Seven decades after modern India and Pakistan were created, division remains. Historian Shruti Kapila on conflicting visions of a violent separation

Seventy years ago, in the pitch darkness of midnight on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru famously announced India’s freedom as a tryst with destiny. A few hours earlier, Mohammad Ali Jinnahhad landed in Karachi to celebrate a Pakistan that eventually became the first self-proclaimed Islamic republic in the world.

To be sure, history had been both unmade and made. India’s freedom and the founding of Pakistan broke the long spell of the British Empire,which had lasted since the American Revolution,signalling the end of an era and the opening of a new arrangement in the global order.

If the initial British incursion into the Indian subcontinent 300 years earlier had been insidious and inconspicuous, then their departure in 1947 was as dramatic as it was delayed. Sixty million of the subcontinent’s nearly 400 million inhabitants were divided into the new boundaries of Pakistan. This was neither a natural division nor a peaceful resolution to the complex, if compelling, demands of political freedom.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the barrister who was deputed the task of drawing the boundary between India and Pakistan,undertook this monumental task with the detached calculus of a Whitehall mandarin. Radcliffe was chosen for this historic task precisely for his lack of ties with India: that served as a credential of British ‘neutrality’ in the face of passionate partings. The new borders were in fact made in blood. With close to a million men and women killed and another 10 million uprooted,the arrival of independence was experienced as a violent transformation.

Both Jinnah (l) and Nehru were influenced by the Mughal emperor Akbar
Both Jinnah (l) and Nehru were influenced by the Mughal emperor Akbar

Strikingly, and unlike the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the empire and its emissaries were singularly spared from this violent ire. The fury was entirely fraternal and domestic, as mass and collective violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, and Muslims and Sikhs-Hindus in the partitioned territories of Bengal and Punjab as well as the hinterlands of North India, as men and women sought to convert the promise of a Muslim homeland into a reality. In what was the world’s largest human migration outside of war and famine, Sikhs – whohad been steadfastly opposed to partition– lost nearly 70 percent of their landholdings.

Scholarship and sentiment remains divided on the causes and consequences of this defining set of events. The political protagonists, primarily Jinnah, Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, have not only become iconic in 20th-century world history, they have also become figures of visceral attachment and hatred in a still-continuing blame game of historical responsibility.Was it a British conspiracy to divide and quit? Was Nehru blind in his commitment to a centralised sovereign power for India? Was Jinnah deluded by personal ambition and historical hubris? And was the non-violent messiah merely an Indian Mephistopheles? These accusations have become familiar ways of accounting for a traumatic transition that remains resistant to any calm consensus explanation.

In the cataclysmic changes of mid-20th century world history, it became apparent that ‘minorities’ had the legal, and even moral, right to self-determination

Communal and sectarian ideas have oriented perspectives on Partition. While Pakistan has been dubbed the covert arrival of a New Medina on the subcontinent, the idea of an India defined by its diversity has been dismissed as a figleaf for an exclusive and militant Hindu identity. At independence, the Indian Communist Party refused to celebrate, as for them it represented a mere transfer of power from empire to its Indian capitalist collaborators. Counter-factual scenarios, and nostalgia for a lost past,still animate the politically potent narratives.

Seventy years appears to be both a long time but also a sliver in the history of India. The millennium-long co-existence of Hindus and Muslims sits uneasily alongside their short but violent history of separation. It is striking that the Mughal emperor Akbar was a model for both Jinnah and Nehru. Jinnah invoked Akbar in his inaugural speech in Karachi, representing as he did the creation of power in and through India’s history of toleration. For Nehru,the emperor was the embodiment of all that India made possible, above all a distinctive form of attachment and an unparalleled celebration of differences.

The pain of partition
The pain of partition

As Nehru wrote in his international best-seller,The Discovery of India, it was only the British who had been exceptional in India’s long history of empires, as they owed loyalty to another place and people. Thus they remained – despite200 years of rule – foreigners and outsiders. For him, India was the embodiment of humanity, and,indeed, a vast and deep receptacle of human enterprise in politics, commerce, religion and culture that had been historically open.Such a view may seem romantic today, and has certainly been put to the test by overtly Hindu nationalist political aspirations,but it nevertheless founded the spirit of independent India.Even after Partition, independent India is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world. The world’s largest democracy, with the lengthiest constitution to boot, committed itself to an agenda of religious and linguistic diversity.

The movement for Muslim nationalism and separatism coincided with the initial experiments in democracy in late colonial India

The subcontinent was at the centre of the remaking of the international ordering of states and minorities, and the formation of Pakistan had everything to do with the political representation of minorities in the national era. In the cataclysmic changes of mid-20th century world history, and particularly the Holocaust, it became apparent that ‘minorities’ had the legal, and even moral, right to self-determination, an idea that had been dismissed prior to that. Moreover, the movement for Muslim nationalism and separatism coincided with the initial experiments in democracy in late colonial India.In such a competitive context, the idea of the minority was reduced to its sheer numerical value. If Nehru argued for the diversity of India, then Jinnah stated that the Muslims would be condemned to a minor political status. The idea of Pakistan was premised on making the Muslim into a political majority that could only be achieved through the making of a new territorial boundary.  The final settlement then recognised both Nehru’s vision of diversity with central authority and Jinnah’s desire for Muslim political power in the subcontinent.

Since it was the realisation of two diametrically opposing political visions, such a settlement could not be peaceful. Partition violence has often been rendered as mindless, the eruption of irrational passions, a madness and speechless horror in which neighbours turned on each other, with the seizure of property, the widespread rape and abduction of women, and systematic killing. Though irresponsible leaders have often been blamed, arguably this was truly the arrival of collective power in the form of violence – rather than Radcliffe’s pen,it was this neighbourly violence that ultimately made partition and division real.

Through the interwar period, violence and rioting punctuated the political landscape with a furious regularity. The Calcutta killings of 1946 had presaged the brutal scale and separatist logic of violence. It is often assumed that the violence between Hindus and Muslims, and Sikhs and Muslims, was the expression of repressed hatred, but it would be more accurate to state that it was in fact the work of violence to separate and make hostile what had previously been tolerated, and perhaps even admired, in the other. This transformative, if hostile, power of violence had been recognised by none other than India’s Dalit leader and constitution writer,BR Ambedkar, who consistently argued for Pakistan in the years leading up to its formation, hoping that it would bring an end to hostility.

Since then India and Pakistan have been to war four times. Hostility, and the spectre of nuclear war, still hang over the two neighbours. In this critical sense, Ambedkar’s faith in the idea of partition and Pakistan has certainly failed to bring about peaceful, if distant, relations. Nor has Radcliffe’s boundary proved to be a stable line of demarcation. Ever since the initial war of 1948, Kashmir has remained in a permanent state of dispute. In 1947, instead of the strategic sense that today prevails over discussions on the province, Kashmir as a Muslim-majority province represented India’s claim and commitment to diversity. Not only has Pakistan laid claim to parts of it since then, today it is one of the most militarised zones in the world, with its citizens condemned to a hostage status between two belligerent and ideologically opposed neighbours.

Through the interwar period, violence and rioting punctuated the political landscape with a furious regularity

More dramatically, in 1971 Bangladesh prosecuted the second partition of the subcontinent, overturning the basis of the initial settlement, which took religion as the encompassing marker of Muslim nationality. Bangladesh’s separation and birth was equally violent, with numbers of those killed ranging from half a million to three million.

The violence of 1947 remains unmemorialized and officially unmourned by either state. Elsewhere, catastrophic violence has eventually ended through its ritual memorialisation in a monument, but not here: no official attempthas been made at public reconciliation for the collective violence. India and Pakistan today are living memorials to that violence. As an ongoing and living trauma, this inability to collectively mourn and reconcile represents not only the impossibility of complete partition, but also remains an open incitement to violence.

Dr Shruti Kapila teaches and researches Indian history and global political thought at the History Faculty, University of Cambridge and is Fellow and Director of Studies, Corpus Christi College. Widely published, she is a political commentator in Indian and British media. Her book Violent Fraternity: Political Thought in the Indian Age is published next year

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