Letting go of Partition


Ed: This post focuses on the issue of Partition from the Indian point of view, one which I feel comfortable sharing because I’m of Indian origin. A proper analysis of Partition from the Pakistani point of view requires the sort of extensive knowledge and anecdotal experience I don’t claim to have.

This week, India and Pakistan will observe the 70th anniversary of independence from Britain. On August 14, 1947, the new nation of Pakistan was born. Intended as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, it was carved out of the Muslim majority areas of British India, and nothing was ever the same again. 

The Partition of India still casts a long shadow over both nations. It is impossible to overstate the horrors of Partition, of a forced exodus of nearly 15 million people [1], a million of whom perished in the internecine slaughter that accompanied the migration. People were forced to abandon their ancestral homes and their livelihoods, and families that survived the carnage were torn apart and separated forever by artificial borders and ill-considered foreign policy. Partition was, in every sense of the word, an epic tragedy, and it was—for the same reason—a human catastrophe the two new countries could not afford to linger on for very long. The job of building a nation-state requires a short memory. 

Yet nobody forgot. Even 70- years later, with at least three generations of adult Indians born into a post-independence world, Partition continues to rankle, a scab that is constantly picked at by successive governments, by politicians, and even by entertainers and sportsmen. The wound has never healed, and the three wars between India and Pakistan have only served to deepen the pain. Saadat Hasan Manto, the Punjabi-Urdu writer whose acid prose animated the horrors of Partition also lamented the mentality that caused it: 

Hindustan azad ho gaya tha. Pakistan alam-e-wajood mein aate hi azad ho gaya tha. Lekin insaan in dono’n mumlikato’n mein ghulam tha: ta’sub ka ghulam, mazhabi junoon ka ghulam, haiwaniyat o barbariyat ka ghulam

(Approximate translation: Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become free as soon as it came into existence. But man was still a slave in both countries:  a slave of prejudice, a slave of religious fanaticism, a slave of inhumanity and barbarity).

If Partition was the result of the worst of human impulses, why does the event linger in the Indian consciousness? By rights, India should want to forget Partition, to erase this stain on its short modern history. Yet Partition is now an indelible part of the national myth, an event that informs both politics and culture to this day, and not always in a good way. 

To understand why the memory lingers, it is important to see India as more than just a country. India was not suddenly born in 1947. There has always been an India: a land that drew traders, scholars, travelers, and invaders in equal measure, a land of myth—ancient, enduring, profoundly syncretic. More importantly, India was an idea, a notional land where people could—and indeed had, for several centuries—profess any religion, speak any language, but still be embraced as a part of the whole. 

The demand for a separate nation for India’s Muslims was a metaphorical slap in the face to this idea. Mahatma Gandhi was not himself a proponent of the Two Nation theory, but at some point, his vision for an undivided and free country had unraveled and he was left with little to do but lament the inevitability of Partition [2]. 

The Partition proposal has altered the face of the Hindu-Muslim problems. There can be no compromise with it. At the same time I have said that if eight crore Muslims desire it, no power on Earth can prevent it notwithstanding opposition, violent or non-violent. it cannot come by honourable agreement. 

Ironically enough, Britain seems to shoulder no historical responsibility for Partition, even though it was Britain’s hastily drawn plan for dividing India, and its subsequent hurried and scattershot departure from the subcontinent that caused much of the bloodshed [3]. So it is that in the revisionist history that now dominates intellectual discourse on the subject, Partition has become not a colossal blunder committed by a departing colonial power, but a failure of political imagination caused by Gandhi’s capitulation to self-interested minorities and equally self-interested politicians [4]. Partition is, therefore, a blot on the nation’s conscience, but rather than moving past it, India seems to be defined by it. 

As with most things, Bollywood is at least partly to blame here. In the decade immediately following Partition, a number of films attempted to capture at least the Punjabi experience of Partition [5]. From Raj Kapoor’s Aag to the seminal Oscar-nominated Mother India, Hindi cinema tried—and succeeding to varying degrees—in creating a narrative of Partition as personal loss instead of history. Similarly, an entire sub-genre of cinema focused on families separated by a catastrophic event, of mothers separated from their sons, of brother pitted against brother, obvious if inexact allegories for Partition, a horror still too fresh to mention by name. 

It was not until the 1990s, when an entire generation of Bollywood filmmakers passed the baton to those born after Partition, that the “lost and found” trope disappeared (though not entirely) from Hindi cinema, to be replaced by more direct—if heavily biased—portrayals of both conflict and reconciliation with Pakistan (say, for example, Gadar (2001) or the more recent Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015)). So Bollywood has kept Partition alive in India’s collective memories. “Memories demand attention, because memories have teeth,” and India has never been allowed to forget. 

But is it fair that a nation that is now 70 years old should still be crippled by the memory of an event it wasn’t directly responsible for? After all, modern India is more than what it was in 1947. Over seven decades, the country has made remarkable progress with respect to GDP growth, life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy, and even if it lags behind its peers in the developing world, India is at least preparing to meet its future [6].

If Partition has an enduring legacy, it is that India is forever caught between lamenting the past and fighting for its future. It is time to set aside this forced narrative that sees India as a country divided, a narrative that fosters an “us versus them” mentality, and asks citizens to choose between secularism and nationalism. This narrative is both unnecessary and harmful, and does nothing to advance Indian interests. If Partition has an enduring (and toxic) legacy, it is the constant use of religion as a litmus test for national identity—indeed, for patriotism—a notion that is both philosophically and constitutionally wrong. 

It’s time to replace Partition as India’s defining moment, and look instead to a singular event that happened at almost the same time. 

On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of a nation’s tryst with destiny. It was the apotheosis of the Indian freedom struggle, “the greatest historical date” in modern history [7]. Whatever Nehru’s flaws—and there were many, from his blind idealism to his ruthless pragmatism to his embrace of Soviet-style five years plans—he had a vision for a modern nation-state, a new India full of promise, potential, and responsibility. 

The entire speech is important, profound, and significantly, hopeful. In Nehru’s own words,

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we have redeemed our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

This was Nehru’s exhortation to his young nation, to set aside religious and ethnic difference and work together in service of India, “to wipe every tear from every eye.” Nehru’s speech should be India’s defining moment, its central promise, and its abiding legacy.

Instead, it’s safe to say that the country’s potential has yet to meet up with the destiny Nehru proclaimed for it 70 years ago. Indeed, increasing communal violence and brazen religious nationalism threaten to turn Nehru’s vision into a passing illusion, and the lingering hangover from Partition ought to carry at least some of the blame. 

Modern India can scarcely afford to be held hostage by memories of Partition, and by a polity that makes electoral manna by stoking the fear of religious minorities, or by convincing an insecure but privileged Hindu majority that it is being marginalized and oppressed. 

It’s time to move on. A tryst with destiny awaits. 

[1] William Dalrymple, The Bloody Legacy of Partition, New Yorker, June 29, 2015.

[2] Mohandas K. Gandhi, from a speech on April 29, 1940, quoted in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 72 (Government of India Publications Division, 1999).

[3] Hirsh Sawhney, Staring into the Void, Times Literary Supplement, August 8, 2017.

[4] Isaac Chotiner, The Problem with Purity, New Republic, May 4, 2011.

[5] Rachel Dwyer, Partition in Hindi Cinema: Violence, Loss, and Remembrance, The Wire, August 10, 2017.

[6] Ravi Agarwal, Tryst with the Future, CNN.com, August 8, 2017.

[7] W.E.B. DuBois, “The Freeing of India,” in WEB DuBois on Asia: Crossing the World Color Line, at pp. 145-153 (Bill V. Mullen & Cathryn Watson, eds., University Press of Mississippi, 2005).

[8] Pankaj Mishra, India at 70 and the Passing of Another Illusion, Op-Ed, New York Times, August 11, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s