We Are All Living In 1947: Partition As An Ongoing Process
None of the parties involved in the Partition of 1947 seem to have walked away from the deal satisfied. As it unfolded on the ground, it took a terrifying life of its own.
Already, neighbour had learned to see neighbour in watertight communal terms of “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Sikh”, etc. – thanks to the Raj and its need to classify those that it ruled, the better to dominate them.
In 1946-47, as the Raj packed its bags with a haste that appears as indecent as it was inexplicable, India decided its path in post-colonial modernity. First in Bengal and then in Punjab, communal fault-lines were etched with blood and fire into the body of historical Hindustan. The violence was organized enough to be irreversible and spontaneous enough to be a permanent gash on the soul of the Subcontinent.
Premier Zhou Enlai famously said that it was too early to speak of the impact of the French Revolution. It is probably too early to speak of the world-historic impact of the 1947 Partition of South Asia. But it is possible to speak with some confidence of why Partition happened. It was the product of a refusal by the Congress leadership to grapple with the intensity of a fiercely communal Muslim response to the communal Hindu majoritarianism that had seeped so far into the anti-colonial movement.
Today, the wounds of those fateful, bloody months are as raw as ever. Perhaps Partition looms larger in the imagination of South Asia today than it did for generations immediately after that horror. The immediate impulse in the post-colonial Subcontinent was to look ahead: towards that tryst with destiny that Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of.
Some of the questions raised by the violent communal bloodbath receded into the background as the two countries – especially India – began their journey of post-colonial development.
In the 21st century, both India and Pakistan seem to be hurrying towards a very different tryst from what Nehru imagined. There is now a fierce determination to follow the logic of Partition’s violence to its logical conclusion. India is to be a tough, ideological Hindutvavadi state and Pakistan finds retroactive justification for narrow-minded state-backed political Islam. Those who disagree are depicted by two rowdy ideological states and their loud ideologues as delusional at best – and dangerous viruses at worse. Every evening, hysterical TV channels and hordes of screeching social media trolls drill the message into the fence-sitters and the less committed: that those who insist on pluralism or criticize their own side of the barbed wire are “traitors” who have been tolerated for seven decades too many.
Rather than apply any salve to the wounds of Partition, every effort is being made to worsen them. Now that PM Narendra Modi’s India has enthusiastically taken up the task of building a Hindu Rashtra, any half-baked attempts by Pakistan’s rulers to somewhat dial down the brinkmanship are subjected to immense pressure: both from hawkish ideologues and from the strategic necessities of being an insecure, smaller power. Each of the two communal states has become the greatest ideological justification for the other’s descent into obscurantism. Every low on one side of the barbed wire justifies the previous low on the other.
On a popular level, attempts to reach out across the worsening communal divide are pulverized when they run into the harsh realities of BJP-ruled India. As PM Modi recently presided over a ceremony to begin the construction of the Ram Mandir over what was once the Babri Masjid, he drew upon a symbolism calculated to appeal to hyperventilating TV channels and social media warriors.
And the message is received loud and clear in Pakistan: plans to build a mandir for the Hindu community in Islamabad have met with fierce – and so far successful – posturing from the religious right.
There appears to be a grim determination to tie up the loose ends of Partition, in the most decisive, exclusionary and forcible ways possible: with India’s revocation of the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir being one of the most dramatic recent instances.
The purpose of Partition was supposed to have been to provide a pragmatic way past the communal question of modern colonial India. Rather than crossing the Hindu-Muslim impasse, Partition has elevated it to centre-stage in the cultural and strategic imagination of India and Pakistan.
And so, we now have two heavily-armed ideological states, one representing each of the two major communities of the Subcontinent. As India and Pakistan today gear up for what may be decades of hostility, we are forced to reconsider the process of independence and ask if it was all one long tragedy.
In effect, Partition may have simply taken the communal question mark over colonial India and turned it into a permanent, international and nuclear-tipped exclamation mark.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.