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60th Anniversary of India-Pakistan Partition on August 15th


Sixty years ago this month, India and Pakistan became two separate independent nations, shedding British colonial rule. But independence brought violence and tragedy, because Pakistan was carved out of what had once been a single country, to create a Muslim homeland. Ten million people in the subcontinent were uprooted from their homes and hundreds of thousands died in the upheaval. VOA's Steve Herman in New Delhi takes a look at the lingering problems resulting from Partition.

In a museum in New Delhi, an image of independent India's initial hopes springs to life. A robotic Jawaharlal Nehru accompanies a recording of India's first prime minister speaking minutes before independence, at midnight August 15th, 1947.

"It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity,” he said in his speech. “That may be beyond us but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over."

Sixty years on that work is not over. Hundreds of millions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are impoverished. And the memories of the violence that accompanied independence remain painful.

"I still remember. Whenever we face 15th August, I start weeping," says Pritam Singh Mahna, who in 1947 was a nine-year-old in what is now Punjabi Pakistan. Like nearly all Sikhs and Hindus in the predominately Muslim areas that became Pakistan, Mahna's family was forced to flee. "Yes, we would have been murdered by the Mohammedans."

Many leaders hoped that all could live peacefully together in the new nations -- one predominately Hindu and the other largely Muslim.

The father of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, believed there was no choice but to partition the subcontinent, otherwise, the Muslim minority would have been marginalized. "We must remember that we have to take momentous decisions and handle grave issues facing us in the solution of the complex political problems of this great subcontinent inhabited by 400 million people."

Partition led to Hindus and Sikhs streaming out of West and East Pakistan while millions of Muslims sought haven in Pakistan.

In sectarian fighting, hundreds of thousands of people died.

In Islamabad, Professor Farooq Ahmad Dar at Quaid-iAzam University recalls how his mother's family masqueraded as Hindus to escape to Pakistan. "That family was the only family which could manage to reach Pakistan alive. And that was because of the trick they used. They were protected by the Hindus and the Sikhs who killed all others."

That bloody history has haunted relations. India and Pakistan have fought three times and the territory that prompted two wars, Kashmir, remains disputed. The third war, in 1971, saw East Pakistan become independent Bangladesh. The two nuclear powers came close to war again in 2002.

Professor Dar says that many Pakistanis feel India wants to be the dominant South Asian voice. "India needs to shed its superiority complex and this is exactly what Jinnah said in 1947. Their basic problem is they want to deal with Pakistan as a senior partner and that is not acceptable to anybody here in Pakistan."

There have been signs of reconciliation. In the past three years, the two governments have taken steps to improve relations.

Delhi University historian Visalakshi Menon says shared roots and continuing conflict shape the visions India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have of themselves and their neighborhood.

"There are really these conflicting emotions, that on the one hand there is hostility and on the other hand there's a realization that we have so much in common. After all, generations of a common heritage cannot be wished away," says the professor.

While many historians think partition was inevitable, they acknowledge it did not become the envisioned path to peace and prosperity.

Both India and Pakistan still suffer from domestic sectarian conflict, and they have struggled to end poverty. But both countries have seen strong economic gains in the past several years and they have taken larger roles in world affairs.

Citizens of the two countries still hope that means their governments will continue to move closer to the ideals of those who led the drive toward independence.

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