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Project tells story of Partition of India

28 October 2016


Case for discussion: a scene from Child of the Divide

Case for discussion: a scene from Child of the Divide

THREE clergy are using the arts to address the legacy of Partition, the largest mass movement of people in world history. It took place in 1947, when Imperial India was divided into the two independent countries of India and Pakistan.

A million people were killed in the ensuing violence, and millions more were displaced. Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh families that had lived together in north India for generations, and had never defined themselves as anything but Indian, were forced to choose on which side of the new border to live.

Each community developed its own narrative of events, creating a history of interreligious distrust in the Asian diaspora, and providing a breeding ground for grievance and conspiracy theories. Clergy in this country who were engaged in interfaith discussions and research found that many of the original migrants who came to Britain from South Asia continued to be affected by the events.

At a time of national concern about the tension between people of dif­­ferent faiths and sources of rad­ical­isation, and with the approach of the 70th anniversary, a schools history project, the Partition Project 2017, is designed to find ways of telling this history accurately.

”We believe that getting the original narrative right with young people will ultimately lessen the present considerable burden of push­­ing a counter-narrative to extremism,” the clergy who have set up the project say. They are the Rector of Hitchin, Canon Michael Roden; the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Dartford, the Revd Martin Henwood; and the Canon Chan­cellor and Sub Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, the Revd Edward Pro­bert.

Four years’ research on the issue in Britain and India led to a seminar in 2014, supported by the University of Cambridge Centre for South Asian Studies, the Runnymede Trust, and Coventry Cathedral. Sikh, Muslim, and Indian historians, educators, and museums were all involved.

”We have received nothing but support for this among colleagues of different faiths and from a variety of secular bodies working in this field,” Canon Roden said. “The pressing question has been how to find a way in to telling such a controversial history.”

The arts emerged as the best and most compassionate way, he said. “We know how the terrible story of the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust has been brought home to generations of children by Anne Frank’s diary. We looked for an equivalent way, and settled on a play and a novel.”

The novel is Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh. Lion TV has secured the rights, and the BBC is pursuing a dramatisation in 2017, with wider possibilities in prospect. The play is Child of the Divide by Sudha Bhuchar, co-founder of Tamasha Theatre. Sup­ported by the Kirby Laing Founda­tion, the Arts Council, and the local interfaith community, the first per­formance took place in St Mary’s, Hitchin, before pupils from Den­bigh High School, Luton, and St Andrew’s C of E School, Hitchin.

In the play, Pali, a Hindu child, becomes separated from his parents. In the new country of Pakistan, he is adopted by a childless Muslim couple, renamed Altaaf, and brought up as a Muslim. He is re­­united, years later, however, with his birth parents.

He wears the Rumi cap of the Muslim boy but holds on to his brightly coloured baby quilt, just as Hasina, an abandoned child of a Muslim father and Hindu mother, clings to her faded embroidered shoes. Four actors play the roles of both children and adults, and the the conversation between the children is moving.

”You Hindus told us to leave India,” says Buttameez, the bully who has seen terrible things.

”And you Muslims told us to leave Pakistan,” Pali retorts.

”I didn’t. I wasn’t even here,” Buttameez says.

”And I didn’t. I wasn’t even there,” Pali responds.

Accompanying lesson-plans and materials have been prepared and approved under the supervision of Professor Sarah Ansari, of Royal Holloway, University of London, with support from other leading academics. The Runnymede Trust now begins an evaluation on the pilot, and will be publishing its findings in December.

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