IT was two months before the withdrawal of the British from India that eight men sat around a table in New Delhi and sliced the south Asian subcontinent into three. None of them realised that the borders of the divided land they had created would soon extend eastwards, to the West Riding of Yorkshire. The last viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, doubted that the clinical – some said arbitrary – sectarian partition that had been executed would necessitate any mass transfer of population. Too many physical and practical difficulties were involved, he said. A little over 70 years on, the testimonies of the refugees who washed up in Yorkshire, and those of their descendants, tell a different story. A documentary tracing the history of migration within the subcontinent and then to West Yorkshire – Huddersfield in particular – has its premiere in the town tomorrow, alongside records from the National Archive which revisit the refugee crisis the partition had created. “People were either on the right side of the line or the wrong side,” says Mandeep Samra, the film’s director. “Those who fled had to rebuild their homes and their lives when they crossed the borders. They were uprooted and they had to start again.
“Many those came to the UK because they thought it would be a better life. A lot thought they would return eventually after having children.” Ms Samra, whose own Sikh father arrived in Huddersfield in the 1960s after having been uprooted as an infant from present-day Pakistan and moved to the border state of Punjab, interviewed two dozen people for her film, a community project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. “I asked, if partition hadn’t happened, would your families have come here,” she says. “A lot said no. “The fact is that the migration came partly as a result of partition. People had been self-sufficient – they didn’t need anything from the outside world.”
The earliest arrivals to Huddersfield found a partition of a different kind. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus shared houses and lived together “like brothers”, as Ms Samra puts it, but the gulf between brown and white was self-evident. Tarsem Singh Kang was 19 in 1952 when he arrived in Yorkshire. “There were only six people in Huddersfield,” he says of the town’s nascent Asian community. “All singles, no families, and there were three Pakistani and three Indian. There were no Indian shops, no Indian food, nothing.” The weekly wage packet was not enough, he says, to afford electric fires for the bedrooms. Rent was ten shillings and they lived three to a room – more if visitors came from Pakistan. Arriving from the newly-created state was easier than from India, where the authorities tried to dissuade young adults from leaving. “One of the men we interviewed said it was really hard to get a visa in India so people would go into Pakistan to get one there,” Ms Samra says.
Finding work, for those who made it to Yorkshire, was less of a problem. “Every Asian who came, here, Indian or Pakistani, had a job, says Jamil Aktar, 71, who adds that his first impression of Britain, upon being told that he need not pay to see a doctor or for his prescription, was that “God must have blessed it”. “Huddersfield had more than 100 mills and you could walk into any one of them and get a job. They were desperate for a workforce,” Mr Aktar says. “I knew people who would see a big chimney, knock on the door and get a job.” Mohammed Hanif Asad, 79, was the first Asian at his mill, in 1961. The boss had said to him, ‘I like you but I can’t employ you’, he says. His workers, he explained, didn’t like coloured people. But he made an exception, Gindi Sarai, another early émigré, says racism and discrimination was rife among English workers. “They complained that our food smelled of garlic. They made it very difficult for us,” she says in the film. “The English workers would complain in the canteen about the smell, and say we shouldn’t be allowed to bring our own food to work. On top of that, the jobs that were easy and well-paid were given to English workers. Any hard jobs were given to us.” Perhaps finding safety in numbers, the factory workers forged lasting friendships that would have been impossible in the divided land they had left behind. “My dad still visits his best friends who are from Pakistan,” says Ms Samra. “A lot of these men met each other in mills, on the buses, and they have a deep friendship. Those connections forged at that time still remain – its the next generation and the generation after that they began to separate.” The friction was fuelled by what was going on back home. Hate, said one fleeing resident, was spreading like wildfire. Mr Aktar says in the film: “First they killed the children, then they killed adults, then they killed the elderly, One of my dad’s sister’s sons thought he was dead. He was thrown in the river. “My mum remembers them going round shouting, ‘kill the Muslims’. My father asked a policeman why he wasn’t doing anything. He said, ‘We’ve been told we have to be neutral’. “Rumours began of killings and we got all together with the neighbouring villages and people started to move. There must have been about 100,000 people, because there was a fear that if you if you were in a small group you would be attacked on the way. “No food, no water, and people said that some died on the way. Children died of starvation. It took six weeks.” Historian Barry Pavier says: “It was only in June 1947 that partition became not only inevitable but even a possibility. But nobody had an idea about what the effects on the people on the ground would be. “The British authorities had no idea what was going on along the two partition lines. There were very few British troops, and the Indian troops and police were not taking any notice of the British and not reporting what was happening on the ground.” Reports were rife of rape and of mutilation. One woman said that her cousin had killed her three children and then herself rather than get into other hands. Nasim Hasnie, 73, says: “People had gone mad. They were killing and slaughtering. The trains were full with the slaughtered bodies from Lahore to East Punjab and from Jalandhar to Lahore.” Seven decades on, the aftershock continues to reverberate, and is partly to blame, Ms Samra believes, for the friction that continues to divide communities in Yorkshire as well as south Asia. “Those stories, she says, “are still in people’s psyches.” • A New Life In Huddersfield – Memories About Partition and Migration will be screened tomorrow from 3pm at Huddersfield University’s Heritage Quay.