Episode 29: The triumph and tragedy of Indian independence

When India and Pakistan gained their independence from Britain, a border was drawn between the two new countries. The split started a chain reaction of violence that led to one of the largest forced migrations in human history.

Syedda Musarrat Abrar, 92, watches her ancestral hometown of Dhariwal in a VR headset, on the 75th anniversary of the partition of India and Pakistan.
Video still by Shweta Gulati, National Geographic

When India and Pakistan gained their independence from Britain, a border was drawn between the two new countries. The split started a chain reaction of violence that led to one of the largest forced migrations in human history. More than 1 million people died in the tragedy.

Both countries are now approaching 75 years of independence, and the people who were there to remember it are reaching their twilight years. This may be our last chance to hear directly from the eyewitnesses who lived through the victory of independence and the subsequent tragedy of partition.

National Geographic Explorer Sparsh Ahuja has been documenting the stories of people who were forced from their homes during partition and is bringing them back to their ancestral home—if not in person then through virtual reality.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music. 


INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: So I’d like you to start out by telling me your name and your relationship to me.

LATA CHATTERJEE: My name is Lata Roy Chatterjee, and I am your stepmother.

LAKSHMANAN: And tell us how old you are and where you were born.

CHATTERJEE: I’m 84 and a half years old, and I was born in Pabna, which is now part of Bangladesh. (chokes up)

LAKSHMANAN: I know. I know. It’s really, really emotional and hard to talk about, and I really appreciate your sharing this story, which is a family story, but it’s also a story that’s important for all the generations to know.

LAKSHMANAN: My stepmother was born in colonial India, nine years before the subcontinent won its independence from Britain. Her ancestral home was in Pabna, in [then] Eastern Bengal Province, where her father’s extended family lived peacefully in a mixed community. Her grandfather also rented a city house in Kolkata, then known by its anglicized name, Calcutta, in [then] Western Bengal. For centuries, more than half a dozen religions lived side by side in the Indian subcontinent. But by the mid-1940s, religious extremists had gained power in local politics and stoked violence across the country, egging on gangs of radicalized Hindus to attack Muslims and vice-versa, and often seizing property and assets as families fled. During four days of Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta in 1946, thousands of people were killed.

Lata’s grandfather was a devout Hindu who kept a prayer room in his Calcutta home.

CHATTERJEE: It was a shrine, not just prayer room. He had his gods and everything there. And he used to clean it himself. He didn’t allow servants to go in, nothing. He was a very ascetic person.

LAKSHMANAN: As Hindu gangs encircled their neighborhood, my great-grandfather rushed his Muslim landlord’s family into his puja room—a room so sacred that not even his own grandchildren could enter it.

CHATTERJEE: He sheltered them in there and locked them up. The whole family, he put them there. And the neighborhood people came looking for them in the house they lived in. Nobody was there. So they came to my grandfather’s house and said, “You—it’s in your house.” And my grandfather said, “Search it.” And they came and searched, and they saw this locked door and he said, “That’s my prayer room. Do you think I put Muslim people in my prayer room? I don’t allow anybody to go in there. Go away.” And so they went.

LAKSHMANAN: A few days later, my great-grandfather disguised the Muslim family in Hindu women’s clothing and hustled them into his cars, instructing his drivers to smuggle them into the Muslim part of town.

This August marks the 75th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s independence. After more than 200 years of British subjugation, the people of the Indian subcontinent—including my relatives—won the right to govern themselves and determine their own future.

But that moment of triumph was marred by one of the most violent forced migrations in human history, known simply as partition. Lines drawn on a world map were the catalyst for the massacre of more than 1 million people and forced an estimated 15 to 20 million to flee their homes. It’s a dividing line that continues to shape world politics today.

I’m Indira Lakshmanan, senior executive editor at National Geographic and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our complex and changing world.

This week, we’ll look back at independence through the eyes of people who were forced to leave their homes—and we’ll meet a young Nat Geo Explorer who’s trying to bring some of the last survivors of the trauma of partition back to their homes—through virtual reality.

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LAKSHMANAN: When my stepmother was born, much of South Asia—what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka—was part of the British Empire.

But through the first and second world wars, a new generation of activists including Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammed Ali Jinneh led an independence movement protesting British rule. In July 1947, Britain finally agreed to return India to Indians, announcing the transfer would happen just a month later.

On August 14th, 1947, as midnight approached, free India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave his triumphant “Tryst with Destiny” speech, announcing the birth of a new nation.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

LAKSHMANAN: My stepmother was nine years old and remembers the day the Union Jack was lowered at her school for the last time, replaced by a new orange-white-and-green banner of India.

CHATTERJEE: And my memory of independence was—it was a British English-speaking school. And we were taught the Indian national anthem and we were told we were going to sing that and we would not—we were going to sing the “God Save the King” for the last time. They hauled down the Union Jack, and I cried like everybody else when they were hauling down the Union Jack, singing “God Save the King” last time and the Indian flag went up and we sang it. And I also sang it.

LAKSHMANAN: But it wasn’t just celebrations and parades. In the final years of the independence struggle, religious hardliners and political ideologues had inflamed tensions between groups. Some Muslim activists wanted a country where they would no longer be a minority. Partition was the compromise.

A British lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe, who had never traveled east of Paris, was appointed to chair a boundary commission. His team hastily drew new boundaries that carved out India as a secular, multifaith nation, flanked on both sides by Pakistan as a new homeland for Muslims.

The so-called Radcliffe Line cleaved my stepmother’s home province of Bengal in the east and the province of Punjab in the west into two parts, creating East and West Pakistan and dividing communities on two sides of a new international border.

At the stroke of midnight, while she slept at her boarding school in the Himalaya, her home became a part of East Pakistan. Two days after independence, the new boundary lines were announced publicly, and chaos exploded across the subcontinent. Frenzied mobs set upon Hindus and Muslims who were forced to flee to the “right” side of the new border. Each act of violence led to revenge in a cycle that spiraled out of control.

Fifteen to 20 million people were forced from their homes, between 1 and two million people were slaughtered, and as many as 100,000 women are estimated to have been kidnapped and raped.

To give just one example, I want to tell you about the 1947 Amritsar train massacre

About a month after partition, a train full Muslim refugees was traveling west through Pujab and stopped outside the city of Amritsar. 

A group of Sikh raiders surrounded the train and fired into the cars from both sides, before boarding the train to continue the slaughter.

Three thousand refugees were killed in a matter of hours, about the same number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attack.

The same horror story was replicated on the other side, with trains arriving in Delhi full of dead Hindus. 

Multiply that by 500 and you’ll have a sense of the scale of the atrocities of partition.

American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White—who had just covered World War II and the Holocaust—likened the streets of India to the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

That tragedy of partition and its rumbling aftershocks echo through the collective memory of India, Pakistan, and the former East Bengal that is now Bangladesh.

SPARSH AHUJA: Any family in the subcontinent has a partition story.

LAKSHMANAN: National Geographic Explorer Sparsh Ahuja has been documenting the stories of people who lived through independence and partition. It’s a group he co-founded, called Project Dastaan.

LAKSHMANAN: Do you remember how you first learned about partition?

AHUJA: My nana in Delhi. He has a diary where he writes down, you know, he writes down a lot of things. But I saw him scribbling away in the diary one day, and he was writing in Urdu and I didn’t know anyone in our family could write Urdu because everyone writes in Devanagari—in Hindi—in our family. So then I asked him, Where did you learn how to write like this? I thought only Muslims wrote this language, and that’s when he told me about his migration journey.

LAKSHMANAN: Sparsh told me that during partition his grandfather, a Hindu who lived in Punjab, in what is now Pakistan, was sheltered and saved from a Muslim mob by a Muslim man.

Like many people forced to migrate, though, his grandfather was never able to return. The violent birth of the two nations and ongoing disputes over borders spawned distrust and animosity that still festers today. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition, and getting permission to travel between the two countries can be nearly impossible for the average citizen.

So Sparsh came up with the idea of taking his grandfather and other survivors back to their childhood homes, using virtual reality. Using video and a special headset, his project allows viewers to experience a three-dimensional scene that changes as they move their heads, creating the illusion of being transported somewhere else.

AHUJA: So it’s been 75 years since the partition and we’ve interviewed around—since then around 30 survivors and reconnected just over half of those to the ancestral homes in some way or form.

LAKSHMANAN: Places can change a lot in 75 years. Sparsh told me he searched for mosques, temples, and wells because they were some of the few structures still standing. One of the people he interviewed, lqballuddin Ahmad, only had one small photo from his hometown.

AHUJA: In fact, Iqbal only had one object from the partition, which is a photo of a mosque in his home village that he carried around with him. And in that photo that he gave to us, it was this, you know, tattered black-and-white photo of a mosque.

LAKSHMANAN: Iqbal remembered helping to build the mosque by handing bricks to the workers. Sparsh and his team were able to find the exact spot and transport him there by creating a virtual reality video that he watched on a headset.

PRODUCER: So as soon as we put this on, you’re going to be transported back to your home.

AHMAD: I don’t know anything about all these things.

PRODUCER: You don’t need. I just put this on for you and it will start playing.

AHMAD: How wonderful. It’s lovely. It’s lovely. Yes, yes. This was my area. This was my area, and our village was on the top of a plateau. On top of the plateau, you could see miles after miles of there. Is this same mosque? Oh my god. Ah, this is the mosque where we put bricks with our own hands. Honest to God, it’s as if I’m there. I’m feeling as if I am going back to my childhood when we left that area. Oh, it’s so great. But there are a lot of changes.

LAKSHMANAN: Sparsh grew up in Australia and studied at Oxford University in England. Outside of South Asia, he says, Indians and Pakistanis in the diaspora are often drawn to one another over shared language, movies, music, food. It was that cross-cultural connection that helped make his project possible.

LAKSMANAN: Did you and your friends in college see this as a way to bring together cultures in the same way that you were able to be together outside of the Indian subcontinent?

AHUJA: I think at the start it was very much about our own family stories and our grandparents and how much they’d wanted to see their ancestral villages. So, you know, for instance, my grandfather would always talk about it as if it was going to be his last wish before he passed away. And then when—my grandfather’s story—I met the family that had saved his life and it sheltered him from a mob because the village had not changed much at all. So the family was still there.

LAKSHMANAN: You have probably heard a lot of stories like that, with the good and the bad side.

AHUJA: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think, like my grandfather’s story is poignant in particular because obviously it’s like a Muslim family that saved his life, but it was also a Muslim family that forced him out of that village. So and that was, I mean, not just my grandfather but anyone who had migrated to Pakistan as well. So I think it goes to show that this was—I mean, the line was drawn in the name of religion, but what it brought up wasn’t anything about religion but really about human nature. The way we dealt with these tragedies showed us more about ourselves than it did about the faith we practiced.

Meeting Sparsh and hearing about his project made me want to speak with my own stepmother about her experiences.

LAKSHMANAN: Tell us a bit about what it was like to be born in Pabna? What was the town like where you grew up? It’s now Bangladesh. But when you were born, it was colonial British India.

CHATTERJEE: It was wonderful. The childhood was innocent and we had a lot of fun. There was no hatred or we never grew up with the concept of caste differences, religious differences. So my best friend was Muslim and I didn’t even realize, and it was a very innocent childhood, full of play and mischief. We had a huge playground and all the neighborhood children would come and play. My grandfather was the raja, the zamindar.

LAKSHMANAN: A raja was a Hindu nobleman or local prince, and a zamindar was someone who owned and managed large landholdings. Lata’s family was in charge of 5,000 square miles, a parcel the size of Connecticut that covered four British districts.

LAKSHMANAN: So you had this idyllic childhood. Tell us about the elephants.

CHATTERJEE: Well, when I was young, we had three elephants. My memory was there was a little baby elephant. And I, of course, appropriated it. And I really honestly believed it was mine. And the male elephant was my brother’s. This is what I believed. And my sister had the female elephant, and I had the baby elephant. That’s how we were. And I was the only one that would hang around the elephant. I would feed—I would steal bananas and go and feed my elephant. And it just—I loved it. I would hug its legs. It was so peaceful. And after partition, of course, I don’t know what happened to the elephant. I was scared to ask.

LAKSHMANAN: Everything about her life changed after partition. When she and her siblings had school holidays, instead of going home, they’d visit their maternal grandparents in Calcutta, on what was now the Indian side of the border. All of her father’s relatives—now refugees from East Bengal—were crammed into the one house.

CHATERJEE: Each family got one room, and in that room they lived and they slept and they cooked. Each one cooked their own food because people were earning what they could.

LAKSHMANAN: So it was cheek by jowl. But you enjoyed it?

CHATERJEE: It was glorious! Cousins and in-laws of cousins, you know, with the pack of children playing around.

LAKSHMANAN: But Lata didn’t understand why she couldn’t go home to Pabna.

CHATTERJEE: Nobody explained, but yes, I did. I used to say, why can’t we go home? You know, why can’t we go home? By the time I got into my teens, I knew the partition and I knew we were never going back. So there was no hope.

LAKSHMANAN: That’s because “home” didn’t belong to her family anymore. They lost their house, their neighbors, and all the land holdings they managed and owned.

CHATTERJEE: My grandfather, the raja, had died in 1949. He got cancer, but he did not want to get treatment. He—he wanted to die. He wanted everybody to go back and live on our ancestral lands with my father and my uncles. None of them wanted to live in a Muslim-dominated country. They were scared of losing their religion. They were very devout Hindus. So he really didn’t want to live anymore. So he died. And it was my maternal grandparents who supported the family because everything was confiscated by the Pakistan government—the house and everything.

LAKSHMANAN: While many Hindus with property in East Bengal and Muslims with homes in West Bengal traded their assets when they were forced to cross the border, Lata’s grandfather refused to sell.

CHATTERJEE: He never sold any of his land. He had vast lands that were not zamindar, that belonged to my family, that bought. That’s our ancestral land. We’ve been there for thousands of years or hundreds of years, and our wealth comes from there. I will not move it from that. It belongs to that soil. He said that money, that land was bought with the work of peasants. It’s their land and I would not sell it. He gave it away.

LAKSHMANAN: My great-grandfather’s refusal to trade or sell his land became a huge source of conflict in the family. Lata’s father was enraged that the family had lost their livelihood.

CHATERJEE: We knew that he was not well. And when we came back from the boarding school, we found he was no longer there. He was abusive physically. He was beating up—he went to kill his own father with an ax. And it was really very ugly. He had to be committed to the insane asylum. But he was sent away for seven or eight years, and then they—he was cured and he came back and he lived with us, but never integrated with the family.

LAKSHMANAN: For Lata and her family, East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—was just across the border, but it might as well have been on another planet.

LAKSHMANAN: All those decades you were living in India as an Indian citizen. Tell us why you couldn’t go back.

CHATTERJEE: Well, the people were too scared. They felt they would get killed or they would have to be forced into, you know, Muslim religion if you stayed there. And they were rich people, so they would be targets. And the fear—was total fear. My mother made me promise never to set foot in Bangladesh until she died.

LAKSHMANAN: Now, why did she—why did my grandmother not want you to go back?

CHATTERJEE: She was scared. She was scared that I’d get killed. She had experienced partition. She knew what it was. She knew the violence and she didn’t want. So the concept was not there ever even. I’m the only one in my family that wanted to go back and see the ancestral lands. But no, no, not uncles, my father, never. Nobody ever went back or had any desire to go back. It was like dead to them.

LAKSHMANAN: For more than six decades, the land was dead for my stepmother and her family. Then some years ago, Lata was hired by the World Bank in her capacity as a geographer to study a new bridge close to her ancestral lands.

Then six years ago, after Lata’s mother died, a former classmate and friend of hers—a Muslim from Bangladesh—arranged a trip for Lata to visit the site, and accompanied her and my father there.

CHATTERJEE: And I said, then maybe just see the landscape and pick up some soil and come back.

LAKSHMANAN: She was anxious about going back and wasn’t sure what she would find. Was her mother right that the people living there would now be hostile? Would they remember her family at all?

It turned out she needn’t have worried.

CHATTERJEE: The warmth, the respect, the honor that they had still given my family.


LAKSHMANAN: Her family home was still there, and her old neighbors and their descendants were thrilled to see her. Her house had been turned into a museum and a public auditorium. A local school that was built by her grandfather still bore the family’s Hindu name.

CHATTERJEE: They were giving me—at this meeting, I was sitting under the picture of my great-grandfather. Only picture—we don’t have any. They had one [and gave it to me]. And I was embarrassed because I hadn’t expected this. So I said, I told them, I said, I’m embarrassed. I’ve come to your place empty-handed because I didn’t expect anything. I brought nothing. And the mayor turned to me and he went up to the speaker. He said, “We’re all living here because of your family,” he said. Can you imagine—65 years? Not a single member of my family had visited. That is the connection people to people.

LAKSHMANAN: I love that story. When they said to you, it’s because of your family that we’re all living here, I think what they meant was because your grandfather refused to sell the land or swap the land, that everyone who had lived there and had worked that land were allowed to stay and the land reverted to them and to the Bengali, the Bangladesh government, because your grandfather refused to sell it or claim it or trade it.

CHATTERJEE: True. True. The Bangladesh government took the zamindari land, but they cannot take the land that you buy and you possess. But the people got the private—the peasants got the private land.

LAKSHMANAN: The people who are working the land in that feudal system under your parents and grandparents, those people got to keep that land because your grandfather refused to sell it.

LAKSHMANAN: The story of partition didn’t end 75 years ago. It’s still happening today as people search for common ground across national and religious boundaries. Bengalis do this every day. Hindus from West Bengal and Muslims from Bangladesh can cross their borders without fear, with visas that are easy to obtain. My relatives and friends in India and Pakistan say it’s the politicians, not the people, who nurse grievances and still fan the fear and hatred.

CHATTERJEE: We were one people. People are joined by the culture and that’s the partition where religion is a small part of it. Religion, you can make it into an issue of hatred. The Rig Veda, which is the oldest Hindu text, it says that the divine is one, and the sages call it by different names. That’s what Gandhi was preaching, right? That’s what my grandfather suffered for. My father did too. Trauma, yes, that is trauma. That’s tears in my eyes, right? That is trauma. But it can be a healing trauma. We are looking—the project as a healing process. Pain is part of life. What you do with the pain is part of character.

LAKSHMANAN: Sparsh told me that he noticed a pattern in the people he interviewed. The younger they were at the time of partition, the more likely they were to want to go back home, virtually or in person. Maybe like Lata, if you were too young to comprehend the politics and the horrors, the memory of home isn’t poisoned. That gives me hope that we have a chance to move on.

CHATTERJEE: Partition was a mistake. But—and that caused all this pain and trauma and destroyed two generations—my grandfather’s generation, my father’s generation. I don’t want to go into all the painful details of all they have suffered. But we are OK. We learn to be resilient. We learn to depend on ourselves. And I’m hoping your generation and the new generation will learn from these mistakes, not repeat them.

LAKSHMANAN: Learning about Sparsh’s project made me think about how to talk about partition with my own sons, aged 11 and 16. How will their generation think about independence and partition after the last survivors who lived through it die off and history moves further into the past?

As Sparsh points out, this 75th anniversary of independence may be the last time we can hear these stories directly from the people who experienced them.

AHUJA: We’ve interviewed over 30 people—maybe 20, 30 percent are now no longer with us. And so my generation is the last generation that can speak to their grandparents and say, “What did you go through? Can you tell me about your story?” And after that, everything will be filtered down through families and it will become collective memory. And collective memory becomes hearsay, and hearsay becomes influenced by politics. And so you lose that sense of original voice. You lose—you lose the ability for the person to speak on their own behalf. And so I think the most important thing that we’re trying to do is to get these stories on record before it’s too late and also showcase them in a way that’s engaging for modern audiences.

LAKSHMANAN: Partition may be in the past, but it’s not behind us. The repercussions still reverberate today in the political tensions between India and Pakistan. But maybe understanding the past and making connections—even virtual ones—across that border can show us a way forward.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

On our site you can check out our other coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence.

We’ve included a link to those stories in our shownotes.

We’ve also included a link to Nat Geo Explorer Sparsh Ahuja’s initiative, Project Dastaan, where you can hear more stories from people who lived through independence and partition.

All this and more can be found in our show notes, and they’re right there in your podcast app.

This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior producer Brian Gutierrez.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producers include Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and it funds the work of Explorer Sparsh Ahuja and many others.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, senior executive editor Indira Lakshmanan. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.