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The Partition of India


  • 11 b/w illus. 5 maps
  • Page extent: 224 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.48 kg
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521856614)

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  • Published August 2009

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The Partition of India
Cambridge University Press
9780521856614 - The Partition of India - By Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh


Increased ethnic and religious violence in post-Cold War Europe, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East has rekindled academic and policy interest in partitions. Until recently, territorial divisions, either in the context of war or to regulate ethnic and communal conflict, were considered a mid-century relic of decolonisation. By the 1990s, however, there was renewed interest in the phenomenon, though some have argued that the late-twentieth-century ‘partitions’ affecting Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Ethiopia are best understood as ‘secessions’ because they did not involve ‘fresh border cuts across a national homeland’.1 Partitions, it has been persuasively argued, have traditionally involved imperial or external organisations (such as the UN) along with collaborationist insiders, and are distinguished from other kinds of territorial change by the fact that they involve the modification and transformation of borders rather than just their adjustment. Strictly speaking, modern incidences of ‘pure’ partitions are few and far between.2

In this volume we examine one of the leading twentieth-century examples of partition. Indeed, for many the Indian subcontinent’s division in August 1947 is seen as a unique event which defies comparative historical and conceptual analysis. It is thus like the Holocaust, 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 undivided, Muslim-majority provinces of Sindh, Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province.

Although this strategy appears to have been followed contemporaneously in Palestine, leading some to argue that it was a peculiarly British practice at the time of imperial withdrawal,3 documentary evidence overwhelmingly suggests an official reluctance to divide and quit India. Given that the British were ‘reluctant partitionists’, what impelled them to pursue this course of action? Was it because they not only had begun the democratisation of India from the early twentieth century onwards, but had also ruled indirectly and thereby, unintentionally, strengthened ethnic and communal cleavages? Was democratisation in a plural ethnic and communal setting a cause of Indian and later post-Cold War European ‘partitions’? This volume through its detailed case study of the background to the causes and consequences of the 1947 division of the subcontinent aims to shed more light on these questions than hitherto.

Partitions in the name of conflict resolution have often been accompanied by heightened levels of violence that they sought to eliminate. As well as the social dislocation attendant on partition-related ethnic cleansing,4 the divided states, as in the case of North and South Korea and India and Pakistan, can be locked into unremitting enmity or ‘enduring conflicts’ as they translate their internal differences into inter-state rivalries. Significantly, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the fears of nuclear conflict are most pronounced in two regions: Korea and the Indian subcontinent. This study with its focus on India and Pakistan provides opportunities for appraising the aftermath of partition as a policy option in situations of ethnic and communal conflict. The sheer magnitude of the territorial division and the accompanying demographic transformation that took place dwarfs all other historical precedents.

Clearly the British had reluctantly conceded India’s Partition to avoid civil war. Yet Pakistan’s birth coincided with the intensification of the violence which had wracked north India during the final year of colonial rule. Its epicentre lay in the Punjab, but the shock waves were felt across the subcontinent. Communal massacres sparked a chaotic two-way flight 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 twentieth century. The death toll remains disputed to this day, with figures ranging from 200,000 to 2 million. Families were separated and nearly 100,000 women were kidnapped on both sides

of the border. Women were especially victimised because they symbolised community ‘honour’.

Over sixty years on, the effects of 1947 continue to impact on both state and society. India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states, remain in uneasy dialogue, and the ‘unfinished businesses of partition’, the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, still makes them ‘distant neighbours’. Millions of families still carry the psychological and physical scars of uprooting. All major cities in the north of the subcontinent still possess their clearly demarcated refugee quarters. The volume will explore the political geographies arising from this refugee population and the extent to which refugees and their descendents have retained a distinctive cultural and political presence.

Partitions have seldom been reversed, whatever new difficulties they have brought in their wake. Of course, in the post-Cold War world, Germany was reunited in 1989, and Korea and Ireland may also go the same way as a ‘hard’ partition gives way increasingly to a ‘soft’ association. Nonetheless statecraft, geopolitics and demography all provide high thresholds to the reversal of partition. We will consider how significant these factors have been in the context of the subcontinent and the extent to which India and Pakistan have moved further apart from each other in the years since Independence.

Importantly both states have been internally shaped more by the division of 1947 than is publicly acknowledged. As Paul Brass has shown, a legacy of partition was the unwritten ‘informal rule’ that political demands based on religion were impermissible for the Indian state.5 Within Pakistan, any pretensions to provincial autonomy were abandoned almost on the achievement of independence. Centralisation was accompanied by a homogenising response to national identity which regarded pluralism as a threat. Pakistan’s national ideology was constructed around Urdu as the official language and an increasing attachment to Islam. Yet neither provided the necessary cohesion. The growing identification of Punjab with the interests of the Army further alienated the smaller ‘nationalities’. There has been a tendency in both India and Pakistan to de-legitimise demands for greater autonomy and treat them as a law-and-order issue. Both states have thus used heavy-handed repression especially when sub-nationalist demands have been raised in the sensitive border areas. Some writers have gone so far as to speak of a ‘fearful state’ in South Asia.6

This volume 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 strengthened the ideologies of secularism and the two-nation theory on which the two states had been founded. The 1947 disturbances revealed the dangers of communalism and thereby strengthened the claims of secularism within the Congress. At the same time, the violence reinforced the claims of the two-nation theory that there were irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims. As Partition replaced the abstract imagery of an Indian Muslim nation with 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.7 Hence repeated appeals were made in the early months of Independence for the Hindu and Sikh population of Sindh to continue living in the new Muslim state.8

So rich is partition as an ideological resource that its possibilities are continuously reconstructed at both state and community level. For the Sikh community, for example, it has become a source of reaffirmation of its self-identity in which violence, valour and martyrdom take a central place with episodes of female suicide to protect family and community izzat (honour) valorised as the ultimate sacrifice. For post-Independence states, the project of ‘rehabilitating’ the millions of refugees became inextricably bound up with cultivating new sources of legitimacy when the very premises of new nation-statehood stood on extremely insecure foundations. Both the Indian and Pakistan states went into overdrive to highlight the heroic and improvised efforts to feed, clothe and house the unintended victims of independence. Subsequently, notwithstanding the generally unfavourable assessment of these efforts by their recipients, the post-colonial nation-state in India and Pakistan was to invest a great deal of energy into carefully reconstructing the official record and embedding it in the conscious design of nation- and state-building.

One of the major shortcomings of existing research on partition is that it is overwhelmingly Indian Punjab-centric. This pattern was first established in the 1950s with official and semi-official publications that had

their own particular motives. Although the state was undoubtedly a key player in the resettlement process, the same however cannot be said in West Bengal. In this book we will consider 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 until 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. We also, where possible, aim to evaluate the contribution of West and East Pakistan authorities in dealing with equally, if not more, onerous tasks of rehabilitating refugees in what were near-chaotic conditions for the then-fledgling state.

This study will thus attempt to broaden the understanding of the subcontinent’s division by looking beyond Indian Punjab by drawing on literature on regional developments in West Punjab, East and West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Sindh, the princely states, and the north-eastern states of India. As well as broadening the regional coverage, we will examine how the experiences of violence, migration and resettlement were mediated by gender, existing structures of power and accepted norms and conventions about caste and community. These mediations, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, were to be crucial in shaping the development of resettled communities.

Central to our approach is to recognise the seismic shift that has taken place in the historiography of the Partition in the last three decades from ‘high politics’, with its emphasis on the causes of the division, to its ‘human consequences’ in which there is a greater reliance on subjective individual and collective experiences drawn from oral testimonies and personal memories. In many ways this new emphasis has been a necessary corrective to the fixation with power politics, and brings into sharp focus previously neglected and unproblematised groups and perspectives – gender, subaltern groups, marginalised regions and the need for greater reflectivity of the sources and their reading. Yet these innovations, we contend, only become meaningful if they retain some measure of understanding of the broader developments that have framed the Partition and the post-Partition processes. Such recognition, we believe, will enable a more comprehensive evaluation of the Partition as an historical event as well as a living reality for the contemporary subcontinent.

Accordingly, the structure of the volume reflects these concerns. The opening chapter reviews the partition historiography and outlines the major developments that have taken place in scholarship since the early 1980s in changing our understanding of the reading of 1947 of its causes and consequences, as well as the new approaches for re-examining the

human consequences that centre on gender and subaltern studies. In chapter two we return to the historical background to the emergence of Pakistan and the partition of Punjab and Bengal, evaluating critically the ‘inevitability’ of division and the contribution of Indian as well as British actors in the dénouement of the Raj. The violence and the turmoil which accompanied 1947 is the subject of the next chapter. Here we explore the arguments as to whether the violence was spontaneous or planned, and in particular the utility of such concepts as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to understand what happened. The chapter also brings to our attention the contemporaneous nature of partition violence by drawing out the remarkable similarities in the post-1947 Indian experience of managing communal riots. Large-scale violence was, of course, followed by the mass transfers of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim populations. Chapter four explores in detail the different patterns of migration histories of refugee resettlement and rehabilitation, examining the contrast between East Punjab and West Bengal. But the impact of migration and violence was more enduring than in 1947: it was to leave a lasting imprint on post-1947 nation- and state-building projects in India and Pakistan, and create new forms of ethnic consolidation among the migrants, as well as to reinvent old religious nationalism among the heartlands. These processes are assessed in chapter five where we examine why the Partition created centralised states against further partitions, especially in the border provinces that were often reluctant or hostile bedfellows of Indian and Pakistani nationalisms. Finally, chapter six examines the legacy of 1947 for Indo-Pakistan relations. It looks both at the central Jammu and Kashmir dispute and at a wider range of influences which have determined the relations between the two successor states to the Raj and the prospects for overcoming the troubled legacy since decolonisation. The volume concludes by reflecting on the broader partition literature and the implications of the Indian case-study for the wider understanding of partitions and their aftermath in situations of intense ethnic and communal conflict.

1 Brendan O’Leary, ‘Analysing Partition: Definition, Classification and Explanation’, Political Geography 26, 8 (2007), pp. 886–908.

2 O’Leary gives the following six examples which fit his definition: Ireland (1920); Hungary (1920); Kurdistan (1920–1923); India (1947); Palestine (1948); Cyprus (1974).

3 C. Hitchens, ‘The Perils of Partition’, Atlantic Monthly (March 2003), pp. 99–107.

4 Partitions are regularly accompanied by exchange of populations. This often involves: (i) voluntary (anticipatory) migration; (ii) forced migration; (iii) ethnic cleansing; or (iv) genocide. In the Indian case, as we shall see in chapters three and four, the historiography often uses these terms interchangeably.

5 See P. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India (Cambridge University Press, 1974).

6 S. Mahmud Ali, The Fearful State: Power, People and Internal Wars in South Asia (London: Zed Books, 1993).

7 This was the so-called hostage theory. It was initially undermined by the mass exchange of population in Punjab. The exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from Sindh from January 1948 onwards dealt it a further blow. A large Hindu population remained in East Pakistan.

8 There were also good economic reasons for encouraging this population to remain. In addition Sindhi Muslim politicians such as M. A. Khuhro saw the retention of Sindhi Hindus as important for the cultural life of the province which was endangered by the influx of Urdu- or Punjabi-speaking Muslim refugees.

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