As South Asian communities mark 75 years of independence from British rule, Ara Alam-Simmons reflects on why it’s important for South Asians in Aotearoa to better understand and acknowledge the colonial violence they’ve experienced — and how that can help them connect to the stories of colonisation here.
This year marks 75 years of independence for Pakistan and India. Celebrations have been held across Aotearoa with tree planting, hoisting of national flags, cultural performances, and happy selfies with politicians.
Seemingly absent from these “celebrations”, however, has been the acknowledgment of the millions of people killed and brutalised. Freedom and independence came at a massive price.
For 200 years, India was under British colonial control, but then won back its independence in 1947. Partition, as it is also referred to, involved recruiting a British lawyer (who had never visited India) to draw arbitrary lines on a map.
A geographical division along religious lines resulted in a Hindu majority which became India and a Muslim majority which became Pakistan. Pakistan would be in two parts at opposite ends of India — West Pakistan and East Pakistan — separated by 1609 kms. (East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.)
That cold-blooded redrawing of national lines in 1947 resulted in the largest mass migration of people in human history. Between 10 and 12 million people. People moved en masse to what they hoped would be a safer place for their families. Muslims headed towards Pakistan; Hindus and Sikhs towards India.
The partition, as my parents describe it, was etched in the blood of the one to three million people who were savagely and violently killed as two countries emerged. Women attempted to escape being raped by jumping to their deaths in wells. This reality also ensured that some men killed their own women and children for fear of them being abducted, violated, burned alive, and murdered with machetes, kerosene bottle bombs and other tools.
It still astounds me how a minority group of British people could enslave millions of Indians for two centuries. The British Empire began about 400 years ago when Britons travelled to the East in search of spices and other resources. What began as a haphazard trading enterprise by the East India Company, driven by greed and profit, soon became about seizing power, destroying the local Indian industries, dehumanising the brown body, racism and white supremacy.
My whānau and ancestors came from Bengal, region that the British bankrupted with the imposition of taxes that the average Indian found hard to pay. My mother shared stories with me that had been passed down to her of how the British would come to the villages for their taxes, and if families couldn’t pay, they’d be tortured. Sadistic behaviour was encouraged that also involved suspending entire families in the local rivers with ropes around their necks.
A few years before partition, in 1943, the Bengal famine took place. The famine was exacerbated by the British who continued to export food for profit, rather than feed the starving local population.
Britain’s departure from India was chaotic and violent. People who were once neighbours and had lived side by side over centuries became enemies overnight. The partition process — dividing India in two along religious lines and allowing people to migrate if needed — was meant to take five years but that was reduced to just 70 days.
Let’s just pause for a moment and take in the gravity of that timeframe. You couldn’t make up this stuff. An ethnic cleansing killing frenzy ensued as fear gripped an entire population. Families were also separated, land taken, identities lost, long-held friendships and community ties severed, and people cut off from their spiritual places of worship.
The ramifications of dismembering the Indian continent continue to be felt today. The legacy of colonisation continued with the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, and with the fight for Bangladesh to become independent from Pakistan. And the list continues.
Despite the partition happening 75 years ago, there’s a lot of healing still needed. Every South Asian family will have their own story surrounding partition. But, for many of us, it’s not something we talk about.
It’s unclear how my father, a young child at the time, was left orphaned and raised by his older siblings. Bitterness and trauma are what slip out in the moments when he has shared his memories. But, naturally, many of his rememberings are fractured.
My mother, born later, shares the brutality that her ancestors faced before partition and after. It’s no wonder that you wouldn’t want to recall histories like this. Mum also told me that some stories were so violent and inhumane that deliberate decisions were made not to pass certain histories down as they were too painful. Trauma associated with partition has certainly made it through into our present-day family bloodlines.
Here in Aotearoa, 11,000 km away from Bangladesh, you may be wondering: So what?
Colonisation continues to have long-lasting impacts on us as South Asians even here in Aotearoa. As tangata Tiriti and settlers of colour here in Aotearoa, our history of being colonised provides a route for us to better understand the continuing impacts of colonisation on Māori.
Without understanding and talking about our own stories, it’s difficult to connect to the stories of colonisation here in Aotearoa. Lack of understanding or slips show up in what we might say, how we might behave, or who we may align ourselves with.
It’s no accident that our gaze is often towards Pākehā, and not towards tangata whenua. That’s because we’re often seeking external validation from Pākehā. And we are more aligned with the project of “diversity and inclusion”, which often casts Māori as just another ethnic group and subverts the conversations we need to be having around decolonisation and anti-racism.
We make comments such as: “We want what Māori have — it’s only fair.” Or: “Colonisation is in the past.” These slips reveal our disconnection to our whenua and histories. And, sadly, they continue the project of colonisation by upholding the status quo and playing to stereotypes.
Such sentiments often hide something else — the stereotypes we often conform to and police each other on. The “good immigrant”, the “grateful migrant”, and the “model minority”. Colonisation works on us in both physical and mental ways, and we’ve all been infected. It takes work to undo the harm.
Stereotypes have often been used to play off communities of colour against each other — and that includes our Māori and Pasifika brothers and sisters. We are very much entangled in each other’s struggles and liberation. Let’s not forget how racist New Zealand has been to South Asian migrants in addition to Māori and Pasifika — for example, the long history of anti-Indian racism.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Hana Te Hemara rushing on to the Treaty grounds at Waitangi, beginning what has become a tradition of contemporary Māori protest there.
Before this, New Zealand held annual official events to “celebrate” the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Just as Hana did, our South Asian communities must reject “celebrations” that obscure colonial violence. And we must demand that our histories be ethically remembered. That means taking an honest look at the historical reasons for why things are the way they are. It means honouring and naming the reality of what took place.
The 2018 census recorded 247,665 South Asians living in Aotearoa (Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian). That’s a significant number of people who can lift the curtain on our own stories and engage with and explore why we also might engage in collective amnesia. Our histories have also been deliberately hidden from us. Hence, we also need to put in the work and excavate and uncover these stories, much like tangata whenua, who continue to uncover their histories.
Research conducted in 2019 explores whakawhanaungatanga as a possible foundation for good relationship building between tangata whenua and people of colour, with four key components: “Positioning, power-sharing, dialogue and cultural practice.”
In understanding our positioning, we need to both know and ethically remember our histories.
For me, colonisation and the British empire eventually meant that I was born and raised in Britain to Bangladeshi parents. Aotearoa has been my home for the last 17 years, and I’m very clear as to where my gaze lies. It’s in honouring the people of this land who continue to be dispossessed, in supporting their struggle for tino rangatiratanga, and in all of us working to end white supremacy.
Ara Alam-Simmons is a mum of three who is currently completing her PhD within WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression) at Waikato University. Her research interests include solidarity-building, collective care and healing. Ara’s ongoing work within and across diverse communities draws on her lived experiences, and her background in education, community wellbeing and social justice.
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