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The legacy of India's partition
Publication Date : 14-08-2013
Cracks began to develop in India’s unity as a country when the poet Mohammad Iqbal began propounding the idea of Muslims being an entity separate from all other communities in the land.
The All-India Muslim League developed the theme a little further and made it clear that the Muslims inhabiting the northwest and east of India would need to constitute themselves into independent states.
The die, if one were inclined to observe circumstances in such critical manner, was cast. And yet the Cabinet Mission in 1946 raised the hope that somehow the territorial integrity of the country could be retained through a major restructuring of politics before independence could come to India.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah reluctantly accepted the Cabinet Mission scheme. So did the leading lights of the Indian National Congress, until Jawaharlal Nehru put a damper on the entire plan. He made it clear that his party was not obligated to see the plan reach a definitive conclusion. That was on July 10, 1946.
The Muslim League, already uncomfortable at having accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan, saw Nehru’s remarks as a godsend and swiftly backed out of it. A month later, thanks to the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day, Muslims and Hindus cheerfully hacked away at one another in Calcutta. That was on August 16. Four days later, anywhere between five thousand and ten thousand people, Hindus and Muslims, lay dead all across the streets of the huge metropolis. Partition had become inevitable.
Within days of the state of Pakistan coming into being on Aug 14, 1947, Jinnah went on an aerial survey of the situation on the ground.
The sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees making their way away from their ancestral homes and toward villages and towns they had never seen or been to earlier sent a wave of shock through his being.
"What have I done?"–that was the question he raised. No one answered. Within months, millions of Hindus and Sikhs would leave their ancient homes in Punjab and Bengal and trek to an uncertain future across unknown geography. Millions of Muslims would make their way to Pakistan, convinced that it was there they would live in dignity as masters of their destiny.
Sixty six years after partition, one would do well to take stock of the ramifications of the vivisection of the land. Hindus and Muslims have only seen their relations worsen through the decades, to a point where communalism continues to define life all the way from Pakistan through India to Bangladesh. Hindutva undermines the secular vision that was once Nehru’s legacy. In Pakistan and to a certain extent in Bangladesh, religious bigotry threatens to wreck liberalism of all sorts.
India’s Muslims remain largely backward, poor and, in a very big way, less than well-educated. In Pakistan, Hindus are as good as non-existent; and the tiny Christian minority is always the target of blasphemy law peddlers in the country. Bangladesh’s Hindu population has been on a steep decline, despite the country’s self-proclaimed secularism; its Christian community becomes smaller by the day; and after Ramu, its Buddhists are not sure this is their country any more.
Post-partition India has thrown up the likes of Bal Thackeray, who thought all Muslims should be kicked out of the country. Today, it is the controversial, none too Muslim-friendly Narendra Modi who dreams of being prime minister someday. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, no one imagines that a Hindu or Christian or Buddhist can play leading roles in politics and in the administration.
If India’s BJP (Indian People's Party) touts Hindu nationalism, Pakistan’s political parties continue to see nothing beyond Islam, while Bangladesh’s rightwing discovers, through "Bangladeshi nationalism", a clever way of repudiating Bengali nationhood in favour of a shrewd pursuit of religion-based politics. Secular politics never took roots in Pakistan. In India and Bangladesh, it has been forced to the ropes.
The division of India has led to a diminution of politics through the rise of dynasties across the old country. The Bhuttos in Pakistan, the Nehru-Gandhis in India and the Mujib and Zia clans in Bangladesh have created the perfect conditions for mediocrity to thrive in politics.
Behind these larger dynasties come the little ones–in politics, in the movies, indeed nearly everywhere. The modern-day republic is thus but another name for monarchies in new wrapping.
Partition saw the best among the Hindu community–teachers, philanthropists, doctors–leave Muslim Pakistan and make new homes across the newly drawn frontiers. It saw Muslim gentry, as in West Bengal, make the arduous decision to move to the new state of Pakistan in hopes of a better future.
Both groups, as also their descendants, have remained trapped in nostalgia. Artistes and writers have seen their futures devastated by Partition. The singer Noor Jehan went off to Pakistan, together with Saadat Hasan Manto. Khushwant Singh, Kuldip Nayar and Inder Kumar Gujral, their homeland suddenly foreign territory for them, resettled in an India vastly different from the one they had known earlier. Sahibzada Yaqub Khan trooped off to Pakistan even as his parents and siblings decided to stay on in India. Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, H.S. Suhrawardy and Bhutto abandoned homes in India and made new homes in Pakistan.
Partition has seen democracy, minus the aberration of the 1975-77 Emergency, thrive in India. In Pakistan, the army has undermined prospects of democracy four times and continues to wield unbridled influence over the making of policy. In Bangladesh, the liberation of which was a revolt against Pakistan, military coups have led to the systematic murder of politicians and leading freedom fighters.
Partition gave us Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe, who gave us divided homes and villages and provinces. It gave us three wars. It gave the people of the subcontinent defence budgets that have left them impoverished.
Sixty six years after 1947, the legacy of partition remains questionable, for children in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh grow into adulthood without knowledge of one another, with mistrust and suspicion blocking the road to a full, satisfying comprehension of our post-modern world.
The writer is executive editor of The Daily Star.