By Izeth Hussain –
The approach of the seventieth anniversary of the Partition of India has inspired much writing in both India and Pakistan about its significance. William Dalrymple wrote in the New Yorker of June 29, 2015, that the Hindu-Muslim mutual genocide that accompanied the Partition was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Between one to two million were killed, fifteen million were uprooted, and all imaginable horrors were committed by both sides. Dalrymple wrote that some British journalists who witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed that Partition’s brutalities were even worse.
The Nazi holocaust against the Jews, together with the two world wars of the last century, have been regarded by many analysts as signifying the failure of the Enlightenment project, which had behind it an ideology that gave primacy to rationality and individualism. George Orwell saw the Second World War as falsifying the vision of Walt Whitman – who merits position as the quintessential American poet – according to which the democratic vistas would open out endlessly: instead they led to the barbed wire of the concentration camp. However, it would be wrong for Asians to see those wars and the holocaust as showing up only the limitations of the West. The horrors of the Partition were even worse than those of the holocaust, which fact suggests that all those and similar horrors should be seen in terms of man’s inhumanity to man, the propensity to which recognizes no boundaries and applies to all humanity. Since the holocaust took place in highly civilized Germany and the Partition in highly civilized India, those horrors should also be taken as testifying to the fact that high civilizations can suddenly lapse into utter savagery.
The most important question that will be prompted by the approach of the seventieth anniversary of Partition is whether it was worth it. It is pertinent here to recall my own experience of the aftermath of Partition. I served in our High Commission in Karachi, the then capital of Pakistan, for two years beginning in 1957, which was just eleven years after Partition. It was impossible not to meet many who had been traumatized by the Partition, prompting the conclusion that there was indeed no alternative to Partition. But other facts prompted a different conclusion. During my first week in Karachi I was pointed out a gentleman in a felt hat as the brother of the Nawab of Pataudi: the families of the two brothers had settled down quite happily in India and in Pakistan. Mansur Ali Khan, an Indian batting great like his father the Nawab, married Sharmila Tagore the grand-daughter of the poet. The Pakistan Foreign Secretary was Baig, a former member of the ICS like his brother who – if I remember rightly – was Chief of Protocol in the Delhi Foreign Office. The Pakistan Deputy Chief of Protocol was Tyabji, another branch of whose family were very distinguished members of the legal profession in India. Such facts were legion, prompting the question whether the Partition was really necessary. Going beyond my immediate field of experience in Karachi, I will mention just one fact: Nehru was a Kashmiri Brahmin the Persianised culture of whose ancestors made them more akin to the world of Islam than to that of the Hindus, which might perhaps partly explain Nehru’s universalism as distinct from the Hindu particularism of Gandhi – one of the facts that drove Jinnah to think of Pakistan.
The question that has to be decided is whether the Partition was a contingent development, the consequence of the fortuitous coming together of various circumstances, or whether it was the inexorable working out of the incompatibility or antagonism between Hinduism and Islam and other historical factors. The evidence strongly suggests that it was a contingent development, something that could have been avoided. First of all, we must explode the myth of an essential antagonism between Hinduism and Islam: there was no such antagonism in traditional India. The Muslim conquest of India began with the capture of Lahore in 1021 by Persianised Turks from central Afghanistan. By 1323 the Muslims had established a sultanate extending as far south as Madurai.
According to Dalrymple the invaders were not identified in medieval Sanskrit inscriptions by religion as “Muslims”; they were identified by linguistic and ethnic affiliation as Turushka (Turks). He acknowledges that there was carnage and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist sites – which still enrages our local Islamophobes – but he writes that “India soon embraced and transformed the new arrivals”, which led to the birth of a hybrid civilization. Islam spread in India not through conquest but through the preaching of Sufi mystics who were stunningly ecumenical in their outlook, even to the extent of regarding Hindu scriptures as divinely inspired – a tradition that continued until the last Mogul Emperor. Commonsense should tell the Islamophobes that the Muslim invaders from Central Asia quite simply did not have the manpower to impose Islam by coercion over millions of Hindus in Punjab and Bengal. I had better make a clarification at this point that Dalrymple is not a Muslim engaging in Islamic apologetics – he is a cousin of Virginia Woolf and a reputed Indophile historian who figured in the Galle Literary Festival some time ago.
An almost millennium long history of Hindu-Muslim co-existence should have made the idea of Partition outrageous and unthinkable. So Dalrymple asks how did India’s deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture unravel so quickly, the polarization taking place in a mere couple of decades. The horrors that accompanied the Partition have to be explained in terms of man’s inhumanity to man while the polarization can be explained only in terms of the fortuitous and the contingent, not in terms of the inexorable working out of historic forces. It is a surprising fact surely that the Muslim League’s commitment to establishing a separate state came in its Lahore Resolution as late as 1940, just seven years before Partition. Actually even that Resolution was not unambiguously in favor of the establishment of Pakistan.
Many Asians will be disposed to wonder whether Britain had changed its imperialist policy of divide and rule to one of divide and depart: the parting devil was out to kick the rice-pot. It is known that Churchill, notorious for his hatred towards Hindus, had assured Jinnah that he would do everything possible towards the establishment of Pakistan. But he was not in power at that time. It is possible that there were powerful personages in the British Establishment who wanted the dismemberment of India, but they could not have taken decisive action. What was decisive was the bitter hatred that had come to prevail between Jinnah on the one hand and Nehru and Vallabai Patel on the other. Gandhi proposed that Jinnah be made the first Prime Minister of India, but Nehru and Patel would not agree. In the alternative, it is likely that Jinnah would have died of cancer while being Prime Minister and a united India would have survived. Anyway it seems very reasonable to conclude that Partition was the consequence of the contingent and the fortuitous, not of inexorable processes.
What lessons can we draw from the Partition? We can engage in a selective reading of history emphasizing the differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils or their commonality, making Sri Lanka a hell on earth or a good place to live in. What interests me most is the play of the contingent and the fortuitous after 1977. By 1971 the imbalances that had been irksome to the Sinhalese had all been corrected, but new imbalances were created which in their turn required correction. In the ensuing years the Sinhalese side has shown a willingness to take corrective action and it is a reasonable surmise that the ethnic problem would have been solved and a reasonable degree of ethnic harmony established. Instead President JR, a man of blood, exercised virtually absolute power from 1977, and under him there was State terrorism from 1977 to 1983, leading to a quarter century of war. I don’t see that as the inexorable working out of historic forces in Sri Lanka.