Partition was a seminal event in the history of post-Colonial India. The Partition of India was the partition of British India on the basis of religious demographics that led to the creation, on 14 August 1947 and 15 August 1947, respectively, of the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (later Islamic Republic of Pakistan and People's Republic of Bangladesh) and the secular Union of India (later Republic of India).

The partition was promulgated in the Indian Independence Act 1947 and was negotiated between Lord Mountbatten, British India's last viceroy, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. It resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire.

Records suggest that as many as 15 million people were displaced from their homes, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million. Both my parents' families were amongst those displaced and all my grandparents, my father and older aunts and uncles bear memories of that tragic summer. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship till this day.

Journalist Karan Mahajan describes Parition as a 'supremely bungled event: undertaken at high speed and with apparently zero foresight.' Pakistan and India were created out of the separation of previously-undivided Punjab, the land of five rivers. It is the region from which most of Southall's residents originates. It is a place that still unites its peoples along linguistic, cultural, culinary, literary, and historical lines.

travel by ship

After the harrowing experience that was Partition, many families, including my own, found it hard to settle down in new territory and in unstable economic circumstances. Post-war Britain was in desperate need of low-skilled labor and began intensive outreach to the people of her former colonies. People, mostly men, from across South Asia and the West Indies were issued vouchers by the Ministry of Labor to come to Britain, the home of their former occupiers, and take up jobs in factories and hospitals.

My grandfather left his family in the late 1950s, first to take up farm work in South America and then eventually to work in the rubber factories outside of Southall in West London, Great Britain. He wrote regularly to his family and sent the occasional photo. This one was taken on the voyage to Britain, while he still wore his Pagri, or Turban, the headdress traditionally worn by Sikh men.

My mom, her mother and sisters left India in early 1962 to join my grandfather. They arrived into the Port of Dover on a cold February day. She still has vivid memories of both the sea journey and the arrival into Britain. The ship was run by an Italian crew so all meals were Italian. It was the first time my mom and her family had ever eaten spaghetti or tasted wine.

factory work

Britain's post-war economy was labor hungry so people were recruited from her former colonies to take up jobs in factories, outposts, and transportation systems, mostly in London, but across the country. At one point, ninety percent of workers at Woolf's Rubber Factory in Southall, West London, were Punjabi. This same pattern was replicated within the Afro Caribbean community whose members staffed London's extensive transportation system and provided much-needed nurses to Britain's newly established National Health Service. For a wonderful fictional account that speaks to this community's experience, check out one of my favorite novels, Small Island by Andrea Levy.

The mass migration from South Asia to places like Southall spawned the creation of the Indian Workers Association which was charged with advocating for better working conditions for workers of Indian origin. Its membership was almost exclusively male although the factories employed a number of women, including my grandmother and other women of her generation.


changing roles

changing roles


change habits

change habits


fitting in

standing out

setting up shop

settling down

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color bar

ain't no black in the union jack

The phrase "Ain't no Black in the Union Jack" was a popular chant of national front and football fans alike.

As immigration from Britain's former colonies increased, so did racism. Britain's new residents were often reminded that they didn't belong in Britain and were taunted with demands to "go back home." Graffiti like this was commonplace as was discrimination in the workplace and in the real estate market. Stories abound of people responding to ads for jobs and housing and being denied based on their names, accents or skin color. It wasn't until 1976, after much activism on the part of labor, anti-racist and feminist activists, that the Race Relations Act was passed. Even the 1970 Equal Pay Act failed to address the disparity between pay for white Brits and their Black counterparts. Raced Policing including brutality and unresponsiveness remained a problem, arriving at a particularly tragic watershed during the race riots of the late 1970s and 1980s.

In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in Britain along with a succession of other laws in 1968, 1971, and 1981 that severely restricted the entry of immigrants from Africa, South Asia and the Carribbean into Britain. Emergent blacks and Asians struggled in Britain against racism and prejudice. During the 1970s - and partly in response to both the rise in racial intolerance and the rise of the Black Power movement abroad - ‘black’ became detached from its negative connotations, and was reclaimed as a marker of pride: black is beautiful.

As a way to subvert the policy of divide and conquer, non-white anti-racist activists gathered under the political designation of Black. Hence in political parlance, Black Britons are all non-white Britons, not just those who originate from Africa and the Caribbean. For more information on this, check out the Southall Black Sisters:

Southall Black Sisters

**Listen to SBS co-founder, Parminder Dhillon's account of the founding of the Southall Black Sisters by clicking on the audio link at the bottom right of this text**

The Southall Black Sisters was founded in 1979 in the wake of the Southall race riots. The non for profit organisation was set up to meet the needs of Black and Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence or injustices in the legal system. The main aim of the organisation is to empower women in gaining more control over their lives, to be able to live without fear of violence and be able to assert their human rights to justice, equality and freedom.

SBS timeline:

displacement and adaptation

displacement and adaptation