pakistan, granted on 15 August 1947. But he argued that now was the time to overcome divisions in society caused by Britain’s colonial past.

He said: “Partition is very much an ambivalent event because, on the one hand, there is indeed grounds for celebration because it meant independence from British colonial rule for India and Pakistan … but at the same time partition was a reason for frustration and then, further on, it was a cause of violence.”

Historians have estimated up to 20 million people were displaced in the years following partition, with the death toll “somewhere between 200,000 and two million people”, and possibly hundreds of thousands of girls and women suffering rape and abduction.

Partition also led to a lasting long-term conflict between India and Pakistan involving several wars and the break-up of Pakistan in 1971.

Dr Prott said Britain had come in for a lot of criticism due to the violence, with various historical studies regarding Indian partition as a “deliberate design” to weaken India and secure long-term British influence.

But he argued that Britain was “overtaken by events” in the sense they underestimated “the dynamic for independence” and the huge potential for violence.

“That’s the moment they rushed independence and rushed partition … a quick and easy exit option for the British Empire,” he said. As a result, no-one put mechanisms in place for refugee or minority protection, or to draw borders “in a sensible way”.

Dr Prott said the partition of India was not an exception, but part of a larger historical pattern throughout the 20th century that also included new borders drawn that split Ireland, Palestine, Korea, Germany, Vietnam and Cyprus.

This pattern comprised of three factors – the global expansion of the nation-state, “international stability” involving “fitting populations to borders”, and decolonisation leading to “friction and conflict”.

He said: “We shouldn’t blame the British for plotting partition. It wasn’t an evil scheme they came up with.” But he stressed that the British did try to avoid assuming responsibility for more than a century of colonial rule in India, including “colonial violence, economic exploitation, and politicising religious identities of Muslims and Hindus” in particular.

Dr Prott said the “starkest example” of a nation taking responsibility for the past was his own country, Germany, which committed the Holocaust, the “most extreme case of genocide in history”.

Germany had come to terms with its crime and guilt, and accepted the need to work towards reconciliation. He said this was mostly seen as a historic problem in Germany, “but in Britain the legacy of colonialism is with us every day” with the Black Lives Matter movement, decolonising the curriculum in universities, changing street names, and removing controversial statues.

He said: “We should see this dealing with our colonial past as an opportunity to bridge existing divides, to learn from each other. We need an open-ended debate.”

Many people, he said, have very extreme views on the partition. Some praised the British Empire and said the violence was all because of racial hatreds, while others claimed people lived in harmony for centuries and problems were only caused by “evil British plotting”.

“What we need to do is move away from these simplistic views of the past. History shows us that partitions very often cause more problems than they solve and we should try to find ways to accommodate human diversity rather than pulling people apart.”

Aston University is marking the 75th anniversary of Indian partition by taking part in an exhibition at Birmingham New Street Station called ‘Children of the Railway: The Partition of India 75 Years On’, which opens on 6 September for three weeks.

Dr Prott is also giving a public talk on partition at 5pm on 25 August at the Hockley Social Club.

Episode 1 in series 4 of the ‘Society matters’ podcast and all previous episodes can be found here:
Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Saskia Hansen is the interim Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world.

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