Magazine article History Today

Partition: The Human Cost

Magazine article History Today

Partition: The Human Cost

Article excerpt

The sun had risen fairly high when we reached Amritsar... Everytime I visited Amritsar, I felt captivated. But the city, this time, presented the look of a cremation ghat, eerie and stinking...The silence was so perfect that even the faint hiss of steam from the stationary engine sounded a shriek. Only some Sikhs were hanging about, with unsheathed kirpans which they occasionally brandished... The brief stoppage seemed to have lingered into eternity till the engine whistled and gave a gentle pull...we left Chheharta behind and then Atari and when we entered Wagah and then Harbanspura everyone in the train felt uplifted. A journey through a virtual valley of destruction had ended when finally the train came to a halt at Platform No. 2 - Lahore, the moment was as gratifying as the consummation of a dream.

Mohammad Saeed, Labore: A Memoir

Few writers reveal such poignancy and tragedy of nationally-contrived divisions and borders. India's partition cast its shadow over many aspects of state and society. Yet the literature on this major event is mostly inadequate, impressionistic and lacking in scholarly rigour. Even after fifty years of Independence and despite the access to wide-ranging primary source materials, there are no convincing explanations of why and how M.A. Jinnah's `two-nation' theory emerged, and why partition created millions of refugees and resulted in over a million deaths. Similarly, it is still not clear whether partition allowed the fulfillment of legitimate aspirations or represents the mutilation of historic national entities.

Part of the reason for this flawed frame of reference is the inclination of many writers to draw magisterial conclusions from isolated events and to construct identities along religious lines. As a result, the discussions tend to be based on statements and manifestos of leaders and their negotiations with British officials in Lutyens' Delhi and Whitehall.

The fiftieth year of liberation from colonial rule is an appropriate moment to question commonly-held assumptions on Muslim politics, to delineate the ideological strands in the Pakistan movement, explore its unities and diversities, and plot its trajectory without preconceived suppositions. Was there intrinsic merit in religious/Islamic appeals? Does one search for clues in British policies (which were tilted in favour of the Muslims to counter the nationalist aspirations) - in the ensuing clash between Hindu and Muslim revivalist movements and in violent contests over religious symbols (a dispute recently played out around the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya)? How and why did the idea of a Muslim nation appeal to the divided and highly stratified Muslim communities, enabling Jinnah and his lieutenants to launch the crusade for a separate Muslim homeland?

As a starting point, it is necessary to repudiate Jinnah's 'two-nation' theory. Time and again it has been pointed out that the Hindu and Muslim communities lived together for centuries in peace and amity. In fact, their common points of contact and association were based on enduring intersocial connections, cross-cultural exchanges and shared material interests. Neither the followers of Islam nor of Hinduism were unified or cohesive in themselves. Their histories, along with social, cultural and occupational patterns, varied from class to class, and region to region.

During his tour in 1946-47 the British civil servant Malcolm Darling found, in the tract between the Beas and Sutlej rivers in Punjab, much similarity between Hindus and Muslims. He wondered how Pakistan was to be fitted into these conditions? He was bothered by the same question while passing through the country between the Chenab and Ravi:

What a hash politics threatens to make

of this tract, where Hindu, Muslim and

Sikh are as mixed up as the ingredients

of a well made pilau... I noted how

often in a village Muslim and Sikh had

a common ancestor. …

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