Updated: January 5, 2010 13:38 IST

Partition: conflict for state power

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The book recognises "the seismic shift" in the historiography of Partition from "high politics" to "human consequences".

History is often dismissively spoken of as about ‘dead yesterdays’; but like Bram Stoker’s ‘Un-Dead Count Dracula,’ it has a wicked habit of returning to the world of the living to haunt it. Nothing illustrates this better than the partition of India. If Partition was decided upon as a surgical intervention to remove a cancerous growth, the operation and the consequences that flowed from it have remained problematic, triggered debates, and spawned literature on either side of the Wagha border. In analysing it, historians and politicians have also indulged in apportioning blame and trading recrimination.

The Partition has been called variously as a “vivisection,” “an imperialist betrayal,” and “a historical denouement of two-nation theory.” Those found ‘guilty’ have been ‘impeached’, counterfactual histories constructed, and the huge costs of the communal divide recounted, often with unmitigated political anger, and occasionally with sensitivity.


But this slim, sinewy book is not just another angry or lachrymose publication but an evaluative study. It recognises “the seismic shift” in the historiography of Partition from “high politics” to “human consequences.” There is a greater reliance on individual and collective experiences drawn from oral testimonies and personal memories. But it is argued that these “innovations” will become meaningful only if they are placed in the context of the broader developments that framed Partition and the post-Partition processes.

The authors argue that, while the ‘human consequences’ approach is important, one has to recognise that Partition was a “conflict for state power by competing nationalisms.” Their view that the British remained “reluctant partitionists right until the end” may be distasteful to the self-righteous nationalists in India, but they do have a point when they say, “Partition was…not foisted on reluctant Indian political leaders but in [a] large measure willed into existence by them.” In their analysis of Partition-effects on the sliced-up Punjab and Bengal, and on Sindh and the patterns and compulsions of migration, they say that communal violence of 1947 was not just a “summer madness” but genocidal violence that was aimed at ethnic cleansing and brazenly monitored or remote-controlled by politicians or their hirelings, as in the more recent Gujarat pogrom. They explore the differential patterns of migration and refugee resettlements and their impact on reordering the demographic, religious, and ethnic equilibriums in cities such as Kolkata, Dakha, Delhi, Lahore and Karachi. Besides, they show how the migrations of non-elite groups had their impact on the ethnic equations in Assam and Tripura.


But the ‘Partition syndrome’ had also left its stamp on the Constituent Assembly to craft for India a Constitution that would be “federal with a strong centre” (Granville Austin). It ensured that “state secularism in India was heavily tinged with majoritarian overtones”, while in Pakistan it produced a “praetorian-bureaucratic polity with Islam as a surrogate for effective legitimacy.” It had engendered ethnic and religious nationalisms of simmering or boiling varieties in the Punjab, Sindh, Jammu and Kashmir, and in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). The ideologues and practitioners of Hindutva have deftly connected the image of cartographic violence of Partition with the irredentism of ‘Akhanda Bharat’ to promote the patriotic cult of Mother India. Pakistan has its own variety of irredentist, jihadi nationalisms.

The question, whether Partition could have been avoided is historically important, but politically barren. The guilt-clause too cannot escape being a political statement. But we can make a conscious effort to escape from the trap of history by respecting the present and hoping for the future. The authors of the book are cautiously optimistic in saying that both India and Pakistan are moving in that direction. History has its way of teasing those who dare to grapple with historical legacies. But one can ill-afford to consign optimism to the garbage-can.

THE PARTITION OF INDIA: Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.

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