“The pity of partition was not that the country had been divided into two, Independent India and Independent Pakistan; but it was that people had become slaves to bigotry, religious passions and barbarity,” says Ayesha Jalal, Professor of History at Tufts University, and grandniece of writer Saadat Hassan Manto. The Pakistani-American historian, who was in Mumbai last week, talks about her book, The Pity of Partition — Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide, and other things in an interview with Sukhada Tatke.
You have suggested that creative writers have done more justice to the Partition than have historians. Do you think this is because it is safer to face major historical events through creative processes?
What I meant was that unlike creative writers, historians are bound by the demands of their discipline, methodological and archival, which makes it more difficult to capture the human suffering that occurred at the time of partition. This is not to deny considerable variations in both historical and fictional writings. In some cases, creative writers can, and have, replicated the official narratives of partition on both sides of the 1947 divide while a few historians have boldly challenged state-sponsored interpretations of the events while remaining true to their disciplinary craft.
What do you like most about Manto’s writings?
Manto has a vast corpus and it is difficult to identify one piece, whether a short story, a personality sketch, a radio drama or an essay, as my favourite. I have favourites in each of the different genres in which he wrote. In his short stories, my favourites among his pre-partition stories include “Nya Qanun” “Hathak”, “Kali Shalwar” and “Babu Gopinath”. Among his partition stories, “Thanda Goosht”, “Sakina”, “Parihya Kalma”, and “Toba Tek Singh” stand out. My personal favourite among his personality sketches is “Murli ki Dhaun” on Shyam. I am an avid reader of his non-fiction, namely his essays, most of which are not translated into English. But one that has been a great personal favourite is his “Letters to Uncle Sam”. What I most enjoy about Manto’s writing is his extraordinary perceptiveness, uncanny ability to foresee the future and his uncompromising attitude towards social hypocrisy. Many of his characters are unforgettable precisely because of his amazing ability to probe the inner depths of the human psyche without being judgmental.
You have been accused of weaving a different narrative of the nation’s birth. What made you rethink the idea of Partition?
I set about asking how a Pakistan came about that had satisfied the interests of its main constituents so poorly, noting that the two main Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal ended up getting divided while Muslims became citizens of two mutually hostile states. My historical research based on the availability of hitherto unused sources led me to question the conventional narratives about the reasons for India's partition.
If Jinnah never wanted British India to be divided into two countries, what were the main factors that led to the Partition?
As I have shown in The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge 1985), it was the inability of the Congress and the Muslim League to arrive at a power sharing arrangement that led to the partition of India. Instead of the purported unities of religion that were supposed to be the driving force in the making of Pakistan, I have argued that it was regional, class and ideological differences among Muslims and Congress's emphatic opposition to what it saw as Jinnah's unreasonable demands that led to partition.
Is there a connection between the origin of Pakistan and the modern troubles of the country with Islamic extremists?
There is no neat linear evolution from the origins of Pakistan as a state claiming to be created in the name of religion and the murder and the mayhem caused by the rise of religious extremism since the 1980s. Instead of taking a deterministic view of the phenomenon, it is important to recognise the differences between the uses of Islam before the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 and its deployment for strategic purposes following the global assertion of Islam and the American-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
In what way has the military rule eroded the kind of education imparted in the schools of Pakistan today and subsequently, women empowerment?
Military rule in Pakistan has a long and eventful history. But until the so-called ‘Islamisation’ policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, education was not systematically targeted for ideological reasons as a matter of state policy to the extent that it was after the 1980s. The policy of promoting ‘jihad’ in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed not just the education sector but Pakistani society that until then was by and large moderate despite the lip service paid to Islam by successive governments, civil and military. The current dismal state of education in Pakistan and the question of women's disempowerment cannot be addressed without looking at the geo-strategic situation and the collateral damage of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
What are the challenges of teaching history in a country where history has been more about promoting official or sectarian ideologies?
What is being taught in Pakistan is not history as a discipline but as an ideology. In private institutions history is now beginning to be taught and the reception of the students is quite good, but they are generally not well versed in the methods of history and are mostly ignorant about the bare facts of even South Asian history. But where history is being offered as a major, some students are showing an inclination to go for history. This trend will grow if more institutions rectify the present imbalance against the teaching of history as a discipline in their humanities and social science faculties.