Muslims and Hindus alike had been hungering for independence from Britain,
but not ethnic nationhood.
What happened in 1947 was not just the creation of a new kind of nation.
It was the creation of a new kind of people.
Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people were categorized and forced
to define themselves by religion - which had heretofore been
a largely private and incidental matter for most of the people of India.
People who had no religious belief at all suddenly found themselves
defined entirely by a faith they didn't hold.
INDIA-PAKISTAN PARTITION POISON
This, along with the very similar partition of Palestine
done by the United Nations the same summer,
represented the creation of a new sort of person, the religious-political individual.
In many respects, the twin partitions led to the invention, by Britain and the United Nations,
of the designation of "Muslim" as a political category
imposed on hundreds of disparate peoples with few real common interests -
a fiction that meant little before 1947, but has scarred the world since.
Blame Gandhi and Churchill for a split that poisoned the world
by Doug Saunders, Globe & Mail, July 14, 2007
MUMBAI - Sixty years ago this week, a bespectacled British lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India for the first time in his life to take on a simple three-week job. His solitary task, finished on Aug. 13, 1947, would have a few immediate results - hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered, millions mutilated or raped and tens of millions forced out of their homes and livelihoods.
In a larger sense, his little job created the biggest problem in the world today. The mosque wars in Pakistan this week, the nuclear-arms race between India and Pakistan and much of the al-Qaeda threat can be traced to his short stay here.
Radcliffe's job was to draw two lines on a sheet of paper. The lines, across the eastern and western flanks of the soon-to-be-independent nation of India, would attempt to demarcate areas that contained at least 50.1 per cent Muslims from ones that had a majority of Sikhs, Hindus or members of other faiths.
He was, in a coldly bureaucratic way, giving life to the nations of India and Pakistan - an act of partition, or religious segregation, that only months before had seemed unpopular and dangerous to the majority of the continent's Muslims and Hindus, and unthinkable to the retreating colonial masters in London.
In India and Pakistan these days, preparations are under way to celebrate the 60th anniversaries of independence, on Aug. 14 and 15. Here in the Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods of India's largest city, people tell me they approach the dates with little joy.
"The independence was a great moment for all of us, but we cannot be happy about the way it forced us all to be either Muslims or Hindus, not anything else," shopkeeper Gulzar Bajwar tells me in Bandra, a neighbourhood that was once happily mixed but has become violently segregated since the 1990s, when Hindu extremists drove Muslims out, often shouting at them to "go home to Pakistan."
What happened in 1947 was not just the creation of a new kind of nation. It was the creation of a new kind of people. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people were categorized and forced to define themselves by religion - which had heretofore been a largely private and incidental matter for most of the people of India. People who had no religious belief at all suddenly found themselves defined entirely by a faith they didn't hold.
"What is so strange," the elderly Sikh journalist Narinder Singh Soch told historian Patrick French, "is that we started to see everything in terms of the community to which somebody belonged. Very few of us could avoid that, even though before the partition I remember the Sikh-Muslim relationship as being rather good."
This, along with the very similar partition of Palestine done by the United Nations the same summer, represented the creation of a new sort of person, the religious-political individual. In many respects, the twin partitions led to the invention, by Britain and the United Nations, of the designation of "Muslim" as a political category imposed on hundreds of disparate peoples with few real common interests - a fiction that meant little before 1947, but has scarred the world since.
Did it have to turn out this way? When people look at India and Pakistan today, as well as at Bangladesh, they tend to imagine that they were the inevitable result of this vast country's ethnic divisions - that Muslims had been seeking their own country and Mr. Radcliffe's line was a cartographic realization of a long-held dream or at least a tragic but inevitable split between two unhappy partners.
In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The Pakistan decision had profound effects but few certain or definite causes. "There was nothing inevitable or pre-planned about the way that partition unfolded," says historian Yasmin Khan, a descendent of Punjabi Muslims who were forced to flee the slaughter of 1947. Her detailed new history The Great Partition draws on a decade of scholarship to take a careful look at the feelings and thoughts of ordinary Indians in the event-filled years after the Second World War.
She found that Muslims and Hindus alike had been hungering for independence from Britain, but not ethnic nationhood. Muslims wanted more rights within India, but it was extremely difficult to find any who showed interest, even in the early months of 1947 in having a religiously segregated nation. Most of those who voted in India's first-ever free elections, in 1946, for the independence-minded Muslim League believed and hoped that they would get more representation within a unified India.
"There were so many things that could have happened, so many possibilities open - so many ways it could have gone," Ms. Khan says. "What they ended up with was a sort of stripping-down, a reduction of everything to labels of religion. That was not at all a certain outcome."
Yet within months, and against all logic and probability, partition happened. The events of 1947 established a few ground rules that have applied to all future partitions in Palestine (partitioned that same summer), in the former Yugoslavia (partitioned in the 1990s) and potentially in Iraq.
First, there is no way to draw a clear line between ethnic or religious groups - because they do not really exist as "communities." Therefore, partition will produce lasting violence and conflict (in India's case, even nuclear conflict).
Second, partition cannot be undone, no matter how poor an idea it proves to be. The only case of a partitioned country voluntarily reuniting was the 1707 union of Scotland with Britain, and to this day it is showing strain, with a separatist government leading Scotland's assembly.
Third, once partition occurs, it is bound to lead to further partitions - because partitioned "ethnic" states are by definition fictions, people inside see the fakery and want to leave. In 1971, the province of East Pakistan - formerly half of Bengal - split from Pakistan in an angry Muslim-Muslim war that cost tens of thousands of lives, and became Bangladesh. Residents of Gaza and the West Bank or Montenegro and Kosovo, will recognize the pattern.
For the 1.4-billion people of the Indian subcontintent, the past six decades have been a struggle to escape this prison of categoriaztion. The current Indian government, with its Sikh prime minister, Muslim president and Hindu cabinet, has made great efforts to overcome the curse of 1947. The current Pakistani government is being torn apart by the effects of its self-definition: In violent uprisings in the north, the east and - as we saw in the Red Mosque this week - the major cities, it is becoming apparent that "Muslim" is not a unifying characteristic at all.
That problem should have been obvious in 1947. In fact, to most people, as Ms. Khan's scholarship has shown, it was.
So who was to blame for partition, which has been described by several historians as the most destructive single decision of the 20th century?
The most prominent figures of 1947 made some foolish choices that led to countless unnecessary deaths. It has been popular to blame Louis Mountbatten, the final Viceroy of India and the man responsible for its final disposal; or Mohannad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Muslim League and the father of Pakistan; or even Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress Party leader who went on to become the first Prime Minister of India.
But by the time those three came along, it would have been very difficult to reverse India's split. Something terrible had happened during the war years.
As recently as the late 1930s, the most likely outcome seemed to be a united India with equal representation of Muslims and Hindus (and seats for Sikhs and others) in the legislature. That was what everyone was fighting for.
Jinnah certainly didn't want a Pakistan - perhaps not even after it happened. A pork-eating, whisky-drinking secularist, the Muslim League leader disdained religious extremism and spent most of his life fighting for equal rights for Muslims in India, not for separation. "I do not think Jinnah wanted Pakistan," one of his confidants wrote. "Right till 1946 he was prepared to work for one united India. So all the time he was talking in terms of Pakistan, this was, I always believed, a bargaining point for him." Events then forced him to stick with the Pakistan line; he was likely horrified with the results.
The Congress Party, which has ruled India for most of its history, can take the blame for failing to pick up that bargaining chip. And that failure, oddly enough, can be placed at the feet of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a man who believed with apparent sincerity in an equal union of all religions, but whose actions inadvertently rendered that impossible.
The problem was that Gandhi was not a secular leader: The Mahatma was a devout and rather obsessive Hindu mystic, and he fashioned his Congress Party in a distinctly Hindu fashion. Its shape, tone and language ended up defying his principles, to tragic effect. "By his use of Hinduism as a political tool," the historian Mr. French concluded in a 1997 book, "Gandhi unwittingly opened a Pandora's box that has yet to be closed. . . . Gandhi alienated many Muslims, and ultimately helped to bring about the rise in fortunes of the Muslim League".
If Ghandi foreclosed the possibility of a united governing party, it wasn't an irreversible flaw; after the late 1930s, he had little influence over Congress. The fault for allowing the situation to stagnate, for permitting India's harmonious religions to turn into opposing political poles headed for mutual destruction, must lie with Winston Churchill.
It was during the Second World War that partition became inevitable (wars tend to do that). Churchill had the deadly combination of being a radical imperialist who couldn't think of granting India independence, and also a rabid racist who detested Indians. ("I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.")
He drained India of money: It gave billions of pounds (hundreds of billions in today's figures) to financing the war, and two million Indian soldiers to fight; in exchange, Churchill refused to send wheat to prevent the Bengal Famine, thus sentencing a million people to starvation; he refused to reward those two million soldiers for their sacrifice; and he refused to allow even the slightest democratic rights for Indians. By neglecting the growing divisions in India, the British Prime Minister allowed a passing colonial problem to turn into the biggest crisis of our age.
Churchill's idiocy, Gandhi's blind spot and Jinnah's dangerous bluff all added up to a turn of events which, when combined with Radcliffe's line, shaped the world forever.
It was, in the words of the historian Mushirul Hasan, a "man-made catastrophe brought about by cynical and hot-headed politicians who lacked the imagination to resolve their disputes and the foresight to grasp the implications of dividing their country along religious lines."
The best we can hope now is that we won't repeat the mistake.
Reader Vaisnavi asks for suggestions on what books to read on India's partition
Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto assassinated (vowed to fight for workers' rights) & Bhutto had several enemies in Pakistan (but bulletin blames al Qaeda) & Bhutto accused Pakistani intelligence (in previous attempt on her life). SMH/CTV/BBC, Dec 27, 2007. Go to Reality Control & Old World Destruction & WHO YA GONNA BLAME? OSAMA!
Pakistanis bury Red Mosque massacred (Muslims kill own in Islamabad) & Blame Churchill for India split (arbitrary India Pakistan line forced non-religious Hindu & Muslim into rabid religious enemies). NZStuff/GlobeMail, Jul 16, 2007. Go to 10.Rulers & 6.Super-States
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