A tale of two countries

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The book is sure to attract wide readership in view of its relevance to the political history of the subcontinent and the open-endedness of its discourse

Ian Talbot is professor of history at Southampton University, UK. He specializes in the history of South Asia. His major publications include Pakistan: A New History; The Partition of India; Pakistan: A Modern History; The Deadly Embrace: Religion, Violence and Politics in India and Pakistan 1947-2002, and Divided Cities: Partition and its Aftermath in Lahore and Amritsar 1947-1957.

This collection, edited by him, seeks to ‘bring fresh insights and material to the subject of the independence of India and Pakistan’. It is divided into three parts captioned: Violence, Politics, and New History.

The subject of violence is amplified in the essays of professor Paul R. Brass (the Partition and retributive genocide in the Punjab 1946-47 with focus on means, methods, and purposes), researcher Ilyas Chattha (the patterns of Partition violence in West Punjab), Ian Talbot (the August 1947 violence in Sheikhupura City, and Professor Gurharpal Singh (Sikhs and Partition violence re-evaluated).

The section on politics carries essays written by scholar, journalist, and biographer Victoria Schofield (Wavell and the ‘high politics’ of his replacement as viceroy in March 1947), Ian Talbot (the pre-history of Lord Mountbatten’s viceroyalty when he was leading the South East Asia Command), professor Sten Widmalm (the Kashmir conflict and nationalism in India and Pakistan), and Southampton University alumnus Nick Lloyd (the last governor of the Punjab Sir Evan Jenkins – 1946-47).
The third and last portion of the book carries writings of author Paul Griffin (finding a place in the Partition discourse vis-à-vis the Christians of West Punjab), and researcher Ritu Bhagat (Partition ethnographies: food and memories across borders).

This volume is avowedly meant ‘to bring fresh insights and material to the subject of the independence of India and Pakistan’ with focus on the human dimensions of the phenomenon. ‘Partition’ has been used here as a ‘politically neutral term’ manifestly serving as a catalyst in the process. In nutshell, “the collection seeks to balance established and younger scholars’ work and to transcend narrow nationalist approaches”. Contributors have thus ventured to approach new sources and angles of historical research.

Paul R. Brass is of the view that the genocidal massacres in the Punjab were not state-engineered and were not spontaneous either. Much of this violence was mutual and could well be termed as ‘retributive genocide’ perpetrated on a universal scale across the sub-continent – ‘a kind of phased sequence of revenge and retaliation’. The Sikh community, being the third major actor in the gory drama played a formidable part in the massacres purportedly with the support of the three princely states in the Punjab, ruled by their kinsmen, with intent to demarcate a ‘homeland’ of their own on the space caused by the mammoth displacement of the non-Sikh population. Thus violence (inherently ‘privatized’ and compounded by the breakdown of the political authority) which included arson, loot, murder, rape, and abduction, served as a necessary tool for creating the conditions for partition. Selective violence grounded in criminality, further aggravated the situation and pushed it to the brink of a civil war. Gurharpal Singh correctly avers that the study of partition violence has ‘singularly failed to yield a systematic overview that the subject desperately deserves’.

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The India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir being an offspring of the phenomenon has bred an ‘enduring rivalry’ between the two states, acquisition of nuclear capability being its logical offshoot.

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On the subject of the ‘high politics’ of Lord Wavell’s displacement by Lord Mountbatten as viceroy of India, Victoria Schofield opines that even the former’s continuation in office would not have averted the emergence of partition. At best, it could have distanced it by a few months. Ian Talbot’s remarks on Mountbatten’s disabilities as viceroy tend to partly fill up the credibility gap between the partition historiographer and his readers when he says that ‘his (Mountbatten’s) actions in India were invariably controversial because the warmth of his friendship with Nehru highlighted the British policy driven imperative for good ties with Congress’, leading to a marginalization of the Muslim League. Thus he was guilty of favouritism which spiralled the human costs of partition. The India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir being an offspring of the phenomenon has bred an ‘enduring rivalry’ between the two states, acquisition of nuclear capability being its logical offshoot.

Commenting on Sir Evan Jenkins’ role as the last governor of the undivided Punjab, Nick Lloyd remarks, ‘The decision not to order martial law remains one of Jenkins’ most controversial decisions and has been seized upon by critics of the authorities as yet further evidence that the British were not really interested in stopping the violence.’ Nevertheless, he goes on to say that ‘Jenkins played an important role in the endgame of empire in the Punjab’ by ensuring smooth transfer of power for which he deserved remembrance.

In his essay on the subject, Paul Griffin discusses the role of the Punjabi Christian community in the partition discourse. According to him the elite Christian leadership backed the Muslim League on its demand for Pakistan but the Christian community was yet to be adequately integrated in the partition discourse. Ritu Bhagat has discussed the significance of food as a strong factor in carving the partition ethnographies across both sides of the border. Food is a potent cultural symbol and as such it has ‘kept alive collective social memory to serve as a cultural signpost in the Indian subcontinent’s history’.

All said, the book in view is sure to attract wide readership in view of its relevance to the political history of the subcontinent and the open-endedness of its discourse.

Book Excerpts:

Excerpt 1:

The circumstances surrounding the partition of the subcontinent continues to dominate political and historical debate, despite the numerous changes which have occurred in the life of the two nations in the intervening decades. Much of the ground is well-trodden, although still hotly contested with respect to the timing of the British departure, the ‘blame’ for the large-scale massacres and migrations which scarred independence and the legacies in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations which result from this traumatic period.

Excerpt 2:

The literature on Pakistan is sparse with respect to that of India, in part because reflection on the human suffering of independence sits more easily with an Indian nationalist discourse of partition as ‘loss’, while Pakistan’s historiography focuses on the achievement of freedom and in particular on the role of Jinnah and the Muslim League in bringing this about. Partition is eschewed as a term by most Pakistani writers as it is viewed as a politically loaded concept with its connotations of ‘loss’ and of Pakistan as a seceding power from an Indian state that had inherited sovereignty from British India.

Excerpt 3:

Another major contribution of the ‘new history’ is to view independence and partition as a process rather than an event confined to August 1947. Refugee rehabilitation has been revealed as a decade long development for many individuals and communities in the Punjab. The process was even more protracted in West Bengal where refugees were still eking out a camp existence a decade after independence.

Excerpt 4:

The British expectation was that partition would not only break the deadlock and thereby enable a swift transfer of power, but that it would pave the way for future good relations between India and Pakistan on such key issues as defence. These expectations foundered because of the bitterness engendered by disputes over the division of assets, the disturbances in the Punjab, and most importantly, the outbreak of hostiliti8es because of the emergence of the Kashmir dispute.

Excerpt 5:

What gives the genocidal massacres in the Punjab their special character is that they were not ordered by a state, but they were also local acts of violence carried out for a multiplicity of reasons and motives that were not genocidal in intent: loot, capture of property, abduction of women. Moreover, much of the larger scale violence was mutual. Grimshaw has captured it well with Fein’s term, ‘retributive genocide’ – applied also to similar actions taking place elsewhere on the subcontinent at the time.

Book Cover - Syed Afsar Sajid

The Independence of India and PakistanNew Approaches and Reflections

Edited by: Ian Talbot

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi

Pages: 295; Price: Rs.975/-