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The routes of Partition

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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Pangs of Partition, Volume I: The Parting of Ways and Volume II: The Human Dimension, edited by S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta; Manohar and the Indian Council of Historical Research, Delhi, 2002; Rs.700 (each volume), pages 368 & 358.

THE lapse of more than half a century has not rendered historical constructions of the partition of India any less contentious. The strain of Hindutva or "cultural nationalism", which purports to see a primordial Hindu identity as the basic cement of the Indian nation, has been active in recent times, establishing its dominance over a large swathe of political territory. In candid moments, as in recent depositions before the Commission of Inquiry into the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, the leading lights of Hindutva are apt to suggest that Partition had pronounced a final verdict on the character of the Indian nation.

Hindutva spokesmen have with little subtlety argued that with the Muslims of South Asia having carved out a homeland for themselves, the population that remained behind in independent India had no justification to profess a faith that set them at variance with the majority. Partition has remained in this rendition an incomplete project, since the Islamic faith continues to exist in India and the followers of the faith continue to have a measure of political influence.

This rhetoric has eerie parallels across the border, where a programme of territorial acquisition in Kashmir is cast in terms of the "unfinished agenda" of Partition. Those who have been engaged in seeking a sane political response to rival variants of extremism have rightly sought to re-examine the historical record and identify the political fault-lines that led to the cataclysm of Partition. This has been an inescapable component of the effort to address contemporary political schisms and to assuage the wounds that continue to fester.

The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) commissioned this reappraisal of the historical record on Partition 50 years after the event. Their purpose, as the editors say in their introduction, was to "focus attention on a wide array of individual and collective experiences of migration, trauma and the intense nostalgia of the displaced for the undivided past". In reviewing "some of the established theories concerning Partition" from this avowedly humanistic perspective, the editors lay down crucial guidelines for the contributors: the purpose of these volumes is not to relive the rancour of those turbulent times, but to catalogue the political failures that contributed to an epic tragedy whose human costs have never really been reckoned.

This effort to transcend political (and religious) segmentation is evident in the opening essay by V.N. Datta, which focusses on the Radcliffe Award and the anomalous rulings it handed down on the Punjab boundary. Pakistan has never tired of ventilating its supposed grievance over the allotment of Gurdaspur district to India. In the construction that prevails across the border, the intent of the Gurdaspur award was fairly transparent: to ensure India a route of access to the State of Jammu and Kashmir. In tampering with the objective criteria that had been devised for determining the disposition of various tracts, Pakistan has held Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, singularly responsible.

The Indian response has been that the Gurdaspur award had little to do with the incipient dispute over Kashmir, and everything to do with Sikh religious sensibilities. It was all about ensuring that Amritsar, a city with deep emotional resonances for the Sikh community, was not transformed into a solitary abutment within hostile territory. Datta examines this rationale in the light of another of Radcliffe's decisions, on the allotment of Ferozepur district. He finds no consistency between the two decisions and little sustenance in the historical record for pleas that Mountbatten remained loftily unconcerned with the Boundary Commission's work.

B.R. Nanda and Chittabrata Palit provide subtle and sympathetic accounts of Mahatma Gandhi's role in the days leading to Partition. Palit in particular reconstructs with minute attention to the Mahatma's fluctuating public utterances, how the man who had worked through his life to bridge differences, was rendered virtually helpless in understanding the complexities of the transfer of power. He was unprepared for the rush of events following the proposals of the Cabinet Mission and he ended up a "political discard of the Congress" and in the perception of the Hindu extremists, as "the stepfather of Pakistan".

As high politics plunged towards a final parting of ways, key figures at the helm remained fairly oblivious of the manner in which the fabric of daily life was being ripped apart for millions of people in the communally sensitive regions. In her contribution on the Congress and Partition, Sucheta Mahajan points out how Sardar Patel was till as late as May 1947 insisting that he would "never be guilty of such... cowardly advice" as asking Hindus to migrate. And Jawaharlal Nehru was declaring in meetings with Mountbatten in June that he was "opposed to the principle of population transfers".

IT is impossible to dodge the inference that the leaders who were bargaining over the merits of the Cabinet Mission's plan relative to an outright partition, and debating how desirable a strong centre would be, were dealing in abstractions rather than concrete realities. The second volume in this set presents an evocative interview with the eminent Hindi literatteur Bhisham Sahni, who lived through the experience of Partition as a young man in Rawalpindi. Sahni tells Alok Bhalla, his interviewer, that even when the inevitability of Partition was beginning to bear in on all, politically innocent people such as his parents could never conceive of leaving the environs that they had spent their lives in. Even if "regimes changed", they imagined, "populations do not".

Sahni's father was not alone in this belief. And though aware of the turmoil that was brewing, the political leaders were unable to provide credible counsel. Sahni recalls that senior Congress leader Acharya Kripalani, who visited his troubled city on the eve of Independence, was in turns evasive and brusque in dealing with questions from ordinary people on what the advisable course would be for them.

Mahajan's analysis suggests that there was within the Congress a strain of opinion which believed that mass struggles could be initiated, uniting communities sundered by religion into a common endeavour. Such had indeed been the purpose of the Muslim mass contact programmes launched in earlier years. But curiously, as another contributor points out, the Congress' effort to recruit the Muslim masses to its cause only deepened suspicions. And in the atmosphere of estrangement and violence that prevailed following 1946, no party could conceive of initiating a mass agitation.

WHERE did the roots of the estrangement lie? Khwaja A. Khalique provides the broad historical perspective on the combined and unequal development of the communities through the colonial period. Other authors focus on the shorter time span following 1946, when the orchestrated violence of Direct Act Day compelled the Congress to bring the Muslim League into a coalition government at the Centre. The hesitant embrace soon turned into mutual recoil, with the Congress seeing in Finance Minister Liaqat Ali Khan's budget proposals a deliberate design to impair the interests of its business constituencies.

Over a medium-term perspective, Salil Mishra takes up the question of the provincial government experiment that began in 1937. There is a fairly well entrenched view that the Congress intransigence in denying the Muslim League any role in the government of the United Provinces accelerated the momentum towards Partition. An accommodation between the two parties in this interpretation would have dampened the ardour for separation among the Muslim intelligentsia in the United Provinces and provided useful guideposts to a future power sharing arrangement at the Centre.

Mishra finds from an examination of the historical record that this picture is overly simplified. There were a variety of political tendencies in operation in the United Provinces, and the advocacy of a coalition arrangement remained a fairly isolated strain. Coalition formation was a strategic decision to be made by the leadership of the two parties in the context they found themselves in. Neither party could have foreseen then that their decisions would culminate in Partition a decade later. And the overwhelming majority on either side saw their strategic advantage in remaining distinct, rather than in seeking a mutual accommodation.

Other contributors to this volume look at the regional configuration of forces in the North-West Frontier Provinces, the princely states, the Oriya region and the Central Provinces and Berar. B.M. Pandey rounds off Volume I with a critique of British imperialist historiography on the Partition, clearing the way for an entry into Volume II, which in exploring the "human dimensions" illumines the terrain of literature and language, education, art and film.

In analysing how Partition figures in the school curricula, Krishna Kumar points out an oddity of the history textbook: unlike other subjects, it does not invite the student to acquire the tools of learning, but only to partake of what is ostensibly, already crystallised wisdom. There is also in India and Pakistan, he says, a peculiarly reverential attitude towards the textbook, typified in the approach of "prescribing" rather than "recommending" a textbook, which is then seen as embodying some variety of final truth, consecrated by the authority of the state. This diminishes their utility in an objective understanding of the event, rendering the curriculum a mere extension of reasons of state.

The cursory treatment of Partition in textbooks, Krishna Kumar argues, could also be understood in terms of the inability of modern historiography as a discipline to bring the concerns, needs and aspirations of ordinary people to the foreground of study. Anodyne shorthand references, such as "millions lost their homes and thousands were killed" - typical of textbook treatments of Partition - are symptomatic of this failure to represent the real pain and suffering of the uprooted. This makes it incumbent on the teaching process to go beyond history as a catalogue of facts crammed into textbooks, to a wider consideration of the literature of particular periods as a "source of support material" for the study of history in schools.

Mrinal Pande examines the broad canvas and life and literature on both sides of the divided sub-continent and finds a gross failure to internalise fully the lessons of the tragic event. Xenophobic right-wing groups, she points out, have sought to keep all the rancour alive as an ideological prop of their divisive politics. Neither country has chosen to erect a monument to the hundreds of thousands of people killed, in the manner that Germany has for the victims of the Holocaust or Japan has for those who perished in the nuclear bombing of two of its cities. This silence has been breached in recent times by scholars and activists working along diverse axes, as for example, in Urvashi Butalia's meticulous and compassionate documentation of the trauma of women uprooted by Partition.

The linguist R.K. Agnihotri suggests that among the many innocent victims of Partition was "the shared language and literature of the people of pre-Partition India". If the contention between rival interpretations of the country's linguistic and literary inheritance were to be considered, then says Agnihotri, Partition could be dated to several decades before 1947. Linguistic separatism continues to exert a baneful influence. Word stocks in the mass communication media on both sides of the border have been impoverished by a deliberate design to disregard popular usage and rely upon perceived classical forms. This "linguistic engineering" done by a "select elite trying to appropriate political power or to maintain the status quo", has been "disastrous both for mass participation in the process of social change and for literary excellence".

Satish Gujral provides a narrative of the horror and trauma of the days when he and his family had to leave Lahore, and in turn has his art dissected as historical documentation by Keshav Malik. Partha Chatterjee delves into the films of Ritwik Ghatak to shed light on a unique sensibility that drew creative sustenance from Partition but was yet, never quite at peace with itself afterwards. Other contributors analyse the landmark works of Partition fiction from Saadat Hasan Manto, Amrita Pritam, Khushwant Singh, K.S. Duggal and Attia Hossein, filling in the yawning gaps in historical memory, redressing the evasions of formal historiography. These two volumes represent a valuable addition to contemporary literature from the ICHR.

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