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Indo-Pakistani Independence: A Time for Reflection

In their post-1947 incarnations, both India and Pakistan have just completed their 70th year, which, like an individual, is viewed a time in one’s life where maturity, sobriety and forgiveness overrule frivolities, jealousies and vendetta. By this time, even erstwhile disputatious siblings become reflective and accommodative. However, in our case on the Subcontinent, despite a massive goodwill and even a grievous sense of “what went wrong”, our respective states and their powerful establishments have refused to outgrow their adversarial relationship. Without trivialising their challenges, it is a tortuous fact that they are stuck in a self-justifying orbit of mutual contempt along with anchoring policies and structures that have only boded discomfort and misplaced priorities for millions of South Asians. Certainly, independence came to our part of the world through a noble struggle claiming stupendous sacrifices, and there are undeniable reasons to celebrate historic mid-August midnight of 1947. However, our journey since, despite all the significant strides in socio-cultural areas, also sadly reflects our misplaced priorities where mutual derision of multiple forms has disallowed a cherished coexistence.  Our civil societies, like numerous societal clusters including those who suffered the pangs of forced migrations and harrowing personal tragedies, fervently desire a peaceful, self-respecting and mutually interdependent South Asia. It is not merely a sublime ideal; it is also an urgent prerogative where we break the long-held shackles of animosities and move amongst the comity of nations sharing compassionate cosmopolitanism. We also need to brood over the fact that two centuries back despite our demographic and historic wherewithal, our forefathers lost it to a distant but well-organised trajectory that banked on knowledge capital and geographical know-how and was fortified with a self-justifying sense of destiny. As long as India and Pakistan remain hostages to their own nebulous security-centred whims and projects, virtual independence will remain a chimera. Our next phase in decolonisation demands an overdue inter-state cordiality, inter-communal harmony and a judicious sharing of our human and natural resources in the larger benefit of our people. Otherwise simply hoisting our respective flags from the Red Fort, or across the Constitution Avenue amidst the portraits of Gandhi, Nehru, Iqbal and Jinnah, and our parades resounding with powerful national anthems and shining weapons may plainly betray a partial expediency.

Historically speaking, dissolution of the European empires often hastily called decolonisation, so far has featured unilateral territorial demarcations splitting communities and gerrymandering natural resources. All the way from Latin America to Ireland and from South Asia to Eastern Balkans, every new state created in the Westphalian model, has experienced birth pangs in the form of partitions and migrations. Leaving in haste or with a crude indifference, the receding colonial powers only bequeathed enduring issues and legacies for their successors states whose histories are bedevilled with regional conflicts and undiminished rivalries. In their rush for creating nationalist ethos over and above their ethno-religious pluralism, these post-colonial states have faithfully banked on centrist policies often betraying hegemonic ideologies. Reflecting serious suspicions of pluralism, such trajectories have aimed at supplicating and even suffusing so-called majoritarianism, which continues squeezing out space for minorities. For any keen observer of South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, these are sadly the insidious realities of post-colonial polities and societies and that is where a major reassessment needs to be undertaken. 

Decolonisation at the behest of colonial powers and hastened by nationalist ethos through assertive and pacifist resistance happened amidst large-scale cases of violence where women, children and senior people especially from vulnerable minorities have been the main victims. The world’s map changed more radically in the second half of the Twentieth century than ever in the past human history and more than 150 states today credit their own nationalist struggle to their independence, and so do India, Pakistan and the rest of South Asian states. British colonialism, in the wake of a growing populism in North Atlantic regions, is seeing a resurgent interest, which as per Niall Ferguson like the past Victorians seeks moral justification through utilitarian and benevolent deeds. Its apologists also pinpoint institution building that these regions, as per such narratives, abysmally lacked before the advent of the Raj. Protagonists never fail to remind us that most Afro-Asian people fell short of managing their own collective lives, and thus the Euroepan empires not only brought them out of a ghastly past, they equally set them on a journey of successful modernity. This argument and even the rationale that Britain sleepwalked into an imperial career have recently been strengthened with multiple conflicts bedevilling post-colonial states with some already on the road to dissolution. During the 1990s, when Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia faced serious centrifugal forces, writers such as Michael Ignatieff even urged for the return of “Empire-Lite” to forestall falling states from a total collapse. Thoughtless invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed by similar interventions in Libya and Syria solidified nostalgia for past empires, which presumably, among other benefits, were deemed to have guaranteed an orderly South. Of course, analysts such as Edward Said, John Newsinger and Pankaj Mishra have challenged such self-righteous views on empire. Concurrently, normative South Asian historiography, even after a lapse of seven decades seems to be seeking villain across the borders for causing Partition and ethnic cleansing in Punjab and Bengal.

Seventy years since independence, memorialising Partition through archives and allowing people-to-people exchanges is a transcendent urgency that should go beyond the static nature of Indo-Pakistani relations. In the same vein, there is a greater need to transcend the two given pillar posts of colonialism and nationalism while seeking out local, regional and intellectual dimensions of South Asian histories and societies. The most dangerous aspect of the pervasive views on Partition has been scapegoating each other by apportioning guilt and responsibility for dislocation and violence to the other party. For instance, in a familiar Indian nationalist parlance, Islam becomes an alien imposition brought in by the hordes of Turks with a view to create a new medina. In that sense, Aurangzeb, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muslim League and Jinnah become the others who divided an otherwise united India. On the contrary, general Pakistani narrative has consistently apportioned blame on the Indian National Congress with a decisive Hindu hegemony, and here Tilak, Nehru and Patel are held responsible for their dismissal of Muslim interests and grievances. Accordingly, a predominantly Hindu India would never accept Pakistan as a separate entity and through all kinds of means would remain committed to its deconstruction. The denial of Islam as a formative and historic determinant within a powerful strand of Indian history and sociology is as dangerous as is the deindianisation of Pakistan. Here, areas such as the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation, the advent of the Aryas, evolution of Brahmanism across the Indus lands all the way to the upper reaches of Gandhara, emergence of Buddhism and its expansion into Tibet and China via the Silk Road and then the growth of Muslim communities both in the north and south have to be seen beyond the narrow and exclusive parameters of popular nationalist monologues. After all, more than anywhere else it is across the Sub-continent where Hinduism and Islam interacted in a rather complex and even interdependent way without annihilating each other. Their mutual relationship was uniquely characterised both by mutualities as well as contests. Thus, this interface allowed South Asia to become world’s most plural region unlike Iberia, Sicily, Western Hemisphere and the Balkans where forced conversions, massive expulsions and even wholesome eliminations radically transformed their demographics.

Retrospectively, we have reasons to respect Indian reformers, intellectuals and political leaders of the colonial era by allowing them a due space for competition; still we cannot absolve them of their obstinate political rigidity on the eve of independence. Their lack of will to substantially negotiate with one another while representing all the various South Asian communities created a gigantic and no less dangerous vacuum where rumours, local rivalries and selective narratives exacerbated communal chasms. This is not to suggest that a huge subcontinent with its vast ethno-religious varieties was a cultural monolith, nor would it be helpful to deny its diversities and even divisions at the various levels. Yet, so far, a binary but essentially simplistic discourse remains hinged on the unitary oneness of India contrasted with a historical subcontinent featuring numerous fault lines. These two contrasting premises received impetus in the 1940s squeezing out vital grey area in between with the Raj, especially since the viceroyalty of Lord Wavell, intent upon taking a convenient exit. The lives and future of populace, especially on the ‘wrong’ side of the borders was neither a worry for Mountbatten nor for most Indian leaders.  By the time, bleak developments involving millions of masses on the move and falling in harm’s way became a reality, it was already too late. The absence of proper mechanisms ensuring the safety of minority communities in the new states and safe passage for refugees or willing migrants is a shocking reminder of ineptness on the part of the Raj as well as South Asian political leadership. At least, lessons could have been learnt from Turko-Greek transfer of population of 1924-5 or posthumous developments in Palestine yet no serious consideration was given to such prerogatives. {One wonders whether with this frame of mind and adhocism, even the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 could have worked!} In the end, blame and counter blame became a convenient alibi which also suited the Raj to put the blame on these ‘unmanageable’ Indians who, as per Churchill and several others, were still not capable enough to govern themselves allowing to be guided by a “naked Fakir” or a “seditious lawyer”.

But as observed at the beginning, quite some water has flowed under the bridge since 1947 and in the seventieth year of marking independence we must come up with mature and responsible measures to augur a new era. Here, Partition could work as a stark reminder of our own vulnerability to chaos and violence as we begin to confront our existing challenges with a renewed vigour. Our procrastinations, mutual accusations and confrontational relationship have already taken their pound of flesh from all of us besides acutely damping down our humanity. 2017, in that sense, should become the harbinger of a new era where we could shore up a shared resolve to meet our local, regional and global challenges to bequeath a peaceful and tolerant South Asia for our future generations.

Professor of History at Bath Spa University, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and MCR at Wolfson College, Oxford. His latest book is titled: Pashtun Identity and Geopolitics in Southwest Asia (Anthem, 2016).

An earlier version of this piece was carried by WION News