Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics And The Partition Of India


“Your history gets in the way of my memory. I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me… Your memory gets in the way of my memory …”

                                                                                       —- Agha Shahid Ali

Although we have several scholarly books on the Partition of British India, there is still a dearth of studies on how it was implemented in the two Muslim-majority British Indian provinces, the Punjab and Bengal. Almost all the scholarly and popular writings on the Partition are on the rise and growth of Hindu-Muslim conflict (“communalism”) that culminated into the creation of Pakistan, signaling the fruition of Muslim separatism or Jinnah’s Two-Nation-Theory. There are also studies that demonstrate that the Partition was not inevitable, even one year prior to the catastrophic event of August 1947. Almost all of the studies focus the activities, ideologies, perceptions, limitations, wrongdoings, success and failures of the main leaders on the top, perceived to be the main actors who made the Partition inevitable. Not only these studies have singled out the elite leaders on the top – Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru or Mountbatten – as the main actors of the “Partition Drama” by denying any space to the “subalterns” on the stage, but most importantly, they have also failed to appraise Hindu “communalism” in the partitions of the Punjab and Bengal.

changing-handsWhile most scholars single out Jinnah’s Two-Nation-Theory as the main factor behind the Partition of British India, some of them hold political intransigence and lack of foresight among leaders like Nehru and Patel responsible for it. However, as Joya Chatterjee’s path breaking work, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, shows how decisive was the minority Bengali Hindu community’s role in the secondary partition of Bengal in 1947, so is Neeti Nair’s Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2011) another seminal study of the minority Punjabi Hindu community’s important role in the partition of the Punjab between India and Pakistan. Both Chatterjee and Nair have dispelled the myth about the one single Partition by telling us the stories of the two other partitions of Bengal and the Punjab, respectively, which made the “Great Divide” inevitable. The only major drawback of this important book by Nair is its misleading subtitle, which instead of “Hindu Politics and the Partition of India” should have been “Hindu Politics and the Partition of the Punjab”.

This book is a departure from the traditional historiography of the Partition. Nair’s approach to the history of the Partition of India helps us understand the other two important partitions that took place in the Punjab and Bengal. It is noteworthy that without the partitions of the Punjab and Bengal, postcolonial India would have remained united as Pakistan was carved out mainly out of the Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s latest work is another milestone in the newly emerging corpus of microcosmic study of the Partition. His magnum opus, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Oxford University Press, 2012) is complementary to the volume under review.

Chatterjee, Nair and Ahmed have de-emphasized Muslim separatism or Jinnah’s Two-Nation-Theory as the main contributing factor behind the partitions of the Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab. They have helped us understand that the apparently communally motivated movements in the Punjab and Bengal actually reflected the nationalist aspirations of the underdogs. These important studies spell out the often ignored facts that a) the Pakistan movement reflected the nationalist aspirations of Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bengali Muslim majority communities in northwestern and eastern India, Punjabi; and b) Bengali Hindus’ separatist aspirations on the other hand reflected their apprehensions of losing power and privilege to the hitherto subjugated and under-privileged Muslim majorities in the Punjab and Bengal. Hindu elites and “subalterns” in the Punjab and Bengal – out of sheer mundane reasons – preferred the partitioned to the united entities of the Punjab and Bengal. These important studies and my humble work on the communalization of class politics in Bengal (Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia) have spelled out the following: a) “communal” (both Hindu and Muslim) movements in colonial India actually reflected the nationalist aspirations of minorities; b) elite manipulation rather than the elusive “autonomous domain” of “subaltern consciousness” played the decisive role in mobilizing grassroots support for nationalist and separatist movements in colonial India; and c) religion and “ethnicity” (or the ingredients that formulate “imagined communities”), rather than class and linguistic identities, had been the most important factors in this regard.

There are six core chapters besides the relatively shorter but refreshingly crisp and crunchy introductory and concluding chapters in the volume. Nair begins by quoting a Punjabi Hindu leader Dr. Gokul Chand Narang, who twenty years after the Partition told his interviewers in 1967 [p.2] that to him “Pakistan was much a lesser evil than parity” (what Jinnah is said to have demanded for Muslims in the Punjab). It is crystal clear from the above assertion by a prominent Punjabi Hindu leader that Punjabi Hindus preferred Hindu-majority India to Muslim-Sikh-majority Punjab. Then again, as Nair has demonstrated, “Most Punjabis had not seen Partition coming”. Those who think the Partition was inevitable, Nair’s following appraisal of the year of the partitions would be enlightening: “Measured analyses in the fearful decade before 1947 always concluded that both freedom and unity were within reach. It was inconceivable that Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs would do anything but live together after sorting out their political differences. This much was inevitable” [p.2]. However, she then skillfully explains how the “inevitability” of remaining united as citizens of united India for the Indians turned elusive and illusory, thanks to the concerted effort of Muslim communalist politics, British duplicities, Hindu arrogance and Hindu communalism in Muslim-majority Punjab.

One has reasons to be happy with Nair for her competent handling of the traditional and new historiography of the Partition. She tends to agree with Partha Chatterjee’s thesis about the “historic failure of the nation to come to its own” and his hypothesis about the existence of “autonomy in the inner, spiritual lives of colonial subjects”. Being cognizant of Ranajit Guha’s (and other Subaltern scholars’) stressing the importance of the “autonomous domain of subaltern consciousness” as the main determinant of modern Indian history, and Gyan Pandey’s emphasis on the discourse of “community” to understand the Partition violence, Nair has strongly agreed with the latter about the importance of a “new historiography” to understand the causes of the Partition. She has done an excellent job by bridging the “impassable divides” between the elite and “Subaltern” historiography of the Partition.

Although she has taken into account the importance of Subaltern Studies as “it is hardly possible to exclude socially subordinate classes of society from our analyses”, yet her work has aptly singled out the Hindu elite politicians in All-India and the Punjab perspectives mainly responsible for the Partition. As mentioned above, her main contribution to the corpus of the Partition literature lies in her path breaking discovery of Punjabi Hindus’ “minority syndrome” or “communalism” in the Nehruvian sense of the expression, which was mainly elite-centric and elite-manipulated, very similar to what their Bengali counterparts did in making the second partition of Bengal inevitable.

Nair has revealed as to how Hindu chauvinists like Lajpat Rai paved the way for the Partition and agnostic Nehru made the Partition inevitable. She narrates the little known facts about Rai’s advocacy for the partition of India and the Punjab in the wake of the Kohat Riot in the North-West Frontier Province in 1924. In 1925, as the President of the Hindu Mahasabha (he left the Congress in 1925) Rai demanded “a partition of the Punjab along religious lines, suggesting this would be between a ‘Muslim India and a non-Muslim India’ ”[p.7]. He insisted, “unity cannot be purchased at the cost of Hindu rights” [Ch 2]. Nair has also revealed Nehru’s role in making the Partition inevitable: “Jawaharlal Nehru, who grew to have enormous influence in the Punjab Congress, prevented Punjabi Hindus from forging pacts with Punjabi Muslims, as well as, indeed, other Hindus belonging to the Unionist Party [p.258].” Nair should have used and cited Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom, the complete version that came out thirty years after his death in 1988, where he has mainly held Nehru and Congress, not Jinnah and Muslim League, responsible for the Partition.

The core chapters of the book are “Loyalty and Anti-Colonial Nationalism” (Ch 1); “Negotiating a Minority Status” (Ch 2); “Religion and Non-Violence in Punjabi Politics” (Ch 3); “Towards an All-India Settlement” (Ch 4); “Partition Violence and the Question of Responsibility” (Ch 5); and “Memory and the Search for Meaning in Post-Partition Delhi” (Ch 6). The well-structured chapters, which are very cohesive, interconnected and relevant to the main theme of the work reflect the author’s scholarship, hard work and ability to correlate primary and secondary sources and an excellent synthesis of published and unpublished sources, including oral evidence of the survivors of the Punjab Partition.

Chapter 1 gives us an understanding of the agrarian roots and urban ramification of the conflict between predominantly Muslim peasantry and Hindu professional-business- moneylender classes in the Punjab. This divide between the landed Muslim classes and Hindu elites communalized the class conflict in the Punjab, which the colonial government further aggravated through its controversial Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 by restricting the transfer of land from “agricultural tribes” (Muslims and Sikhs) to “non-agricultural tribes” or classes (Hindu traders and moneylenders). The agrarian roots of the Punjab Partition deserve more independent studies for a proper understanding of the Partition. Nair has shown as to how Punjabi Hindu leaders mobilized mass support against the Land Alienation Act, which later emerged as an important catalyst to the politics of anti-colonialism and the partition in the Punjab. It is noteworthy that she has not only highlighted the agrarian dimension of the Punjab politics but also the non-agrarian Hindu elite politicians’ drawing a parallel between patriotism and communalism. Her citing Lal Chand’s speech is very pertinent in this regard: “Patriotism ought to be communal and not merely geographical” [Ch 1]. I find some resonance of my own work on the communal partition of Bengal, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947 (Westview Press, Boulder 1992) which shows Bengali Muslim elite’s successful manipulation (cultural hegemony) of the so-called autonomous domain of Muslim subaltern or peasant consciousness to strengthen the Pakistan movement in eastern Bengal.

Chapter 2 sheds light on some very striking events and developments in the 1920s that had far-reaching consequences in the history of modern Punjab (and South Asia). It gives us a fascinating story about the rise of Hindu Sangathan, Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu communal parties and outfits in the Punjab in the wake of the Kohat Riot in 1924.

Nair in this chapter elaborates the rabidly nationalistic, patriotic, and “communal” phases of Punjab’s history in the 1920s. She elaborates and explains the events, ideologies and ideologues of the Punjab that led to the climax of the joint Hindu-Muslim anti-colonial movement followed by the bitter Hindu-Muslim conflict in the 1920s. During the 1920s, for the first and last time since the abortive “Mutiny” or the First War of Indian Independence in 1857-58, Punjabi Hindus and Muslims (like their counterparts in other provinces of British India) jointly took part in anti-British movements. This was the period when the bulk of Punjabi Muslims (and Muslims elsewhere in British India) turned anti-British primarily out of the extra-territorial, Pan-Islamic issue of the Khilafat (Caliphate), while indigenous issues like the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre – that reflected the worst side of the British Raj – were mainly responsible for the rise in anti-British sentiment among Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab. Nair appraises the sudden growth in Hindu-Muslim rivalry in the Punjab soon after the Kohat Riot in the NWFP in 1924.

How Hindu communalists succeeded in alienating Punjabi Muslims from the Gandhi-led Congress, which despite its holding Muslims responsible for the Kohat Riot lost ground to Hindu communal forces, that eventually called the shot to divide the Punjab and India between a “Muslim India and a non-Muslim India” in 1947. Interestingly, this chapter shows how gradually an Indian nationalist like Lajpat Rai turned into an avowedly anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist. In 1924, Rai was quite ambiguous, vacillating and misleading. He felt that having extra-territorial loyalty, Indian Muslims were more Pan-Islamists than Indians and that India was “neither Hindu nor Muslim”. He was also quite equivocal about the Sangathan (which was an anti-Muslim Hindu communal organization) in the Punjab. He felt that the Sangathan had nothing anti-Muslim in its constitution “but to be frank, the fact that it is anti-Muslim is the only thing that keeps it alive”(italics in original) [p.76]. In short, this chapter shows how the equivocal statements by Rai and other Hindu Punjabi leaders in the 1920s polarized the Hindu and Muslim communities in the province, which later led to the Partition.

Chapter 3 follows the sequel to the mass communalization process in the Punjab that first became evident in the 1920s. This chapter describes and elucidates the overpowering influence of the bigoted and “communal” Swami Shraddhanand of Arya Samaj (Aryan Society) who emerged as the avatar and “liberator” of the Hindus of Punjab and northwestern India. He preached the doctrine of Shuddhi (purification) to “re-convert” the so-called “untouchables” and Muslims into Hindus. This movement gave further fillip to Muslim separatism and the missionary Tabligh Movement among north Indian Muslims at the grassroots level. This chapter shows as to how the Punjab played the leading role in alienating Indian Hindus and Muslims from each other, which in 1947 led to the communal partitions of the Punjab and British India.

This chapter also elucidates the ideas and events leading to the non-communal revolutionary movement in the Punjab in the 1930s, which fizzled out after the mass arrests and execution of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev in 1931. It is noteworthy that some top leaders of the apparently non-communal revolutionary movement in the Punjab, including Bhagat Singh, were influenced by the Hindu militancy espoused by Swami Shraddhanand. Chapter 3 also draws our attention to the several undercurrents in the Punjab politics, underneath the apparently non-violent communal politics in the province. This chapter helps us understand as to how violent communal politics (that led to the Partition) of the 1930s gradually overshadowed the non-violent aspect of communalism in the Punjab.

Chapter 4 elaborates attempts by Indian leaders, especially Gandhi and Jinnah, and the colonial administration to reach an all-India settlement of communal issues in the 1930s and 1940s by unilateral and bilateral declarations, meetings and roundtables. This chapter gives descriptive and analytical appraisals of divergent ideologies and interests of communities and their leaders that led to the failure of the Round Table Conferences (1931-32), the Communal Award and Poona Pact, the Jinnah-Prasad negotiations (1935), the Sikander-Jinnah Pact (1937), the Cripps Mission (1942) and the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946), with special reference to the divisive/communal role of Punjabi Hindus during the decisive 1930s and 1940s. Nair’s evaluation of Punjab’s Hindu Congress leaders’ vacillating stands and ambivalent statements about the party’s stand on the Partition is refreshingly enlightening. She has cited the example of a Punjabi Hindu Congress leader, Diwan Chaman Lall, in this regard. Lall, who earlier had promised that the Congress would never agree to Pakistan, declared in March 1947 that the “Congress resolution recommending partition had produced a ‘tremendously reassuring effect’ and would help bring a ‘breath of reality into the present abnormal situation’” [p.171].

Nair has also held Nehru partially responsible for the partitions of the Punjab and Bengal (which was in accordance with the wish of Punjabi and Bengali Hindus). She has singled out the All-India Congress Committee and Nehru – not Jinnah – responsible for the “fragmentation of India’s provinces”. Nair holds the Hindu Mahasabha leadership responsible for the partitions of the Punjab and Bengal. It wanted “to establish two more provinces [Punjab and Bengal] where Hindus would be in a majority” (italics in original) [p.173]. Last but not least, Nair quite incisively holds Nehru and the Punjab Congress responsible for the partition of the Punjab: “If Nehru called for a partition to ‘avoid conflict,’ the Punjab Congress invoked unity only to deny it in the same breath [p.172].”

Chapters 5 and 6 are the most interesting parts of the book. Chapter 5 is mainly based on archival sources; and Chapter 6 is an excellent reconstruction of the history of the Partition Violence, based on oral sources. Using India Office Records, Viceregal papers and other primary unpublished sources from the Transfer of Power documents Nair has done an impressive job. She has proven very convincingly that the Partition violence in the Punjab had very little to do with religious fanaticism. The author has elucidated how an indifferent colonial regime, which was unwilling to stay in India beyond early1948, and the failure of all political negotiations between the major political parties in the Punjab, precipitated the not-so-surprising “Partition Bloodbath” in the Punjab. In Chapter 5, she has narrated some stories and enriched our knowledge by hard facts and her subtle approach to the problem of the Partition Violence with complete objectivity in reconstructing what various historians have characterized as “genocide”, “ethnic cleansing”, “sectarian violence”, “communal violence”, and “civil war”.

Nair’s fifty-odd “semi-structured interviews” in her language of former refugees from West Punjab in New Delhi in 2002 and 2003. She has been very successful in presenting her “hydra-headed phenomenon” that envelopes the Partition Violence, which was much more than genocides, civil wars and communal violence. In sum, Chapters 5 and 6 shatter the myth about religious fanaticism being the main factor behind the Partition Violence in the Punjab. I like the section on “Memory and History” in Chapter 6, where the author argues quite emphatically that as people’s memories of particular events depict different things so are histories so different for different people at different places. One cannot agree more with the author that:

School histories or rather official histories of the “freedom movement” taught in India and Pakistan treat the events that led to these two countries’ freedom quite differently. For India, the year 1947 signifies independence and the endnote of a non-violent anti-colonial movement; for Pakistan, it embodies freedom from both British and Hindu domination and the creation of a homeland for Muslims [p.252].

In sum, any divergent view of the Partition history, which holds Hindu leaders responsible for the Partition, is very unpalatable to many adherents of Hindutva in contemporary India. As Neeti Nair cites the example of Bharatiya Janata Party’s successful marginalization of L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh (the latter was expelled from the BJP) for their portrayal of Jinnah as “non-communal” and “secular” in the recent past. Nair tells us that the post-Partition India is not yet ready for any divergent history of the Partition to replace the “official nationalist historiography” that is at the core of all history text books in the country [p.261].

One knows, the fate of any divergent history of the Partition in Pakistan that questions the legitimacy of the Pakistan Movement. It would not be that different from what happened to Advani and Jaswant Singh, in India. The author’s main arguments are quite thought provoking, and embolden the nonconformist historians within and outside India. It is time that Pakistani historians also start penning nonconformist versions of the Partition, which was anything but a quest for a “New Medina” or a new caliphate to go back to the days of early Islam in Arabia. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s path breaking work, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed is a significant departure from the genre of “patriotic historiography” in Pakistan. Finally, as Nair has beautifully explains as to how “shockingly petty political differences” made the Partition inevitable. There was nothing foregone and inevitable about it [pp.260-61].

Taj Hashmi, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN 37042, USA [email protected]


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