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The tragedy of Partition

Aug 12, 2012 2:15 IST

While some claim that the Partition should never have happened, some see
it as the successful culmination of a national movement for the achievement of Pakistan. However, it was uniquely tragic, no matter from which side of the border one looked at it. In the run up to the 65th Independence Day celebrations, Salil Misra recounts the circumstances that led to this tragic event in history.

Around two decades after India’s Partition in 1947, an International Conference was organised in London on the Partition of India. The historians, politicians from the three countries — England, India and Pakistan — and also some journalists were invited to the conference. The one thing all the participants had in common was that they had all been involved, in one way or the other, with the politics of 1940s, and with Partition in particular. Some young Indian historians like B R Nanda and S R Mehrotra represented the Indian view point at the conference.

They looked upon the Partition as a self-evident tragedy. To them Partition was unfortunate and should not have occurred. The question they raised was whether it could have been avoided and prevented. This approach of the Indian historians — of treating Partition as tragic and avoidable — seemed to them inherently valid for everybody. To their amazement, they found that Pakistani historians looked at the Partition entirely differently. For them, the making of Pakistan was not a tragic avoidable moment, but one of glory and fulfilment. It was their ‘tryst with destiny’. The question, whether Partition could have been prevented, obviously did not figure for them and had no meaning. It was not an important question.

The approach of the Pakistani historians should not have surprised Indian historians. The birth of a new nation-state was certainly a moment of reckoning in Pakistan’s history. It was not a tragic Partition, but the successful culmination of a national movement for the achievement of Pakistan. One man’s Partition was another man’s freedom struggle.

The Pakistani historians were surprised at the response of their Indian counterparts and may well have wondered why their historical imagination did not extend beyond the Indian boundaries to include the Pakistani point of view. Why did physical national boundaries determine the conceptual boundaries of historians’ imagination? Their puzzle was answered, not by Indian historians, but by the historical events of subsequent period. Within a few years’ time, the people of East Bengal launched their own freedom struggle against the rulers of Pakistan, culminating in the creation of Bangladesh. The Pakistani establishment, media and scholars looked upon the making of Bangladesh as a tragic avoidable Partition. But, for the people of Bangladesh, it was a moment of triumph. A new nation-state was created on the map of the world. Once again, one man’s Partition became another man’s freedom struggle.

This, then, was the answer to the puzzle of Pakistani historians: history writing generally emanates from the concerns of the nation states and often fails to transcend it.
Therefore, history writing across the national borders is likely to assume a different character altogether. We may even say that all history in the end is national history.

Was the Indian Partition unique, as claimed by the Indian historians? On the surface, it does not appear to be even remotely so. Twentieth century has been replete with partitions of all kinds. Ireland, Cyprus and Palestine are some examples. Partition (and later unification) of Germany, separation of Kuwait from Iraq, the making of Israel, and partitions of former Yugoslavia and Czecoslovakia would suggest that, if anything, partitions appear to be the norm in the 20th century. From this perspective, it is possible to designate 20th century as the century of partitions. The number of actual partition struggles would be even higher. For one partition that happened, there were easily 10 that wanted to happen, but could not. What then is so unique about India’s Partition?

Violent acts

For one, India’s Partition was uniquely tragic, no matter from which side of the border one looked at it. Consider the following facts. It is estimated that anything between two lakh and 30 lakh people were killed in Partition violence. Those who participated in the orgy of violence were often not professional killers but ordinary people. Sometimes they killed simply to save their own lives, and not out of any passion or hatred. They killed because, in their perception, the only alternative to killing was getting killed. Between killing and getting killed, they preferred to kill. In many instances, the killers were family members.
Patriarchs killed the women of their families to save them from ‘dishonour’. Killing the women of their own families appeared to be the only ‘honourable’ option before them.

Around 70,000 women were captured, abducted and raped. Abducting a woman from the other religion became the standard way of taking revenge on the other religious community. Often these women were ‘married’ to their abductors. When these women had settled down in their new homes and surroundings, the governments of the two countries decided to take back their women through exchange. This exchange of abducted women was very similar to the exchange of prisoners of war. Thus, these women were uprooted twice over, once from their original homes, and then again from their adopted surroundings. With the stigma of having been abducted and raped, many such women found it difficult to adjust to their original homes. In many cases they were not accepted. Many such stories are still unknown. It is unlikely that we will ever know the full extent of the human tragedy that was involved in India’s Partition.

This was not all. Over 12 million people migrated from one country to the other. This is perhaps the largest migration in the entire human history around a single event and in a short span of time. And, unlike many other migrations, it was not driven by opportunity, but by despair and desperation. Those who migrated did so, not in search of new opportunities, but merely to save their lives. Often they left behind a life of comfort to settle for a life of deprivation.

What was the idea of Pakistan and its philosophical justification? The claim for Pakistan was formally made in 1940 on the ground that Indian Muslims were a complete nation in themselves and therefore should have a separate, representative nation-state of their own. This claim was made by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the unquestioned leader of Pakistan movement, who started asserting quite unambiguously from 1940 onwards: “The difference between Hindus and Muslims is deep-rooted and ineradicable. We are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilisation, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, attitude and ambitions, in short, we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law, we are a nation.”

How valid or justified was this claim? Simply speaking, there were two components to this claim. One, that Indian Muslims were an internally homogenised community and, quite apart from a common religion, were also unified by a common culture and language. Two, that they were sufficiently different, culturally and linguistically, from non-Muslims, Hindus in particular. In reality, neither of these claims could stand up to even a cursory scrutiny of the nature of Indian social life as it existed and evolved since the medieval times.
Muslims in India were a minority of nearly 25 per cent. But this minority was not concentrated on any one piece of territory within the landmass of Indian subcontinent.
They were dispersed all over India. There was hardly a district in India that did not contain some Muslims. And there was no district that was exclusively Muslim. The Muslim and the non-Muslim population lived together since centuries on the Indian soil, peacefully and harmoniously, without any major conflict. It was clear that if ever a separate Muslim nation-state was formed, it could not possibly contain all, or even most, Indian Muslims. And there would inevitably be many non-Muslims in it. No amount of social engineering could separate India’s Muslims from non-Muslims. It was simply not possible.

Common factor

The Indian Muslims did not have a common culture or speak one major language. A Punjabi Muslim had very little in common with a Muslim in Bengal or in Malabar, except, of course, religion. There was no single language that could be called a Muslim language.
For centuries, Indian Muslims shared the language and culture of the region along with non-Muslims.

The second claim, that Indian Muslims were fundamentally different from non-Muslims, was even more absurd. Syncretism had been an important feature of Indian culture since early times. Culture and language were generally based on region, more than religion.
And so a Bengali Muslim had much more in common with a Bengali Hindu than with a Punjabi Muslim. Considerable cultural diversity existed within Muslims and multiple connections existed between Muslims and non-Muslims. It was simply not possible to draw a dividing line, either of territory or of culture, between India’s Muslims and non-Muslims. How could then there be a separate Muslim nation-state as claimed by Jinnah? There is no doubt that a separate and exclusive Muslim nation did not exist, either on the ground or even in the minds and hearts of most Indians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, till 1942 at any rate. Merely religious differences did not add up to creating separate nations of Muslims and Hindus.

If a Muslim nation did not really exist, except on paper, how was a Muslim nation-state created in 1947? Vast amount of literature has been written on it, from different perspectives. Different stories have their own heroes and villains. Huge chunks of blame have been apportioned to Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, Mountbatten, and many others.
The ‘divide and rule’ policy of British imperialism, the intransigence of Jinnah, and the undue haste displayed by Congress leaders in their quest for power have been some of the standard explanations provided by historians in their Partition narratives. There is, however, no doubt that the major share of responsibility for the Partition rests with the British. By creating entirely different political structures for Hindus and Muslims, the British ensured that the religious differences would also solidify into an irreconcilable political separation between Hindus and Muslims. Thus the British helped transform and consolidate religious groups into political constituencies with neat and clear dividing boundaries. Once these political constituencies were created, they developed their own leaders and political demands. All such communal demands were encouraged by the British as part of their strategy to discredit Indian nationalism. Partition was the result of the creation of such political constituencies carved out of religious groups, and the support provided to them by the British.

When the movement for Pakistan gathered momentum in the 1940s, the British did nothing to discourage it. They were, after all, alien rulers running an alien state. In the 1940s, this alien state was also a retreating state. Unlike most other modern nation-state systems, the colonial state did not have any desire, let alone determination, to protect the territorial integrity of the area it ruled. The British simply partitioned India and ‘left’. In spite of having ruled India for two centuries, it was possible for them to disown the land and the people and leave, in the midst of violence and chaos. Only an alien and colonial state could do it. It is true that a number of partitions occurred in the 20th century in the situation of a retreating imperialism.

If the British encouraged Muslim separatism and created conditions for Partition, the Congress failed to counter the social forces leading towards Partition. As a national movement, Congress was committed to Indian nationalism and the idea of one Indian nation. But it failed to evolve a comprehensive strategic framework to prevent the division of India. It was thus the British strategy of countering Indian nationalism, coupled with Congress’s.

failure to defeat or accommodate Muslim communalism that actually fulfilled Jinnah’s project. The Congress’s failure was Jinnah’s success, aided by British imperialism. Jinnah is reported to have said once that he could achieve Pakistan with the help of a “an attache-case, a typewriter and a personal assistant”. This was obviously an exaggerated understatement. Yet, it pointed to a relatively smooth transformation of a mere idea into a powerful social force.

Pakistan was projected by Jinnah as the solution of India’s political problems. Jinnah often said before 1947 that the two nation-states of India and Pakistan will live as good neighbours and the people within them will live in harmony. Both have turned out to be untrue. Far from solving the problem, the Partition actually created many more problems.
India and Pakistan did not exactly live like good neighbours. The two countries have gone to war with each other four times — in 1948, 1965, 1972 and 1998. No two countries of the world have fought with each other as much as India and Pakistan, after the Second World War. Kashmir, the big unresolved issue, is also a legacy of the Partition. Jinnah had claimed that the making of Pakistan would solve the minority problem. Partition actually exacerbated the minority problem in both the countries. Muslims in India were reduced from a substantial minority of 25% to a small and vulnerable minority of 12% after Partition. They were often a persecuted and a hounded minority after 1947. It is possible to argue that Indian Muslims have easily been the biggest victims of India’s Partition.

Actually, all these problems were foreseen and anticipated well before 1947. And yet nothing could be done to prevent it. A perceptive contemporary observer of the Partition likened it to a collision between two trains speedily heading towards each other: “I once read about a man who stood on top of a hill and saw two passenger trains racing on a single track in opposite directions towards the inevitable disaster.... I.... felt like that helpless man on the hill who was a witness to the tragedy which he could foresee but could not prevent. At last the terrific collision occurred. From the hill the accident appeared a great disaster, of which neither the causes nor the results were clear to those who were involved in it. Very many people were so busy in compiling death rolls in the two trains, in comparing the relative details of the wreckage, and in cursing the drivers and the passengers of the opposite train that they did not give a thought to the blunder of the station master who had started the wrong train; they even forgot to tend the wounded, and to clear the debris in order to resume the journey.” (B R Nanda, Witness to Partition: A Memoir, written in 1947.)

The Partition was not simply an accidental episode. It had a long chain of events behind it and leading to it. And the Partition story did not end in 1947. The year 1947 was in some ways the beginning of the consequences of the Partition. The legacy of the Partition is a continuing theme in the history of the sub-continent. In this sense, Partition was not an event, but a process. We are still coping with its after-effects.

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