The human cost

Print edition : October 19, 2007

A new book on Partition examines the human cost of the catastrophic event.

RETROSPECT does not always make for better judgment. The bloodbath that followed in Punjab and the riots that scarred the subcontinent elsewhere in the immediate aftermath of Partition were a direct result of the atmosphere that was building up since 1946 in all its foulness and the indecent haste with which Mountbatten, for reasons purely personal, decided to speed up the transfer of power. Avid for power, the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League did not protest. They were desperate to get rid of each other.

Jinnahs two-nation theory spread hate. His followers propaganda made matters worse. But there is another aspect to it, commonly overlooked. Vallabhbhai Patel, Home Member in the Viceroys Executive Council (1946-47) and Union Minister for Home Affairs (1946-50), had an approach to communal riots that was strange, to put it mildly, in one charged with preserving law and order. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not share it.

Two letters to Stafford Cripps in Volume 3 of Sardar Patels Correspondence reveal a lot about Patel. On October 19, 1946, he wrote to Cripps: The Calcutta incident [sic, the riots] pales into insignificance before Noakhali. In Calcutta Hindus had the best of it. But that is no comfort. Was Noakhali by way of revenge? On December 15, 1946, he wrote: You called the League delegation there [in London along with Nehru] at a time when there was some realisation that violence is a game at which both parties can play and the mild Hindus also, when driven to desperation, can retaliate as brutally as a fanatic Muslim. Patel was Home Minister then. His oath of office required him to hold the scales evenly. The volume has Nehrus Note of November 1946 to Patel after a visit to Bihar: a definite attempt on the part of Hindu mobs to exterminate the Muslims. Over 2,000 people were killed and 15,000 rendered homeless. This did not prevent Patel from writing as he did on December 15. The Delhi riots after Partition drove Gandhi to go on a fast, to Patels indignation. Gandhi died a martyr. Patels record in the Delhi riots was pathetic.

Yasmin Khan, a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, has written a book on Partition that departs from the beaten path. It is on the catastrophic human cost of the madness of Partition. It should have caused no surprise. Sikandar Hayat Khan predicted it to Penderel Moon in 1940.

Written in a lively style and backed by thorough research in the United Kingdom and in India and Pakistan, the book is an extremely able contribution to the literature on Partition. It is about these months of transition and how, at the end of the British empire, two states emerged from the South Asian landmass, unfortunately with deep-rooted and lasting antipathy towards each other. It aims to dig beneath the often hostile and justificatory rhetoric about Partition, as well as imperial stories of a smooth and seamless transfer of power, to show just how disorderly the whole process was and how it threatened the very existence of the two new states. It also underscores how uncertain and ambiguous the meanings of Partition and Pakistan were to people living through these events.

What did Swarajya and Pakistan mean to the affected people? Yasmin Khan rightly criticises the history written in both countries by court historians. They flourish still. Any suggestion that the political games in New Delhi were unrelated to the violence that occurred during Partition should be dispensed with by Mountbattens revealing admission of almost breathtaking callousness when he admitted, on hearing that over a sixty villages had been wiped out in Gurgaon, in Delhis hinterland. I could not help feeling that this renewed outbreak of violence, on the eve of the meeting with the leaders, might influence them to accept the plan which was about to be laid before them. It did not prod him to reconsider his hasty programme.

Yasmin Khans assessment of the continental disaster takes in its sweep large areas beyond Punjab and Bengal. It shaped the psyche of Indians and Pakistanis. The consequences were unforeseen, she writes; but were they unforeseeable, too?

January 7, 1948: Children in a transit camp in East Punjab, caught up in the upheaval of Partition.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

January 7, 1948:

Preposterous afterthoughts were retailed. Begum Ikranullah, a highly educated person, was assured by her husband M. Ikranullah, an Indian Civil Service officer at that, that Delhi would definitely be in Pakistan. The Congress failure lay in its equivocation no partition, yet no compulsion, either. It should have highlighted the inevitable loss of lands by Muslims in East Punjab and West Bengal facts which Jinnah concealed from his people while accepting them in private.

Interviews bring out the poignancy of the tragedy extremely well. In 1946, people felt entirely uncertain about what the future would deliver. It is not implausible that South Asia could have spiralled into an even more devastating civil war, or that Pakistan could have failed to come into existence. It is not improbable that the new states could have been created along entirely different lines or that some of the princely states could have succeeded in their bids for autonomy. There was nothing inevitable or pre-planned about the way that Partition unfolded. Well accustomed as we are nowadays to the contours of these states on the world map, and given the terrific speed with which they acted to establish themselves, it is very challenging to visualise the moment at which they could have been forged in different ways, and what that future might have looked like.

In 1946 the Cabinet Missions plan offered hope that Indias unity would be preserved. It was wantonly wrecked by the Congress.

In 1947, failure to define Indian and Pakistani citizenship fully, the contradictions of imagined nationalisms and the territorial realities of state-making left a difficult and acrimonious legacy. Today, queues outside visa offices remain long and depressing as families camp out from early in the morning trying to acquire the necessary paperwork to cross the border, while the visa regime explicitly favours the wealthy and cosmopolitan. Visas, when issued, still restrict visitors to specific cities, only allow trips of a short duration and involve complicated and dispiriting registration with the local police on arrival. It has become ever harder to recover a sense of what it was like to be a pre-Indian or a pre-Pakistani.

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