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‘Everything changed’: readers’ stories of India’s partition

t midnight on 14/15 August 1947, the largest recorded forced migration began. Millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were forced to journey hundreds of miles, with many experiencing brutal violence, as the Indian subcontinent was divided into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Communities that had coexisted for a thousand years succumbed to an eruption of sectarian violence. More than a million people were killed and between 10 and 12 million people were displaced along religious lines.

As India and Pakistan mark the 70th anniversary of the partition including national flag-hoisting ceremonies, air shows and parades, Guardian readers share their memories and experiences.

‘I was the only one of my family to survive’ – Nasim Fatima Zubairi, 82, retired foster carer, UK
My last memory before seven members of my immediate family were killed is looking through a keyhole in our house and seeing my father praying, with my two-year-old brother crying in the background. I was hit over the head and I still have a scar from the attack. My father, mother, grandmother and four brothers and sisters were all killed. I was the only one of my family to survive.

Before the partition I had a very happy childhood in Karol Bagh, in Delhi. It was a Hindu area, so as Muslims we couldn’t leave the house. Our neighbours were Sikh and they had said they would protect us. But that didn’t happen … in fact, it was the Sikh neighbours who attacked us.

I actually count myself fortunate. I heard stories of children being killed in horrific ways and girls being raped. Even though I’ve had migraines for most of my life, I wasn’t injured to a degree that I couldn’t get on with life. And I had extended family to look after me.

When I was older and living in the UK, I was blessed with the opportunity to foster children, as well as being blessed with my own four children. I cared for child refugees from Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and it was immensely rewarding.

Crowds of refugees gathered in Delhi after fleeing violence in Punjab

Crowds of refugees gathered in Delhi after fleeing violence in Punjab Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
‘We didn’t have roots’ – Vijay, 60, UK, retired GP
My family are Hindu, and my father would have been in his mid-20s and my mother in her late teens when partition happened.

From my mother there was a huge sense of loss. It wasn’t until the last five years – she’s now 86 – that she was able to talk about her childhood. Before that it was a blank wall, as if her childhood hadn’t happened.


Speaking to uncles and aunts of a similar age, their lives before 1947 were blanked out. Their lives started again in the weeks and months after independence and there was a great sense of deprivation, of denial. My cousins and I were brought up not-knowing; we didn’t have roots.

The partition explains one of the waves of Indian immigration to the UK and America in the late 1950s early 1960s. Even when we came to the UK, our parents didn’t talk about their lives before the partition. Now, I feel I have nothing to offer my son and daughter of my parents’ family stories.

‘Dad hid us in bed rolls as they started shooting everyone on the train’ – Patricia, 75, retired nurse, UK

I come from three generations of the British Raj in India. At the time of partition we were cut off in a new development surrounded by jungle. It was quite vulnerable and there were terrible troubles such as burning houses and fighting.

We were stranded there for a week. I was five years old but remember it vividly. All we had left to eat was okra, which I remember my mum force-feeding us. Dad would go on the back veranda and mum at the front with the few weapons they had.

Later, we went to Pakistan. I remember getting on a train in a crowd. There was this British man and his son. They were absolutely silent. I was much older when mother said his wife and daughter had been raped and killed in front of them.

Then somewhere, it must have been not far from the border, the train was stopped and men started shooting everyone on the train. Dad had rolled us in our bed rolls to hide us. Everybody on the roof died. There were a lot of babies crying. When we got to Pakistan we were taken to a transit camp. We lived in Rawalpindi in Punjab, where there were more British families we knew from India, but it got increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually we got passage to England.

At school we were not popular. My sister and I used to talk to each other in Urdu and Hindi and they didn’t like that. It was very stark and the food was disgusting. Cabbage stalks, as far as I can remember, instead of the lovely curries that we had.

I went to India in 2010 and a man I was talking to turned to his friend and said “she was on the trains”, and it just said it all. The fact that it was so clearly understood meant so much to me. In India, people all know about it; in this country, nobody knows what it means.

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