64 years ago on August 14th, 1947 a new country was born: Pakistan. It was made by cutting the old imperial India into three sections, with West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) hived off from the rest of the country.
The following day India itself was declared independent, and the British who had ruled in one way or another for the past couple of hundred years lowered the flag, and effectively went home.
The partition of India created one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in modern times, as peoples were divided along communal and religious lines, and turned against each other in a fury of violence.
This BBC documentary, made for the 60th anniversary of that event in 2007 by Ricardo Pollack, gives an overview of the political events that led up to that disaster, intermixed with eye-witness accounts, historical footage and dramatized reconstructions of some of the events, in which over a million people died, and 15 million were displaced.
The title is something of a misnomer, as India didn’t burn for a day – the period of time involved was around a year, as the various communities tried to shift from their ancestral homes to areas with similar communities; and the burning of homes and villages was only a small part of the violence.
The tensions which dominate the region today, which still explode every now and then, and have led to one of the longest separatist wars in modern history (Kashmir), all stem from the fateful decisions that were made at this time, and if you don’t understand why they are happening, this documentary will at least fill in part of the background.
But it is the human tragedy that is brought across so well by the film, with its emphasis on eye-witness accounts of the suffering, the bravery, the hatred and the helplessness felt during those days by people who were directly involved in the events.
Satish Gujral, one of India’s most prominent artists, was a young student at the time. He was witness to the systematic raping of Muslim schoolgirls in Amritsar, and his words bring home the despair of the times: “I looked at the faces of those who were attending in search of compassion: I found none.”
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Some Stills from the Documentary