Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Partition Blues

Folks, it's that time of the year again; and as anybody who knows me even slightly will tell you, this is the season when (to use Sunil Khilnani's phrase from his book The Idea of India) the "unspoken sadness at the heart of the idea of India" gnaws at me. Evidently the Ides of August won't let Mr. Khilnani go either (by the way, whatever happened to that Khilnani bio of Nehru we were promised years ago, including in the bylines of various Khilnani pieces; this one omits all mention of it).

On that note, I have been waiting years for someone to write this (not surprised the "someone" turned out to be Ashis Nandy).

While waiting, over a year ago I wrote the following, in response to an American friend (of Indian parentage) who asked if partition was "justified" in light of the situation of Muslims prevailing on the sub-continent in the early part of the twentieth century:

"I resist the question posed, namely whether the situation for Muslims in India was such as to render partition justifiable; I resist this question because it conceptualizes partition as a response to communal violence, hatred, etc. (nor is this a maverick view; many point to the massacres in the 10-12 years leading up to partition, and the reduced intensity ofcommunal violence following it, to argue that partition was simply the cure, albeit a drastic one, for what ailed India at the time). This begs the question. I would argue-- standing with Javed Akhtar-- that partition is but a symptom (certainly a drastic one) of a deeper problem, namely the mindset that makes partition possible, and then inevitable, the mindset that can only think in terms of "nations," the mindset for which the nation is the only political horizon, and, crucially, the mindset for which difference is the nation's biggest enemy.

To put it another way, it does not logically follow that the appropriate response to discrimination, or to growing concern with minority rights, is partition; or, this does not seem logical to me, but it is always the first resort of the liberal imperialist (and even often the liberal who sees himself as anti-imperialist), the one whose conscience is racked at the thought of the minority it will be leaving at the mercy ofthe majority were it to withdraw without a "solution." Whether we are speaking of India, or Palestine, or Ireland, or, in our times, Kosovo, Bosnia, or the de-facto "soft" partition of Iraq after the first GulfWar, we ought to recognize that the imperial mania is first and foremost a cartographic one. Or, more accurately, the desire to draw lines on a map reflects first and foremost the power to draw those lines, power the colonial authority arrogates to itself. And through a genuinely perverse twist, the colonial line-drawer also presents itself in the garb of the "neutral umpire," the referee who is really above the (for instance) Hindu/Muslim fray.

I do not for one second wish to posit the notion that the demand forPakistan lacked popular support among the Muslims of Northern India and Bengal in the decades immediately preceding partition. However, the notion of popular support must be problematized, perhaps always, but especially in the circumstances under discussion. We have to ask, whatdid people mean when they supported the concept of "Pakistan," a concept so fuzzy that when it actually materialized on August 14, 1947, millionsof Muslims and non-Muslims seemed to have been taken by surprise? TheMuslim League won 80% of the Muslim vote in the elections of 1945, but what does this mean given that the franchise was restricted toproperty-owning Muslims, which was significantly less than than 50% of the Muslim population? Indeed what does popular support mean given the apartheid system ofelectioneering instituted by the British Raj, under which Muslims and Hindus could ONLY vote for Hindus and Muslims?

I do not suggest that the Muslim League's support means nothing, merely that we cannot simply take popular support at face value (whether the question is of support given to the Muslim League or to the Congress). Nor can we assume an imperial role ourselves, and determine that the situation was/was not such as to justify partition. Because such a calculation, the calculation of majorities and minorities, is unjust and unethical, perhaps always but certainly in a country as diverse as India. To use just one example, millions of Hindus and Sikhs were dispossessed when Pakistan was formed, even though they had no part in the Muslim League majority in the province (they couldn't have, as they were only allowedto vote for candidates from "their" religious community; the bizarre result was that, even though at a minimum 43% of Punjab's population(the Hindu and Sikh proportions combined, according to the 1941 census) was obviously opposed to partition, and even though only roughly one in eight Muslims would have had to oppose partition for the side opposing it to command majoritysupport in Punjab (it is not hard to imagine that minimal requirement being met, given the presence of other parties like Khizr Tiwana's Unionist Party; Ramachandra Guha has written a good piece on some of the major-yet-minor players of India's partition, including Tiwana), the party in favor of partition got sweeping support under the colonial system ofseparate electorates.

The above is not just about number crunching: my wider point is about how colonialism effaces its own complicity, renders its own violence above critique, and presents the violence on the ground as simply a consequence of the natural course of events. Thus, too, in India partition became about how Hindus and Muslims hated each other, how they were unable to live "with" each other; yet the system of separate electorates that had been instituted in the early twentieth century, a system that incentivized the manufacture ofcommunal sentiment, that indeed made communal mobilization necessary in order to win elections (i.e. it was difficult to win elections on ethnic or any other grounds, because seats were not reserved for rich or poor or forGujarati or Punjabi, but only for Hindus and Muslims, and for other communities defined religiously) doubtless bears a large degree of responsibility. Certainly Indians ultimately must also be considered complicit in competitive communalism, but the role of colonialism, in initiating the colonized into modernity via colonialism and the identity politics legitimated by colonialism, cannot be over-stressed.

Much of this was not "done" deliberately by the British-- in many ways they were simply being good liberals, bringing the light of rationality and political progress and minority protections to the great unwashed. But while lack of intent does not excuse one, I should also add that much of the problem was also deliberate: in the years leading up to partition, Muslim leaders and political movements that represented other tendencies found out that the Raj cracked down far harder on them than on the Muslim League (I highly recommend Mukulika Banerjee's The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the Norh-West Frontier (2000), for this and a whole host of other reasons). And once the Cold Warbegan, it was also clear that the Anglo-Americans wanted a reliable ally against Communism -- and Nehru and the Congress were perceived as being too soft on it. Both the anti-communism and the loyalty to the Raj made perfect sense to the nawabs of the League (though the latter was never palatable to Jinnah himself), who owed much of their fotunes to the stability and police powers and legal system of the Raj, and who could hardly expect to keep much of their wealth under Nehru's socialistdispensation. Where none of these worked to cripple Muslim anti-Pakistan movements, as in the North-West Frontier Province, a referendum was held (boycotted by the majority of the electorate)-- yet of course no referendum was held where the Muslim League was already in power, a double standard that would be bizarre were it not so transparent.

Let us recognize the two-nation theory for what it is, an intellectuallybankrupt attempt to evade the tag of "minority" that is itself a legacy of the Raj, by resorting to that other pole of political modernity, the"nation." That is, the argument goes: Muslims are not a minority, because Muslims in India are akin to the French in Europe-- it would be meaningless to say that the French are a minority in Europe because theFrench are, of course, a nation. Thus the central move is to re-cast Islam as an ethnicity (we can see why some of the most conservative Muslim clerics opposed partition: as they saw it, the two-nation theory was recasting Muslims from a "millat"-- i.e. an ideological community-- into a "qaum"--i.e. a people-- a re-definition with no historical or even theological precedent).

Even the above would not have made partition inevitable (i.e. one could theoretically have said that India could be a multi-national state), except that after the nineteenth century, a nation was not properly a nation absent the acknowledgment afforded by a state that one could call one's "own." Hence the term "nation-state," the epitome of liberal orthodoxy in the West, so widely accepted that it became difficult to imagine "nation"without "state." The end result is a nation-state that is one's "own," but which tragically always involves the alienation and dispossession of those who no longer fit the relevant definition. This is the story ofFrance. This is the story of Germany. This, most violently, is the story of Pakistan.

[Obviously the two-nation theory did not arise in a vacuum. Political modernity also came to India in the form of Hindu nationalism, starting in the nineteenth century, and some would argue that Muslim nationalism was simply a reaction to it. While it is difficult to ascertain cause and effect as if one were simply talking of a chain reaction, I do not accept that the reaction to x must inevitably be the mirror image of x. Or, as Nietzsche has put it rather more poetically: "One who would fight monsters must take care lest he turn into a monsterhimself."]"

Yes, folks, I do love a good rant...

For a more sympathetic take on Jinnah's plight (and about as unflattering a view of Jawaharlal Nehru as one can imagine), check out A.G. Noorani's recent lengthy two-part article in Frontline. There is much to critique here, but the article has the virtue of quoting liberally from Jinnah's own speeches and writings.

Part I; Part II

At the end of it all though, I find the same absence I did in Wolpert's Jinnah of Pakistan (in which book, by the way, Noorani finds a number of howlers): what of Direct Action day? For a Pakistani counter-view on the violence in 1946, check this out. [Recent Indian newspaper articles prefer to go the sensationalistic, though not entirely implausible, route, hinting at a Churchill-Jinnah connection.]


Satyam said...

This is an excellent post as is the rest of this blog.

raven said...

Very insightful! I'll have to read this a few more times...

Saurav Basu said...

Muslims in the subcontinent were cooing separatist lores long before modern Hindu nationalism was born. Moreover, pleading theories of action and reaction makes delightful pleading for the Hindu nationalists who can appeal to the dhimmitization of the majority Hindu by a class of Muslims, who were an ethnic and cultural minority

The introduction of electoral democracy even in its minimal form, gave further vent to the majoritarian mania of the Muslims. The Aga Khan in his memoirs proudly proclaimed his ability to convert thousands of low caste Hindus. Suhrawardy was delighted with the Muslim growth rate which he believed would be suffice to decisively displace Hindus in Assam. (Muslim politics in Bengal, Sheela Shah) It is no wonder that separatist tendencies of Muslims was restricted only where Muslims defined the majority population. However, except at Sindh and briefly in the NWF, the relative calm in such places was based on the proposition that the messianic charm of the prophetic creed would ultimately prove irresistible for the idol worshiping infidels.