Updated: August 15, 2017 1:45:29 pm
The partition of British India in 1947 is one of the defining events of the modern era. 70 years later, it is still influencing and shaping the world. Harvard University South Asia Institute presents a special series of seminars where leading scholars explore its continuing impact.
1. Professor Sunil Amrith from Harvard University South Asia Institute looks back at the history and the context of partition.
“For approximately the first five decades after partition, two questions loomed large in all of historical scholarship and that is why and when. Why did this happen and when did it become if not inevitable, then likely? In all of this work there was an emphasis on political leadership at that time. Question of blame loomed large, who was to blame for partition, was it Jinnah, Nehru or British. Often these are histories that are told in a somewhat ironic vein that is to say now we know what the actors of the time didn’t in terms of the colossal consequences of their calculations and miscalculations.”
2. Jennifer Leaning is a Francois Xavier Bagnoud professor at the practise of Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She talks about violence that erupted during the migration.
“Viceroy Linlithgow who was the viceroy at that point in consultation with Churchill says India which is a part of the Commonwealth is now a party to the war that means resources, manpower, material to help deal with the war and Japan was already clearly coming down into South Asia, so this was an advance they needed the Indian resources to prevent. “In 1942, you had the the japanese invasion of Burma and rise of the Indian National Army, again a very important event in terms of partition and what unfolded. In 1943, the Bengal Famine occurred, it was important in hardening attitudes towards the British.”
3. Tens of thousands of women were abducted, raped and killed during partition.
Catherine Warner, who is a college fellow in the department of South Asian Studies and Department of History at Harvard, talks about what happened to many of them during and long after the intense violence they experienced.
“In November, 1946 session of the Indian National Congress at Meerut, there was a resolution moved by Rajendra Prasad that said: “The Congress views with pain, horror and anxiety the tragedies of calcutta, East Bengal, Bihar and some parts of Meerut district. These new developments in communal strife are different from any previous disturbances and have involved murders on a mass scale, as also mass conversions and abductions and violation of women and forcible marriage. Women who have been abducted and forcibly married must be restored to their houses. Mass conversions have no significance or validity and people must be given every opportunity to return to the life of their choice.”
4. Nearly 70 years ago British India was partitioned along religious lines. Muslims in the newly created east and west Pakistan, and Hindu, Sikhs and others in what remained of India. Of course it was never that simple. Professor Ali Asani at Indo-Muslim and Islamic religions and cultures at Harvard University.
Asani talks about the distinctiveness of South Asian Islam then and now and the way in which political narratives emerged in the period leading up to the partition.
“One of the things that you see in the current discourse about the partition and about how history is talked in both India and Pakistan about partition but also about the history of the nation state and its emergence and what role religion is seeing is being played in there, I see there is a very reductive perception of religion and inability to engage with the big picture. Construction of religion is very narrow, ideological and some of this narrow conceptions of religion are based primarily on what I think is a huge problem in South Asia and that is illiteracy about the nature of religion.”
5. Lucy Chester, Associate professor of History and International Affairs at the University of Colorado and also the author of ‘Border in Conflict in South Asia’ talks about Radcliffe Boundary Commission.
“In August 1947, Britain divided its colonial holdings in South Asia into India and Pakistan. And this partition came after years of Muslim campaigning for the creation of a muslim homeland. But despite this extensive run up to the actual partition, it was extraordinarily hasty. British authorities devoted only a few months to this incredibly complex process of dividing millions of people, politically, economically, militarily, geographically and so on.”
6. Lucy Chester on Cartography and Conflict
“Radcliffe relied on maps generated by the colonial states, and these maps were deeply flawed. They were not flawed in ways we are accustomed to think necessarily. Some of you are familiar with W.H Auden’s poem partition, where he famously described Radcliffe’s maps as out of date. In fact, his maps were based on land surveys from the mid-1930s and some from late 1920s so not completely up to date but not terribly out of date. They were certainly not based on a new survey, which is what the contemporary of conventional wisdom on how to draw a boundary suggested.”
7. Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Martha Chan, who was a small American child in northern India 70 years ago, and was also based in Dhaka in the early 1970s as it became the capital of a new country in South Asia. Dr Chan explains her family’s deep and continuing connections with South Asia.
“Let me explain why I happened to be in India in 1947 and happened to be in East Pakistan in 1971. This is because I am a third generation member of an American family that has been in South Asia since 1916, so we marked 100 years last year.”
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