Two and half years back Sam Dalrymple, along with a group of volunteers from India and Pakistan, began an ambitious project. Project Dastaan took the young scholar of Sanskrit and Persian to the nooks and corners of South Asia, first to interview survivors of the Partition, and then to find their homes on the other side of the border. The respondents were then given a 3D film experience of the home, school, playground, and much else that they lost in the wake of the Partition.
It was when he reached the North East though, that Dalrymple began looking at the Partition not as one major event, but five big events that altered the landscape and politics of South Asia, beginning with the separation of Burma from India in 1937. “I began looking into the idea of writing a book on the kind of effects of Partition in places that we don’t usually associate with the Partition, like Ladakh, North East, Sindh, Rajasthan, Balochistan etc.” he said. These five partitions, he says, hold clues to almost every major political developments in modern South Asia like the Rohingya crisis, the rise of the Taliban, the NRC debate etc.
Dalrymple’s debut book on the five partitions of British India, to be published by Harper Collins, will be released in 2022. In an exclusive interview with Indianexpress.com, he spoke about his research on these five major episodes and how they are connected to modern times.
What are the five partitions?
We were looking at the North East’s experience of the Partition and so we were looking into how Nagaland Mizoram Assam had all been affected. As we researched more and more, it became evident to me that for these communities, this was the second partition within a generation, because they had also felt the partition from Burma.
Before 1937, Burma was part of the Raj and certain ethnic groups like the Nagas, the Rohingyas and many others were divided between the two countries just like the Punjabis were in 1947.
In the 1930s, the British Raj actually stretched from Yemen all the way upto Thailand. It included princely states like Dubai and Oman which were princely states just like Jaipur, Hyderabad and Kashmir. So the five Partitions as I call it begins with Burma which is cut off from the rest of India from the early 30s and it finally gets partitioned in 1937. Then there is the great Partition which we all know about.
The third one is more of a process than one particular moment, but it is incredibly dramatic and we often forget about it. It is the division of 650-800 princely states that are divided between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and about 12 go independent. All the history books talk about the states that went to India and Pakistan. They don’t talk about the ones that did not get eaten up. The fact that several of these like Oman, Bhutan, Qatar ended up as part of none of these successor states is a very interesting story that has not been told.
That brings us to the fourth partition which is that of Arabia. These Gulf states managed to not get absorbed. Literally three months before Independence, these states are handed over to the colonial office rather than the India office of the British government. There wasn’t this border that we think of in between the Arab world and the Indian world.
Then the final one is how Bangladesh gets independence from Pakistan. The idea is just trying to look at how this one unified British Raj turns into these 12 successor states. We like to think of it as if it’s just two successor states of India and Pakistan, but it’s much more complex than that. And it’s a process that begins in the 30s and goes on for the next 40 years.
Would you say that these five Partitions are responsible for most of the political crises in South Asia today?
Take for instance the Rohingya crisis which is also part of the north eastern Partition story. When Burma and India were being partitioned and India and Pakistan were being partitioned, the Rohingya were a group that lived on the borderland where these three countries collided. They were one of the big groups pushing for an independent Pakistan during the whole Independence movement. But when the line is drawn, they end up in Burma. And so the Burmese don’t accept them as Burmese citizens. Pakistan asked Jinnah to annex that part of the Arakkan state but Jinnah was more caught up in the Kashmir crisis by then.
These are all interconnected stories and they dominate much of the politics that we are facing today. The Rohinga crisis, the NRC debate, the Kashmir crisis, these are all born out of various parts of the partition process.
You say that the Iranian revolution and the rise of the Taliban are also a product of partition. How?
The Iranian revolution can be linked to the fact that when the Arabian states stopped being part of the Indian empire so that the British could maintain their hold on oil through specifically the British Petroleum Company or BP which was earlier the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Until just a few years before partition, the head office of this company was in southern Iran.
Now what happens is Iran tries to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian oil company and the British and the Americans stage a coup, and they get rid of Iran’s democratically elected leader and put the Shah back on the throne so that they can keep this oil company. This oil company is now run out of Bahrain which is part of the Indian empire. So the set of decisions that lead to this separation, are the same set of decisions that lead to Iran’s democratically elected government being deposed. This ultimately leads to the resentment of the West and the overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian Revolution.
The rise of the Taliban has more to do with Pakistan’s growing military complex that happened in the wake of the first Partition but more so in the wake of Bangladesh’s independence. India had been funding the Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh. One of the effects of it is that the two countries, India and Pakistan, start engaging in this kind of warfare where they send over ununiformed men and start funding nationalist groups in the country. A lot of the Pakistani funding for the Taliban emerges out of this.
What are the kinds of sources and style we can expect from the book?
Firstly, there are some fantastic books on each of these processes but then have never been put together. So I have looked at a lot of these works. But a very important part of the writing process is the work I have been doing with the Dastan Project. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years traveling around South Asia, and interviewing first hand witnesses. It is very eye opening to know what is going on in the peripheral corners of the Raj. So much of what we know about the Partition comes from Punjab, and so speaking with someone who, for instance, migrated from Chittagong shares a whole new light on the process of the Partition.
It is more of a history book, but will be involving a number of fresh interviews.
A lot of readers are excited about the fact that William Dalrymple’s son is coming out with his first book. Does that intimidate you or is there something from your father’s writing that you would want to imbibe into your book?
I think it is all of the above. It is definitely intimidating. But he has been very helpful. But what’s nice is that, even though it has to do with Indian history, I am working on a very different period. His period of expertise is the 1700s, Mughals, the East India Company and so on. So I feel I am able to make this my own project.