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The partition evasion

About the author

I grew up, in India, regarding the partition of 1947 as an abomination. This was due to reasons more complex, and powerful, than any reflexive Indian nationalism. My father's family, prominent activists in India's long march to freedom, struggled and sacrificed much for the cause of an united, undivided India. My paternal grandfather, Sarat Chandra Bose (1889-1950), a Congress leader of undivided Bengal and India for more than two decades, was among very few major figures of the time to oppose the partition, on grounds of political morality as well as practicality, until the bitter end.

This was not only because he viewed the division of the sub-continent on the basis of religion as a betrayal of the ideals of countless fighters and martyrs in the struggle for freedom. Sarat's pan-Indian nationalism was - like that of his younger brother Subhas Chandra Bose, a legendary icon of that struggle - rooted in a deep love for his own homeland, the province of Bengal. The bifurcation of Bengal was thus anathema, the negation of all that progressive nationalists of their ilk had stood for. I recall that my father Sisir Kumar Bose, himself a freedom-fighter of some distinction in his youth, never regarded 15 August, India's independence day, as a day of celebration, due to its association with the partition (he preferred 26 January, the day in 1950 India shed dominion status, a vestige of colonialism, and became a republic).

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (Harvard University Press, 2003) and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007).

The last of these works is being published in the sub-continent by HarperCollins India, in September 2007, and in Arabic by Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut, in early 2008.

To compound the situation, my mother's family is originally from eastern Bengal, which became East Pakistan in 1947 (and subsequently Bangladesh in 1971). A considerable number of her relatives were among the millions of Hindu Bengalis uprooted from the east by the partition. The refugee's loss of land, livelihood - and above all, dignity - was therefore something witnessed at close quarters, even though I was born, in Calcutta, more than two decades after 1947.

A renewed vogue

It was not until 2001 that I got the opportunity to examine my inherited distaste for partition - not just India's, but for partition more generally, as a way of settling intense communal, ethnic, or ethno-national disputes - in a less personalised framework. That year, I wrote up a book titled Bosnia after Dayton, which was published in 2002. Although the book's focal point is the internationally sponsored process of state-construction and institution-building in post-war Bosnia (after the Dayton agreement of November 1995 ended the forty-three-month Bosnian war), it compelled me to think through the issue of partition as a solution to antagonistic claims to national self-determination, and I ended up writing a long chapter on the debate. I noticed striking parallels between the political and human sagas of the crises in India in 1947 and Yugoslavia in the early-to-mid-1990s, and extensively used my knowledge of India's partition in that chapter.

As the 1990s progressed, partition studies enjoyed something of a renaissance in an unlikely quarter - among some structural-realist scholars of international relations in the United States; they were inspired largely by the knotty dilemmas for decision-makers in western Europe and America posed by the break-up of Yugoslavia. As a graduate student of political science in the United States, I was aware of partition's renewed vogue in some academic and policy-making circles. When, from the more detached perspective of a Londoner in 2000-01, I closely scrutinised some of the best-known literature produced during that decade that sought to revive partition as the logical solution to otherwise impossible confrontations, I found the arguments of the new partitionists - in particular those of Chaim Kaufmann - to be based on shallow and shoddy scholarship, and hence untenable as policy prescription.

Also by Sumantra Bose in openDemocracy:

"Contested lands: paths to progress"
(14 May 2007)

"Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip"
(29 May 2007)

"Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict"
(12 June 2007)

The argument and its limits

The pro-partition case is built on three premises. First, a "security dilemma" - a scenario in which a central authority enforcing law and order is either weak or absent, and no group can mobilise for its own security without threatening the security of the other group(s) in society - generates massive violence that can only be solved by physically separating the groups and allocating them their own political units.

I argued in Bosnia after Dayton that while the security-dilemma scenario accurately describes the situation that prevailed in the Punjab in mid-1947 and Bosnia in early 1992, the sudden acuteness of the security dilemma at those junctures - leading to an explosion of violent enmity between communities that had hitherto co-existed more or less peaceably for generations - was brought about by the looming spectre of partition, which turned (relatively) friendly neighbourliness into poisonous suspicion. In short, the new partitionists had successfully inverted the sequence of causality.

Second, the reborn advocates of partition have claimed, massive violence resulted not because partition is inherently flawed as a strategy and solution, but because political partition was attempted prior to separating or "unmixing" the groups on the ground. This argument is an example of the academic ivory-tower in overdrive. It is simply not plausible that intermingled communities could be separated or "unmixed" in an orderly and efficient manner prior to a political division, within a sharply compressed time-frame - whether in India and Palestine in the late 1940s (recall that India's partition was not finalised until early June 1947, and Palestine's until end-November 1947) or in Bosnia decades later.

Also in openDemocracy, arguments over partition in Yugoslavia, Iraq and India:

Louise L Lambrichs & Michel Thieren,
"Dayton plus ten: Europe interrogated"
(24 November 2005)

Reidar Visser,
"Iraq's partition fantasy"
(19 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali,
"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith"
(26 October 2006)

Ravinder Kaur,
"India and Pakistan: partition lessons"
(16 August 2007)

Third, partitionists claim that partition has resulted in massive violence because the borders between the units created were not drawn to minimise the minorities trapped on the wrong side of the new borders (as for example in Ireland in the early 1920s, where a six-county Northern Ireland included a significantly larger Catholic minority than a more compact four-county entity would have). This argument severely underestimates the practical complications of drawing new borders - the location and trajectory of the new borders are almost always fiercely disputed between the parties to such a conflict - even as volatile and increasingly chaotic events unfold on the ground. It is yet another example of academic fantasy masquerading as sensible realism.

There are other problems with pro-partition writing. Partitionists tend to understate the extent of partition's short-term costs (massacre, atrocity, expulsion), as well as its deleterious long-term consequences (the transformation of internal conflict into enduring enmities at the regional/international level). Moreover, they tend to not understand the fluidity and multiplicity of identities - Bengal's Muslims enthusiastically supported the birth of Pakistan in 1947, but within a quarter-century broke away to form Bangladesh, a state based primarily on Bengali ethno-linguistic nationalism and secondarily on a specifically Bengali Islam. Partitionists can also be disingenuous, in presenting their proposals as an option of "last resort", whereas their tone often suggests that they in fact believe partition to be the optimal long-term solution (a view that can lead to bending the facts, or ignoring uncomfortable ones, to fit the case).

The logic of division

So does my inherited dislike of partition stand vindicated? Substantially, but not entirely. In the early 1990s, the Euro-Atlantic states and their multilateral organisations effectively sanctioned the partition of Yugoslavia - a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country - along its internal federal boundaries. These states and organisations then proceeded to require that Bosnia, in its demographic diversity and historical complexity a microcosm of Yugoslavia, be kept whole and intact. This was, not unreasonably, viewed as double-standards by most of Bosnia's Serbs, as well as many of Bosnia's Croats, who raised their own flag of self-determination - why should some tribalisms be legitimate and others not? There is a saying in the former Yugoslavia: "Yugoslavia is impossible without Bosnia, and Bosnia is impossible without Yugoslavia." Would it have made any sense to divide India on religious lines in 1947 and then insist that the Punjab must remain united, and that its Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs should forget about their communitarian affiliations and bask in a shared Punjabi identity?

While doing doctoral research in the war-zones of Croatia in 1994 and 1995, I realised not only that the international community had made a dubious decision in sanctioning the partition of Yugoslavia, but that Croatia's "secessionist" Serb minority - who ran a rebel statelet on one-quarter of Croatia's territory from 1991 to 1995 - had legitimate fears about their security and rights, in the face of a western-recognised sovereign Croatia whose government bore atavistic traits of inter-war European fascism. To be sure, there were thugs, criminals and extremists aplenty among Croatia's Serb rebels (and even more so among Bosnian Serbs), but such elements were present on all sides, just as the killer gangs and "cleansing" militias of India in 1947 were of the same essential complexion, whether Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. I have very little doubt that were a referendum to be held today in Bosnia, almost twelve years after the war ended, a substantial majority of Bosnia's Serbs and a majority of its Croats would vote for Bosnia's partition.

This is the one uncomfortable reality that dogmatic anti-partitionists generally refuse to acknowledge: the presence of popular support for partition in the society in question, a situation where different groups do not want to be members of the same political community any more. My grandfather, driven by idealism and emotion, was blind to this reality in 1947. In May 1947, Sarat Chandra Bose made a desperate attempt to prevent the partition of Bengal by negotiating a power-sharing agreement with some leaders of Bengal's branch of the All-India Muslim League (the party that led the Pakistan agitation in the 1940s), that would preserve Bengal as an united, independent entity separate from both India and Pakistan. The national Congress leadership was hostile to the idea, and the League's national leadership lukewarm at best. But the "United Bengal" proposal was doomed by lack of support within Bengal, particularly among Bengal's Hindus (43% of the population), who by that time - after severe Hindu-Muslim violence in 1946 - much preferred the partition of the homeland to the risky proposition of cohabiting with the Muslim majority. Hostility towards the United Bengal proposal was widespread even among eastern Bengal's Hindus, who would either have to migrate to India after partition or take their chances as second-class citizens in Pakistan.

The departing British rulers had undoubtedly fomented Hindu-Muslim divisions through "divide and rule" policies - such as the establishment of separate electorates and representation for the communities in the 1930s. But ultimately, it was the inability of Indian leaders to resolve their differences that made the partition unavoidable.

An idea out of time

Still, partition provides the basis for a satisfactory, let alone desirable, solution in only the rarest of contemporary cases (one such case is Israel-Palestine, where a two-state solution that is minimally equitable to Palestinian aspirations is the only viable basis for a settlement). The recent emergence of some American commentators - ironically, mostly professed "liberals" - advocating the partition of Iraq should be treated with extreme caution, for their argument has all the flaws typical of partitionist thinking.

For all Iraq's troubles, a shared sense of Iraqi national identity seems much stronger compared to, say, Bosnia, whose partition was ruled out by international fiat. Federal and power-sharing formulas, although difficult to negotiate and implement in civil war or post-civil war conditions, provide a markedly superior alternative. Bosnia's much-criticised Dayton settlement provides such an alternative, ruling out both partition and the anti-democratic imposition of a pseudo-civic state on Bosnia's Serbs and Croats. Recall that even the Muslim League's "Pakistan Resolution" of 1940 can be interpreted as being ambiguous on whether Muslim self-determination necessarily entailed a separate Muslim country - it called for "independent States" that would be "autonomous and sovereign" in the Muslim-majority regions of northwestern and eastern India following the end of empire.

Ideas of rigid sovereignty and hard borders are already obsolete in some parts of the world, where interdependence and transnational cooperation have taken root, and in others such notions are living on borrowed time. As Nicholas Mansergh wrote about the terrible dilemmas of crafting the partitions of Ireland and India: "Was Derry to be cut off from its Donegal hinterland, the jute mills of Calcutta from the [raw] jute of East Bengal? How did you disentangle Protestant from Catholic in Northern Ireland, Muslim from Hindu in Bengal, or Muslim from Hindu and Sikh in the Punjab?"

Such dilemmas are no longer inescapable. The potential of territorial autonomy, sharing of power and resources, and cooperative relations across internal and international borders to mitigate conflict make partition, in the sense of the abomination that visited India sixty years ago, an idea whose time is long past.

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