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Book Review: Partition and its inhumanity

by Khaled Ahmed, 16 March 2009

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Daily Times, 15 March 2009

Humanity amidst Insanity: Hope during and after the Indo-Pak Partition
- by Tridivesh Singh Maini, Tahir Malik & Ali Farooq Malik
- UBSPD, New Delhi, 2009
- Pp186; Price Rs295 Indian

This very thoughtful and much- needed book says Partition was 75 percent inhuman and depraved, but there was 25 percent of it which was human and which has not been memorialised because of the dominant hostile narratives that came after 1947.

The memory of Partition has concretised the communal fracture of India and made it permanent in the shape of India and Pakistan. Even the ‘neutral’ accounts compiled after the more intense periods of nationalism have been ‘partitioned’, the Indian side putting on record the good deeds done by non-Muslims, and the Pakistani side recording the acts of grace of the Muslims.

This book could be the first of its kind. It is ‘unpartitioned’ in its account of the residual good among two savage communities and puts its hope in the 25 percent of the population of India and Pakistan to save the subcontinent from descending into a Hobbesian end of its 1.4 billion people.

Think of it, this can be done very easily too today, with the help of the nuclear weapons that Partition has caused to appear like malignant growths on the map of the region. The book contains interviews with non-Muslims who fled to India in 1947 and 11 interviews with refugee families in Pakistan. One doesn’t need to emphasise that they are moving in the extreme.

Around 13 million changed home in 1947 and it took them two months to complete the process. Hundreds of thousands got killed, women were raped and children lost. The wound of it went deep, bequeathing to South Asia one of the world’s most lethal sets of nationalisms that braked development and prosperity and unleashed poverty-provoking wars. If there was holocaust in the West this was one in which ‘no one community could be held responsible’. Politely, it means both were abysmal. If that is what the book says, which it does, then we are face to face with an evil that was more pervasive and therefore more sinister. That means we were 80 percent all individual Hitlers.

Ashis Nandy thinks that the 25 percent Muslims and non-Muslims not subscribing to the hatred of their community are the saving grace which will finally rescue the Subcontinent from its historical death-wish succubi. He makes a case for abstention of uniformity of thinking that nationalism dictates because the 25 percent at Partition who did not conform are today worth remembering.

One hopes that those in India and Pakistan who did not conform after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 will also be remembered some day when madness has finally left us. But people like Ashish Nandy have always been there though few in number: Khushwant Singh, Balraj Sahni, Kartar Singh Duggal and Saadat Hasan Manto.

The book mentions only Manto as the Pakistani ‘deviant’. That is understandable for two reasons: first that a community that dominates numerically is bound to have more ‘original’ people; second, anxiety levels in a smaller revisionist state are so high that deviationist thinking is cruelly suppressed as opposed to the big status quo power where ‘comfort’ levels prevalent in society tolerate deviationist and innovative thinking.

One can name six Indian historians at the same level of deviationism from the nationalist prescription as Pakistan’s Ayesha Jalal simply because of this difference. But then people like Satish Agarwal, Papiya Ghosh, Urvashi Butalia, and Ritu Menon, together with Ayesha Jalal, are no longer simply Indians and Pakistanis; they belong in the category that this book wants to idealise.

Should we forget Partition as an unpleasant experience? The book says no, but in a way Partition will be consigned to oblivion once, somewhere during the future generations, India and Pakistan become normal towards each other. One reason one shouldn’t go along with the case for retaining the memory is Pakistan’s upcoming Bab-e-Pakistan monument that will memorialise the sufferings of the Muslim refugees without any reference to the suffering of the non-Muslim refugees that went out of Pakistan. Unless, of course, India and Pakistan enter a treaty banning one-sided monuments and pledge to ‘bilateralise’ the suffering of Partition and eulogise only the 25 percent that didn’t kill.

The authors have many ‘intermediaries’ of their pacific cause and they include Pakistan’s great lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan who in his book The Indus Saga told India that it should permit the presence of ‘distinctness’, and told Pakistan not to ignore the ‘commonalities’ that existed between the two countries.

The book focuses on the two Punjabs where ethnic and linguist commonalities set up bonds that can be ignored but not denied. It is termed ‘Punjabi ethos’, reaffirmed by physical contiguity and easy official contacts across the Wahga border. The book enlists the contacts made recently by the two Punjabi chief ministers Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and Amarinder Singh to highlight the jati networks that have not died in Pakistan despite state efforts.

For instance, the Warraich tribe has flourished in Pakistan just as it has in India among the Jats. In Pakistan Warraich is a familiar suffix to Muslim names even though some leaders have taken it off to facilitate their identification with all the population instead of just one tribe. For instance, not many people in Pakistan know that Aitzaz Ahsan and the family of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain are Warraich although it is known that they both are Jats from Gujrat. But the stature of these Jat-Warraich leaders in Pakistan is uncontested, the Chaudhrys at the political level and Aitzaz Ahsan at political and intellectual levels. One can’t disagree with the book that the Sikh state of Punjab can be the positive agent in transforming and humanising the Partition experience.

The book recommends a ‘memorial of the 25 percent’ in the no-man’s land at Wahga, but one must warn that the monument of Bab-e-Pakistan, coming up in Lahore, will easily dwarf it with the malignance of its size and dimensions. One may also in conclusion apologetically remind the authors that Punjabis of Pakistan often do themselves no credit by monopolising the negative aspects of Pakistani nationalism and are responsible, because of their two-thirds majority in population, to arm-twist the rest of Pakistan into perpetuating conflict with India.