Leicester Records Office explores the legacy of Partition

By Richard Moss | 14 April 2009
a black and white photo showing a child sqautting on a wall with his head in his hands below sprawls a large encampment

The human cost of one of the most bloody and tragic episodes in British colonial history is being explored in a bold oral history project and exhibition in Leicester.

Funded by the innovative Their Past Your Future programme, The Legacy of Partition is a Leicester Records Office oral history and archive project exploring the wider inheritance of the tragic partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

The cessation of British ruled India led to one of the largest migrations in history and resulted in a massive eruption of violence on the subcontinent that left between 500,000 and one million dead as some ten to 12 million migrants moved across the new borders in Punjab and Bengal.

With the newly-created independent states of India and Pakistan came simmering border tensions that still resonate today in areas such as Kashmir and parts of the Punjab.

It is these very emotive issues and legacies that the Partition Project is seeking to investigate through the voices of the people now living in Leicestershire whose families were affected by it.

Margaret Bonney of Leicester Records is the woman charged with carrying through this challenging task, and she admits tensions can still be stirred by events from 62 years ago.

"What I've found is that you don't have to scratch very hard at the surface of the different communities in Leicestershire to find the bitterness still there," says Margaret. "On the face of it people are getting on quite well, but under that they are still working in their own community groups. There's not a lot of cross community work going on and part of the reason for that, I suspect, is to do with past history like partition."

a black and white photograph showing an Indian couple next to a car with the father cradling a baby girl in his arms

Mrs Bowry and her husband and daughter (Manjula Sood the first Lord Mayor of Leicester) in Delhi (circa 1947)

Despite this, people from the local Anglo Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Leicester have come forward with stories and a wealth of photographs, forging a sense of reconciliation and forgiveness in some quarters. "The fact that there was partition happening didn’t mean you ended all contact with other communities - some people did help each other," says Margaret.

Local Councillor Manjula Sood became the first female Asian Lord Mayor in Britain when she took over the post in Leicester in 2008. The exhibition features her mother, Raj Kumary Bowry, who remembers both the communal violence and the efforts of her family to protect a Muslim man from the mob.

"I remember there was a Mohammadan family living in the front of our house [in Ludhiana]," she recalls. “He was working in the police. One night that fellow came to our house and told my father that so many people are after me, they want to kill me. So my father said 'don't worry'. He brought him into our house and kept him in the back room. He said, 'don't worry'…and he kept him nicely.

"The policeman later escaped to Pakistan afterwards when the big caravan of the people was going."

Another contributor to the project remembers how Muslim and Hindu relations were affected by the conflict. "My father had very good Muslim friends, but the ones who entered the village were not from their village," said Harbins Kaur Thiaray.

"Two of my father's best friends in Pakistan were very close to my father and used to write letters to him for many years, and one of my elder brother's names was given to him by my father's Muslim friend. My father never hated Muslims, but he did hate the yobbos who came into the village, he said, with flashing swords, very cruel people. He never forgot that..."

Dealing with such evocative memories inevitably reopens old wounds, and the project tested the well-honed archive and oral history skills of Margaret and her team at the Record Office.

a hand coloured photograph of a bungalow on a hillside

The Barker family bungalow at Yol, before Partition

"You can't steer clear of difficult subjects just because people don't agree about things and what we have tried to do in all of our work is be absolutely even handed with every community," she explains.

Luckily Margaret already had an established network of friends in the different communities from her work, building on this to enlist various contacts as intermediaries.

"That was one way through it, but another was through the local newspapers who have been very supportive," she says. "They carried a number of articles and also gave us some contacts of people they had talked to, so I just followed those leads up."

Striking a balance between stories has proved challenging, especially when attempting inroads into the Muslim community. "I can’t say it's been anymore difficult than any of the other projects I’ve worked on with marginalised communities," she adds, noting gypsy and traveller groups as two examples.

The project continues to collect the memories of those who lived through partition and preserve documents and objects relating to this time. A Key Stage 3 teaching resource is being developed with the help of teachers, available to schools who want help in teaching this to teach this difficult subject.

Download the resources at the Leicester Records Office Website

Find out more about the Legacy of Partition Project at the project website

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: