By Victoria Lincoln
Last year, I was at a speaker event in Durham when a guest expressed that it was a terrible shame that the Queen Mother should have been the last Empress of India. I remember at once being shocked, horrified, and confused, whilst everyone else in the room simply nodded and agreed. It occurred to me that the guest speaker and the audience (all white, male, and middle-class) probably saw the 1947 Indian Independence Act as a sad ending to their days of imperial power. I, however, see it as the beginning of South Asian peoples being equal to their white counterparts, losing the label of ‘savage’, and having the world recognise that people of colour deserve the same rights, as we are fundamentally alike in our capacities as human beings. The debate around Empire seems to be a source of confusion, misinformation, shame, and pride all at once for us in Britain. Perhaps this is why the 70th anniversary of partition has been eagerly covered by the BBC and international press, but has not been met with such fervour in India or Pakistan. These countries have clearly moved on – the only influence the British can now claim in the region is the airing of Downton Abbey.
I’ve decided to tackle this issue through the lens of how both women’s rights and continued religious sectarianism have hindered development, as these have affected my family in the sub-continent. The neglect of religious minorities and women are the two key barriers to development, and has meant for many that life has not improved since 1947. Although the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the British helped shape the sectarian divide, it cannot simply be blamed on external influences. I will spare the history lesson but, to simplify, the Islamification of Pakistan in the 1980s and the rise of the Hindu BJP nationalists have intensified the ‘us versus them’ feeling distracting the people from growing inequality, corruption, and persistent poverty. Damaging practises such as state-sponsored terrorism, anti-India/Pakistan rhetoric in schools, and an arms race mean money that should be used for social progress has been squandered. Frankly, the elite are too busy building nuclear weapons to educate their girls. One of India’s own Nobel Peace Prize winners and author of ‘The Argumentative Indian,’ Amartya Sen, has commented that the ‘latent energy’ of women remains untapped in India, with a third of women being illiterate. He notes that India could learn from Bangladesh, whose focus on women in their development policies has meant that it now beats India on almost all development indicators.
It’s a shame that when India’s women and girls are in the spotlight of the press it usually involves shocking crimes against them, such as gang rape, honour killings, revenge rape, and child marriage. However, exciting social change is on the horizon. Both Indian and Pakistani society seems to be polarised between a progressive youth, and a suppressive older generation. These zesty youths critique their society’s flaws (perhaps better than we do in the West). Recebtly, India’s news has been avidly covering the case of a 10-year-old girl who gave birth via C-section. She was repeatedly raped by her uncle and is thought to be the youngest girl to give birth in India. This domestic media outrage shows that wealthy young Indians are challenging and changing the old ways. Again, in the Indian news this past month, the #aintnocinderella movement sprang up, a social media campaign which showed women out past midnight. This was to challenge a politician who victim-shamed a sexual assault survivor for being out late. That these young and ambitious Indians break such oppressive cultural barriers suggests that India can continue to keep developing. Hopefully for the centenary of partition we will revel in how far the key development indicators for women’s quality of life have progressed, and lifted millions more out of poverty in a country which is rightfully their own.
Photograph: Rajarshi Mitra via Flickr and Creative Commons