SPEAKING FREELY India's partition debate best left to artists
By Jiwan Kshetry
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
"More than six decades later, and debate over the 1947 partition of India is no less intense.
"Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries - slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and
These were the words of Saadat Hasan Manto, the legendary short story writer who probably best captured the essence of the
tragedy that followed the much awaited independence of India.
One of the biggest human tragedies of the past century, the event continues to divide historians, sociologists and psychologists. Was the horror and nasty bloodletting inevitable? If it was not, then who precisely was responsible? These
questions have been variously debated without any conclusion.
As the newly independent states of India and Pakistan pursued their own diverse fates, most of the physical wounds of the cataclysmic violence gradually subsided.
This, however, has not been the case with the mental trauma forced upon millions, as evidenced by the lingering tension between the two states that flares frequently enough.
Who was the culprit?
One line of argument about culpability for the partition's bloodletting is that the British as the colonial power had so finely sown the seeds of internecine conflict that some kind of mass confrontation between the religious communities was inevitable.
While this argument does have merit and partially explains the state of perpetual tension between religious communities in colonized India, it would be well off the mark to conclude that the violence of that scale was inevitable.
Also, this argument absolves the then leaders of India, Pakistan and the then government of Britain of any responsibility.
For decades after partition, as India under Jawaharlal Nehru fared comparatively better than Pakistan, it was implicitly believed in India that the partition was the result of the intransigence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (ML), who were ready to go to any length to realize their dreams of a separate Muslim state.
By implication, guilt for inciting one of the gravest human tragedies in recent human history thus fell more or less squarely on Jinnah and the ML. Leaders of the new India, particularly Nehru himself, were thus depicted as having been rather unsuccessful at preventing the bloodletting.
Many scholars and historians, however, have had objections to the narrative from the very beginning. The issue of culpability,
negligence and myopia of the then leadership of India came further into scrutiny after some recent outspoken critiques of Nehru and his brand of politics in India before, through and after partition.
In Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence the Indian politician-turned-biographer Jashwant Singh chronicled how Jinnah was relentlessly pushed to his position by the Nehru-led Congress, to the point where it was impossible to demand anything but a independent Muslim state.
In a recent column, historian Zareer Masani came up with an all out criticism of Nehru, claiming that the then British Viceroy for India Mountbatten and the then prime minister of Britain Clement Attlee colluded in a terribly myopic arrangement whereby partition was hastily "forced" into India.
While the imaginary scenario of avoiding partition sketched by Masani in the article could be debated, he has substance in arguing that any provisional arrangement would have been far better than the hastily executed plan to sever the territory at the terrible price.
A reference to two statements by Nehru in the article speak a lot about why exactly Nehru cannot be absolved of the responsibility for being instrumental to a situation which led to the bloodletting:
"As for Nehru, he first crowed about the mangled Muslim state that emerged from the cutting up of Punjab and Bengal, saying, "The truncated Pakistan that remains will hardly be a gift worth having."
But a year later, he said, "Perhaps we acted wrongly. ... The consequences of that partition have been so terrible that one is
inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable. ... Ultimately, I have no doubt that India and Pakistan will come close together ... some kind of federal link. ... There is no other way to peace. The alternative is ... war." Even as he spoke, the two new states were already at war over Kashmir."
Implications for politics today
Today, the contentious border between the two countries, particularly in the Kashmir region, acts as the festering sore in the development of any kind of intimate and durable relationship between India and Pakistan.
Having fought three major wars and reaching the brink of nearly as many more, India and Pakistan live in a state of perpetual
tension. Besides the economic cost of stationing troops in extremely inhospitable mountainous region, this state of perpetual animosity has its own socio-political and cultural ramifications.
So, how does the perception of one another matter in today's Indo-Pak relationship and how is it affected by the historical narrative of the partition?
The furor created in India by publication of the book on Jinnah by Jashwant Singh in 2009 shows the dynamics with which the leading political powers in today's India view the partition and Pakistan.
While the ruling Indian National Congress had good reason to be dismayed at the debunking of many myths about Nehru, the towering figure who prevailed even over Gandhi to dictate the course taken by the Congress then; the opposition BJP had to expel Jaswant Singh for remarks in the book which allegedly praised the founder of Pakistan.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, the rivalry with India has shaped much of the national discourse. During the Cold War, the two
countries were members of opposing poles and three full-fledged wars within three decades of independence did a lot to develop mutual suspicion and hatred.
While Pakistan today faces a far more acute problem of insurgency born on religious extremism, spats with India
draw a more passionate response. Many analysts say recent border tensions between the two countries may be the result of the Pakistan army's attempt to foil Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's attempts at reconciling with India.
Artistic and literary portrayal of partition
Against this backdrop, some literary and art works related to partition deserve special mention. In his 2010 novel The Story of my Assassins, the veteran Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal employs a character to vividly narrate the tale of butchery during partition.
In the recent Hindi movie Bhag Milkha Bhag, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the trauma of partition is depicted poignantly with help of a narrative based on the real life of a Sikh child who somehow ends up in India from Pakistan after losing most of his family in the violence and then proceeds to become a celebrated athlete.
More than the primary events of partition itself, this movie explores the secondary and tertiary manifestations of those events, for example, the sexual exploitation of the displaced girls and women by the people from the same community and the toll taken by those events in the psychology of young people.
This is where the writings of Saadat Hassan Manto related to partition deserve special mention: exploring the extent of mental and social trauma suffered by the people. In a particularly poignant short story titled Khol Do, or "Open It", a Muslim father who has reached Pakistan grieves for his daughter who gets lost in the mayhem in India.
After the acute bout of violence is over and displaced people start settling in their new refuge, a search for their missing
relatives goes on. This father also seeks help of a band of young Muslim "volunteers" who promise him to get back his daughter if she is alive. During a rigorous search, they spot the girl based on the details of her facial features provided by the father and take her along. They, however, fail to deliver her to the father for many days and keep the bereaved father waiting.
Finally one day, the father spots an apparently dead body of a young girl in a hospital ward and falls into inconsolable grief
after finding out that the body was his daughter's. Meanwhile, the doctor enters the room and shouts khol do asking to open the window for light so that he can examine. The body of the girl then shows movement and she proceeds to lower her clothing with her hands.
This moment when an unconscious girl goes on to obey the orders of her supposed rapist, without resistance and even probably failing to think anything about it, probably represents the essence of the trauma of partition-related violence and the methods with which people coped with the barbarity.
While any rational debate today on the culpability of a leader or a party for the violence depends on threads from history, a much more robust research of the consequences of the partition can be carried out on platforms that are far less controversial.
Manto's fictional accounts, for example, tell harrowing tales of insanity. Both the Indian Muslim boy trying to cross the border
in Tejpal's novel and the Pakistani Sikh boy crossing border to India in Mehra's movie provide a spectacle of the man-made tragedy from a rather neutral position and give a rare insight into the vulnerability of human minds to criminal instincts.
Even though the damage done by the partition-related violence cannot be undone, the lessons learned could potentially help us better understand the DNA of the communal hatred and violence that erupts every now and then in the subcontinent. In theory, we may well move forward using that insight to lessen the intensity of such eruptions in the future if not to entirely prevent them.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jiwan Kshetry is Kathmandu-based freelance writer. His primary areas of interest are corruption, violence and instability, particularly in South Asia. He regularly writes for his blog "South Asia and Beyond"
(www.jiwankshetri.blogspot.com) and can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed in Twitter @jkshetry.