“I know this moment has changed who I am.”
In a powerful episode of BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are?, journalist and television presenter Anita Rani’s journey to uncover the mystery of her grandfather has revealed some ugly truths about India’s partition.
We are familiar with stories of the violent aftermath that came from the division of India in 1947 that led to the birth of Pakistan, and the deaths of families and communities at the hands of other faiths.
But very little is known about the violence that also spread within families, and the gender inequality that was insurmountably high.
In the programme, British Indian Anita recalls her maternal grandfather, Sant Singh, who sadly passed away two years before she was born.
Admitting that she knows very little about his life, except that he had been previously married, she is eager to find out as much as she can about him:
“I have wanted to know about this guy my entire life.”
On her journey to find out about this ‘man of mystery’, Anita travels to India, armed with only a vague story about Sant Singh, told to her by her mother.
The family have no idea of Sant’s date of birth, and only that his first wife jumped into a well, and his son was murdered.
On arrival to New Delhi, the inquisitive Anita acquires her grandfather’s army records and finds that he was actually born as Sant Ram in the Indian village of Sarhali.
His mother, Dhanti died of an influenza pandemic that claimed the lives of 14 million Indians after the First World War.
Sant’s father Dheeru moved his family to Punjab’s Canal districts in Montgomery, where Sant grew up and found work. He married, had a family, and seemed to live a normal and prosperous life up until the days of Partition.
At this point, what happened to Sant and his family becomes a little muddled, and in Amritsar, Anita learns more about Partition and how closely it connected to her grandfather’s life.
Punjab became the epicentre of violence during this time. Split entirely through the middle by the British, many Sikh, Hindu and Muslim families found themselves on the wrong side of the border almost overnight.
Montgomery was now in Pakistan, and Sant and his young family were stranded amidst growing tensions between the communities of opposing faiths.
Speaking to an 84-year-old survivor from partition reveals some darker truths: “When I was 16, I lived in a village in Rawalpindi, my father was head of the village. On the evening of the 8th of March, we began to feel the heat of the houses catching fire.
Hardor says that the newly-labelled Pakistani men approached his father, asking for young beautiful girls in exchange for the village’s safety:
“My father rejected their demands, he said, ‘We won’t give you our girls to save ourselves. Rather than let our girls come to this shame, we will kill them ourselves and hope they forgive us’.”
Hardor Singh reveals that he watched as his own father cut off the heads of his sister and other girls. For Anita, the horror of daughters and mothers dying at the hands of their own fathers and husbands is truly shocking.
Hardor adds that many of the women sacrificed their own lives in order to avoid the shame and dishonour of being violated, and many even jumped into wells and drowned themselves:
“No one cried, then it went on turn by turn, my father pushed me away, no boys or young children were killed, only the girls were killed,” he says.
Anita finds this unsettling: “I’m so angry at the men, but am so in awe of these women that look their lives so willingly. I’m so confused right now.”
But on further investigation she finds that in many cases, women were coerced into killing themselves. Author, Ritu Menon reveals:
“At that time, there’s an impression that a lot of the women actually committed suicide by jumping into wells. The men will say the women took their lives, they sacrificed themselves, rather than be kidnapped, raped, abducted.
“But the women don’t tell it as a story of bravery or martyrdom. The women tell it as a story of no choice.”
Women were horrifyingly violated. Abused, raped, and disfigured, many were subject to terrifying trauma at the hands of their own communities and families to avoid shame and dishonour.
One million died in the communal violence of that resulted through Partition, and many of these sadly were women and girls.
For Anita, this is difficult to process: “This is only two generations ago.”
The misogyny of this time resonates heavily with Anita, and how quickly brutality emerged from ordinary communities and span out of control. Only at the start of the programme she had said:
“I am not a traditional Indian girl, and I think that was because I was just aware that boys were able to just do stuff and get away with it. And my answer was always, ‘Why?’”
Towards the end of the programme Anita finally finds out about her grandfather’s first wife. Her name was Pritam and died ‘due to Pakistani circumstances’.
They had a son, Rajpal, and surprisingly, a daughter, Mahindra, who was just 6 years old.
The knowledge of her grandfather’s daughter is incredibly emotional for Anita, especially as she seems to have followed the same tragic end as her mother:
“Nobody talks about my grandfather having two children, they talk about a son and they don’t talk about a daughter.”
The little power of women is a challenging concept to grasp, and unearths how brutal the time of Partition, where Anita’s grandfather lost his entire family, really was:
“I am not surprised he didn’t talk about it or that my parent’s generation don’t talk about it, where do you start?” Anita says.
Recollecting her emotional journey, Anita mentions that the discovery is not just limited to her own personal story, but also to the stories of millions of other Indians and Pakistanis.
For Anita, this truth of her family’s past is both shocking and painful: “I know this moment has changed who I am.”
You can watch Anita Rani’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC iPlayer.