Inheriting Partition memories: an interview with Anwar Akhtar

Our Research Associate Clelia Clini spoke with Anwar Akhtar from The Samosa about Partition, memories and the value of remembering.

Would you like to tell me a little bit about your life, what do you do, where did you grow up, where is your family from?

So, I’m Anwar Akhtar, I’m a British Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker and keen self-taught historian. I was born and grew up in Manchester. My family are originally from – well, my mother was born in Jalandhar and was part of Partition. She experienced Partition as a very young child.  She was part of those famous human caravans and I think that’s a story that’s very common for many British Asians of my generation. My family came to Britain in the ’60s. I was born and grew up in Manchester in the ’70s. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your family?  Why did they decide to come to the UK?

There was a lot of migration from Multan, Bahawalpur, Mirpur, Sahiwal, the Pakistan side of Kashmir. There were lots of calls from Britain. 

I think it’s quite funny that Enoch Powell, the arch racist nationalist isolationist, was Health Minister in the Tory government in the ’60s that was making a call for people to come to work in the NHS from Asia and the Caribbean.  There were calls for people to come and work in the factories and the mills in the north west. I think that’s probably why my father and many of his peers ended up in Manchester. Also, I think there was that connection with Britain that’s well documented, because of empire and heritage.  So, it’s probably a combination of those reasons.

Did they ever tell you what was it like when they arrived?

I think life was very, very tough. I mean, the Manchester experience is slightly different: Manchester was one of the centres of empire.  It’s a huge city and so I think the communities that came to Manchester, there was some – you have those benefits of being in a secure municipal, social, cultural educational environment, where there’s the rule of law and order, there’s housing, it’s organised. Very quickly, many British Asians in Manchester went into retail, went into shops, into textile, into business. So I think the stories that I remember being told are much more about the work ethic.  From working in factories, they started setting up factories and supplying garments and manufacturing and many went from overcrowded housing to very nice suburban housing with patios and extensions.

What was it like for you to grow up in Manchester? 

Manchester is a very proud town, and where we were growing up it was – it was inner city Manchester. It was the Manchester equivalent of Brick Lane or, you know, Holborn or kind of Camden.  It really was the heart of Manchester. As children, we were just children.  I knew no other life than being a British Manchester Asian.  That’s all I knew, so to me it was just like, you know, natural. We were very lucky. The school was great. We were able to play out in the street. It was a safe neighbourhood. Because it was inner city Manchester, there wasn’t actually that much racism growing up because we were growing up in a large working class Asian community. The schools had lots of Asian people. I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about growing up in Manchester.

Did you go to Pakistan when you were a child?

Oh goodness, yes.  I went when I was nine,  in summer holidays for – again as a teenager, to go and stay in a village for four, five weeks during the summer, so it was very familiar. It was like summer holidays.

It was just like a holiday, you know, you’d be playing football, playing cricket, travelling. As I got older, I noticed the gender inequality.  I just noticed how unfair life is for women in Pakistan and how even at the age of 11, 12, 13, young girls just didn’t have the confidence in public space that children in Manchester had. So I remember noticing that very early because I’ve got four sisters and their behaviour in Manchester was very different from the behaviour of girls their age in Pakistan, who were basically second class citizens. I remember noticing that. 

And the amazement of the cities, you know, it’s all this stuff that kind of Vikram Seth has written about: the sights, the smells, the noises of Karachi and Lahore, you know, it’s magical. It’s magical realism when you’re from somewhere  like Manchester. The first time you get on a Pakistani train or you go to a Pakistani bazaar, I mean it’s like Alice in Wonderland – you know, it’s going down the rabbit hole, in many ways.

When you went to Pakistan, to Lahore or Karachi as a child, did you find any resemblance to Britain at all… in the buildings or the streets?

Yes, more as I was older and I started going there to research and investigate and document because then I was meeting the middle classes and the buildings and the architecture and the heritage, where Britain’s presence is omnipresent, but less so in the working class –and just an awareness that everyone spoke English. The street signage. Even at an early age, which is probably what got me into the visual art side of what I do, I loved all the signage of the stores and the street markets in Karachi and Lahore and Multan and Bahawalpur, and the shop signs. That always had a play to England. So, you’d have things like Manchester Market, Leeds Market, Bradford Market in Multan and Bahawalpur, and you’d see the civic buildings. The use of the English language and the play between Urdu and Punjabi and English, I think you notice very early, but you may not be conscious of it. It’s just there.

Can I go back to the question of Partition… because you said your mum was part of the caravan?


When did you first learn about Partition?

From a very early age, we were told that the Indians were bad people, from a very, very early age. From about the age of three, four, five, you know, you’re told that “the Indians were bad people” and “they did bad things and thank God for Jinnah saving Pakistan, otherwise we’d all have been wiped out”. That’s the everyday British Pakistani working-class narrative, and it’s very similar to the narrative around the creation of Israel. You know, if it wasn’t for that country, we wouldn’t be here. That is always there, but then it’s really weird because we got on really well with the Indian neighbours and they were lovely, and we shared food with them. So, there’s this really weird cognitive dissonance there. British Asians get on so well with each other and there was a real trust between Muslim, Sikh and Hindu in Manchester. You know, you found people sharing businesses, sharing housing, people would often share food. If there was any concern about – there were worries about racial violence as I got older. There was a real kind of British Asians looking out for each other. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu people would often get together very quickly if there was any fears of attacks from racist gangs.

Did your parents tell you that they used to be part of the same country?

Yes, there was awareness, yes, and the feeling was that it was part of the same country, but not really an analysis of why Partition happened. So these are working class communities and often they’re from rural areas, so it’s not as if – you know, they didn’t have access to political kind of narratives about the power and the game and the play that took place between Nehru and Jinnah and Gandhi and Mountbatten and Partition and the Radcliffe plan. All they knew was that Hindu mobs and Sikh mobs were killing Muslims and Jinnah saved them and created Pakistan.

So your mum was born in India, colonial India, and your dad?

My father was grew up in Bahawalpur, so half my family are what you’d call Pakistani Punjabi and a huge half are from Jalandhar.  Jalandhar’s really interesting because I think pretty much the entire Muslim population of Jalandhar was ethnically cleansed by Partition and a lot of Pakistan Super Hawks are from Jalandhar. So, a lot of the Pakistani military, General Zia was from Jalandhar. There was a huge community that went from Jalandhar and that community became some of Pakistan’s biggest patriots. That’s quite interesting and I often think about the settler communities from Russia, that have gone into Israel and they’ve become the biggest kind of Israeli patriots. I think there’s something similar going on there. 

Also, the Punjab, it’s such a tragedy because there’s no natural divide in the Punjab. There’s not really difference coming from Jalandhar or coming from Multan or Bahawalpur. This thing called biradari, it’s basically that, that people are from one region and one community and one clan, and one caste as well.  Biradari is caste. There is a caste system in Pakistan. People from Jalandhar would have, bizarrely, linguistically, culturally, socially, you have much more in common if you’re from Jalandhar with someone from Multan and Bahawalpur, than people from people Multan and Bahawalpur, which struggle to understand people from Karachi.

My mother…we were quite lucky because they got 24 hours’ notice, so they were able – you know, they got notice that the gangs were coming, so they were able to pack their belongings  – but a few weeks later, all hell was breaking loose.  It is literally – it’s her earliest childhood memories

Did your mum ever tell you about India, like growing up in what was India and what was it like to move to the other side?

No, because I think she was about seven or eight when it happened, so all she’s got memories of – her earliest memory is literally her mother, that they used to play in gardens and there were children in Jalandhar and then the horror happened, and they were told they had to leave.  My mother…we were quite lucky because they got 24 hours’ notice, so they were able – you know, they got notice that the gangs were coming, so they were able to pack their belongings – but a few weeks later, all hell was breaking loose.  It is literally – it’s her earliest childhood memories. 

I think she probably always wanted to go back to Jalandhar, and she speaks about it, but she goes to Pakistan every couple of years and I think when you’re in Britain, it’s such an effort to go back to Pakistan. I’ve only crossed the border once, just to walk the border area. We went up towards Amritsar, but it was like a day trip. 

You know, you’ve got to visit all your relatives in Pakistan when you’re in Pakistan, travel up and down the country and so that’s her mindset, so she does not think a lot about India now, apart from the cricket although I recall  she really liked Indira Gandhi, which I think was enjoying see a woman in power.

She did?

Yes, just because she was a woman in power, so there’s that cultural connection, but they blank it out, that generation.

What do you think are the consequences of Partition, both in South Asia and the UK?

I think there’s three separate consequences. I think there’s the human tragedy. All those stories of loss on both sides and all that feeding of resentment, all that feeding of passing down this conflict. So I think there’s that tragedy on both sides. I think without judging either side, I just think there’s the tragedy of – if you look at the Indus Valley Water Treaty, that’s just about holding.  If that goes, we’ve got an environmental catastrophe. 

So one thing that’s worrying because there’s so little trust on both sides, I fear, even the Indus Valley Water Treaty, which has been a great success actually re-resource sharing and peace in region, is under strain, under great pressure, and if that goes…  They are both building dams on each side, so there’s a risk for conflict, you know, because of water asphyxiation.  It is the most dangerous part of the world because of the environmental issues, the resource issues, the anger issue, and they’re both nuclear powers. Then just the poverty. There’s a tragedy of the human experience. There’s the tragedy of the dangers of it politically, in terms of conflict. It is, I think, the most high-risk conflict zone on the planet. 

So, it’s tragic on so many levels and it’s tragic because it shouldn’t have been like that. It should have been a federal relationship, and that’s a naïve thing to say. I’ve said it often, in the way that Scotland/England has their autonomy, but there’s no – you can go from Glasgow to London, in the same way you should be able to go to Lahore, to Delhi and it’s an unfinished tragedy. It’s a tragedy that I hope will have a happier ending. Eventually that border’s got to come down in some way. There’s got to be freedom of movement. Both nations are obviously going to stay, but we’re probably 50 years away from that.

What you think about the legacy of Partition in the UK? 

It has different legacies, it has different impacts. There’s very active political networks and they cross religion and they cross region. The one lobby that isn’t there which I wish was there, and we’re trying to do some work around, is climate crisis. There’s very little awareness around the environmental issues. I think a younger generation – we’ve just started some project work with Salzburg Seminar now with young writers and activists across Bangladesh and India and Pakistan, about this climate crisis, the way to reconciliation.  Because it is recognised borders and territory and religion, and maybe climate crisis might be the way to undo some of the kind of tensions around Partition, by getting the countries and the leaders to work together. 

And then there’s also the kind of historical diaspora connections, culturally, educationally, so I wouldn’t say there’s one legacy or one lobby, I think it’s multi-headed.

“I think there’s a danger in extrapolating from one or two experiences as a community’s experience”

I was wondering if you ever remember talking about Partition with your friends, when you were growing up?

It was only when I got to university and I started meeting other British South Asians that had an interest in heritage and history and culture. And there’s always those sorts of exploratory conversations about – and one of the big ones is Dara and the Mughals. Then the other one is the tensions between the three religions. And the other is how many friends you’ve got from different communities.

I think there’s a danger in extrapolating from one or two experiences as a community’s experience. Every community is different. But with my parents it was a constant conversation, and it was very much around two or three themes. And one was flight, exodus, expulsion. The way half my family had to leave Jalandhar. I think with the older generation there was a very strong story about migration and the creation of Pakistan. It was very much about – there was a very personal narrative of people fleeing their villages and having to leave and be part of the human caravan. Then there was a narrative about the glory of Pakistan and the creation of Pakistan and Muhammed Jinnah, the saviour of Pakistan. And a narrative of how fiendishly horrible Nehru and Gandhi and the Indians were, and they were never to be trusted. There was that narrative of “they want to destroy us at the very first opportunity”. It’s a very working-class kind of identity. It’s not too dissimilar from what you see in Northern Ireland with the Catholic, Protestant, it’s very much about our side’s right and their side’s wrong and our side’s fighting for survival. But because it’s your parents it’s often said in a very gentle way. You know, “if it wasn’t for the sake of god”, or “god gave us Jinnah” or “god gave us Pakistan”, or “god saved us”, you know, it wasn’t—  And it was very much a kind of acceptance of that’s just how it was, that there had to be the divide.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your organisation, The Samosa, and how it came about? 

The Samosa Media was set up by three people: John Pandit from Asian Dub Foundation, myself, Anwar Akhtar and Graham Hitchen, the chair. Essentially the original idea was actually to be a sort of British South Asian version of the Huffington Post. So it was very much a news media portal, where bloggers in Bangladesh and India and Pakistan could file stories that would get read in Britain and vice versa. It was trying to bring a set of values and principles into the media where diversity was mainstream, it wasn’t the kind of guest column or the guest publication, so there was an element of that. The people behind The Samosa, a lot of them were involved in setting up the Rich Mix centre. In a way it was that similar kind of cultural space. You know, why are all these news sites, blog sites, media sites so monocultural? So a lot of it was about British racial identity politics.  But it was also about internationalism. 

Then of course it ran out of money very quickly, we managed to raise some small funding, some grants, some sponsorship, that all went very quickly. And, of course, Dara, this huge juggernaut of a play came along and essentially that was The Samosa’s project, we developed the working relationship with Ajoka Theatre, we got the play commissioned, we presented it to the National, we were part of the translation. And that was such a huge Box Office project, nobody had done anything of that scale before, nobody had done a play like Dara on that scale on the National stage at the National Theatre. Translated from Punjabi, dealing with the religious, clerical history issues that the play was dealing with.

I think it opened a lot of doors around theatre, around culture, around diversity. And also, it was a different way of looking at issues around radicalisation and extremism, rather than the stupidity of – and I’m happy to go on the record– it needs saying.  I think some of the policies that have been pursued – there’s this circus around radicalisation and extremism that is just the culture wars. It’s the right wing. It’s the hard right.

Then the other side is organisations that just think there’s nothing wrong in the Muslim world, it’s all Islamophobia. And I think we take a much more nuanced and a much more balanced and a much more reflective opinion, and we have a range of views. I think that the main thing about The Samosa is that it’s British, it comes from a very British aesthetic, so I think that’s quite important. It’s not some kind of wishy-washy, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely’ diaspora politics: it’s asking some questions.

One of the things that I think we’re going to try and do is try and reset the debate around the legacy of Partition away from a blame game and away from religion and identity and tribe and territory

Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ve been doing with British Pakistani communities or groups?  I remember an initiative that you had on your website – was it a film, or a series of short films?

Yeah, that was the Royal Society of Arts Pakistan Calling. So that was when we started Samosa, we got a little bit of funding from the Soros Foundation and from Esmée Fairbairn to do work around diaspora. I mean, one of the ideas behind it was organisations like the Department for International Development, the British Council, international agencies like the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, had very few British Pakistanis, British Sikhs, British Hindus working there. Which is preposterous given a lot of those people are bilingual and the skills it would bring to the job. So it was about breaking the glass ceiling in a way that law and media and journalism were very mono-culture. So was international development. 

So we spoke with the Royal Society of Arts about making careers in international development more accessible for working class talent, and that’s what the Royal Society of Arts’ Pakistan Calling film programme was very much aimed at: raising awareness of millennium goals, education goals, development, sanitation, water. And it very quickly became the portal for information around social and human and economic development in Pakistan, that was presented in a kind of curated, useful, informative manner.

One of the nice things that I found out was the British Council and DFID, Department for International Development, were advising their staff when they were posted to Pakistan to go and read The Samosa for a briefing– so when the British civil service are using your low budget media web network to brief the civil servants of the future you kind of know you’re making an impact and you’re filling the gap. And that’s because it’s a British aesthetic, it’s about saying “look, if you want to understand gender inequality in Pakistan, here’s the ten films to watch”. “If you want to understand issues around the legacy of Kashmir, here’s ten films, ten bloggers”. 

Then it was about just the anger I think a lot of British Muslims and a lot of British Asians had about gender inequality in Pakistan. And just not giving the space to the religious organisations to dominate – or the sectarian or the right-wing religious organisations, to dominate that space. So that’s where Pakistan Calling came from. But again, one of the films on Pakistan Calling was the history of Ajoka Theatre. And that of course is what led to Dara. So whatever The Samosa did, it was all experimental, it was all pilot, on budgets of five, ten, fifteen thousand, that essentially, we were able to get because there was a team that built Rich Mix, so their work supporting, their work following the pilots. And then Dara was the big thing. And after Dara came the Lahore Museum film, and now we’re looking at the 75th anniversary.

Do you think it is important to remember Partition?

Yes. Well, it’ll never be forgotten. It’s a live memory. Just look at what’s happening now, look at what’s happening in Kashmir, look at what’s happening with Modi, look at what’s happening with Imran, look at the Indus Valley Water Treaty. It’s a bit like, is it important to remember the end of World War 2, or is it important to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of slavery? So these are the huge moments in human history. I think what makes Partition – it’s not unique, but what makes Partition very important is I think like Israel, Palestine, like Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, like Mexico and America with the border arguments, you know, these are the fault lines of the human race at the moment.

So I think it’s important but I also think it’s about how that legacy – it’s about the future. 2022, the 75th anniversary, it will be the final large anniversary for many of the survivors, many of the people that witnessed it. One of the things that I think we’re going to try and do is try and reset the debate around the legacy of Partition away from a blame game and away from religion and identity and tribe and territory we’re going to work with Ajoka Theatre and Lahore Museum, to try and produce a piece of film theatre around the legacy of Partition. So there’s two separate things. There will be some more film and theatre work around the legacy of Partition and the 75th anniversary.

About Anwar Akhtar:

Anwar Akhtar was born and grew up in Manchester, UK. He is Founder and Director of, The Samosa a UK arts and journalism charity that works to embed diversity in the arts and humanities curriculum in schools, colleges and universities, and produces media that explores cultural and social issues. Anwar was the production consultant on the play “Dara,” working with Ajoka Theatre Pakistan and National Theatre UK. The first South Asian history play at the UK’s National Theatre, “Dara” was seen by more than 30,000 people in 2015. “Dara” tells the story of Mughal India, raising questions about religious freedom, tolerance and clerical power that still resonate today. Anwar also led the Royal Society of Arts’ Pakistan Calling project, which produced more than 60 films looking at identity, education, equality, culture, religion, women’s and minority rights in Britain and Pakistan. Anwar was previously project director of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, where he led the capital and business development of a new £26 million arts centre in East London. He is a multi-time Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar. His Manchester 4/4 talk, Cities, Tolerance, Multi culturalism film is here and his latest film is Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum