In pursuit of little histories

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

Remembering Partition: Violence, Natonalism and History in India by Gyanendra Pandey; Contemporary South Asia Series, 7; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 2001; pages xii+218, 15.95.

THE history of modern India starts with the decisive battle of Plassey in the year 1757. History then takes on a chronological trajectory as it narrates how the British took over in small bites, aided by the perfidies of Indians themselves, the entire subcontinent. Then came the years of nationalist struggle led from the front by the Congress, the mass-based campaigns which led to freedom on August 15, 1947. This is where Indian history ends. But 1947 was more than the definitive year marking Independence, as Gyanendra Pandey argues; it was a rupture - a Partition - that accompanied Independence with unprecedented violence and suddenness.

Disciplinary history as Pandey has explained elsewhere, and as at present conceptualised, is incapable of dealing with violence and suffering (Gyanendra Pandey(1994): "The rose of Otherness", in David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds) Sabaltern Studies, Vol III, OUP, New Delhi.) The language available to the historian and the discourse in which historiography functions do not permit the discourse of ordinary people who live through traumatic events like Partition, to be recognised. Historians, both in India and Pakistan, have sought to emphasise the alienness of this kind of violence to their respective traditions and national struggle. For instance, the communal riots of 1946-47 in Garmukhteshwar and elsewhere are no longer considered local disturbances; in recorded accounts, they are linked to wider political movements and demands. Indian nationalist historical commentary (pages 101-104) on Garmukhteshwar has sought to preserve the purity of the people and the land by diminishing the violence that took place, by linking it to a larger chain of conspiratorially inspired events that fed on one another and by fixing the blame on Hindu (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and Muslim extremists. In the Ghazanfar report, the Muslim League stressed the bravery of Muslim women who resisted all attempts at forcible conversion, and also re-emphasised the old fear that Hindus and the Congress could not be trusted.

But, as Pandey explains, more than a rupture or a decisive break, there also exist at least three different conceptions of `partitions' that went into the making of the Partition of 1947. The first partition was signalled by the Lahore Resolution of 1940 when an important section of the Muslim political leadership demanded a state of their own - a demand that over the next seven years was taken up and articulated more widely and fiercely by Muslims across the subcontinent. The second partition was the demand put forward in early 1947 by several people within the Hindu, Sikh and Congress leadership for the partition of Bengal and Punjab. And finally, there was the feared and then dreadfully realised partition of families and local communities - the third partition that so many people speak of.

The history of Partition indeed appears different from different perspectives. Historians' apprehension of 1947 are limited to the first two conceptions of Partition, leading to a wide chasm between history and a popular survivors' account of it - the third conception of Partition. For the survivors Partition was violence but for historians it was in the main a new, constitutional, political arrangement, which did not affect the broad contours of Indian society or even its history. But this other history, based on memories of its survivors, needs to be rewritten.

Memory steps in when history fails or refuses to address particular moments of dislocation that societies (communities?) in all their complexity and painfulness often face in their history. When history renders violence as an aberration or finds it non-narratable, it is here that memory must intervene to give history an additional lease of life. And their numbers have multiplied as recent writings on Partition show. Partition is the violence, the day of Partition is the day troubles occurred. In survivor memories, Partition takes on other names - migration, violence, uproar. The choice of nomenclature (partition, migration and so on), as Pandey stresses, determines not only the images that are constructed but also the questions that are asked about historical and contemporary events.

There are historians who have argued to the contrary - on the importance of not studying violence during Partition. For the `little events' - violence, rape, mass murder and the expulsion of whole communities - are the product of other forces and other processes. Instead, they highlight the need to focus on the centrality of the state, long-term historical processes, the need to re-emphasise an enduring aspect of the Indian legacy - the pluralism that has been a characteristic of `our civilisational ground'. Forgetting is also in the interests of India's unity and the need to forget is in the interests of normal interaction between communities.

Should such accounts of violence then, as Pandey asks, be left only to rightwing writings and their attempts since the 1980s to consolidate right-wing, rigidly defined, religious-community-based politics? Recounting the violence that accompanied Partition of British India that made it what it was - a "critical (traumatic and repeatedly re-cited)" moment in the establishment of two nation-states and the life of their newly constituted peoples - does not automatically amount to telling stories of violence. For, while there were reports of mutual support and kindness even at times of great violence, Partition was also a moment that saw changing Hindu-Muslim-Sikh relations, emerging right-wing formations, and a state whose attitudes betrayed its increasingly partisan manner. It also saw a growing societal tolerance of violence and brutality. In the making of the history of any society, narratives of particular experiences of violence form a significant part. The making of this history takes on a process different from what disciplinary history has often all too easily assumed - that subjects such as society, nation, state, community and locality have a ready, fixed existence and that human development follows a natural, pre-determined trajectory.

The violence of 1947 created new subjects and subject positions. Life and conditions in the two new nations, of the individuals families, and communities that made them up, were remade and still are being fashioned in numerous ways by that violence and the curious `memory-history' that exists of those times. It was not merely the immediate problem of rehabilitation and resettlement, but also the fashioning of longer-term policies, mentalities and prejudices, seen in wide evidence.

Partition constituted a moment in history when whole communities became refugees and the members of an entire population were rendered faceless, undifferentiated, suspect and hunted. It was also followed by a moment of contest and an intense debate about what the character of the new nation-state should be, on who would constitute its `natural citizens'. For, the Muslims who stayed on in India (like the Hindus who stayed on in Pakistan) now constituted a minority problem. The abducted persons who remained on the wrong side of the international border also constituted a different sort of problem - they were conceived of as impurity, or theft or both. The question posed was what their place in the new dispensations of India and Pakistan would be.

AFTER 1947, Muslims were asked to demonstrate their loyalty to India. Their willingness to "shed their blood for India" (page 162) became a desperate password for citizenship, for being Indian. While being part of a community was enough to deny nationality to or confer it on certain others naturally; for the abducted women, it was in the process of their recovery and restoration that the new nationalisation was decided. In 1947, women who were long considered as having no religion or community or nation, came for that moment to stand for nothing else. Represented as nothing but the possessions of their men, their communities and their nations, many of the women and children who were victims identified by this programme became mere pawns and had little say in the crossfire of nationalist demands.

One way of remembering, of reconstructing life and community out of the contradictory and difficult memories of Partition is to maintain individual silence, to leave the pain unspoken. Reconstructions of violence in the past are frequently forced to grapple with the question of the meaning of this violence for the community - then and now. While nations and states can insulate themselves behind grand, dramatic theorisations about national interests and national agendas, local communities have to live with disturbing memories and have to deal in their own way with their `non-disciplinary' histories, with the painful moment of violence. They are compelled to pose the question of what constitutes the community, the subject of history, `us' and `them'.

Memories of violence, its discourse constitutes attempts to (re)construct community. But in such recounting, the violence inevitably happened at the boundaries of a community - `out there'; violence occurred in a moment when the community itself faced a threat. In the absence of a composite community or faced with its inexplicable disintegration, violence occurs to preserve community, to restore an old one or create a new one. This discourse for instance glorified all around the violence against women. Thus, tales of bravery of `our' women and acts of savagery inflicted on other women as part of revenge attacks were carefully constructed and reconstructed in large part in order to restore pride and self-respect in the midst of humiliating circumstances.

In part, by acknowledging the violence, such (re)constructed accounts seek to promote the undying valour of the community. But, as Pandey argues, the reinvention of a community is not always easy. The communities thus constructed are necessarily fragile, however much they come to be invoked in the wake of social and political turbulence. Little histories too get transformed in the process of their retelling, in the very process of their construction. Senses of community appear all too malleable, fuzzy, and contextual.

If the `histories' of Partition, its memories, are themselves of a fleeting, re-reconstructable nature, Pandey asks how the moment of struggle can be written back into history? While not being merely a recounting of the struggle, can it aim to include the dimensions of force, uncertainty, domination and disdain, loss and confusion, the presence of nemesis, that go into shaping a moment of struggle, which in turn help redefine community and life itself?

Historians have pleaded for the use of literature to resurrect the `many histories' of Partition (Mushirul Hasan (1998): `Memories of a Fragmented Nation: Rewriting the histories of India's Partition', Economic and Political Weekly, October 10).{+.} But it is the many `little histories' long neglected by the historical academy who more than the ruling classes and their initiatives shape the `mentalities' - long-lasting attitudes of mind, social practices, rituals, memories - of today.

The relationship between violence and community that is apparent in Partition and in the accounts of Partition, Pandey insists, still have something unusual to tell us. In times like 1947, good and evil coexist, and often in the same person; there is, moreover, doubt as to what is which: what good society and moral order really stand for. This dichotomy is stark in individual accounts. In all of these, the sheer incomprehensibility of the violence is apparent. These accounts speak of the grave tensions, the ambiguity, the uncertainty and the desperation of the time. Everywhere the anguished search for explanation is evident. The civil servant, while "sleeping through" the most gruesome incidents of violence, still asks what in Sikh polity allowed the Sikhs to act in this way and to feel no compunction for it even now (page 178). In another account, a Muslim who had been `converted' to Sikhism and yet did not reconvert after the `troubles' asks: "Why does it always happen in the Punjab?" The same kind of violence beset the region in the 1980s. His answer (page 178) is that it is the Sikhs who take arms, go out in jathas (gangs) and kill. In Dehlavi's voice, in his despair and need to escape, there is also dilemma and anguish for Delhi had been home, "even though she (Delhi) had become a dayan (witch), she still remained a mother" (page 185).

In citing these accounts, Pandey looks at Partition not merely as an event but as a category of understanding a happening. For, the many different ways in which 1947 is remembered and written about are all involved in the making of the event and the heritage called Partition. There is a greater need to understand how the tragedy of Partition played itself out; equally important is to understand how it was told and therefore made in 1947 and afterwards.

Like the different kinds of community at stake in the stories and accounts Pandey quotes, the nation too, he suggests, might be seen as an alterable, malleable construction. "It is then possible to recover a different `national' past recalling not sacrifice and valour but the varied, internally, differentiated communities made up of thinking, acting, changing and fallible human beings" (page 205). The violence is not mere `local' detail but it is central to an investigation of our times, of our future and past politics. Understanding its nuances, its moment, might help redefine and reshape contemporary society and at the same time, effectively pose a challenge to the attempted definition of communities as rigid, `natural, permanent' entities, as an increasingly vociferous right-wing polity is seeking to do.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment