The eastern front

Print edition : February 07, 2014

STUDIES on the Partition of India have generally focussed on the western front and taken 1947 as an end point in the narrative of that story. The splitting of Punjab was accompanied by large-scale migration, savage violence and frenetic rioting, which led to the death of at least a million people. Perhaps that is why the focus of a lot of Partition studies has remained on the western front, whereas the eastern front (the division of Bengal) has not attracted similar attention.

The high politics involving the British, the Congress and the Muslim League, leading to the eventual division of British India, has also occupied the efforts of many historians. The formation of the new nation states of India and Pakistan and the departure of the British are seen as some sort of an end point in the examination of this sordid saga.

Various other facets of the Partition saga have been covered by other historians over the decades, including Urvashi Butalia, whose well-known work The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (2000) uses methods of oral history to build a gendered perspective of the violence that accompanied Partition. Newer studies by historians like Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar and Tan Tai Yong and Gyanesh Kudasiya have stretched the timeline of the Partition story beyond the chronological barrier of 1947. Joya Chatterji remains an important historian who has examined the “eastern front” of Partition.

Haimanti Roy is adding to this large corpus of work by looking at the longue duree of Partition’s impact “…so that it allows for a better understanding of the imperfect and unfinished nature of post-Partition initiatives by India and Pakistan”. Her focus is on the division of Bengal. She sees 1947 not as a break in the historical narrative but as an event that is part of a larger process whose eventual effects took time to unravel over the next few decades. She is following in the tradition of Vazira Zamindar and Joya Chatterji but differs slightly as she takes into account the actions and decisions of lower-level functionaries and minorities and shows how notions of citizenship and belonging came into being.

Haimanti Roy also takes a cross-border perspective in her analysis as most works on the partition of Bengal have focussed mainly on the rehabilitation of refugees from East Pakistan into India. She argues that Hindu refugees from East Pakistan were considered illegitimate candidates for rehabilitation in the post-colonial period as they were primarily viewed as economic migrants rather than as persecuted Hindu minorities.

She also writes that it was the migration in the east that provoked India and Pakistan to negotiate questions of minority identity and nationality. Her work also looks at the laboured process of demarcation of national borders on the ground between India and East Pakistan after the delineation of the boundary line by Cyril Radcliffe.

Haimanti Roy’s attention to the stories of the ordinary people involved and affected by Partition provides richness to her work. Among the many examples quoted by her through the book, there is one of Dr Gaur Chandra Ray, who resided in India but whose dispensary was located in East Pakistan. While returning home one day, he was arrested—presumably for crossing the border. The emergence of a documentary regime of passport, visas, migration certificates and refugee slips was also a part of the process of controlling movement across the border.

Haimanti Roy’s research has been thorough and she has looked at archives in both India and Bangladesh, providing a cross-border perspective on the theme. She has also tried to seek out the voices of the ordinary people in the archives by paying close attention to the notes made alongside official documents. Her work fills a gap and is useful to anyone interested in Partition and modern Indian history.

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