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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Was Partition inevitable? Desirable?

History is a great teacher. But it can also be a great tranquiliser. People,especially those societies that do not nurture a deep historical memory....

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
August 23, 2009 5:54:22 am

History is a great teacher. But it can also be a great tranquiliser. People,especially those societies that do not nurture a deep historical memory,tend to forget—indeed,want to forget—the tragic and bitter episodes in their collective life. As a result,new generations have only a faint knowledge and understanding of even cataclysmic events in the past that singed the lives of their fathers and forefathers. The natural going of painful happenings into oblivion may be regarded as welcome,if those happenings had no bearing on the present. After all,how can we at all live in peace if our conscious mind is filled with memories of all the wars,holocausts,genocides and injustices that took place in the past? But when events of the past,especially the recent past,have material bearing on a country’s present and its unfolding future,forgetting is not an option. It is a sure way to court more hardships. 

The bloody partition of India is one such event that Indians,Hindus and Muslims both,cannot afford to forget. Not just because it was accompanied by the killing of close to a million people in a fratricidal bloodbath,the worst in India’s millennial history. Also,not only because Partition resulted in the largest ever cross-migration in the entire human history—Hindus and Sikhs uprooted from their homes in those territories that constituted Pakistan,and Muslims from UP,Bihar,Gujarat,Maharashtra and elsewhere in India migrating,some in duress and others voluntarily,to the newly created Muslim Nation.  Rather,we need to remember,examine,re-examine and learn from Partition history,principally because it has continued to determine the content and contours of the socio-political life of post-1947 India,also of the two other nations,Pakistan and Bangladesh,that were born out of undivided India. “The unexamined life,” says Socrates,“is not worth living.” He said it in the context of our individual lives.  However,in the context of a nation,the unexamined life is a prescription for inviting peril.  

Sadly,many educated Indians have poor knowledge of what really happened in 1947,why India won freedom but was robbed of its unity,how our motherland got vivisected,why such unspeakable barbaric acts were committed in our sacred land,what role was played by our colonial masters,and why we have not been able so far to lay the ghost of partition to rest.  Some of them ask: Why exhume the past? Why re-open the Partition debate? Why not just get on with life? To know why,it is enough to just look at the number of India’s (and also Pakistan’s) domestic and neighbourhood problems that are still rooted in the tragic saga of Partition—hostile relations between India and Pakistan,far-from-friendly relations between India and Bangladesh,the unresolved Kashmir dispute,religiously inspired cross-border terrorism exported from Pakistan,the turmoil in Pakistan itself,the problems of Muslims and Hindu-Muslim relations in India,and India’s inability,because of all these challenges,to rise to its full potential.

Opening the window of debate on this epochal event in India’s recent history is Jaswant Singh’s newly released book Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (Rupa & Co; 669 pages). It deserves to be hugely applauded because,apart from being a seminal contribution to the genre of political biography,it has provoked the political class,intelligentsia and the media to revisit 1947 and the tectonic shift it brought about in our subcontinent. It is unfortunate that Jaswant Singh’s unceremonious and unjustifiable expulsion from the BJP,within two days of release of the book,has diverted the focus of the discussion to the troubled situation within the party. However,we must recognise that far more important than the news of the day is the subject matter of the book. 

Our two major national parties are uncomfortable with a thorough debate on the subject,each for its own separate reasons. The Congress does not want it because the role of many of its leaders,Jawaharlal Nehru in particular,would come under scrutiny,facts of history showing that his mistakes (in 1927-28,1937 and 1947) pushed India towards the abyss of division. The BJP does not want it because the RSS played little organisational role in India’s freedom movement and,although rightly insisting that Bharat should remain akhand (united),it also made no contribution,either as an organisation or through its leading individuals,to the decisive political-constitutional debates on the future of Independent India that raged between 1925 (when the RSS was born) and 1947. The Congress,with considerable help from the BJP,would like to keep the Partition debate confined to blaming Mohammed Ali Jinnah,his Muslim League,and the British.  The RSS makes the additional point that partition took place because of the policy of appeasement of Muslims adopted by the Congress,Gandhiji in particular.  

However,as Jaswant Singh’s scholarly book describes in great depth and breadth,the story of Partition is far more complex and multi-layered than the simplistic “Jinnah-and-British-are-to-blame” verdict. No doubt,Jinnah and his party,the Muslim League,aided and instigated by the British in violent pursuit of their poisonous and spurious Two Nation theory,played the villain’s role in India’s Partition,and it is impossible to condone his crime. But we are still left with many questions,the chief of them being: Was Partition inevitable? And was it desirable? The last question is significant because,in a curious role reversal,many Muslims in India,whose fathers and grandfathers supported the creation of a separate “Muslim Nation”,today feel that Partition was the greatest calamity to have befallen in the history of Muslims in our subcontinent. On the other side,many Hindus,who outwardly still talk of “Akhand Bharat”,privately concede that the breaking away of the Muslim-majority territories was a good thing —“we don’t want Pakistan and Bangladesh back in our fold”. 

Over the next few weeks,this columnist will deal with some of the important issues raised by Jaswant Singh’s book.

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