The Fight to Teach Partition in the West

Despite significant South Asian populations, U.S., U.K., and Canadian schools rarely teach students about one of the largest and deadliest mass migrations in history.

Sadaf Ahsan

August 17, 2022

The Fight to Teach Partition in the West
Shahbaz Khan shows pictures of his uncle Inayat Khan (left), who was also separated from the family at the time of Partition and died in India a few years ago, and his late father Sharif Khan (Murtaza Ali/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

“I don’t recall being taught much about the Partition,” said Shalini Trehan, who was in high school in Portland just about two decades ago.  

Like many South Asians growing up in the West, Trehan learned about the historical event and its profound impact through family stories. “I learned about Partition mostly through my mom and maasis. I was told stories about how the women and children in the family were sent to a hill station when things started to get unsettled, that my nana and his brothers came after. That they lost everything. That one of my nana’s brothers was missing for quite some time, but managed to survive and reach the family, eventually.”  

For Emad Khan, who graduated high school in New Jersey five years ago, the story is still the same: Partition wasn’t ever a word he recalled in a classroom or textbook. It was television where he heard bits and pieces. He’d later hear the whole story from his grandparents, after years of them refusing to discuss it. “This is our family history,” Khan shared. “So when you don’t hear about it in school, it feels as if it’s not worth learning. But it is, whether you have South Asian roots or not, but especially if you do.”

Nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S., 2.6 million in the U.K. (where they are also the largest minority group), and 1 million in Canada. Still, few can say they grew up learning about one of the largest mass migrations in history, which involved the division of the subcontinent into a secular India and a Muslim Pakistan in August 1947, and displaced more than 15 million people and killed anywhere between 200,000 and 2 million. With recent representations of Partition in the media — most notably, on the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel — the obfuscated history has become a renewed topic, especially among a younger, Western audience. Partition remains a historical event clouded by countless narratives and painful memories, demanding retelling — not only at home, but in school.