Tarnished Rays of 1947

Vijay Prashad is a historian, author and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, an inter-movement research organisation based in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo. He is also the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and a fellow at the Independent Media Institute. As a journalist, he writes for Frontline, the Hindu, and Turkey’s BirGün. He has been associated with Himal Southasian since its inception.

Anniversaries are useful occasions as a way to remind us of the values that are enshrined in our history. The golden jubilee year of Indian and Pakistani independence, 1997, is an opportunity to remember those whose sacrifices ended colonial rule. This year also serves to highlight the values of hope and patriotism which infused the struggle for independence. The national struggle for control of the state was one which allowed the oppressed to experience the powerful consequences of organised social action. While current historical scholarship correctly demonstrates the fissures within the national movement in British India, it misses the mighty sense of belonging engendered by the movement. A dalit man in the 1930s spoke of donning a Gandhi cap and feeling at that moment, in the crowd, during a demonstration, like an Indian, like all those around him who constituted themselves in opposition to the authoritarian state. Those who came into the orbit of the national movement found their sense of self in struggle and in fellowship.

For this reason, our celebration of 1947 must not degenerate into the glorification of Great Men – those heroes (as Gandhi liked to call them) could only become so because of the immense sacrifice of the masses. Freedom ought to be remembered as the collective struggle which possessed within itself the possibility not only for the creation of bourgeois republics, but also, in time, of socialist societies.

If one dalit man felt fellowship, another felt betrayed in 1947 by the limited nature of our freedom. "Listen friend Nihala, have you seen freedom?" asked the communist poet from Jalandhar, Guramdas ´Alam´. "No, my brother Prava, I have neither seen nor eaten her, but I heard from Jaggu that she has come upto Ambala." She has her back to the common people, he sang, and her face to Birla.

Of course, the promulgation of the secular Republic in India (1950) and the Islamic Republic in Pakistan (1956) allowed for far more political initiatives than what was permitted during British rule. But the assassination of the secularist Liaquat Ali Khan in October 1951 and the persecution of the communists significantly narrowed the scope for political action in the latter, while the dismissal of the 1957 communist ministry in Kerala and the police actions against the guerrillas in Hyderabad somewhat constricted the space in the former.

The capitulation to imperialism (by both India and Pakistan through US ´aid´, but more by Pakistan through its 1954 entry into the South East Asia Treaty Organisation and its 1955 entry into the Baghdad Pact) narrowed the options that the new states had for just socioeconomic development. The temper of the national struggle rapidly degenerated into crisis management, and greed overtook all. The limited nature of freedom does not need to be belaboured: the continued exploitation of South Asia is empirical proof of the state of imperialist rule, as is demonstrated in P. Sainath´s Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India´s Poorest Districts (see review, page 66).

The Grief and the Glory
1947 was also the year in which Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) offered us that haunting image, "yeh dagh dagh ujala, ye shab-gazida sahar," which my friend Agha Shahid Ali translates as "these tarnished rays, this night-smudged light". This was not the dawn, Faiz wrote, for which the patriots set out in sheer longing.

When we remember 1947, let us remember not only the glory of the national movement, but also the grief and suffering of Partition, because as Amrita Pritam wrote in 1947, "my mother´s womb was helpless" as it produced new contentious nations in a bout of pain. The death toll during the transfer of populations is estimated at about one million and by March 1948, about 13 million people had become refugees.

These are facts to commemorate as much as the flag ceremonies in Karachi and Delhi on the 14th and 15th of August respectively. Those who remember Attenborough´s Gandhi will recall the poignant images of the two flag hoistings and then the cut to Gandhi, at his ashram, spinning under an empty flag-pole. How are we to recall azaadi with these events in mind?

First, the wrenching of India-Pakistan must not be seen in isolation. Just after the Second World War, the British people elected a government which, unlike Churchill´s regime, was less wedded to the Empire. The new regime was interested in rebuilding a shattered Britain by creating a social welfare state. The massive peasant and working-class uprisings across the Subcontinent (from the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946 to the Telengana, Tebhaga and Punnapra-Vayalar rebellions) as well as in West Asia (notably with the formation of the Arab League in March 1945) was crippling to the British military.

In both areas, the British drew up hasty plans to withdraw. The method of their withdrawal was by the construction of partitioned states, which continue to fight over the lines in the sand drawn by overworked British jurists. The British created two ´hot-spots´ (in Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan) which have endured over the decades.

Second, the trauma of partition drives many of us to see the world in terms of religion. Because "the lust of ageing men" (in Samar Sen´s poetic words) created states along the basis of religion does not mean that the popular masses thought entirely in the framework of religion. Many people had no idea what kind of state was being negotiated, since the discussions did not have a democratic content (the Empire was, lest we forget, a despotism). Others, such as characters in Rahi Masoom Reza´s Adha Gaon (1966), believed that their own villages, far inside what is today India, would be divided into Hindu and Muslim sections.

These popular ideas demonstrate the lack of clarity with which the people experienced Partition. Others, gave their lives to protect their neighbours; neighbourhoods, rather than religion, often formed the basis of community. Over time, such notions appear to have lost their relevance as people find themselves being mentally and spatially communalised. This is one of the tragic effects of Partition. Perhaps in our celebrations we can try to de-communalise our minds.

1947 was a remarkable year and we are right to celebrate the inauguration of a process of decolonisation which is ongoing. India, the Jewel in Britain´s Crown, sundered itself from the Empire and set in motion a process which swept through the rest of Asia (with Indonesia in 1949) and Africa (starting with Ghana in 1957). Despite the trauma of Partition, the colonised world recognised the vanguard role, adopted without self-consciousness, of our national struggle.

At the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung in 1955, Nehru ensured that the final communique condemned colonialism as "an evil which should speedily be brought to an end" and that the conference declare "its support of the cause of freedom and independence for all [colonised] people." We should not trivialise these sentiments. Our celebrations, in the context of the temper of freedom and the memory of partition, should be held with humility and with doubt. These moments should be used as opportunities to inquire rather than to boast.

V. Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College, Connecticut

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