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A Tale of Two Partitions


In August 1947, British rule over India ended after 300 years. The Great Partition of India and Pakistan and the consequential violence that followed lead to the tragic deaths of over a million people.

Across the Eurasian landmass, Ireland had itself become become a republic, free of British rule, leading to a partition between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Once again, the resulting violence, known as the Troubles, led to death and destruction.

These events changed not only the borders on our atlases but also the cultural identities of our recent ancestors. Both partitions manifested hatred, fear, and biases within each respective community. This trauma, never fully being processed, was passed onto the current generation and shapes our own cultural identities.

For those of us who, like me, are Indian-born and Irish-raised, the partition of India and Ireland shaped and continues to shape the cultural identities we inherited and those that we fostered. This article is the exploration of both partitions; the history and the lasting effects these events had on the generations to come.

In both the Irish and Indian case, the British colonisers used religion as a tool to divide communities. For India, the strict separation policies of 'divide and rule' pitted Muslim and Hindu communities against one another. With this policy, the British Raj defined communities based on religious identity, putting Hindus and Muslims into politically representative boxes.

This allowed the Raj to manipulate each community into seeing the other as an enemy, facilitating the Empire to maintain control and quenching revolt once and for all.

Over three centuries later, division, tension, and secular hatred boiled over as independence and partition drew closer. It became apparent that neither Hindu nor Muslim community wanted 'minorities' in 'their' countries.

As violent riots erupted, even politicians like Mahatama Ghandi who had previously held that Muslims and Hindus come from the 'same root', began to see partition as an option to end violence.

Any remaining hope of peaceful Partition was further obliterated when unorganised British delegates moved the transfer of power to almost a year earlier than the original plan. Fear took over as Muslims in India and Hindus in what would become Pakistan were left with two choices; to hastily join the wave of migration to safer territory or to remain in their generational homes and die at the hands of the opposing community.

Trains and caravans of refugees left to cross over from one side to the other but arrived in funeral silence, full of corpses, passengers murdered by their own countrymen. Sudershana Kumari, who fled from her home in Pakistan to India described the blood-soaked soil in 1947 India best when she confided that, “even the fruit on the trees tasted of blood.”

The separation policies of the British had such impress that even after the end of the British Raj, the consequences remained, turning neighbour against neighbour.

'Divide and Rule' techniques used by the British Empire also prevailed in Ireland. Like India, early attempts at colonisation in Ireland were fraught with uprisings and mutiny.

As a result, Scottish Protestants, who were loyal to the British crown, were 'planted' in Ulster, displacing Irish Catholics who had originally owned the land. In contrast to India, where two communities already co-existed, the British physically planted a Protestant community in the north of Ireland. These farmers displaced the Irish people causing the Irish to become second-class citizens in their own country. So began a long struggle between Irish Catholics and British Protestants.

As centuries passed, the allegedly incompatible identities of the British Protestants and Irish Catholics, as with the Muslims and Hindus in India, became stronger, forming into two groups: The Unionists and the Irish Nationalists.

In 1920, two paradoxical demands emerged – the Irish nationalists demanded separation and independence from Britain, and the Unionists demanded to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

As in India, these demands were met by carving a new state, Northern Ireland, and separating it from the rest of Ireland. Discourse between Protestants and Catholics, which later became known as ‘The Troubles’ had taken root.

While Ireland received 'home rule' and began effectively functioning as a republic, Northern Ireland was still under the control of the Crown. As a result, the Catholics remaining in Northern Ireland became minorities on their own ancestral land.

These Catholics, who still largely considered themselves Irish, were at the mercy of Protestant-majority, Unionist governments, the British army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed as a defender of the nationalist cause in the north, mounting a guerrilla effort from the Republic to support the nationalists and Catholic people still living in Northern Ireland.

While the IRA supported the Irish Catholics living in the north and was more concerned with the advancing of Marxism in the Republic, the Provos believed their fight to be a continuation of the fight for Irish independence.

The Provos adopted guerrilla warfare and took up arms. Meanwhile, the Ulster Volunteer Force, an organisation of unionists also took up arms beginning the ongoing violence known as the Troubles bubbled over between the two parties.

In both the Indian and Irish partition, the British Empire used religion to divide communities. This was done to lead people to believe that the real enemy or the 'outsider' was the opposing community (Muslims in the case of India, Hindus in the case of Pakistan, Catholics in the case of Northern Ireland).

In retrospect, the partition of Ireland was not between the Southern and Northern Irish people but rather between the nationalists and unionists. The same can be said for the partition of India – the partition occurred between The Muslim League, who’s leader Jinnah Khan favoured the partition and his own political power, and the Hindu Congress Party, who wanted a united India.

Hence, it would be too easy to label colonisation as a simple and sole culprit for the horrors of the period. Doubtlessly, by blaming the British, it would allow us, the South Asian and Irish victims of colonisation. to wash our hands of our own history.

Certainly, some of the responsibility for Partition lies on the shoulders of our own politicians who through mistakes or their own selfish agendas botched any hopes of a united India or Ireland.

The horrors of both Partitions echo still. For Ireland, Northern Irish Catholics still learn very little of their own Irish history or language. Many schools in Belfast are still culturally segregated as 'Catholic' or 'Protestant' schools. There are distinct areas in cities like Belfast which are considered 'Catholic' or 'Protestant' areas.

The Peace Walls remain as a reminder of the violence gone by while the ongoing attacks and recent car bombings demonstrate the fragility of the makeshift 'peace' brought on by a treaty rather than peoples’ attitudes.

In India, it is almost impossible to get a visa to go to Pakistan and vice versa. The fate of Kashmir and Kashmiri people remains tentative as both India and Pakistan fight to claim it. Current Pakistani and Indian politicians are openly discriminatory against Hindus and Muslims respectively and both governments are armed with nuclear weapons.

The psychological effects of the partition are harder to quantify. Yet, harrowing oral history accounts of both the Troubles and the Great Partition leave little to the imagination when it comes to what the victims and witnesses must have endured.

We have stories of people like Jean McConville, who was kidnapped and killed by the IRA in 1972 while bringing up 10 children alone in a tower block. Many, who were killed and buried in secret graves became 'The Disappeared'.

Across the landmass, the brutalities in India were claimed to be worse than that of the Nazi concentration camps. Witnesses and victims saw pregnant women with their breasts cut off, gangs of killers setting whole villages aflame, men and women bleeding, hacking, starving to death and young women being carried off to be sold or used.

Just prior to British colonisation, the Mughal Empire ruled India. The final Mughal Emperor had united Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, writing that all religions share the same essence.

The British Empire in both India and Ireland was characterised by famines, mutiny, and death. Fittingly, British rule in both countries ended with division, chaos, and catastrophe.

Partition was alleged to 'satisfy' both sides in the form of a compromise. Yet, the predictable chaos which followed stood to remind each side of the upheaval instigated by colonisation.

In the end, even after the British Empire had ended, the two partitions served as a way for the it to maintain some control over both India and Ireland.

Indeed, scholar Yasmin Khan, writer of 'The Great Partition' puts it best when she asserts that, “Partition stands testament to the follies of [the British] Empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different - and unknowable - paths.”


Arisha Ali was born in Pakistan and raised in Ireland. She is currently an Engineering student in UCD with a love for writing.


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