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Unveiling the Shroud of Partition in Punjab

Reviewed by Dr Kusum Gopal 

SINCE 9/11 the wars in Afghanistan, engagements with ‘terrorism’, the state of affairs between India and Pakistan occupy global dialogues à niveauélevé de politique, as they do, nationally. Unfortunately, there remain formidable misunderstandings as flaky interpretations continue to prevail. Thus, scholarship on this sensitive subject is to be welcomed.

In this Utilitarian, Whig account of the Partition of the Punjab, Lucy Chester argues that the Radcliffe Boundary Commission represented the interface between the ‘often veiled exertion of British colonial power’, and its exercise of Power-to-control strategies vis a vis the Nationalists, meaning the south Asian elites, which led to the setting up of the Commission. She further argues that it was not the location of the boundary, “rushed and inexpert as it was”, which she nevertheless believes minimised the violence, but the “flawed process of partition” that caused the massacres.

She describes the process of the appointing the Chairman, Cyril Radcliffe who had little knowledge of the subcontinent, was deemed impartial, and whose legal reputation had received the nod from Jinnah and, Nehru’s consent, as a conscientious arbitrator, loyal to the Crown. He carefully burnt several notes and documents, thus primary sources were hard to come by in understanding exactly how 2,500 miles of boundary came to be drawn in less than six weeks. As she acknowledges, such critical omissions make it impossible to know what transpired within that commission’s deliberations, making the archival research piecemeal at best. Thus, it would make essential under such circumstances to meet survivors of the Partition on both sides from different sections of society. Nor has she consulted the wealth of material in the Oral History projects undertaken by the Indian Council of Historical Research, the IGNOU and the many well–known accounts of contemporary nationalist leaders, for examples by Ram Manohar Lohia, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and others, or, even to the popular Sufi poetry and music of the times, integral to Punjabi culture.

In addition, the rambling analysis feeds on the bucolic unsophistication of colonial readings that perennial conflict between ‘Hindus and Muslims’ had existed for many centuries, and Partition brought it to the international scene (p.7). What she fails to analyse are the separatist measures at the heart of colonial polity, they were by no means veiled. From the start, the classification of people was undertaken contrary to indigenous practices. Also, forcing people to work on the land destroyed cottage industries, damaging artisanal skills and traditional livelihoods. Such interference also distorted understandings of customary laws, rituals and religious beliefs: their heimat,how they related to each other and the natural world. One important example: H.H Risley developed an official typology of racial types formulating grades in caste defined by the proportion of ‘Aryan’ blood and the nasal index along a gradient from the highest castes to the lowest. In 1910 he influentially asserted that his knowledge of facts, rules-as-representation, “...of the religions and habits of the peoples of India equipped a civil servant with a passport to popular regard.” He absurdly determined, "the social position of a caste varies inversely as its nasal index”, measuring the definition of a community as either a tribe or a Hindu caste or a Muslim. The nasal index, a method of classifying ethnicity was based on the ratio of the breadth of a nose to its height; race remained one of the principal determinants of attitudes, endowments, capabilities and inherent tendencies among subject peoples. It was used in the recruitment different parts of the Empire. One scholar notes that Risley’s experience of administrative matters, including policing, proved to be useful to Curzon during the anti-government agitation that led to the first Partition of Bengal. It also trampled upon the effervescent Bengali Islamic syncretic folklore traditions, perceptively described by Asim Roy. Beginning with the Minto Morley Reforms of 1909 a series of Acts were introduced as have been documented meticulously by other Whig scholars such as J Chatterji’s studies on Bengal focusing on the elites, in this case, grasping Hindu ‘bhadraloks’ refusing to share their power.

What exactly does Chester mean by Hindu, Muslim or Sikh identities? The perceived antipathies through collective representation need qualification. As, another Partition historian, Gyan Pandey has pointed out that these categories are “well worn, essentially tautological formulae” that determined the religious character of a mass of people by imposing a monolithic unity of faith on each of them. One needs to add also that these views were not conditioned by notions of religions as discrete groups, reflecting not just a failure to understand syncretism, but also underplaying the turbulence and contradictions in rural society. Thus many conflicts and tensions within society were frequently attributed to religious differences, but these assertions were not demonstrable by any reference to historical data.

Personal identities are intimately linked with political processes and social identities are not given once and for all, but are constantly negotiated. In the Punjab as elsewhere in the subcontinent, syncretic beliefs have always been integral to personhood and identity. For over a thousand years, the prolixity of Indo-Islamic aetiologies was woven into the fabric of everyday life there was fusion and co-existence. As a matter of fact Persian was spoken by the upper-classes, while Urdu was the awaam ki zaban as also Punjabi, the language of the common person in Mughal and post-Mughal India. An important Sufi tradition was the introduction of the common kitchen integral to Punjabi sociality. Indeed, the philosophy of Sikh Gurus nurtured the traditions of langar (common kitchen) and pangat (queue).

The Granth Sahib contains teachings from the Upanishads, from Islam, even Christianitywith words in Persian, Arabic Punjabi and Sanskrit. In the subcontinent, various sects and communities have simply co-existed within a pantheistic belief system: the absorption of a deity or belief from another religion does not affect its pluralistic character; it is assimilative, encouraging co-existence. Anyone can gain salvation, a good Muslim, Jew or Christian, as long as he or she follows their moral duty as prescribed by their religious texts just as one who is born as a ‘Hindu’ can. As for Sikh and Hindu there was no divide: in every non Sikh household it was customary for the oldest son to become a Sikh or marry a Sikh girl. There is a need to understand the extent to which mythology and topography have overlapped in shaping the human landscape that spans millennia. This is so vast and of such complex dimensions that it has been expressed exclusively through plurality and syncretism whether they are personal, local, regional or national.

Punjabi Culture

Ancient cultures of the subcontinent are renowned for their millennial syncretic and immanent traditions. In this study, there is no discussion of other historical aspects of the rich Punjabi culture and its influence on the political expression of the times. It is common knowledge that the Punjab derives its name from Persian, comprising the words of Panj (five) and Ab (water) meaning land of five rivers, Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and the Sutlej. It consisted of rich alluvial tracts of land, or the Doab between two confluent rivers, the Sind–Sagar, Jech, Bist, Rechna, and the Bari Doabs. The term Punjab was used during the reign of Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. In the documents of Mughal period the use of the terms Sarkar-e-Punjab and Suba-e-Punjab and this region remained longest under Islamic influences. Indo-Islamic confluences inspired by the Sufis, Sheikhs, Pirs and Ulema followed them in their wake. In many towns of the Punjab, they opened Khankahs and Jamait Khanas, amongst which those at Multan, Uch, Ajodhan, and Lahore were of great sanctity. The Punjab has acted not merely as a repository of the Indo- Islamic mystical traditions but a focal point in the process of its diffusion.

All the classical mystic writings like Kashf al-Mahjub, Awariful Maarif, Futuhat-e-Makkiya, Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi and other mystics were first received, accepted in Punjab and then transmitted to the rest of India. Even today the Sufi lyrics sung by of Abida Parveen, Fateh Ali Khan, Amarjeet Kaur and others, Pakistani and Indian Punjabis are based on the Sufi kalam of the mystic saints of Punjab (such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Khwaja Ghulam Farid etc.) and Mughal poets Amir Khusrao. They sing in Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi, Seraiki, and Persian, and enthral audiences in Delhi and beyond, many who claim ancestry from former west Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and Afghanistan.

Indeed, it has been noted by several contemporaries, such as Mr R. M. Lohia that boundaries did not exist in personal interactions. There was neither competition between people of different religions, nor tensions between them whether they were Muslim, Sikh or Hindu, and, intermarriage was common as indeed was sharing of customs, cuisine and couture. As Mushirul Hasan has noted, in 1945-46, Malcolm Darling, the Commissioner was astounded by the similarities of the different groups in the Ravi, Chenab, Sutlej and Beas observing how similar and intertwined the rituals, rites and, practices were. In addition they had common ancestors who intermarried and continued to practice as they wished, be it as Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. He noted perceptively, “What hash politics makes of this tract where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh are as mixed up as ingredients in a well-made pilauf.” Cartography has always been integral to Empire building and its consolidation. Thus, what is gravely missing from her analysis of cartography of territory are land-person relations, i.e. the cartography of human experience.

In addition there is no discussion of the enduring impact of the land settlements, the preparation of detailed inventories of land use, including soil measurements, techniques of payment, revenue and taxation and caste identities which were integral to revenue collection. Official attitudes saw caste in terms of a fixed structure a giving it a permanent subjectivity. In the colonial context, identities had a way of defining even the people who rejected them: caste was seen less as a performance or a process, more as a tightly knit hierarchy, a functional fit. In the experience of ordinary people such official social identities ultimately determined their fate, and they were forced by circumstance into relying on those identities. What James Mill prescribed in 1824 was faithfully followed: “We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language….What then shall that language be?….I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.…But…I have never found one who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia….The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate….I think it is clear that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic …and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.”

While the author has discussed the Census and its importance in the deliberations, there is no investigation of how the Census was conducted, the nature of questions that were asked which separated and divided communities of people, nor of the anti-Census agitations that erupted in various parts. One important example recorded by a senior civil servant of the United Provinces is revealing. During the 1931 Census operation, E.A.H. Blunt, a settlement officer, noted he was surprised by the agitations against a record of caste because ordinary people contended that “the mere act of labelling persons as belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system It is striking that any Hindu should hold that opinion and what is even more striking is that nearly two million of them should agree with it in so far as to state that they had no caste at all.”

She correctly observes that the Muslim League exercised little influence until the 1940s and it was the Unionists who had the most power. What she does not mention is that all Muslim political parties, including the Khaksar Tehrik of Allama Mashriqi, opposed the Partition of India. Mashriqi was arrested on 19 March 1940,as were other leaders. Had the Intelligence records in Lahore and Amritsar and those of other district collectorates been consulted by Chester, much information could have been gleaned on the draconian policing and other repressive measures adopted. Contrary to what she suggests the British were keen to partition India. It was not the Thana, but, the chowkidar in the village at the lowest level who represented ‘the eyes and ears of the government’ and reported to the thana. The colonial state arrogated the fundamental structure of authority and power to itself. It was in the interests of the colonial system to supplement its own formal institutions by manipulating these indigenous social networks in producing and reproducing social and political identities; this process generated a “culture of terror” in which relations of domination (the bailiffs, goondas, and chowkidars) were built into the culture and life of people. Their leaders’ continuous attempts to spearhead the struggles against colonial rule remained fraught and constantly repressed.

Chester does not examine the legacy of political consciousness that had sharpened with massacres of Jallianwala Bagh, discuss the powerful impact of the Arya Samaj in its anti-colonial education, the Ghadr movement, the assassinations of Kitchlew, Satyapal and others such as Lala Lajpat Rai and indeed, the incarceration of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his companions all followers of the Naujawan Bharat Sabhawhich became the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army in the 1920s promoting anarchismto achieve vasudhaiva kutumbakam or universal brotherhood in India. They embraced atheism and Marxism as they witnessed the successful colonial strategies to encourage Hindu Muslim antipathies. And, these events had a profound bearing on the Satyagraha and Akali Dal politics of the region in the 1930s and 1940s, a shared struggle against imperialism that resonated with the rest of the subcontinent.

Contrary to Chester’s claim, Gandhi’s influence in the Congress was not on the wane. Gandhi was not consulted and he refused to participate in the negotiations as he remained very much against the Partition, “My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God.” He noted that they had waited for thirty years and they could wait a bit longer. He remained at the helm, opposed along with many others, whilst Nehru, Setalvad and a few more sat on the panel and accepted the Partition Plan. And, as Chester notes, the communication between Nehru and Mountbatten made the latter give up the idea of a UN intervention at Nehru’s behest and reveals support for the Partition by the attending Congressmen. As Mosley quotes Nehru “We were tired men and we were getting on in years too. Few of us could stand the prospect of going to prison again- and if we stood out for a united India, as we wished it, prison obviously awaited us. We saw the fires burning in Punjab and heard of the killings. The Plan of Partition offered us a way.” Nehru is also reported to have observed that Pakistan would be compelled by its limitation to return to the Indian fold, little realising at the time that it would become an unattainable.

The Radcliffe Award

It would have been useful if the author had teased problems recognised in the mission of the Punjab commission, “to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab, on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will take into account other factors. “And, given the subject of the book, she could have attached as an Appendix, the Radcliffe Award for the Punjab, a six-paragraph document describing the dividing line between the east and west of the province.

Deliberations with the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims each with separate maps led to Amritsar remaining in India while Lahore went to Pakistan. All districts other than Amritsar, which was 46.5% Muslim, had Muslim majorities, albeit, in Gurdaspur, the Muslim majority, at 51.1%, was slender. At a smaller area-scale, only three tehsils’ in the Bari doab had non-Muslim majorities. These were Pathankot in the extreme north of Gurdaspur, which was not in dispute, and Amritsar and Tarn Taran in Amritsar district. In addition, there were four Muslim-majority tehsils east of Beas-Sutlej with two where Muslims outnumbered Hindus and Sikhs together. Lahore went to Pakistan and Amritsar remained in India.

But what transpired was the titanic exodus of human populations accompanied by carnage of enormous proportions, which has not been properly measured. It was triggered when over fifteen million people were suddenly forced to leave their homes and move across new borders. Most of the ‘mohajirs’ refugees who settled in Punjab Pakistan came from Indian Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir,and Rajasthan.Based on conservative journalists estimate and the Census estimate of displaced persons, 7,226,000 Muslims went to Pakistan from India while 7,250,000 Hindus, Sikhs and Jews moved to India from Pakistan immediately after partition. Also, more Muslims in Pakistan have chosen to come and stay in India than Muslims in India have chosen to move to Pakistan. About 78% of the population transfer took place in the west, with Punjab accounting for most of it, six million Muslims moved from India to West Punjab in Pakistan, almost eight million Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to East Punjab in India; elsewhere in the west, two million moved in each direction to and from Sind. Those who migrated came to be known as the Mohajirs settling in Punjab Pakistan, They remain discriminated against, and were prevented from marrying locally, and later d formed the MQM party. Ironically, Mr Jinnah himself was a mojahir indeed, other Presidents such as Liaquat Ali Khan born in Karnal, Gen Zia-ul-Haq born in Jalandhar, Gen Pervez Musharraf and so forth. These themes should have been included in the discussion of the politics. And also, the Indo-Pak wars which Chester analyses inadequately.

Chester is partial to Radcliffe and Mountbatten giving them a clean chit and she refuses to accept the criticisms from Radcliffe’s and Mountbatten’s contemporaries. For example, she takes umbrage at Leonard Mosley (a contemporary of Radcliffe) when he states that Radcliffe was completely ignorant of India and was not given a proper map to work with but Radcliffe himself pointed out to Lapierre, “The equipment I had at my disposal was totally inadequate. I had no very large scale maps.”(p.85).

Contrary to what Chester argues the geographical unity of boundaries happened in spite of the British. The various nationalist confrontations came to be unified under the Congress movement spearheaded by Gandhi as also, the left-wing kisan agitations. Boundaries had existed during the reign of Harsh and, much later under the Mughals included Afghanistan with connections to the Central Asian Steppes. Of greater significance were the indigenous readings of the landscape, indeed, in cosmological terms the routes of pilgrimage extended from western Tibet to Amarnath in Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and Rameshwaram and from there to east and western frontiers. What is not taken into account is that there were six Partitions of the Subcontinent, two Partitions of Afghanistan in 1879 and 1893, the Partition of Bengal in 1903-04, the loss of Burma in April 1937 and west Aden, Mustaʿmarat ʿAdan, in 1937, Ceylon in 1947, and the same year between India and Pakistan and all these Partitions had a ripple effect throughout the region. The people were not the silent majority, as she wrongly argues but, in this instance the Congress and Muslim League leaders who acquiesced did not act in the interests of their people, and as Lohia had pointed out, the abyss between the rulers and the ruled.

Nation states as the modern form of governance in Europe evolved naturally, over three centuries. And yet, they remain negotiable, for example, the boundaries of the former Westphalia State remain unresolved in some instances and, the recent question of Scottish Independence. Partitions are often understood as inevitable in the formation of nation states. But are they? Freedom was inevitable, Partition was not as many contemporaries observed. In the Indian subcontinent, partitions happened in weeks. To the many millions, the Partition remains a heinous crime and drawing of the boundary line was in itself, faulty. As Mushirul Hasan notes, the dividing line between the east and west of the province, “…wobbled from communal to economic to strategic factors', followed no natural dividing features such as rivers or mountain ranges, cut across villages, canal systems and communication lines, in the process separating communities and bisecting homes. Large populations of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the border.” At no point in time did the local people have any say in the matter and they felt betrayed and herein were the seeds sown of Hindu Muslim animosity primarily among the Punjabis and Sindhis. They were torn apart from each other, from their shared communities being forced to flee.

While Chester’s undertaking of an extremely weighty theme is laudable and opens the gate for further research, as it stands it is disappointing and perilously careless in composition and scholarship. The traumatic effects of territorial loss, moral and social dislocation and painful separation of human communities continue to reverberate in the Indian subcontinent with tragic consequences. These themes need to be explored with greater scholastic rigour and sensitivity.

Borders and Conflict in South Asia by Lucy P Chester

Dr Kusum Gopal is a UN Expert on South Asia, East Africa and the MENA region.

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