Interview | India@70

Real stories make situations much less abstract: Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan  

Yasmin Khan, a British historian and lecturer at Oxford University, has made a habit of taking on gaps in our understanding of the British Empire and the Raj, and telling the personal and powerful narratives around them. Her 2007 book, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, is a riveting account of the chaotic build-up to the decision to divide and its terrible impact on the lives of people on both sides of the border. The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War (2015) considered the role of not only the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought but also the impact that their involvement had on the war, the Independence movement and the development of the Indian economy. Extracts from an interview:

Both your books in some ways deal with themes that have been prone to historical amnesia and misunderstanding: the lack of understanding of the Second World War and the myth that Britain stood alone perpetuates nationalism here in Britain, and the lack of understanding of Partition in India and Pakistan helped perpetuate nationalistic portrayals of the opposing side back in India. Is this way of understanding things inevitable?

I think that nationalism has increased everywhere in the world. I’ve seen it in my lifetime here in Britain and in South Asia, and I’m inherently suspicious of it wherever it is. It is not a natural category, often used for political ends. It can sometimes be used to manipulate for positive purposes but more often than not history teaches us it is used for creating conflict. There was a lot more internationalism in the 1930s, talk of transnational groups that brought people together rather than things designed to prop up sovereignty in these nations.

What has perpetuated the myth that Partition was inevitable?

There are so many different views when it comes to Partition. There is so much that is contested and argued over. I think we really have to accept there will be a plurality of views on the responsibility of big figures: a shared vision of the story is too much to ask for. My perspective is that there were a lot of people trying to come to some kind of compromise and that they did the best they could at the moment. Nobody who agreed to the plan could have seen what was coming. None of them could have realised what they were unleashing. The violence, the conflict. I think when we look back we draw conclusions and think there is something inevitable because of the way things have developed in the relationship since 1947, but I think that many of those developments are quite contingent on how things turned out.

There’s been a renewed focus of the voices of Partition. What is the impact of this?

I think it’s important to listen to people’s voices, to hear their stories and the pain, and ensure that both sides are reflected. The balance of appreciation of the pain on both sides is crucial to the history of it. What makes it tricky is that there was not one set of sufferers and one set of perpetrators. We have to realise that it’s a double-sided history and there is a lot of guilt and pain on both sides.

I think over time, it becomes harder for people to know and understand the other side. Fortunately, London has become a space where you can sit down and have a debate inclusive of both Indians and Pakistanis where their perspectives can be shared, those debates can be had.

You touch on the role of guilt — how important is it to focus on the perpetrators and victims?

There are a lot of historians who have done excellent work showing that the violence was not random and it wasn’t the poorest or the most illiterate who necessarily perpetrated it.

It was often more educated people who were organising into armed groups and I think that is important for our understanding of why the violence was so severe.

And also to understand that middle class and educated people are capable of being complicit in violence. There are stereotypes and myths about “others” and this creates violence about “others”. We have to remember there was a lot more to the violence than “moments of madness” and that sometimes there was a far more systematic demonisation of each other.

Shashi Tharoor and others have pointed to the lack of understanding in Britain of its imperial history, reflected in many ways such as the lack of teaching it in schools. Why do you think this remains the case?

It’s quite amazing the extent to which students in Britain are not taught about Empire. Slavery is taught much more: it’s in a way a much easier subject to teach. It’s further in the past and they have the “heroic” angle, the story of abolition. But the recent history of the 20th century is much rawer. There have been some brilliant initiatives to get it into the curriculum, but by and large there is a lack of confidence about how to teach Empire and what people should know about it. It’s partly because Empire is one of the country’s foundational myths.

How significant do you think a better understanding of Partition is for India and Pakistan and how do you achieve this?

I think the Partition story has been core to the foundation of both states, the ideas they have of themselves. There could be a sense of shared responsibility and shared celebration of the achievement of Independence that doesn’t seem to be there at the moment, though of course it’s circular; you need peace for that shared sense of history to be there. Both states have founding ideas and different narratives of their historical origins. There are so many different narratives to tap into: the real stories of real people who were caught between the borders, who had journeys unexpected, moved multiple times, ended up migrating again and again, the longer-term impact over the different regions, all across the north of India.

The real stories tend to make situations much less abstract.

You’ve identified gaps in the past of both Britain’s and India’s understanding of themselves. What are the other areas that need exploring and soon?

My next book is going to be about Asian migration to Britain, in the 1950s and 1960s, taking the same approach of trying to humanise the narrative and thinking what it was like for those to leave home and arrive in Britain with maybe 3 pounds in their pocket and very little sense of the future, and their huge impact on British institutions.

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Printable version | May 3, 2021 4:45:34 PM |

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