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Partition: Searching the past for answers to the here and now

Updated Feb 27, 2017 01:55pm

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A boy in a refugee camp in Delhi during the Partition in 1947 | Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine
A boy in a refugee camp in Delhi during the Partition in 1947 | Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine

The ongoing year marks the latest ‘milestone’ anniversary of the Indian subcontinent’s partition and Pakistan’s creation as an independent state — events that have shaped the trajectory of South Asian history for the last 70 years. Those events marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire as a global player while the two new states – India and Pakistan – went on to play central roles in international developments, from India’s non-aligned initiatives of the 1950s and the 1960s to Pakistan’s engagement in key Cold War and post-Cold War conflicts. Both states are very different in many ways from how they were envisaged by their ‘founding fathers’ — and yet both retain a great deal of their original political ‘DNA’.

Much academic sweat has gone into providing explanations for what went into the creation of that ‘DNA’. Historiography, however, has rarely been neutral in South Asia post-1947. If we take the Partition, for India – according to the state-approved classic nationalist interpretation – it was the unwelcome outcome of Britain’s policies of divide and rule. In Pakistan’s official narrative, it represented the state’s founding moment: the outcome of a struggle by some of India’s Muslims to have their separate political identity recognised. For Bangladesh, the Partition represents a false dawn, one that arguably became a necessary prelude to its own emergence as a nation state from 1971 onwards.

Historiographical approaches, however, have moved over the decades from concentrating on the ‘high politics’ of ‘the transfer of power’ to innovative attempts at capturing the independence struggle’s ‘history from below’. The Subaltern Studies Collective, which, from the 1980s onwards, has brought non-elites into the freedom movement story, made a seismic impact on South Asian history writing. Likewise, the historians’ interests have shifted from the larger picture to the smaller details — to see what was happening in localities where broader political occurrences could be placed in their immediate circumstances. Women, too, entered the historical frame, although still more on the sidelines than their male counterparts.

History writing, when done well, never involves a static re-enactment of, or a one-way engagement with, the past.

The collective historical ‘obsession’ with independence and Partition, their enduring fascination notwithstanding, is now also counterbalanced – if not superseded – by attention to ‘what happened next’. After all, seven decades – the proverbial threescore and 10 years of a human lifespan – is a pretty long time. There are many other states in the world today that have been in existence for a lot less time.

Two of the best known historians of Pakistan, Ian Talbot and Ayesha Jalal, have done a huge amount of work to shape how the country’s creation and its subsequent evolution are understood today. They have recently produced studies that emphasise the importance of challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about historical dividing lines in this part of the world.

Talbot, who published Pakistan: A New History in 2012, widens his gaze with his 2016 book, A History of Modern South Asia: Politics, States, Diasporas. Essential to his argument in the latter book – and very much in line with the perspective that he has pioneered in his more specialist writing on Punjab – is his deliberate consideration of events at a regional level (South Asia, in this case). In the process, he challenges the all too common tendency to divide the subcontinent’s history along inflexible ‘national’ lines. He delves into the precolonial and colonial eras to establish the baseline, from which he then proceeds to explore the long-term consequences of British policies in South Asia, that – he maintains – tend to be sidelined by nation-specific histories and the triumph of territorial nationalism.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru in London | White Star Archives
Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru in London | White Star Archives

As the title of the book suggests, it has a South Asia-wide remit. The first part takes up a number of key thematic issues: the impact of borders and boundaries, the interconnections between land, society and the environment and the experience of the South Asian diaspora communities around the world. It reminds us that ‘South Asia’ emerged as a geopolitical term only during the Second World War (as did its counterpart,‘South East Asia’). With decolonisation, it was adopted more widely, first by the United States government departments and then by the Commonwealth of Nations, mostly former British colonies.

For Talbot, this “nebulous entity” can only be understood as a concrete reality if it is placed firmly within the “contours of the British Raj” — that is, how British colonial administrators treated the region’s entire land mass as a single geographical and political entity. His study is one of a handful that treat South Asia as a pre-independence whole in order to undertake a systematic examination of the post-independence states of the region, challenging common assumptions about the divergent trajectories of their individual successes and failings.

Talbot questions what he terms “easy assumptions” about the common colonial inheritance and the post-independence stereotypes that these assumptions have fed and sustained. He challenges the simplistic binary approach that deems India to have been an “exceptional” democratic success story as compared to Pakistan’s experience as a “crisis state” par excellence. “… it is important to understand Pakistan on its own terms and not regard it as the ‘other’ of Indian secularism or democratic achievement,” he points out.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan at a public meeting | White Star Archives
Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan at a public meeting | White Star Archives

Talbot highlights the regional dimension of South Asia’s past and present by noting the existence of clear regional patterns in apparently disparate local developments. This dimension underlines the region’s distinct subsequent developments such as the way in which the state – in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alike – has “often been drawn into” internal conflicts because of its own citizens’ “resistance to its policies of cultural, administrative and political centralization”. He talks of a “fearful” South Asian state, determined to prevent further “Balkanization”. The consequences have been obvious in each of the three countries: as the state has sought to address separatist demands as law and order problems, those seeking greater autonomy have ended up raising arms. The story across the region has been a remarkably similar one.

In his chapters on Pakistan, Talbot subdivides the country’s post-1947 history into three main phases: the first part describes Pakistan’s failure to consolidate itself democratically, the second one explores the crisis that led to the birth of Bangladesh and the final one delineates the contours of political developments from the early 1970s onwards. “… despite a seemingly chaotic rush of events and enduring crises, much has remained unchanged in Pakistan since 1971,” he suggests. Problems being faced in the 2010s are not so different from the ones that kept Pakistani people and politicians busy back then.

What is particularly useful is Talbot’s identification of key underlying continuities that have existed alongside the ostensible change. One of these, for instance, is the consequence of the “downsized Pakistani state” (post-1971) that had the effect of exaggerating its asymmetrical power relationship with India. This, in turn, has intensified three long-term policies that have had a huge impact on Pakistani politics, as well as regional political developments: the search for external allies to counterbalance India, resources being channeled into defence expenditure, ignoring other needs and the “use of Islamic proxies to destabilize India’s position in Kashmir”.

Talbot concludes that “Pakistan’s postcolonial history is much more nuanced than its journalistic portrayal in terms of the binary opposites of authoritarianism and democracy, secularism and Islamism, tradition and modernity”. He also reminds his readers that “Pakistan is best understood in terms of the interplay among local, regional, national, and global networks of political, economic, and religious influence,” even when its nationalist historiography suggests otherwise.

After all, “no [state] is an island, entire of itself” (to adapt John Donne’s poetic reminder). It is always important to acknowledge the wider context.

Nehru and Ayub Khan sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1962 | White Star Archives
Nehru and Ayub Khan sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1962 | White Star Archives

In an interview in 2015, Jalal stressed the need “to continually erase so much of what has been written and heard about this country in order to arrive at the messy truth of the present moment of Pakistan”. Like Talbot, she recognises the challenges involved in writing Pakistani history. “Pakistanis have internalized the threats, imagined and real, to the political stability and security of their country. An overwhelming fear of continued chaos and violence, if not outright disintegration, has made it difficult to arrive at balanced assessments of a disturbing present in order to plan for the future as a unified and coherent nation,” she writes in her book, In Search of Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics.

Published in 2014 as “a probing biography of her native land”, the book takes the Partition as the starting point of a nail-biting rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of the country’s post-1947 history. Integrating insights drawn from her earlier writings, Jalal’s argument is that, contrary to popular opinion, Pakistan never went off the rails, precisely because it was never on them in the first place: democratic politics barely survived Pakistan’s difficult birth. Throughout the book, she draws attention to how far pressures emanating from beyond Pakistan’s borders have helped to create conditions in which democracy has been repeatedly sacrificed in the name of security, typically by military generals, but (on occasion) by civilian politicians too.

Our current concerns and priorities mean that we often read history backwards, searching in the past for answers to questions that challenge us in the here and now.

Jalal draws interesting conclusions or ‘lessons’ from the past. The primary one that she takes from Pakistan’s history is that the “democratic transitions after a period of military rule are inherently messy and reversible” and that the challenges for constitutional politics remain huge. But she also identifies some positive or “encouraging signs”, such as the “burgeoning of a popular culture in the midst of state-sponsored Islamization and terrorism” as a “remarkable feat”, drawing as it does on “Pakistan’s rich and vibrant poetic, musical, and artistic traditions that are well manifested in the country’s diverse regional and subregional settings”.

She points out that the country’s cultural wars are far from over: “Being played out in the vortex of global politics, the battle for the soul of Pakistan does not yet have a clear winner. The citizens of Jinnah’s Muslim homeland have a voice still in determining their future.”

David Gilmartin, another well-respected historian of places that became Pakistan, approaches the past with a somewhat different purpose in mind. In his book, Blood and Water: The Indus River Basin in Modern History (published in 2015), he takes his readers on a masterly exploration of what happens when environmental changes join hands with politics, statecraft and the creation of communities and nations. This he does in the framework of the world’s largest modern integrated irrigation system centred in Punjab.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addresses personnel of the Pakistan army | White Star Archives
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addresses personnel of the Pakistan army | White Star Archives

From the second half of the 19th century, privately-owned canals across the Indus basin started making way for canal colonies constructed and managed by the colonial state on a massive scale. In the long run, the state was able to extend its control through these canal colonies, a process that Gilmartin shows continues to the present day. But, as he underscores, the state itself has been neither monolithic nor uncontested. He also explains how, after 1947, the division of a single hydrological system between competing national interests has had profound implications, which subsequent treaty agreements between India and Pakistan have not been able to fully resolve.

Complementing Blood and Water’s innovative approach is Daniel Haines’ Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan (published in 2017), which investigates in great detail the impact of the Indus Waters Treaty on state-making after independence. While its author’s sight remains firmly set on the geopolitics of the Indus river and its tributaries – including entanglements over sovereignty and water in Kashmir and in Punjab’s riverine borderlands – the book explains how water management plays a critical part in the states’ definition of their relationship with each other.

Rivers Divided, accordingly, presents its reader with two consistent lines of argument about the Indus waters dispute in the post-independence period. It first contends that territoriality and sovereignty were central to water politics in the basin, with the control of water flows within national territory being “essential to making a state sovereign … a necessary part of statebuilding”. The dispute was, thus, as much a political problem as an engineering one.

Two of the best known historians of Pakistan, Ian Talbot and Ayesha Jalal, have done a huge amount of work to shape how the country’s creation and its subsequent evolution are understood today.

Secondly, the book argues that the dispute, more broadly, and the Indus Waters Treaty, more specifically, occupied a very particular historical moment — “the ideas about sovereignty that Indian and Pakistani leaders attempted to enact were a product of the two states’ political development after decolonization”, set within a global Cold War context. From the perspective of those on the Pakistani side, its political leaders “asserted a bargaining position on the principle of territorial integrity”.

Haines cautions how Pakistani assertions of territorial integrity should be interpreted. For him, these assertions have always been rooted in broader notions of the legitimacy of the state. Proving to its population in the years following independence that it could go head-to-head with India in order to secure water resources may have been critical to the new Pakistani state’s claims to be a legitimate successor to the British colonial power and authority.

But, importantly, the rhetoric of the river’s geographical integrity did not eventually preclude compromise: “South Asian territoriality was under construction” during those years; while Pakistani politicians, like their Indian counterparts, made “fairly consistent claims regarding territory, sovereignty and water rights”, these did vary, with “sovereignty over water and space … continually contested”.

Lieutenant-General Niazi signs the Instrument of Surrender in Dhaka | White Star Archives
Lieutenant-General Niazi signs the Instrument of Surrender in Dhaka | White Star Archives

The book also reveals how the Indus Waters Treaty was used as a model for India-Pakistan cooperation in Bengal during the late 1960s. The short-lived attempt highlighted potential opportunities as well as pitfalls bound up in applying a relatively successful model of collaboration in a different setting.

In Rivers Divided, water establishes the boundary markers. For Elisabeth Leake’s The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (published in 2016), it is mountains that perform this task. Questions concerning territoriality, state-making and ordinary lives are at the heart of her study of the political continuities and changes that have shaped the experiences of people on both sides of the disputed Durand Line before, during and after independence.

Explaining the Pakhtun tribes’ methods for evading state governance, ongoing border disputes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and competing Indian, American, British and Soviet interests at work in the region, The Defiant Border sheds light on why a place seemingly peripheral to the major centres of power has made such an impact on global politics. And this has happened not just in recent decades, but has been going on since the era of the empire.

The book Makers of Modern Asia (published in 2014) comprises a set of historical portraits of key 20th century Asian leaders. Its editor, Ramachandra Guha – an eminent public intellectual whose writings include environmental, social, political and cricket histories – offers 11 individuals as the lens through which to bring wider Asian political developments into a sharper focus.

As he usefully reminds us, “Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese and Vietnamese all know something – and often a great deal – about such Western leaders as Churchill and Kennedy. Yet they typically know very little about the histories of Asian countries other than their own. Or of their leading political figures ... What [Indians] know (or think they know) of Bhutto or Mao is distorted by the memory of armed conflicts between India on the one side and Pakistan and China on the other … What does the average Indonesian businessman know about Bhutto or his politics? ... Often nothing at all.”

Complementing Blood and Water’s innovative approach is Daniel Haines’ Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan.

Alongside covering such towering figures, such as China’s Mao Zedong, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and Indonesia’s Sukarno, the book has chapters on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Farzana Shaikh, another respected historian of Muslim South Asia, has judiciously analysed the last of these. She sums up Bhutto as follows: “His larger than life personality and the sheer scale of his ambition … made him a thinker and a politician of considerable originality and daring, whose views and policies were compelling to some yet distasteful to others”.

These books, in their different ways, all remind us that history writing, when done well, never involves a static re-enactment of, or a one-way engagement with, the past. Rather, it represents a dynamic and shifting interaction or dialogue that continually revisits that same past (or pasts), posing new questions, challenging engrained assumptions, highlighting new possibilities and making readers think. Thanks to the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the history of places that today comprise Pakistan – whether we are talking about their location within wider history writing about the subcontinent or within their own immediate contexts – has become both extremely complicated and highly contested. This is just as it should be.

George Orwell once famously noted (with dismay) that those who control the present usually control the past. But it is equally important to note that our current concerns and priorities mean that we often read history backwards, searching in the past for answers to questions that challenge us in the here and now. History, whether in or on South Asia, rarely proves an exception to this rule.


This was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue as part of our '70 years of Pakistan' series. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


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