This blog article was written by Sandip Samra. Sandip is a Customer Marketing and Communications Manager in the Research and Information department. She manages the House of Commons Library and POST's marketing and Communications to Parliamentarians. Sandip is currently co-Secretary for ParliREACH, the Workplace Equality Network established to increase awareness and appreciation of race, ethnicity and cultural heritage issues in Parliament.
Sandip Kaur Samra
I have always been fascinated by maps. I think it started in the mid-1990s when my Dad put up a world map in my sister’s bedroom. I would sneak into her room and gaze at it, using the British Isles and the Prime Meridian as a starting point to trace borders with my fingers, and learn the names of new places from Antigua to Zaire (as it was then called).
Some years later my dad put up another map – an ornately framed close up of Panjab, our ancestral homeland. I didn’t really think about it then, but it was Indian Panjab. The Pakistani half spilled off the map as if unimportant. With a focus on Britishness and integration into British society all around me (and me, my dad and my siblings having been born in Britain) the map was special, but it represented what seemed like a further away part of my identity.
As I got older and more informed, the lines and names on both these maps took on a new significance. Why were they there? Who put them there? What did those of us with Indian, Pakistani, Irish, Palestinian and other heritages have in common?
What’s in a name?
Geography is really important to my family. My dad’s surname comes from his family’s ancestral village Samrai. The legend goes that Samrai was established by five brothers. This means that I’m related to every Samrai and Samra (however far back!)
It’s a bit less clear cut for my mum. She was born and grew up in a small village called Kojha. But Kohja wasn’t her family’s ancestral village, it’s actually a place called Balan. So why didn’t they live there?
Nobody really discussed the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition or its effect in my family – even though part of the Radcliffe Line was drawn through Panjab. The only clues were in the odd mention of Pakistan and the fact that my mum’s dad Atma Singh Hothi, or Papa Ji as we call him, wrote in Urdu (India’s national language before Partition) and not Panjabi.
So as the 70th anniversary of Partition approached in 2017, I asked my mum to help me learn more about what happened to Papa Ji and his family in 1947.
The horrors of Partition
Papa Ji’s father, Kartar Singh Hothi, was an havildar in the British Indian Army. As part of his job they moved to Chak no.90/12L, now in Pakistani Panjab, where my Papa Ji (one of seven) was born. Some of Kartar Singh’s family were originally from Afghanistan as well – Kabul and Kandahar – which I didn’t know until relatively recently.
When Partition happened, they became refugees. Papa Ji and his family walked for 23 days from Chak no.90/12L to the other side of the border with their neighbours, livestock, and basic belongings. They eventually formed a 12-mile convoy as other villages joined them.
They covered hundreds of miles seeing atrocities such as rivers awash with people's blood, bodies upon bodies left mutilated and decomposing in the sun, and a cholera epidemic in Amritsar across the newly formed border.
As a small compensation for leaving everything behind in what was now Pakistan, Kartar Singh was eventually given land in Kojha by the Indian Government (but only 75% of what they previously owned and in lieu of his pension). I remember wondering why their house had hallmarks of Islamic architecture, such as pointed arches and alcoves, and now I knew. A Muslim family had left it behind, just as my Sikh family had left theirs.
Celebrate, commemorate and educate
It’s difficult and upsetting for me to look at historical maps of India pre-1947, like this one from the Parliamentary Archives. This is because they remind me of the loss and bloodshed that came later with Partition. There are also lots of sacred and special places and buildings that are now harder to access because of the border - for people in India and Pakistan.
Often it’s hard to reconcile my Sikh/Panjabi identity with my British one because of the many other atrocities committed by the British in India. This includes the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919 and the Bengal Famine in 1943.
It’s also difficult working in Parliament for the same reason. I am in awe of this magnificent place, full of history and interesting people. But there’s an acute pain in the reverence of past figures who contributed to or overlooked colonial and other atrocities, and those who deny their impact on modern British society.
But as the motto for South Asian Heritage Month puts it: Celebrate, commemorate and educate.
So when I look at maps of South Asia now, I remember that Indian Panjab is a one piece of a larger picture. I’m immensely proud of having a heritage that spans a greater part of South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lines on maps don’t change that.
I’m also proud of having DNA connections to other parts of the world, including Finland and Eastern Europe apparently! I couldn’t even have dreamed of this when looking at my sister’s map all those years ago.