The nightmarish horrors of India’s partition by the British 70 years ago on Aug. 15, 1947, cast a long shadow into the 21st century. At that time, it is estimated that more than 1 million people were killed in communal rioting and some 15 million were displaced. This gruesome mayhem suffered by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs bequeathed a legacy of distrust and animosity that is the dry kindling of communal violence.
The festering wounds of hastily drawn borders remain geopolitical flashpoints that have sparked wars and terrorism. State identities in India and Pakistan draw on this trauma, infusing nationalism with the primordial passions of victimization and revenge. Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh, divided by culture and 2,000 kilometers of Indian territory from Pakistan, fought for its independence in 1971, a conflict that claimed as many as 3 million lives and displaced tens of millions more.
K. Anis Ahmed, Bangladeshi author of the novel “The World in My Hands,” says: “What’s most remarkable is that unlike both sides of the Punjab border or even Hindus who moved to West Bengal, Muslims who lived here and came from the other side have less reaction to the partition. This is partly due to the bigger and more recent event of the Liberation War of 1971.” Perhaps, he adds, because “both natives and newcomers ultimately gained a new country that belongs to them equally. This is not to say that there aren’t those who didn’t suffer, but the memory has been much less of a factor in political eventualities here.”
The British have much to answer for. According to Ananya Vajpeyi, author of “Righteous Republic” and fellow and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, “most of the conflicts going on in South Asia, whether within India, Pakistan or Bangladesh or between them, are directly or indirectly products of the unfinished business of partition, staggered from 1947 to 1971.”
Partition also transformed Kashmir into a zone of contention and led within months to the first of four wars between Pakistan and India in what remains one of the world’s hottest flashpoints. The Indian Army’s massive, ruthless occupation of a resentful population in Kashmir continues as these nuclear-armed states periodically skirmish, stoking the flames of antagonism.
Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri journalist working for The New York Times and author of “Curfewed Night,” an account of the conflict in his homeland, says: “The hurried partition of India was one of the greatest imperial crimes of the British Empire. The massive displacements and the fratricide that accompanied it affected the subcontinent deeply and its legacy has shaped and twisted South Asian societies immensely.” Divided between India and Pakistan, “Kashmir carries the curse of being the unfinished business of the partition. The dispute has lingered and exacted a terrible cost for the past seven decades, and the hopes of a just peace and solution are very little.”
Nisid Hajari, author of “Midnight Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition,” told me that partition was not inevitable and there had been an agreement between the British, India’s Congress party and its Muslim League “on a united India, under a convoluted constitutional plan.” But, he says, “this deal collapsed largely because of lack of trust: Nehru and the Congress feared the Muslim areas would secede if given too much power; while Jinnah and the League feared that Congress would never hold up its end of the bargain once the British left.” Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were destined to become the first leaders of postcolonial India and Pakistan, respectively.
In Hajari’s view, “avoiding partition wouldn’t necessarily have avoided bloodshed. The August 1947 riots may have been prevented, and thus hundreds of thousands of lives saved. But no one knows if the country would have held together or broken apart in ensuing years in multiple, equally bloody partitions.”
The repercussions of partition, Hajari says, “are playing out in a couple ways. Most obviously, the easy demonization of Pakistan and resort to belligerence and threats — albeit in the face of provocations by Pakistani-backed militants — is a legacy of the enmity created at partition. It’s simply far too easy to cast Pakistan as an enemy and far too difficult politically to make real concessions in the interests of peace.”
Oxford historian Faisal Devji, author of “Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea,” asserts that “unlike what conventional wisdom says, partition did not illustrate the dominance of religious identities but rather the opposite. For it resulted in the wholesale betrayal by Hindus and Muslims of their co-religionists who remained in Pakistan and India, respectively.” He adds, “One reason why Islam remains so touchy a subject in Pakistan is because it serves to cover over this initial betrayal, but only at the cost of repeating it with the violent subjugation of East Pakistan and eventual independence of Bangladesh.”
In Hajari’s view, “The anti-Muslim current that’s taken hold in parts of the country — as expressed in these beef-related lynchings, warnings about “love jihad” and so on — theoretically have nothing to do with Pakistan. But it blends far too easily into accusations that Muslims — especially those in Kashmir — are “anti-national” and Pakistani sympathizers if they express any criticism of the government. This sense that Muslims are a potential fifth column has grown out of the deep sense of betrayal forged at partition, and is easy to revive in times, like now, when majoritarian sentiment is on the rise. “
Pankaj Mishra, author of “The Age of Anger,” regards the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindu chauvinism as representing “the unfinished business of partition — its crude logic, which was disguised by the rhetoric of secularism for a long time.” He rues that in contemporary India, “the nation-state cannot allow equal citizenship to its citizens, and that majoritarianism has to prevail.
Siddartha Deb, a professor of creative writing at The New School whose novel “The Point of Return” examines the consequences of displacement caused by partition, observes: “The partition has shown an uncanny ability to replicate itself through the decades, in mini-partitions, mini-massacres, and the marginalization and brutal treatment of minorities that has become the governing spirit of nationalism in South Asia.”
He laments that “one can see that original genocidal rage burning on, in the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 that completed the rise to power of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well as in the lynch mob mentality asserted by the right-wing groups to which he belongs, that killed and plundered with glee in 1947 and that continue to do so today.”
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.