About the project

MMPI explores the following questions:

  • What memories of Partition, decolonisation and migration persist for people of South Asian Heritage in the UK and how do these feature in everyday life;
  • How are memories of Partition and decolonisation communicated over time and across space, (within and between the UK and South Asia) including the role of social and mass media;
  • How do social practices and processes of remembering Partition and Empire inform the (re)construction and maintenance of communities and the idea of community itself;
  • What role do memories of Partition, Empire and decolonisation play in constructing British South Asian identities in the UK;
  • How do gender and generation shape memories of Partition and its role in community and national identities;

Why is Partition memory important in the UK?

‘Partition’ refers to the division of the Indian subcontinent and independence from British colonial rule in 1947. This was a protracted period of communal rupture and genocidal violence. Across northern India community relations were fractured by the process of Partition, with estimates of the lives claimed in communal massacres ranging from 200,000 to 2 million and the numbers of displaced around 15 million (Talbot and Singh, 2009: 2). As a former colonial power suffering post-war labour shortages, the UK was accessible to migrants fleeing violence and hardship (Herbert 2012). However, the racism and social marginalisation experienced by those arriving at the time, and for subsequent generations, has ranged from violent to covert and systemic. 

We understand Partition as embedded in longer term histories of Empire, of decolonisation in South Asia and Africa, and of migratory flows between South Asia, Africa and the UK. This project is interested not just in Partition as a discrete event, but as part of these longer-term processes which both shape both what and how remembering happens. 

Exploring cultural memories of Partition, decolonisation, migration and settlement in contemporary social life is challenging. At times these memories are visibly and sometimes explosively mobilised in community conflicts and at others they are painful, elusive and intimate. These memories are communicated in complex ways across generations, between social groups and across localities, nations and continents. This project tries to understand what cultural vehicles are important in the communication of these complex pasts, including news, film, social media, food, photography, music, textiles and the body itself. 

So far, there has been precious little attention paid to the ways in which memories of Empire and Partition feature in the everyday lives of people of South Asian Heritage in Britain, and very little concern for the role these memories and processes of remembering play in shaping people’s sense of their own identity and a sense of community and belonging. This project tries to address this neglect.

Why use memory to investigate community identities and relations?

Memory Studies research has made it commonplace for memories of shared pasts to be understood as important constituents of personal and community identities. Memories of our experiences are shared and communicated as well as individually held. To understand how particular communities operate it is essential to understand their particular collective memories and how these are communicated. This is particularly the case for memories of communal suffering like those of Partition.

Partition provides a lens through which to address wider questions about senses of belonging, practices of inclusion and exclusion in a postcolonial context, and the ways boundaries between public and private life are imagined and experienced.

Why explore migrant memory?

This study is not simply a history of Partition from the perspective of people of South Asian heritage in the UK, it considers how Partition memory is constructed, communicated and used in the present production of collective identities and communities.

Remembering is the process by which we make stories from our experience: how we explain cause and effect; how we justify actions; how we explain what we experience in the present and expect from the future; how we identify where we belong and with whom we have things in common. We use these processes to build social relationships and form communities.

There has been some recent use of a mnemonic approach to Partition, (Kaul 2002; Sharma 2009), but these studies focus on memories and their communication in South Asia. Exploring diasporic memories of Partition provides a gateway into how these processes are performed between cultures: between languages, religions, civic systems and national borders.  These cultural positions filter the experience of Partition, how it is remembered, and are continually reconfigured under changing social, political and economic conditions.

Our Research Design

Our research is a split-site cultural ethnography, located in Loughborough (around ten miles from Leicester in the British Midlands), and Tower Hamlets in East London. We use creative community arts activities designed in collaboration with our community partners, Charnwood Arts, Equality Action and Tower Hamlets Council, to provide spaces for groups to come together and explore their memories using different cultural vehicles, from food to dance (put in link to the ‘our work in Loughborough/TH pages here). We also use in-depth interviewing to gather more detailed accounts of people’s relationships to the past.