Partition or Independence?

Something insidious has been happening to our commemorations of Independence over the last two decades or so. It seems as if the horror of Partition is gradually coming to displace the idea of freedom and dominate our annual reflections on the momentous events of August 1947. How did this shift occur, and what are its implications?

In their early decades as independent states, India and Pakistan both sought to play down and even forget the violence of Partition, which is of course one way in which trauma manifests itself. But their response was also a strategic one, since the leaders of both nations realised that any official recognition of these brutal events would not only detract from the achievement of freedom, but also ran the risk of imperilling the religious minorities who might be held responsible for it.

Without a single monument to mark it, Partition was for many years remembered only by two kinds of groups, religious ones on the far right which viewed the new states as being soft on belligerent minorities loyal to foreign powers, and those on the far left who saw them as agents of a bourgeoisie loyal to international capitalism. Despite their vehement opposition to one another, it is striking how much these two movements shared in their more or less conspiratorial visions of history.

Virtue in forgetting

Of course Partition had been a world historical event immense in its destructive force, and so it is only right to remember it. Yet forgetting is also a crucial virtue, both in moral and political terms, because when paired with justice and forgiveness it is the only thing that stitches together societies divided by violence. As Gandhi had always said, European ideas of history, and the national, communal and other identities based upon it, could only produce violence either in attempts to recover past glories or out of resentment at present conditions.

While Indian and Pakistani leaders in the period immediately following Independence might not have been so interested in justice and forgiveness, they understood the importance of forgetting, and knew that to link their countries’ freedom with violence was a dangerous thing, if only for their own political futures. Not only could it delegitimise independence and threaten civil strife, but make for an embittered and properly hysterical nationalism playing into the hands of their opponents on the right and left.

Unfinished business

The first breach in this wall of silence came neither in India nor Pakistan, and didn’t even have Partition as its subject. It took the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 out of a genocidal civil war to change the script of independence in the region. Apart from the brutality of its birth, Bangladesh was created at a time when genocide and crimes against humanity had become viable legal categories internationally. Bangladeshi nationalism was thus defined by these figures of horror, but having been unable to hold Pakistan or its army culpable for their crimes, its founders and their political heirs have increasingly focussed on searching out traitors and collaborators from within. Whatever the justice of this enterprise, it has produced a violent and vengeful national culture unable to move beyond the trauma of its creation.

When a history of violence overshadows ideas of freedom, the latter can either be sacrificed in its name or remain undeveloped, as seems to be the case in Bangladesh, probably South Asia’s most authoritarian state today. Whereas 1947 is a meaningless number for Bangladeshis, despite the immense brutality it entailed for Hindus in the erstwhile East Pakistan, in India its violence became the subject of commentary and reflection only in the 1980s. This happened following the Punjab insurgency, when it became clear that a great deal of unfinished business remained from Partition.

It was from this period that the formerly subtle and discreet references to Partition in art, cinema and literature were transformed into academic studies and other, rather too obvious, invocations of freedom’s violence. Unlike the right and left-wing emphasis on assigning responsibility for such violence to internal enemies, the liberal discovery of Partition entailed blaming both sides to acknowledge their common inhumanity and by that token humanity also. As with the nationalists of old, the British could also be held responsible if required, and while they certainly deserved blame, such a move was meant only to exculpate one or another Indian group from it.

In Pakistan, always late to the game, Partition has only become a publicly debated issue quite recently. For unlike India, where independence had always been a mixed blessing, given not its violence so much as the loss of territory involved, in Pakistan it had signalled unalloyed victory following a brave struggle. To reflect on the violence of Partition in Pakistan, then, is to question the very legitimacy of the state, even without belonging to the right or left politically as much as ideologically. But have these recoveries of the region’s violent history, interestingly originating in the two partitioned provinces of British India, given us a clearer idea of freedom or further obscured it?

Failure of communalism

I would like to suggest that however necessary it might be, the focus on Partition and its violence has obscured our ideas of freedom, whether of the historical or utopian kind. Both scholarly and amateur explorations of Partition these days, especially those relying upon oral history, have come to displace traditional narratives about apportioning responsibility with more nuanced discussions of everyday life in 1947. Fascinating though they are, such stories stray even further from any inquiry into the idea of freedom. Indeed they tend to reinforce long-standing accounts about communal or religious loyalties trumping nationalist ones at a time when the social and political order had broken down.

But did Partition in fact mark the triumph of communal loyalties, if not outright hatreds? While historians and others have emphasised the undeniable importance of such violence, sometimes mitigated by the malignant role of the colonial state or ‘secular’ parties and politicians, they have for the most part ignored the fundamental betrayal of religious allegiances that provided their context. For rather than demonstrating the power of communal loyalties, India’s partition illustrated their massive betrayal, as Hindus and Muslims willingly abandoned their coreligionists in both countries.

Those like Gandhi and Jinnah who had relied upon such communal allegiances, not simply inter-religious ones, to hold the country together and force more negotiations were astounded to see how easily they unravelled. It was not trust in the other country that allowed Indian and Pakistani leaders to agree to Partition, but at the very least the famous ‘hostage’ theory, whereby a Hindu or Muslim minority in one country was thought to guarantee the good treatment of its fellows in the other. And yet despite all claims to the contrary, majorities in either state were happy to endanger their coreligionists in the other. And they continue to do so into the present.

Perhaps the real trauma of Partition has little if anything to do with the egregious violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. After all, this can now be spoken of so easily as to belie the existence of any traumatic kernel in such narratives. Instead it is the still unspeakable memory and reality of betrayal, of treachery against one’s own religious community, which might inspire the rage of Partition in its own time as well as in our own. This was already clear in a number of difficult conversations Gandhi had with refugees from Pakistan, and from literary and anecdotal evidence is certainly true of those who left India as well.

This means that the problem posed by Partition is not merely or even primarily a Hindu-Muslim-Sikh one, but instead something that needs to be addressed by each group internally if it is to achieve any resolution. At the moment such treachery is projected onto religious minorities in both countries.

As far as Indo-Pakistani relations are concerned, Gandhi was surely right in saying that no peace between the two was possible until all those who had been driven away were given rights to return and compensated for their losses of life and property by some form of contrition and restitution, incomplete as it would necessarily be.

And yet this betrayal was problematic not because it happened, but did so in such an incomplete way. For it has always been the unconcern of their citizens for each other that has kept India and Pakistan united. In other countries, insurgencies and indeed provincial civil wars in places like Balochistan or Punjab would have led to their fragmentation. But in South Asia, all this can happen in one province while others enjoy peaceable lives. Maybe it is the imperial rather than national character of these diverse societies that keeps them together, the mutual relations of citizens defined neither by love nor hatred but indifference. The quest for cultural or religious unity and the hunt for traitors will only put this unity at risk.

Faisal Devji teaches history at Oxford University

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 18, 2021 5:56:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/partition-or-independence/article19493390.ece

Next Story