In review - Review essay

A Partition too deep: How events in 1947 shaped Pakistan today

Updated Aug 13, 2017 01:09pm

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Migrants crossing into Pakistan during Partition | F E Chaudhry, White Star Photo Archives
Migrants crossing into Pakistan during Partition | F E Chaudhry, White Star Photo Archives

As we all appreciate, food together with smells, faded photographs and half-remembered tunes are all highly evocative of distant places and earlier times. Drawing directly on our most intimate senses, they resurrect forgotten memories and transport us back, in an instant, to worlds that may no longer exist; whether to our childhoods or other nostalgic moments in our lives. Of late, elderly Pakistanis who migrated during Partition have become more willing to reminisce – whether in the form of oral testimonies and traditions, published biographies, newspaper articles or simply what they tell their grandchildren – about the homes that they left behind. Among other memories, they recall the juiciness of the enormous lychees that grew plentifully in western Uttar Pradesh, and fondly savour recollections of the splendid vegetable dishes cooked by their former Hindu neighbours (they claim to have tasted nothing like it since they arrived in Pakistan).

Such nostalgia is symptomatic of Partition’s main impact — a sense of loss. Just because we may choose to forget (or suppress) particular aspects of the past does not mean what we later remember did not exist. For much of the period since 1947, however, a collective amnesia has operated on both sides of the border created by Partition when it comes to reminding ourselves of what people living in Pakistan and India have in common, rather than what separates them. That amnesia has informed perceptions and policies in both the countries.

Also read: What has been the most significant juncture in Pakistan-India ties since 2000?

As with many aspects of Pakistan-India relations, events in the years before, during and immediately after Partition in 1947 have tended to frame how individuals as well as institutions on both sides of the border have engaged with each other ever since. As is well known, by the 1940s, the Indian National Congress was seeking the creation of a unitary and centralised independent India. This was a prospect that the All-India Muslim League challenged in an effort to defend what its high command believed were the best interests of Indian Muslims, regardless of whether or not all of the Muslims of the subcontinent accepted the League’s championing of their collective cause. The political stalemate of the post-Second World War years eventually made compromise unachievable and, with Britain determined to relinquish control over its South Asian holdings as quickly and conveniently possible, the stage was set for the bloody end of an empire, which changed the lives of millions on both sides of the hastily drawn up Radcliffe Line.

That bilateral relations between the two countries were destined to be fraught became very clear soon after Partition

It may be stating the obvious but Partition has clearly meant different things to the different interests involved. For many people in India the division came to represent loss not just of territory but also of key aspects of the country’s core identity — the infamous vivisection of ‘Mother India’ on the one hand, and the defeat of the Congress’s secular vision on the other. For those in what became Pakistan, Partition constituted a proud (though not universally expected) founding moment, albeit secured at great human cost (for Pakistanis and Indians alike).

As I argue in my own contribution to Roger D Long’s edited volume A History of Pakistan (2015), “Partition, marred by the extreme communal violence that characterised it, represented a tragic experience for hundreds and thousands of ordinary South Asian people […] who died and millions more who were uprooted and made refugees thanks to the passions and uncertainties that it unleashed. Thus, rather than an unabashedly triumphal moment, independence in general and the creating of a new state of Pakistan in particular [were] threaded through with loss and human suffering on a massive subcontinental scale. Yet for many of those who became Pakistani citizens in the years after 1947 […] the detail of what actually happened became less important than the fact that it represented a defining episode in the collective past. Without it, Pakistanis would not be who they are today.”

Jawaharlal Nehru meets Ayub Khan at Karachi airport to sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 | AFP
Jawaharlal Nehru meets Ayub Khan at Karachi airport to sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 | AFP

In retrospect, however, Partition seems to have happened in quite a distant past. On the 68th anniversary of its creation, Pakistan has reached, as it used to be politely said, ‘a certain age’. No longer in the first flush of youth, nor – as it once was – a relative newcomer on the world stage, the focus of much discussion nowadays tends not to be why it came into existence, all those years ago, but how it has managed to survive for so long, bearing in mind the myriad challenges that the state has faced since 1947, among which we must include losing more than half of its population when Bangladesh broke away in 1971. One of the most enduring of these trials and tribulations has been the country’s dismal relationship with its eastern neighbour. Pakistan has fought a series of hot and cold wars with India and, in the process, usually emerged second best.

Also read: "Partition was not inevitable" Indian veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar

It can be argued, however, that this state of perpetual strife is also a legacy of Partition, which ended one story – that of empire in South Asia – but marked the beginning of another — that of a subcontinent dangerously divided and poised for war. With the status of disputed territories such as the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir still unsettled, the future of Pakistan-India relations after August 14 - August 15, 1947, was left hanging in the balance, unresolved. And while the first India-Pakistan war (in 1947 - 1948) resulted in another (UN-sponsored) “Line of Control” being superimposed on maps of the region, this early conflict only further frayed the loose ends produced by decolonisation, instead of tying them up. Indeed, Kashmir has remained an open sore, epitomising joint failure of Pakistan and India to find a way of getting along with each other.

The territorial contours of the Muslim homeland [Pakistan] ensured that there were nearly as many Muslim non-citizens outside as there were Muslim citizens within

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that most efforts to communicate the broad sweep of Pakistan’s post-1947 history find themselves grappling at some point in their narrative with how far Partition has shaped subsequent relations between the two neighbours. This is certainly the case in the publications under review here, which all adopt the long view when it comes to assessing the connections between earlier events and the present.

That Partition still casts a lengthy shadow over how Pakistan and India engage with each other is the central premise in Dilip Hiro’s The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan (2015). Around a quarter of the chapters in this book are dedicated to explaining the mounting communal rivalries that produced the division of the subcontinent on August 14 - August 15, 1947. Such an approach inevitably reinforces a commonly shared belief that relations between the two South Asian ‘siblings’ were ‘blighted’ from birth. In other words, it offers the reader a scenario in which Partition forms the crucial opening episode in an epic family saga (or, alternatively, a particularly nightmarish soap opera). The Longest August (unlike other recent publications discussed here) focuses very specifically on how Pakistan and India have engaged with each other over the last seven decades.

Also read: The pursuit of Kashmir

Hiro’s initiative represents a rare attempt to throw light on an understudied topic (there have been surprisingly few studies that concentrate specifically on explaining Pakistan-India relations). The scope of the book’s starting ambition, however, is hard to sustain, which allows for factual inaccuracies as well as irritating idiosyncrasies to feature in its coverage of events. Some of these are more annoying than serious: Hiro insists on calling Gandhi as “Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi”; first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s name gets abbreviated to “Ali Khan”; and senior Congress politician and independent India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is repeatedly referenced as “Maulana Abul Kalam Mohiyuddin Ahmed Azad”. More worrying in its coverage of the build-up to Partition is the absence of any discussion regarding the March 1940 Lahore Resolution’s reference to Muslim states (in the plural). By glossing over this important point, Hiro reinforces assumptions that the ‘Pakistan’ which emerged in 1947 was precisely what had always been on the League’s ‘wish list’. As other historians have demonstrated, this was not necessarily the case.

Similarly, Hiro’s study fails to reflect sufficiently on where South Asian independence fitted into the bigger processes of decolonisation at work, nor does it engage with vitally important geo-political developments such as the Cold War (which had important repercussions for the region over a 50-year period). And, although The Longest August concludes with Narendra Modi’s recent inauguration as Indian Prime Minister in 2014 – arguably the latest challenge to India and Pakistan reconciling their long-standing differences – the book struggles to substantiate its basic premise regarding the direct connection between Partition and subsequent Pakistan-India relations.

Also read: "Military has some serious misgivings about India" - Interview with Gen (retd) Mahmud Ali Durrani

The impact of Partition also forms the starting point for Ayesha Jalal’s latest exploration of Pakistan’s chequered history since 1947, which includes consideration of ups and (mostly) downs in its interaction with neighbouring India. But Jalal, unlike Hiro, highlights why the wider geo-political context of the subcontinent’s early post-independence years hardened enmities here. Drawing on analysis that underpinned her earlier studies of the decades before and after 1947, she pulls no punches with respect to the negative fallout of Partition while also highlighting just how far Pakistan’s foreign relations – and hence, its interaction with India – have been shaped by regional and global political developments.

Accordingly, in The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (2014), Jalal argues that “the crystallisation of Muslim hopes and distinctive culture, reconciling the claims of nationhood with the winning of sovereign statehood proved impossible. The territorial contours of the Muslim homeland [Pakistan] ensured that there were nearly as many Muslim non-citizens outside as there were Muslim citizens within. The contradiction was not addressed, far less resolved, and has been one of the principal fault lines in Pakistan’s quest for an identity that is Islamic yet also national.” From the outset, she says, “an anti-Indian and anti-Hindu stance in state-supported historical reconstructions was considered necessary for national self-preservation”.

Pakistan cricket supporters at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, in May 2015 | Arif Ali, White Star
Pakistan cricket supporters at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, in May 2015 | Arif Ali, White Star

But the irony of this negative approach, as Jalal explains, was that it made friction with India more rather than less likely, in turn raising the real risk of confrontation and potential defeat: in the aftermath of Partition and the war over Kashmir, “paranoia about Pakistan’s ability to survive fanned a state-sponsored narrative of security that painted Hindu India as the archenemy acting in utter disregard of its [own] large Muslim population. Kashmir and fears of India manipulating the flow of river waters to Pakistan’s disadvantage [rivers having also been ‘divided’ somewhat arbitrarily between the two new states] provided a popular rallying cry against Hindu conspiracies [...] An acute sense of threat from India melded critical policy decisions, including on Kashmir, and saw the army become a key player in shaping the destiny of the country. There was nothing inevitable about this outcome even if the odds were heavily stacked against the votaries of a democratic Pakistan”.

Like others who have written about the idea and reality of Pakistan in order to plot a convincing ‘history of the present’, Jalal points to many instances when distrust of India has affected decisions that Pakistani governments have made in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. Equally important, however, she avoids the temptation to trace everything negative in this relationship back to the events of 1947, whether implicitly or explicitly. When the spectre of Partition came back to haunt Pakistan again during the bloody civil war fought over East Bengal, which once more saw borders being crossed by refugees escaping violence, she makes it clear that India’s intervention on the side of the nascent Bangladesh had much more to do with contemporary regional power struggles than simply with settling old Partition-related scores. For Jalal, while Pakistan’s failure to establish its democratic credentials can certainly be linked to the political consequences of Partition, the main problems in 1970-1972 – and the principal lessons to be learned from them – stemmed from “the wilful manipulation of centre-province in the 1950s and 1960s by a military-dominated state” that was only partly the product of Partition.

In the final analysis, Partition may not be the only, or even the central, factor in determining how Pakistan’s history has panned out since 1947

Similar essential connections are made in The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience (2015) by Christophe Jaffrelot, who, like Jalal, has already written a great deal on Pakistan. He devotes 700 pages to explaining the resilience of the Pakistani state and its people, and how both persist against the odds. Combining a guide to the cultural and social roots of the Pakistan Movement with a historical ‘road map’ for making sense of contemporary Pakistan, he highlights ways in which the country’s history has been shaped by tensions “rooted in contradictions that were already apparent by the 1940s”. However, while Jaffrelot refers only very occasionally to Pakistan’s direct encounters with India (the entry ‘India’ cannot be found in the index, but then ‘Partition’ is not included there either), his study reinforces the argument that Pakistan was born of a process of political division (Partition) that, in many ways, has (over)determined the state’s subsequent trajectory. In other words, the ‘fear factor’ regarding India’s ambitions was put in place in the immediate post-independence period and has never gone away.

As The Pakistan Paradox explains, “Even if Partition in 1947 had finally given the Muslim minority in the Raj its own state, the Pakistani elites continued to act under the sway of a strong sense of vulnerability towards India. Not only did Pakistan not carry the same weight as India in demographic, economic and military terms, but neither was the sharing of resources of the defunct Raj devoid of complications […] In this context Pakistani leaders were even more prepared to believe (or at least to argue in public) that India did not want their country to survive. This sentiment of vulnerability (which helped them to rally ‘their’ people behind them and justified their rapprochement with the US in the 1950s) was fostered by statements by Hindu nationalists in favour of ‘Akhand Bharat’ (Undivided India) and the words of Congress leaders […] Whether these Congressmen actually meant what they said (and whether they actually uttered these words) is uncertain, but apparently Jinnah himself took them at face value”.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif  and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at the BRIC/SCO Summits in Ufa, Russia on July 10, 2015
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at the BRIC/SCO Summits in Ufa, Russia on July 10, 2015

In a nutshell, anxiety revolving around India spawned a security imperative that was bolstered by the perception – as articulated later by General Ayub Khan – that India had tried to cripple Pakistan at birth by depriving it of its share of resources, which in turn aggravated centralising and non-democratic tendencies within the new state. All the same, as Jaffrelot is careful to emphasise, “if the bureaucrats seized power in the mid-1950s, it was less in the name of national defence in face of the threat of India than due to two other factors”, namely the ambitions of West Pakistani elites anxious not to lose out to the Bengali strength in numbers, and the failings or failures of political parties during this crucial transition era. Hence, “it was easy for the bureaucrats and the military to criticize politicians for negligence while the ‘Indian threat’ required the Pakistani elite to develop a keen sense of responsibility”.

With the passage of time, Partition as a first-hand experience has receded into the distant past, literally and metaphorically as far as the vast majority of today’s third- or fourth-generation Pakistanis are concerned

Like many ruling groups elsewhere in the world, those in charge of Pakistan have rarely flinched from deploying the ‘country-at-risk’ card as and when they have wanted to rally domestic support or silence political opponents. As C Christine Fair in Fighting to the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War (2014) has pointed out, the Pakistan Army “has long justified its dominant role in running the state by arguing that it is uniquely positioned to protect not just Pakistani territorial integrity but also the very ideology of Pakistan, which centres on protecting Pakistan’s Muslim identity from India’s supposed Hindu identity”. In the same way, The Pakistan Paradox points the finger at Partition’s dangerous military inheritance. After all, “the threat of India partly explained Jinnah’s viceregal style […] this threat had even more implications for the military: the country needed a powerful army, all the more since the troops Pakistan inherited at the moment of Partition in 1947 represented only 36 per cent of the British Indian Army (140,000 out of 410,000 men) giving New Delhi a considerable military advantage, as the Land of the Pure soon realised with the first war in Kashmir in 1947-1948”.

So while Jaffrelot does not prioritise Pakistan-India relations, nonetheless the aftershocks of Partition are firmly integrated into his analysis. Despite the international environment representing a “full-fledged component of [Pakistan’s] domestic policy”, he links the influence of global politics with the vulnerability that Pakistani elites have felt in relation to India — quoting Khalid bin Sayeed’s remark that “almost every action of Pakistan can be interpreted as being motivated by fear of India”.

In the final analysis, Partition may not be the only, or even the central, factor in determining how Pakistan’s history has panned out since 1947; yet it is hard for historians and political scientists to deny that the circumstances involved in Partition badly destabilised Pakistan-India relations. All the publications reviewed above collectively testify to this outcome, irrespective of differences in their focus and conclusions.

That bilateral relations between the two countries were destined to be fraught became very clear soon after Partition. In the months and years immediately following independence, Delhi and Karachi found it extremely hard to agree on the logistics of refugee rehabilitation (though they did not encounter the same problem when it came to dealing with the problem of abducted women; both agreed in late 1947 to return any such women to the side of the border that religion dictated they now belonged to, irrespective of what these women themselves wanted and where their children were to remain). In the longer term, despite managing to reach an agreement in 1960 over the Indus Basin dispute, the two sides have found the process of learning to live peacefully with one another, messily and frustratingly, unsuccessful. India’s 1.3 million-strong armed forces (the third largest military in the world), and Pakistan’s 650,000 active military personnel (ranked seventh globally), both backed up with nuclear weaponry at their disposal, pose a formidable combined military presence that simultaneously reflects and contributes to the insecurity of the region.

All the same, I would suggest that Partition’s most damaging bequest (at least for Pakistan) has been in the realm of domestic politics. Decolonisation happened in such a rush – decisions about the subcontinent’s future were made so quickly – that after August 14, 1947, in the wake of immense dislocation, uncertainty and human suffering, Pakistan found itself with a set of underprepared federal and provincial authorities, whose links with each other and with the people were both fragile and fraught (despite the stirring nation-building rhetoric of the period). Irrespective of how well or poorly Pakistan has coexisted with India since 1947 – and it has been more the latter than the former – Pakistan has also been grappling with huge internal problems stemming from the circumstances of its creation. These domestic challenges include, among others, how to affect a state in which all those within it feel equally committed to what it represents, how to balance the needs and aspirations of different sections of its citizens, and how to find a space for religion within the contours of the state that does not marginalise or exclude significant sections of the population.

With the passage of time, Partition as a first-hand experience has receded into the distant past, literally and metaphorically as far as the vast majority of today’s third- or fourth-generation Pakistanis are concerned. But it is worth remembering that – like Pakistan and India – France and Germany fought three wars (arguably more blood-stained than the ones between the two states in the subcontinent) in the 70 years between the 1870s and the 1940s. Much like Kashmir, a disputed territory (in the shape of Alsace-Lorraine region) came into the equation, as part of their competition for regional dominance. Today these two neighbouring countries lead the European Union, having invested heavily in a common political and economic cause that strengthens their international authority as well as their domestic position. Perhaps, with the 70th anniversary of Independence and Partition fast approaching (in 2017), the moment has finally come for Pakistan and India to learn to live with Partition, to put aside post-1947 differences and to remember their overlapping pre-1947 history with pride. Surely, improvements in regional cooperation would enable Pakistan to take its place beside India at the ‘top table’ of 21st-century nations, strategically placed to defend South Asia’s common concerns vis-à-vis the rest of the world.


This was originally published in the Herald's 2015 August issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a professor of history at the Royal Holloway University of London