India and Pakistan: partition lessons

About the author

Ravinder Kaur teaches at the University of Roskilde, Denmark and is the author of Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The sixtieth anniversary of the independence of Pakistan and India on 14-15 August 2007 has prompted official celebration in both countries, as well as an ocean of commemorative coverage in the world's media. The terrible violence that accompanied the birthpangs of the two states from the ashes of empire is an inevitable theme in much commentary. What is being less addressed amid the profusion of human stories - and what this article considers - is whether the problems of communal division in the sub-continent were or are best addressed by the partition of territory.

Ravinder Kaur teaches at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. She is the editor of Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (Sage, 2005) and author of Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The bare details of 1947 and its legacy are stark. The territorial partition that created modern India and Pakistan involved the internal division of Punjab and Bengal provinces, which - in unimaginable conditions of collapse of authority, flight, and massacre - resulted in the forced movement of 20 million people (Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan) and approximately 1.5 million deaths.

This partition created both a harvest of bitterness and the basis for further conflict. In 1970-71, Pakistan itself was further divided as East Pakistan became the new state of Bangladesh, a process attended by an enormous human tragedy of war and famine. The four armed conflicts between the inheritors of the British Indian partition (1947, 1965, 1971, and 1998) are only the most dangerous moments in a pattern of near-permanent regional hostilities which has also been marked by low-intensity conflict in Kashmir, disputes over terrorism, and an escalating nuclear-weapons rivalry.

The question raised by the "great partition" bridges the divides between 1947 and 2007, and between India-Pakistan and many other global regions - most notably, today, Iraq. In this sense the particular history of the sub-continent is only one stage in a much larger story, one which continues to have potent implications across much of the world.

The age of unmixing

The practice of territorial and demographic rearrangements arose in the context of the early-to-mid-20th-century era of world wars and decolonisation in Asia and Africa. As territorial boundaries in Europe were challenged and peoples in other continents began to break free from the European colonial stranglehold, the political map of the world unravelled. In either case, political elites discovered a new solution: amid flux, fix. the best solution found was to fix territorial boundaries of a changing world. Thus the borders of old and new nation-states in Europe were dug deeper, while fresh borders for the emerging nation-states in Asia and Africa were invented to accommodate expressions of national will and demands for self-determination.

Also in openDemocracy on India, Pakistan, and history:

Maruf Khwaja, "India and Pakistan: states of mind, contests of perception" (23 January 2002)

Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism" (5 November 2003)

Maruf Khwaja, "Becoming Pakistani" (19 August 2004)

Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)

Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's bus-ride to history" (18 April 2005)

Sadat Hasan Manto, "Toba Tek Singh" (5 January 2007)

Territories had always changed hands, but what was new was the wholesale transfer of populations inhabiting those territories. A growing idea after the "great war" of 1914-18 was that conflicts arise among ethnically heterogeneous populations, and that the best way of resolving and preventing ethnic conflicts was to engineer the "unmixing of populations". The desired unmixing was achieved (for example) in the exchange of population between Greeks and Turks in 1923, and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from east-central Europe in 1944-49.

Behind the aim of achieving an internally homogenous population in a given nation-state was a view of peoples as a national collective whose membership was defined by ethnic-religious affiliation. This implied less tolerance to ethnic-religious groups that did not fit easily into the national imaginary: only when the defined communities could be fixed in their own territories would violence cease.

The fruit of division

It was against this background, when international opinion was already in favour of territorial rearrangements and population transfers, that the partition of British India took place in 1947. As the tripartite negotiations over power- sharing between the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the British colonial government began to fail, partition came to be seen as the most realistic option. At the same time, outside leading circles "partition" was little more than a vague, unfathomable - even harmless - word that cropped up occasionally in the speeches of political leadership. That they would be forced one day to leave their homes and livelihoods amidst raging violence, was yet inconceivable to millions of ordinary people.

This feeling of disbelief is best summarised in the words of an officer in charge of refugee rehabilitation in Punjab, who said: "we in India were only vaguely familiar with the word 'refugee' and used to wonder why people should be compelled to leave homes. Even our refugees [my italics] expressed surprise at the strange phenomenon of exchange of population and were heard saying we used to hear about the change of rulers but for the first time the ruled are also changing places''.

The partition of 1947 was far more than an abstract line across administrative maps; it sought to create separate enclaves for different religious communities. In August 1947, when the "Radcliffe award" partitioning Punjab and Bengal was announced, millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs now found that they no longer "belonged" to the place they were born in and had lived in forever. The advocates of territorial separation (most prominently according to the "two-nation theory" of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah) saw borders as the natural, physical expression of communal differences: that the new borders would exacerbate and reinforce these perceived differences was not considered.

Since the early summer of 1947, the abstract notion of "not-belonging" had become real when private armies belonging to the Muslim League's national guard), the Sikh Akal Fauj and the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began orchestrating major attacks on minority groups in their area of influence. The formal creation of borders in August meant that what was considered a temporary movement by many people to avoid violence months before had now became absolute and permanent.

From that point, the trickle of refugee movement turned into a deluge as millions began seeking safety in areas across the border where their community was in a majority. Hindus and Sikhs now "belonged" to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. The chaos of the early days abated as the two states began a planned exchange of population amidst continuing violence.

This period in Indian-Pakistani history is often visualised through archival photos of packed "refugee special" trains with people clambered on the rooftops, epic refugee walking-caravans, and women and children in bullock-carts escaping to safety with their meagre belongings. The personal memories of those affected, especially those who witnessed mass violence, are often saturated by scattered limbs, the inescapable stench of dead bodies, extreme sexual violence against women, and of people who took their own lives amid unbearable grief.

Such heartbreaking memories and images are testimony to the unconsolable pain of partition. They also contrast vividly with the single most striking image I encountered during six years of research into violence and identity in the region for my book Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi (Oxford University Press, 2007). It was a photo published in several Delhi newspapers during the nuclear stand-off of 1998, when popular media discourse was spiced with comment about how the Indian nuclear-tipped warheads could reach all the way to Lahore and Islamabad.

The photo showed a crowd of Hindus and Sikhs dancing in patriotic celebration of India's momentary advantage over Pakistan in the race for regional military supremacy. What intrigued me was that the revellers were the descendants of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan; in hard logic, they were cheering the capacity to annihilate the land of their parents and grandparents. Such nationalist intoxication too is the fruit of partition.

The echo of history

The enduring hostility between India and Pakistan at official level - notwithstanding the efforts of many to seek to cross the divide - is at the very least a warning to those who argue for territorial partition as a solvent of violent antagonism.

Iraq is the foremost contemporary example. Since 2005, the idea of partitioning Iraq into three regions - Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish - has gained momentum in direct proportion to the intensification of sectarian violence. A number of policy-makers and commentators in the United States and Britain - among them Peter Galbraith, Joseph Biden, Leslie H Gelb, Richard Betts and Simon Jenkins - have endorsed this idea in one form or another (other analysts, such as openDemocracy authors Zaid Al-Ali and Reidar Visser, have argued powerfully against it). The general notion is that the internecine violence between Shi'a, Sunni and Kurds would cease once each group has gained political control and territorial sovereignty in a tripartite Iraq; partition is regrettable but inevitable, and the earlier the world accepts it, the better.

The idea of partition may in large part emanate from the good intention of seeking to end violence and chaos in Iraq - though in some cases, a post-imperial "divide and rule" instinct may also be at work. But what is more important than the motive is the logic and the human implications of the proposal to divide people according to an accident of birth. The lesson of India-Pakistan in 1947 for the world is: don't make new borders between people, but work to make borders irrelevant.