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The 1947 India-Pak partition and the inheritance of trauma.

The 1947, India- Pakistan partition was the largest displacement of people the world has ever seen. It is believed that around 14 to 20 Million people were displaced, more than 2 million died, and around 75,000 women were raped in this forced migration. Though the real number remains unclear.

The partition marked the ending of 89 years of the British Raj. It was outlined in the Indian Independence Act of 1947- marking the change of political borders and division of assets that existed during the British rule of India. The partition took place in the wake of Independence. On the morning of 15th August 1947, the people of the subcontinent woke up to two Independent countries but nowhere to go. The migration took place with little to no warning. The violent and hostile nature of partition is something that has affected Indo-Pak relationships to this day.

An English Barrister, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed just five weeks to demarcate a boundary that would later become the India- Pakistan border also known as the Radcliffe Line. Sir Radcliffe was appointed to make an “impartial” decision - a man who has never been in or seen India. Unknown of the people, the regions, and the culture. The question that arises is if the “impartiality” that the British were seeking just turned into an injustice to millions of people of the subcontinent who had to pack their belongings in their memories and kill their women to protect them. How do you uproot one’s ancestry? How do you erase people from the soil they have bled, slept, and eaten from?

There is no single way to describe what partition was, it was a new border that made two new independent countries-sure. But what were the consequences of lack of planning and failure of an authoritarian structure that lives on till today in the hearts and minds of millions of people around the subcontinent?

A 26-year-old, Devika Arora revealed in an interview with BBC, her grandfather’s stubbornness and the desire to never lose control, the need to save money in any way he can.

This was because he watched his life spiral overnight during the partition. He told her how he watched his mothers and sisters jump inside a well that was then set on fire by family members, all to save themselves from being raped and tortured by the mob.

She mentions how he always talked about how grotesquely uncertain life is and how the fear never left him.

Another Ms. Tut a second-generation witness of partition talks about how her grandmother was prone to strokes and falling ill, she spoke very less but seemed content with her life. It was years later that the family found out she had lost a newborn baby in the early stages of moving from Pakistan to India at a refugee camp. But she never expressed the trauma it caused her, which is believed to be one of the reasons for her deteriorating health.

Partition holds a different meaning to every witness. Every witness and every victim has their truth and haunting memories. 75 years after the violence the trauma has been passed from generation to generation- even today the stories exist as a familiar vocabulary among grandchildren of the affected families. Children of partition are prone to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and in some instances Trauma induced pathology which can then be passed on to the next generations. This is also known as Transgenerational trauma. Partition is considered to have had serious mental consequences on its victims. Though Indian psychiatry and psychology do not have a record of trauma-induced disorders in patients but when we observe similar cases from the West we find that witnesses of such violence experience acute stress disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, panic disorder, anxiety disorders, and sleep disorders. Older children have been seen to have behavioral problems and conduct /oppositional defiant disorders.


So what is transgenerational trauma?

Generational or Transgenerational Trauma is the transmission of traumatic or oppressive experiences or stressors from one generation to the next. It is one of many types of trauma. It occurs when a person has had direct experience with violence or lives in a state of constant violence and threat.

The passing of these traumatic experiences from one generation to another may or may not be conscious. Other than being passed down to future generations by parents or grandparents, siblings, and other family members also play a key role. The trauma can be passed down by anyone who was mentally affected and was forced to behave and think differently due to the incident. When ignored for too long, it continues to affect our day-to-day lives for years and eventually gets passed down.

We are in fact a sum of our own and our ancestor's experiences. This transcends to not only behavioral problems but also genetics. It is believed to be passed through genetic changes to a person’s DNA after experiencing trauma. Thus, then being passed down to the person’s offspring. Epigenetic points to a correlation between parental trauma and changes in an offspring’s DNA

How to identify Transgenerational trauma?

Symptoms may include:

- Dysregulation of emotions

- Detachment from thoughts, memories or Numbing

- Disturbances in sleep

- Hyperarousal/ Hypervigilance

- Intrusive thoughts

- Flashbacks or triggers

- Depersonalization and disassociation

- Self harm

The role of epigenetics.

While our genes are fixed, epigenetics are flexible. It talks about how behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work. What is more interesting is these epigenetic tags on our DNA are passed down to the next generation. Genetic changes affect which proteins are made, and epigenetic changes affect a gene’s expression to turn genes on or off.

Thus, a healthier lifestyle can pave the way for not only our own wellbeing but the well-being of our further generations. How we live our life has an immense influence on these tags and our overall health. It is important to note that epigenetics do not alter our DNA but affect the expression of genes.

Breaking the cycle:

It is important to know that transgenerational trauma does not only pass on the exact same set of behaviours rather the consequences of these behaviours effect the younger generation and form new set of destructive behaviours. It creates a cycle of manifestations of these behaviours and learned helplessness. Children learn unhealthy patterns unconsciously by observing or interacting with family members. It is important to break the cycle and allow yourself and your family with a better life.

  • Acknowledging the trauma.

First step to healing from transgenerational trauma is acknowledging the trauma. Accpeting the trauma, the experience and what caused it and taking a step to heal.

  • Creating a new healthier lifestyle.

Creating a new and better lifestyle is important . Getting 8 hours of continuous sleep. Eating and drinking better, meditating and controlling the urger to fall back into toxic habits might help.

  • Learning your family history.

Learning about your family history and identifying the cause of trauma from a third person perspective is crucial. It might provide you with reasons why the behaviours were posed. This can also be done woth help of a therapist who can help you develp better ways to communicate.

  • Becoming your own parent.

One part of healing is the gaining the ability to reflect on what was missing from your childhood, what your parent didn’t provide you and what needs were not met.

  • Therapy.

A therapist can help you with effective childhood trauma treatments through Cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy.

Other therapies that can help:

Interpersonal therapy

Psychodynamic therapy for attachment

Family system therapy.

How can a mental health professional might be helpful:

Navigating through trauma

Finding the cause of trauma

Analysing the impact of trauma

Helping you cope with it

  • Support groups.

Connect and talking to people with similar experiences and learn how they are finding ways to cope might help.

Books that understand Generational Trauma better:

  • The body keeps the score by Bessel Van der Kolk

  • It didn’t start with you: how inherited family trauma shapes who we are and we end the cycle by Mark Wolynn



White, T. (2022, June 17). Trauma cycle: How to break intergenerational trauma. Psych Central.

How the 1947 Partition of India Affected Future generations (2022) VICE. Available at:


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