People’s history of Partition

Inventing Boundaries—Gender, Politics and the Partition of India Edited by Mushirul Hasan Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000 ISBN: 019 565103 0

Pakistan came into being not simply because of Muslim communalism.

More than half a century after the single most violent and traumatic event in Indian history, the wounds of Partition are yet to fully heal. Much has been written about Partition and the events preceding and following it. Yet, as Mushirul Hasan notes in his prologue to this book, almost all the literature available on the subject deals with the realm of high politics, of the protracted, and ultimately futile, negotiations between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British. What is missing from most accounts of Partition are the voices of ordinary people whose fates were decided by politicians in Delhi, Shimla and London. This book seeks to draw out these ignored, marginalised voices, to illustrate the meanings of the Partition event for those common people affected by it, and to portray the element of immense human suffering that it brought in its trail.

In his introduction to the volume, Hasan writes that the commonplace perception of Partition as simply an outcome of Muslim communalism needs to be debunked. Like the Hindus and, indeed, all other communities, the Muslims of India were (are) not one homogenous whole. They were divided on the lines of caste, ethnicity, sect, region as well as social class, and thus exhibited a considerable diversity in terms of political positions and views. It would clearly be fallacious to take the Muslim League's "two -nation" theory as having been acceptable to all Muslims.

As the author points out, groups like the 'low' caste Momin weavers of Bihar, many Shias and sections of the ulama were vehemently opposed to the Pakistan demand. The creation of Pakistan, he says, needs to be seen in the wider socio-economic context, and an unwholesome obsession with a political explanation is unwarranted. Social discrimination and economic backwardness made many Muslims amenable to the idea of a separate state. Adding to this was the threat posed by the rising tide of caste Hindu chauvinism, both within as well as outside the Congress, which made the promise of a Muslim land even more attractive to many, more than it ordinarily would have.

If the Muslim League came up with the "two-nation" theory in 1940, prior to which Jinnah had been an ardent advocate of Indian unity, we would do well to remember that long before this the Hindu Mahasabha under Savarkar and others had already come to the conclusion that Hindus and Muslims represented two different, indeed antagonistic, nations.

Inventing Boundaries is divided into three broad sections. The first consists of essays written in the 1940s on the merits or otherwise of the Pakistan scheme. Dr. Ambedkar's piece, "Thoughts on Pakistan", extracted from his tome, Pakistan or the Partition of India, is included in this section. While Ambedkar could have been expected to have taken a somewhat balanced position in the debate on Partition, being neither a Muslim nor a Hindu, he seems to fall into the trap of communal stereotypes that Hasan warns readers against in his introductory essay. Thus, Hindus and Muslims are spoken of as neatly divided and homogenous categories, ignoring the considerable degree of religious syncretism that bind Hindu and Muslim groups at the local level. By speaking of Hindus and Muslims as monolithic groups, Ambedkar seems unmindful of the considerable diversity within each of them. As he sees it, there is no possibility of any inter-religious dialogue or understanding between Hindus and Muslims, and thus Pakistan emerges as a logical conclusion.

Two essays by Muslim League ideologues, Kazi Saiduddin Ahmad and Jamiluddin Ahmad, advocate the establishment of a separate state for the Muslims on the grounds that, allegedly, the Hindus and the Muslims are so opposed to each other, that a united India is an impossible proposition. As against this, an essay by Radha Kamal Mukerjee, penned in 1944, argues that Pakistan would be an economic disaster, being set up in the most back-ward parts of the Subcontinent. He argues passionately for a union of workers of all religions against feu-dal and capitalist structures as the only way out of the communal tangle.

A piece by the noted communist activist Sajjad Zaheer, published by the communist party in the same year, is also reproduced here. Zaheer, in line with the position of his party, sees the Pakistan demand as reflecting the legitimate right to self-determination of the Muslim nationalities of the north-west and north-east of India, but, as the title of his essay, "A Case For Congress-League Unity", suggests, he sees the possibility of the Muslim League and the Congress coming to an agreement which could satisfy all communities.

The second section consists of analysis of hitherto neglected voices in the whole event. Ordinary students had a leading role to play in promoting the Pakistan project, particularly in Muslim-minority provinces, as Hasan shows in his essay on the changing profile of the Aligarh Muslim University. Set up by Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan in the 1880s and intended to be the training ground for a class of Muslim elite allied to the colonial administration, by the 1920s, Aligarh, Hasan points out, had been swept by the tide of Indian politics and, with the Khilafat movement, soon turned into a major centre of anti-British, pro-independence activists. Soon, even groups such as the Congress and the communists began establishing a presence in its precincts. However, as Indian independence drew closer, fears of caste Hindu domination grew increasingly real, and Aligarh soon emerged as the epicentre of the Pakistan movement.

On the other hand, as Yohannan Friedmann shows in his article on the Jamiat-ul Ulama-i-Hind (The Union of the Ulama of India), crucial sections of the Muslim public remained vociferously opposed to Partition till the very end. The ulama or Muslim divines of the Jamiat opposed the Pakistan demand, visualising, instead, a common Indian nationhood (muttahida qaumiyat), citing as precedent the treaty entered into by the Prophet Mohammed with the Jewish tribes of Medina, considering the Jews and the Muslims to be members of one nation (qaum). In addition, the 'ulama were opposed to the Muslim League for what they saw as the un-Islamic ways of its leaders, and for creating a climate of anti-Muslim feeling in the country which would militate against Islamic missionary work among non-Muslims.

Although women are inevitably the worst hit in rioting and communal violence, their stories are rarely told in dominant narratives about Partition. Two essays, one by Urvashi Butalia (author of The Other Side of Silence, Himal review, Dec. 1998) and the other jointly written by Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon (Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, Himal review, Dec. 1998), deal with the trauma of the women victims of Partition violence. They show how at such times, women's bodies come to be seen as markers of community 'honour'. A raped woman thus comes to symbolise the castration of the other community, as well as a sign of 'impurity', which can be re-moved by her being abandoned by her community or even by her having to commit suicide in desperation. Some 50,000 Muslim women and an estimated 35,000 Hindu and Sikh women are believed to have been abducted during the Partition turmoil.

In his essay on "Businessmen and the Partition of India", Claude Markovits says that economic factors played a crucial role in leading to Partition. On the one hand, the fledgling Muslim bourgeoise, faced with its much stronger caste Hindu counterpart, feared a Hindu-dominated united India. Hence, a separate state, Pakistan, was seen as an attractive economic proposition to them, as it indeed was to large sections of educated middle class government servants in Muslim-minority provinces, particularly Bihar and the UP.

On the other hand, Markovits points out that important sections of the caste Hindu bourgeoise, too, went along with the Partition demand, fearing that if an agreement were reached between the Muslim League and the Congress based on a loose federation, their economic interests, which called for a strong centre, would be badly affected. He quotes, to prove his point, Gandhi's close ally, the Calcutta-based Marwari industrialist G.D. Birla, as writing as early as in 1942 to Gandhi's secretary that, "I am in favour of separation and I do not think it is impracticable or against the interests of Hindus or of India".

The third part deals with fictional representations of the violent times that accompanied Partition. Included here are stories by noted Urdu writers Saadat Hasan Manto and Intizar Husain. In addition are an essay by Dipesh Chakraborty on representations in Bengali Hindu accounts of the violence in East Bengal, an analysis of progressive Hindi literature in the immediate post-Partition period and the ways in which the theme of Partition and Hindu-Muslim relations is tackled therein, as well as a thought-provoking interview with writer Bhisham Sahni, best known for his portrayal of the orgy of violence in his novel Tamas.

This book makes a valuable advance in our understanding of the Partition event and, at the same time, persuasively argues a case for a refashioning of the ways in which the history of inter-community relations in South Asia must be written. No longer will monocausal explanations at the level of high politics suffice. What is needed is a genuine people's history, which foregrounds ordinary people at the centre of any historical discourse.

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