Zaeema Assad – ‘The Radcliffe Line’

“A powerful reflection on conflicts over personal identity, historical legacy, culture constraints and the limits of individualism.” – Andrew Jack, global education editor for the Financial Times and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023

Presidencies and provinces of British India | India map, History of ...

It is the cry of a parent, a child, a boy, a father, a mother, a cousin. It is the cry of a person, tears tracking down cheeks smeared with the blood of another; My cheeks are smeared, covered in that very blood. It is a crack in the foundations of an entire subcontinent, the Radcliffe Line, the cleaving in two of an entire nation, the edges ragged like a slab of butcher’s meat.

The line is borne from bloodshed, scrawled in black ink yet bleeding a bloody red. 14th August 1947. It is celebrated as a day of independence, yet the trains full of murdered citizens would beg to differ. Viscount Radcliffe and Lord Mountbatten and centuries of chains that were broken only to end in a death sentence. It was like pardoning a prisoner and then strapping them to an electric chair. They were British men, one with no knowledge of the land, and the other a white man ruling over a different culture. We were controlled by the British, the fire between our people, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, stoked to a boiling point until the kettle whistled. We were controlled by the British for 200 years and then torn apart by them in a measly two weeks. We were controlled by the British for spices, cotton and indigo dye, and then, when it was no longer economically beneficial, they left with our blood. It was the worst humanitarian crisis in human history affecting upwards of 14 million, and killing 2 million, but, realistically, it still affects us today.

We are intrinsically linked, Pakistan, India, Britain and I.

Somewhere in England, I bend over a basin vehemently trying to wash off decades of grief and yet it is stubbornly etched into the very pores of my skin and bones. Immigrant, different, brown and not white. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Somewhere in England, I carry the weight of two million deaths on my back. Was Radcliffe the perpetrator? Who killed, who cried, who moved, who was torn from their roots and homes in nothing but a bit of cloth? Was it the Muslim League National Guard who did it? The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh? Paramilitary volunteer bodies attached to a violent movement? Ask anyone, and they will for sure utter a British man’s name.

“Welcome to our country”, they say in the 1948 Nationality Act; “Leave our country”, they say in the 1971 Immigration Act. “Isn’t this my home?”, I cry from my bedroom window, “Go back to your country” they cry in return. “Which one?” I reply, arms buckling under the weight of violent history. My official passport bears the names of both Pakistan and Britain, yet some would argue that I am only from one. Urdu flows from my tongue like a river in the four walls of my home, yet a dam prevents it from slipping out in school, lest someone hears it and pushes me aside like forgotten waste.

It sounds confusing. Conflicting. Wearisome. This is my narrative, one which is borne from confusing boundaries, conflicting nationalities, and wearisome countries trying to coexist peacefully once more. I am a British-Pakistani, Muslim, immigrant, 16-year-old girl. I am a puppet whose strings are being pulled in every direction by everyone but myself.

You may skim through what I have to say, tired of hearing the same words written over and over and over, until it fades into white noise – doesn’t it strike you? That the very point is that the same words have been written over and over and over. When will the title “British-Pakistani, Muslim, immigrant, 16-year-old girl” switch to “human”?

Each one of those titles bears its own history and weight and meaning.

I am a 16-year-old girl and so I learnt that keys belong between my knuckles instead of in keyholes. I hesitate to wear my hair loose as I was taught it was easy to pull; I hesitate to wear heels as they are harder to run in than trainers; My skirt falls below my fingertips in order to not be catcalled. I have sat in assemblies detailing the step-by-step instructions to avoid being raped: no long nails, no cleavage, not too much skin, not too much makeup, don’t smile it’s an invitation, don’t go anywhere alone at night, don’t get into taxis alone. My words are a red light and yet all boys see is yellow, which they then pretend is green. At what age do they become colour-blind to the word “Stop”? At what age is a “16-year-old girl” controlled by fear and blame and ignored stop signs?

I am an immigrant and so I am classed as other. I am a diaspora, scattered across the globe like the fluff of a baby dandelion, trying to make roots wherever I land. If I add the prefix British-Pakistani, I am suffocated by prejudice and hate; there is so much hate that there is a word for it: Paki-bashing. A term coined simply due to enmity. It is in the instant that you learn of the term that you recognise that the colour of your skin disqualifies you from being British. That you are indeed a forlorn seed unable to thrive in foreign soil; I am homesick, yet I do not know where home is.

I am a Muslim. It is a word with a kaleidoscope of meanings and yet it technically only has one: “a follower of the religion of Islam”. What did you think of? ISIS? 9/11? If I don’t wear a hijab I am not a true follower of Islam, yet if I do wear one it is perceived as a noose, oppressing me into silence. Living in a country with predominantly white ideals, my full sleeve, high-necked shirts symbolise a Magaret Atwood book, however, I am judged if I tell someone I am Muslim whilst wearing a skirt. I am a Muslim and so I am a juxtaposition of unyielding faith and Hollywood clothing trends. I am a Muslim and so I am subject to discrimination. They were Muslim and so in 1946 they were subjected to stripping, nude processions and rape by Hindu mobs in the town of Garhmukteshwar, alongside countless others across the rest of the country. Do you not see? I am a Muslim and so the only peace I know exists in the afterlife.

They are titles which pierce me like splinters, latching into my skin and poisoning me from the inside out. Every death, every rape, every rude word, every time I and so many others have been discounted based on race, faith, or gender, it is like a smarting cut in my skin. The cleaving of that nation was felt in my very synapses, sending shockwaves down my spine decades afterwards. It is like tar, unmalleable, clinging to each nerve. And as Viscount Radcliffe sips tea made by the countries he treated as a playground, I am weighed down by suffocating quicksand. Somewhere in England, I await the day I scrub my cheeks and the blood smeared on them washes away.

Zaeema Assad is a senior winner in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023