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Partition One Word, Many Meanings


Jun 1, 2004
One Word, Many Meanings by Mashirul Hasan

Such was the polysemy of Partition in the minds of those who lived through the transfer of power.

Qurratulain Hyder's novel Mere Bhi Sanam Khane portrayed the sparks of Partition blowing up the pathways of a composite culture, leaving a yawning gap of burning dust. Some of the writings of Intizar Husain, now in India as a Sahitya Akademi guest, reflect how an ongoing cultural process was stalled in "a very unnatural way" by a few Muslims and Hindus who, with their puritan frame of mind, contributed to the tragedy of Partition.

Expectations of Partition were mixed; some longed for Lahore in India, others hoped Punjab’s boundary would also take in Delhi.

To survey the making of Pakistan as a whole, to discover trends in the Partition movement and to seek out its meanings, Yasmin Khan is not the first to make the attempt. Why, then, another tome? Partition, she writes, deserves closer attention as one of 20th century's darkest hour. It is a loud reminder of the dangers of colonial interventions, and the profound difficulties that dog regime change; lastly, it is "a testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken...unknowable...paths".

Readable and insightful in parts, Khan's book neither sheds much light on the protracted negotiations between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British, nor does it seek out and punish the 'guilty'. Instead, it challenges the one-dimensional versions of the past, the "messy ambiguities" of Partition, and the uncertain meanings of Partition and Pakistan in the minds of the people living through the transfer of power. The book's merit lies in introducing the various vocabularies of freedom in circulation in the late 1940s.

Elsewhere, I had argued that people had no sense of the newly demarcated frontiers, and little or no knowledge of how the Mountbatten Plan or Radcliffe Award would change their destinies, and, moreover, uproot them from their familiar socio-cultural moorings. "The English have flung away their Raj like a bundle of old straw," an angry peasant told a British official, "and we have been chopped in pieces like butcher's meat." This was the meaning a 'subaltern' attached to the Partition movement.

Did Panipat's Muslim weavers plan to set up home in Pakistan? No, said Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the writer-filmmaker. Expectations of what Partition would be were mixed. Some longed for Lahore's inclusion in India; others hoped the boundary in Punjab would be drawn to include Delhi. "For millions of people like myself," wrote Pakistani writer Shaista Ikramullah, "a Pakistan without Delhi was a body without heart."

Khan holds out much promise in her introduction. Thereafter, her narrative comes alive. She juxtaposes 'high politics' and popular mobilisation deftly. The picture is irresistibly suggestive and the prose elegant. She takes a dim view of British pride and conceit, and indicts officials for their hypocrisy and failure in dealing with Partition violence. Her account does not work in a void; she has a sense of the factual.

In describing the horror stories, there is always the great danger of repetition—more trains full of dead bodies, more hacked limbs. At the same time, there is also the redeeming repetition of a strong sense of hope and optimism in these tales of despair. According to Prof Amrik Singh, the Muslims from a village in Rawalpindi district did not want to send the non-Muslims away. Nor did they want to kill them. Those who caused mayhem did not belong to his village but were brought in from far away. Many ordinary people rose above the macabre and sinister politics to help the 'other' at the risk of their own lives. In a nutshell, small enclaves of humanism and sanity existed in the surrounding bloodshed.

In a thoughtful epilogue, Khan raises important questions about "a deeply ambiguous, transitional position between empire and nationhood". She asserts, "there was nothing inevitable or pre-planned about the way Partition unfolded". Indeed, "the history of Partition has suggested that modern nation-states had to be crafted out of a chaotic...situation in which myriad voices made their claims and counter-claims".

Saadat Hasan Manto, the enfant terrible of Urdu literature, refused to accept Partition's bloody consequences for long, but did so in the end, without self-pity or despair. It's time we did the same.


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