Dr Binita Kane: A Partition Journey

As part of International Women’s Day, Health Innovation Manchester would like to share the story of Dr Binita Kane, Respiratory Lead at Health Innovation Manchester and Consultant Respiratory Physician at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT). Dr Kane is also the C0-Founder of South Asian Heritage Month, and Founder of Partition Education Group, an official campaign to include Partition, South-Asian & British colonial history into the UK National Curriculum.

Dr Kane has written a blog to help share her story, sharing the experiences of her father during the partition of India in 1947, after featuring as part of an award-winning BBC Documentary ‘My Family Partition and Me’ in 2017.

The documentary highlights the struggle that ensued for thousands of people across the country during the time, many like Dr Kane’s father, who fled to England as a young boy and has since gone on to receive an OBE for his services to the NHS as a doctor. As part of the documentary Dr Kane returned to South Asia, to delve deeper into her family’s heritage:

My name is Binita Kane and I’m the daughter of a Partition survivor. You may or may not know what that means; I am referring to the Partition of India in 1947 when the British divided the Indian sub-continent, to create the new countries of East and West Pakistan (the former now Bangladesh). The Partition displaced between 10 and 20 million people along religious lines, creating a catastrophic refugee crisis, which saw the biggest mass migration of humans in history. Up to 2 million people died in the aftermath.

I knew little about this history until 2017, when I was given the incredible opportunity to take part in the award-winning BBC documentary ‘My Family Partition and Me’.  I was the first member of my family in 70 years to go back to Bangladesh, to the place where my father fled in terror from the genocide in what was then East Bengal and retrace my family’s footsteps around the time of Partition. After fleeing, my Dad was forced into living in abject poverty as a refugee. My Grandfather, a once proud and successful man living a peaceful life, starved and wasted away. Broken and ill, he died on a cold stone floor, nursed by my then young and traumatized father. On his deathbed, he took my father’s hand – ‘be a good doctor’ he said. My father overcame huge adversity, and through sheer drive and determination made the path to becoming a doctor. He came to the UK and worked tirelessly for the NHS for nearly 50-years and earned an OBE along the way. Like thousands of immigrants, he has helped put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain.

Apart from being a deeply personal journey, the biggest learning for me was the amount of unspoken history that I had only just begun to understand. As someone who was born, bred and educated in the UK, it felt like this momentous, defining period of British history had been hidden, forgotten behind a wall of silence for over 70 years, as had other colonial histories. I not only learned about Partition in 1947, but also about the British Nationality Act of 1948 which gave all commonwealth citizens the right to live and work in the UK and the significant waves of migration that followed, filling the workforce gaps needed to re-build post-war Britain and shape institutions like the NHS.

I learned that communities of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had lived side-by-side for generations were torn apart in 1947, that all South Asians have a shared heritage and the wounds of Partition still deeply affect British Society.

History is important. It influences how we, and others, perceive our past, present and future. Britain and South Asia are inextricably linked through hundreds of years of history and millions of stories like mine. 1 in 20 people in this UK can trace their heritage back to South Asia. Yet, there is little space for these stories. No one told me when I was growing up that my history was important, or that it would help me understand my place in society and the contributions and sacrifices my ancestors had made to the UK.

I began to read and educate myself not only about South Asian, but also black history.  This was an awakening for me, a moment where I questioned the education system I had been brought up in. If we do not teach our children the good, the bad and the ugly of British history, what hope do we have of understanding modern day multi-cultural Britain and creating a fairer society?

I became aware of my own ingrained inherent biases and the way structures in our society disadvantage certain groups, a fact that has been laid bare by the COVID-19 Pandemic. I began to understand that ‘institutional racism’ is layered deep and rooted in history that I had never been taught. I realised for the first time how unfair it had been when people shouted at me as a child ‘go back to where you came from’ – my Dad came here as a British citizen. I was born here. I am as British as the next person.  Sadly, as someone from a minority ethnic group, I had just accepted that this was the ‘way it had to be’. We are told to “get over it, it’s in the past”.

But, this isn’t the way it has to be.

We need to look to the past to change the future, and I for one, alongside a critical mass of people who have awoken to a need to understand their histories, have started a journey to tell those stories and begin those difficult conversations. As well as progressing my work in the NHS, I have now become active diversity campaigner and co-founded South Asian Heritage Month, which aims to raise awareness of South Asian history and heritage through celebration, commemoration and education. We actively support Black History Month and the Black Lives Matter Campaigns; this is about all our stories, which are deeply entwined.

Why does this matter in the workplace?

We know there are challenges in our workplaces. We may feel that overt racism doesn’t exist at work, but a huge volume of evidence suggests there are stark racial inequalities in the NHS (both for patients and staff).  I have experienced micro-behaviours rooted in racism; every time I am called Dr ‘Khan’ instead of ‘Kane’ (my white husband has never been called Mr Khan), or I am asked where I really come from, or I am mistaken for the ‘other’ small Asian woman in the office.

I am aware that our perceptions of self and others are shaped by the society we live in and this impacts on how we treat each other at a subconscious level. I believe that to have a truly ‘inclusive society’, people need to have an understanding of history and be able to walk in the shoes of someone who is different or ‘other’. I come back to the point; history is important.

If you have got to this part in the blog – thank you for sticking with it.

I would like you to pause for a minute and reflect. Please consider asking yourself these two questions:

– What can I do to educate myself about the rich histories of all people (including my own) which have shaped the way I see the world?
– Am I really fully informed and do I understand my history and that of my colleagues, which may have shaped my own biases?

That’s where I started and I believe I am a much better person and doctor for embarking on this journey. Not everyone needs to become a diversity champion, but it’s changing the small things, the micro-behaviors, that will have the biggest impact on creating an inclusive workplace.

And if you want to find out more and don’t know where to start – drop me a line! Binita Kane (not Khan).

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