People of the past

The deeper premises that led to Partition still shape politics in South Asia

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:August 15, 2013 2:26 am

The deeper premises that led to Partition still shape politics in South Asia

There are two abiding images of the meaning of August 15. There is Nehru,in his inimitable way,announcing a new tryst with destiny. There is the poignant absence of Gandhi,mourning loss,the erasure of an ethical ambition. India marches on,with all its contradictions. It wilfully refuses the destiny that Nehru was exhorting his fellow citizens to embrace,its energies expended on so many transitory moments that the future seems not even a distant gleam. But somewhere,there is also the shadow of that ominous past Gandhi so feared. India can,in all its bravado,say it has transcended its recent past and moved on. It can say,with some justification,that there is a new generation that is too young to even understand the Emergency,let alone Partition. Pakistan may have an identity crisis. But India does not. And yet,hidden in this protestation,there is still an anxiety. Does the unresolved aftermath of Partition still haunt us in ways we do not acknowledge?

Whether Partition was good or bad is now an academic debate. The crude fantasies of overcoming Partition that occasionally pop up are just that: fantasies devoid of political realism. But,equally,it is complacent to think that Partition does not affect us. It affects the direct victims of violence,a subject we still don’t know how to acknowledge. But anyone who harbours the illusion that we have put the aftermath of Partition behind us need only take one look at politics in India. The illusion will vanish quickly.

The deeper premises that built up to Partition still frame the politics of South Asia. The first,and in our context,practically unworkable and morally insidious,is the alignment of ethnicity and territory. The aspiration to align the two is still at work,from Pakistan’s western frontier to our Northeast,from Kashmir to Sri Lanka. And states,haunted by the idea that territorial loss is loss of self,counteract this,often with brutal force.

Partition still,in a sense,imprisons the political options for many ordinary Muslims. Pakistan has imperilled the future of its citizens by playing on a politics of perpetual insecurity,which licenses wholescale militarisation or worse. India has maintained,with some blemishes,a broader pluralistic and democratic context for Muslims. But in a macro narrative,their political identities still remain constricted in the form of a double disadvantage. Political parties of all persuasions have found it convenient to perpetuate the fiction of a single Muslim politics,ghettoise them,use the insecurities that come from being a minority as political fodder,but they do precious little to give them access to the mainstream. They often become,simultaneously,the object of political appeasement and real marginalisation. The backlash,in the form of Hindu nationalism,has sometimes taken a virulently threatening form,perpetuating a vicious circle of insecurity. The fact that six decades after independence,this dynamic is being played out in dozens of small riots across UP,and now Bihar,should shake off any complacency about its explosive potential.

But there are deeper ways in which the estrangement of Partition continues. Some blame the deracination of so much elite cultural life on English. This is far from the truth: in the early part of the century,English was the way into a renewed culture. The real truth is that Partition made the question of culture an insidiously political one: it is almost as if the entire complexity of a tradition was reduced to communal politics. Scholars would be wary of “Indian” philosophy,because it suddenly became Hindu; Urdu became a Muslim language. The burden of identity is debilitating for both truth and creativity. Much of what passed as modern scholarship was fragile because it was crude identity politics in disguise. Music largely escaped this. But somewhere the idea took root,particularly in our universities,that to handle diversity,the depth of culture had to be erased. Hence the perpetual politics of cultural self-estrangement that still continues,producing a victim psychosis all around. Instead of liberating individuals from the tyranny of compulsory identities,it boxed them even more.

We are still dealing with the consequences of tearing asunder the strategic unity of the subcontinent. It has become,as a consequence,a site for the play of great powers who have fished in its troubled waters. The insecurities this produces diminish our global ambitions. No bravado can disguise the fact that we live in a region that is among the most militarised,least economically integrated,most potentially vulnerable to forms of ethnic violence. And it is a region that,for all its potential,gets distracted from its tryst with destiny,under the sheer anxiety and weight of unresolved identity questions.

Our responses to the aftermath of Partition also carry the odour of 1947. The literature on Partition is striking in one respect. It is very culturalist in its idiom. There is either a crass culture of prejudice and hate or the antidote to that — a sentimental paean to a shared culture. Ordinary people would have been just fine,had it not been for these crass politicians. The same culturalism still infects us. And so we oscillate between hate and cynicism on the one hand,and effusive sentimentalism on the other. But there is no reckoning with the fact that what led up to Partition and its aftermath was a deeply political question,and one that is not centred on the Jinnah bad,Nehru good nonsense. There was a political question about Muslim representation. In the 40 years of negotiation that preceded Partition,there was no stable solution to the terms in which the question had been posed: terms of permanent,immutable majorities and minorities. Similarly,the issue is not whether there is a peace constituency in Pakistan or India. The question is whether it can find stable expression to sustain a workable political settlement. Otherwise,paeans to the people are beside the point.

Partition cannot be undone. But the region needs what Alasdair MacIntyre resonantly called “a second first reading” of its history. Can we find a way of overcoming the assumptions that have locked us into the past: the alignment of territory and ethnicity,the framing of the question of human rights and individual dignity in terms of majorities and minorities rather than individual freedom,the secondary importance given to economic growth? Or will we be trapped in an eternal repetition of the same? Whatever its other flaws,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag captured one dimension of South Asia well. We are too haunted by the ghosts of 1947. Instead of making our tryst with destiny,at crucial moments,we look over our shoulders rather than run forward.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

express@expressindia.com

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