Partition has traditionally involved imperial or external organisations, like the UN, along with collaborationist insiders, modifying or transforming borders rather than just their adjustment. By the 1990s, however, many late-20th century partitions like those affecting Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Ethiopia are considered as “successions” because they did not involve “fresh border cuts across a national homeland”.
This book under review examines the leading 20th-century example of Partition. Indeed for many, the Indian sub-continent’s division in August 1947 is considered a unique event defying comparative historical analysis. It is considered akin to a holocaust and is similarly capitalised in its rendering. The British transfer of power to the two dominions of India and Pakistan, like the earlier division of Ireland, was a response of imperial statecraft to intractable religious conflict. The carving of a Muslim homeland out of India also involved the Partition of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal along Muslim and non-Muslim lines. In addition, Pakistan also received the individual Muslim-majority provinces of Sindh, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province.
Though some argue that it was a peculiarity British practice at the time of imperial withdrawal to divide before quitting, but documentary evidence according to the authors suggests that the British were reluctant ‘partitionists’. Then what impelled them to pursue this course of action? Was it because they not only had begun democratisation of India from the early 20th century onwards but had ruled indirectly, unknowingly strengthening ethnic and communal cleavages? Was democratisation in a plural, ethnic and communal setting a cause of Indian and last post-Cold War European ‘partitions’? This book contains a detailed case study of the background to the causes and consequences of the Partition in 1947 and sheds more light on the issue.
The authors voice their fears at the fallout of nuclear developments, pronouncedly in two regions – Korea and the Indian sub-continent. Talking of India and Pakistan, the authors agree that the sheer magnitude of territorial division and the accompanying demographic transformations that have taken place dwarf all historical precedents. Obviously the British most reluctantly agreed to India’s Partition to avoid a civil war. Yet Pakistan’s birth coincided with the intensification of violence which wracked North India during the final years of colonial rule. Though it epicentre was Punjab, the shock waves spread to the entire sub-continent. Communal riots led to plight of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Muslims from India. In all, an estimated 15 million people were displaced in what became the largest forced migration in the 20th century. Families were separated and women were kidnapped on both sides of the border.
Over 60 years on, the efforts of 1947 continue to impact both state and society. India and Pakistan remain in an uneasy dialogue and “the unfinished businesses of Partition” and the Jammu & Kashmir dispute still make them “distant neighbours”. Millions of families still carry the psychological and physical scars of uprooting.
The book also examines how ideas as well as policies have flowed from the effects of the 1947 division. It seeks to assess the extent to which the Partition experience has strengthened the ideologies of secularism and the two-nation theory on which the two States had been founded. As Partition replaced the abstract imagery of an Indian Muslim nation within the harsh reality of a territorially limited state of Pakistan, it created the paradox that a homeland made in the name of all Indian Muslims was incapable of accommodating all those who wanted to migrate to the new State. Ironically this State could only fulfil its duty to Muslims in India if it treated its own minorities well. Hence repeated appeals were made in the early months of Independence for the Hindu and Sikh population of Sindh to continue in the new Muslim State.
The authors say that one of the shortcomings of existing research on Partition is that “it is overwhelmingly Indian Punjab-centric. Although the State was undoubtedly a key player in the resettlement process, the same however cannot be said of West Bengal.”
The authors show why the Bengal experience did not lend itself to official construction in the same way as that of Punjab. Central to this understanding is the fact that migration in Bengal came in waves after 1947 right till the mid 1950s. Thereafter migrants continued to be uprooted, whenever there were serious communal riots elsewhere in India or when the Cold War between India and Pakistan threatened to heat up.
The book also looks at the central issue of Jammu & Kashmir dispute and at a wide range of influences which determine relations between the two successor States to the Raj and the prospects for overcoming the troubled legacy of the Raj. It concludes by reflecting on the Partition and its implications for a wider understanding of partitions and their aftermaths in cases of intense ethnic and communal conflicts.
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge House, 4381/4 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002.)