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Partition: Need to engage critically with our past

As I think of writing about partition, I pause to think if it is still a relevant issue? Partition of India and Pakistan happened 67 years ago and was succeeded by many other major clashes, so should I instead talk about the wars writes Devika Mittal

Aug 21, 2014

By Devika Mittal

As I think of writing about partition, I pause to think if it is still a relevant issue? Partition of India and Pakistan happened 67 years ago and was succeeded by many other major clashes, so should I instead talk about the wars? Is partition an outdated issue or does it still hold any relevance?

Talking of relevance, another debate that came to my mind was whether it is fine to keep talking about it? Should we not just move on?

I will begin by answering the second question first. Prof. Krishna Kumar in his book “Battle for Peace” (2007) has argued, and I agree with him, that while a lot has been written on partition, we have not been encouraged to engage with it. We have, especially on the Indian side, continued to see and develop it further without challenging the basic proposition. There is now an emphasis on oral history. There is also the angle of class that has been used to explore partition. It is argued that it was the Hindu dominating class v/s the Muslims dominated.

While the Indian scholars have debated upon the inevitability of the partition, there hasn’t been any significant attempt to imagine India if partition had not happened. This should not be surprising because the narrative of partition is tied up with the foundation of two countries. While partition is a moment of “crisis” for one, it is a moment of “liberation” for another. This discourages attempts to see partition from the side of the “other”. This discourages any critical dialogue on the narrative of the partition. But is it a relevant discussion? Should we not just forget and move on?

The fact is we can’t. Before forgetting about the partition, we need to engage in a dialogue with it. We need to understand the complexities of the past because it shapes our present perspectives. Sixty-seven years after, India and Pakistan still seems to live in the past. Sixty-seven years after, we still compare ourselves. On both sides, there are still people who debate if the decision to part ways was right or not. On the Pakistan side, the vision of Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah is constantly reminded. As Prof. Krishna Kumar in his book “Pride and Prejudice” (2001) had shown that the idea of Pakistan shared by Qaid-e-Azam during the formative period of Pakistan is still invoked.

This is not true for the Indian side. But on the Indian side, many people still remember partition and the existence of Pakistan but in a more negative light. Many people have the misconception that Pakistan came out of India, whereas on partition, undivided colonial India had been partitioned into two nations – India and Pakistan, and imagine a “father-son” relationship which is used in a derogatory sense. There are still many people who would point at any negative news from Pakistan and say that Pakistan has failed and it will soon “merge” with India.

Sixty-seven years after, we still carry a stagnant picture of each other. Because the partition happened on communal lines, on both sides, people imagine a conservative or hypocrite other. So the talk of partition is still not irrelevant. It is very much alive. The narrative of partition continues to shape our perceptions about each other.

When I say narrative, I mean the “official” narrative. As stated above, both sides have constructed an opposing narrative. The Indian side “officially” sees partition as a sad event. It views it as a significant break in the ‘secular’ fabric of the country. It views it largely as the conspiracy of the British. This is the dominant and official view on partition in India. On the “Pakistan” side, the partition is far from being a moment of “crisis”. It was the partition that led to the birth of Pakistan as a separate country. It is seen as “liberation”. Liberation from whom? As the official narrative of partition says, liberation from both British and Hindu dominance. The book “Pride and Prejudice” (2001) gives the content of history textbooks in both India and Pakistan. Both countries have given different interpretations for same historical events. Both have chosen to emphasise or neglect certain events. Both have used history for their project of nation-building. While India used it to save itself from fragmenting any further, Pakistan used it for legitimizing its decision of separation and for sovereignty. All countries use history for its own national ends and India and Pakistan are no exception.

It is important at this stage to clear that my intention is not to challenge any narrative. It is in fact to state that different perspectives exist and we must recognize that. It is to say that none of the narratives can be entirely refuted. One cannot really argue that whose interpretation of history was correct. It cannot be argued that there was no Hindu dominance. It cannot be argued that before the British, there were no problems between Hindus and Muslims. The British may have encouraged the division but they cannot be alone blamed for it. Similarly, the complete difference and opposition theory cannot be accepted either. There cannot be such a simplistic division of population, lived experiences into Hindu and Muslim. The religious identity cannot be assumed to be primary. We need to view these interpretations more critically. History as a discipline has many schools of thought. It accommodates several interpretations and we must respect that.

Besides these two official narratives, we have the narrative of partition that many people on both sides did not and still do not accept the decision of partition. Many did not want to migrate and wanted to live in the place that they had been living for since years. There are many who did not want to migrate but had to or were forced to. We must also respect this. This narrative seems to be more dominant and “accepted” in India. The reason was stated above.

The reason why we need to recognize the different perspectives on partition is because it seems to be the way forward for peace. We need to engage with the narrative of partition, understand it, view it critically and accept that the past was very complex. We need to engage with the past before moving on because the past shapes our present perceptions. We cannot see partition simply as either a sad and disruptive moment in the secular fabric of Indian society or as a moment of liberation accepted by all. On the Indian side, we find it is fine to refute partition without thinking that refuting partition refutes the very existence of a country. This pertains more to ignorance on the Indian side because of the existing official narrative.

Similarly, on the Pakistan side, there is a need to realize that while partition is a reality, it was not accepted by all at that time for different reasons. This does not refute the existence of Pakistan. We need to accept that different perspectives exist. We need to engage more critically with our past. We cannot see partition from one view and talk of peace. The past was complex and we need to recognize that for a simpler future.

(Devika Mittal, M.Phil student of Sociology at Delhi School of Economics; Convenor (India) of Aaghaz-e-Dosti and core member of Mission Bhartiyam. She can be contacted atsouthasiamonitor1@gmail.com)

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