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Imaginary Homelands

Victims of the brinkmanship of the British, the Congress and Muslim League, the masses were neither committed to a Hindu state nor an Islamic nation

Imaginary Homelands

The Sun had risen fairly high when we reached Amritsar... Every time I visited Amritsar, I felt captivated. But the city this time presented the look of a cremation ghat, eerie and stink ing... The silence was so perfect that even the faint hiss of steam from the stationary engine sounded like a shriek. Only some Sikhs were hanging about, with unsheathed kirpans  which they occasionally brandished... The brief stoppage seemed to have lingered into eternity till the engine whistled and gave a gentle pull... We left Chheharta and then Atari and when we entered Wagah and Harbanspura everyone in the train felt uplifted. A journey through a virtual valley of destruction ended when finally the train came toa halt at Platform No 2-Lahore, the moment was as gratifying as the consummation of a dream.

Mohammad Saeed, Lahore:
A Memoir (Lahore, 1989), p.94

PARTITION cast its shadow over many aspects of state and society. Yet the literature on this major event is mostly inadequate, impressionistic, and lacking in scholarly rigour. Even after 50 years of Independence and despite the access to wide-ranging primary source materials in libraries and archives, there are no convincing arguments that explain why and how the two-nation theory emerged, why and how different forms of identity and consciousness were translated into a powerful campaign for a Muslim state, why and when the Muslim League enlarged its constituency, and why the vivisection of the subcontinent created at least 10 million refugees and resulted in at least one million deaths.

Part of the reason is the flawed frame of reference, the inclination of many writers to draw magisterial conclusions from isolated events, their readiness to construct identities around religious lines, and their engagement with all-India parties, like the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, and national leaders like Gandhi, Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. In consequence, the discussion is pitched at a general level and is essentially based on the statements of leaders and their negotiations with British officials in Lutyen's Delhi and Whitehall.

Social scientists must intervene in the existing debates and not let the generalists get away with their biased views and interpretations. We need to challenge the commonly held assumptions on Muslim politics generally, delineate the ideological strands in the Pakistan movement, explore its unities and diversities, and plot its growth and trajectory without preconceived suppositions. We need to ask, for example: Was there intrinsic merit in religious/Islamic appeals? Does one search for clues in British policies which were tilted in favour of the Muslims to counter the nationalist movement?; in the ensuing clash between Hindu and Muslim revivalist movements?; in violent contests over religious symbols, a dispute recently played out around the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya?; in the exploitation of religious and cultural symbols and their manipulation by competing elites to secure a vantage-point in government, business and professions? We need to be told, furthermore, why the idea of a Muslim nation appealed to the divided and highly stratified Muslim communities, enabling Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his lieutenants to marshal resources to launch the crusade for a separate Muslim homeland.

As a starting point, it is necessary to repudiate Jinnah's 'two-nation' theory as a plausible explanation for the birth of Pakistan. Time and time again it has been pointed out that Hindus and Muslims, having lived together for centuries in perfect peace and amity, did not constitute separate social, economic or political entities, and that their common points of contact and association were based on enduring inter-social connections and shared material interests. Neither the followers of Islam nor of Hinduism were cohesive in themselves. Their histories, along with social habits, cultural traits and occupational patterns, varied from class to class, hem place to place, and from region to region. During his tour in 1946-47, British civil servant Malcolm Darling found, in the tract between the Beas and Sutlej rivers in Punjab, much similarity between Hindus and Muslims. He asked how was Pakistan to be fitted into these conditions? He was bothered by the same question while passing between the Chenab and Ravi, and commented: "What a hash politics threatens to make of this tract, where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh are as mixed up as the ingredients of a well-made pilau (rice cooked with fowl or meat)...I noted how often in a village Muslim and Sikh had a common ancestor. It is the same here with Hindu and Muslim Rajputs.... A Hindu Rajput...tells me that where he lives in Karnal to the south, 50 villages had converted to Islam in the days of Aurangzeb. They belong to the same clan as he does, and 15 years ago offered to return to the Hindu fold, on the condition that their Hindu kinsfolk would give them their daughters in marriage. The condition was refused and they are still Muslim. In this area, even where Hindu and Muslim belong to different clans, they still interchange civilities at marriage, inviting mullah or Brahmin, as the case may be, to share in the feasting."

If the ideological underpinnings of the two-nation theory stand refuted by the weight of historical evidence, then the search for a political explanation of Partition must begin with the fluid political climate on the eve of and during World War I, and with the substantive issue--one that concerned political parties and their constituencies--of gaining political power and leverage in the enlarged and rapidly-changing administrative and bureaucratic structures. This accounts for the swiftness with which the two-nation idea succeeded in becoming actualised. In fact, the intensity of emotions involved had more to do with the political and economic anxieties of various social classes than with a profound urge to create a Muslim/Islamic state. In its conception and articulation, therefore, the vocal demand for carving out a Muslim nation summed up the fears of the landed classes and the aspirations of the newly-emergent professional groups in north India and the small but influential industrial magnates of western and eastern regions.

The bitter and violent contest over power-sharing culminating in Partition reveals a great deal about the three major themes that have dominated South Asian historiography--colonialism, nationalism and communalism. What it does not reveal, however, is how the Partition affected millions, uprooted hem home and field by sheer fear of death to seek safety across a line they had neither drawn nor desired. History books do not record the woes of divided families, the plight of migrants, the pain, trauma and sufferings of those who had to part from their kin, friends and neighbours, their deepening nostalgia for places they lived in for generations and forcibly abandoned, the anguish of those devotees who thought that destiny was taking them far away from places of religious worship that were part of their being, and the harrowing experiences of countless people who bearded the train that would take them to the realisation of their dreams, but of whom not a man, woman or child survived the journey.

Take the case of Saddan, a character in Rahi Masoom Raza's famous Hindi novel Aadha Gaon (Half-a-Village), He migrated to Pakistan, but claimed to be the same Syed Saadatul Hasnain Zaidi of village Gangauli. How could Gangauli be another country! When in Pakistan, he would miss Shia congregations during Muharram. "These memories were of no particular importance, they were extremely foolish memories, but still Saddan embraced each one of them again and again and wept. He yearned for Gangauli..."

There were many Gangaulis in India, with their Zaidis, Ghafoors and Hajis, where people did not quite understand the logic behind Muslim nationalism. Hindus and Muslims living in harmony and goodwill could not come to terms with the ill-will and hostility conveyed through speeches and pamphlets. That is why one can spot so many Gangaulis on India's map where the Muslim League's message reached but failed to impress. There were, indeed, many Gangaulis where the protagonists of Pakistan encountered bitter opposition in their bid to win over a following.

The professed ideology of nation-state itself had no great relevance or immediacy to the millions bartered between India and Pakistan. Most Muslims were not fascinated by Pakistan, which they neither understood nor approved of, except as a remote place where they would go, as on a pilgrimage. Some left hoping to secure rapid promotions but not to set up permanent homes. It did not really matter to peasants and mill-workers whether they were to be located in 'India' or 'Pakistan'. Notice, for example, how Muslim employees of the East India Railway in Kanpur stayed put in India after having opted for Pakistan. Consider, too, how 8,000 government servants returned to their homes in March 1948, months after they had left for Pakistan.

IN other words, most people, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike, were largely unconcerned with the newly-created geographical entities. Yet they were caught up in the cross-fire of religious hatred. Some were driven out of fear; panic and a sense of hopelessness. Most were hapless victims of a triangular gameplan, worked out by the British, the Congress and the Muslim League without care or consideration for a vast number of people who were committed neither to a Hindu homeland nor to an imaginary World of Islam. They had no destination to reach, no mirage to follow. They were unclear whether Lahore or Gurdaspur would be in India or Pakistan. They did not know whether Delhi or Dacca would remain in Gandhi's India or Jinnah's Pakistan.

In fact, 'India' and 'Pakistan' were no more than territorial abstractions to those who had little knowledge of how Mountbatten's Plan or the Radcliffe Award would change the destinies of millions and tear them apart from their familiar social and cultural moorings. "The English have flung away their Raj like a bundle of old straw," a peasant told a British official, "and we have been chopped in pieces like butcher's meat". This was a telling comment by a 'subaltern' on the meaning attached to the Pakistan movement.

Saadat Hasan Manto, the famous Urdu writer, captures the mood in Toba Tek Singh, one of his finest stories. "As to where Pakistan was located, the inmates knew nothing...the mad and the partially mad were unable to decide whether they were now in India or Pakistan. If they were in India where on earth was Pakistan?...It was also possible that the entire subcontinent of India might become Pakistan. And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely vanish from the map of the world one day?"

Pakistan was won, but people on both sides of the fence were tormented by gruesome killings, by the irreparable loss of families and by the magnitude of an epic tragedy. There were memories on both sides of living side by side with friends, of a shared cultural and intellectual heritage, and of fighting together for Independence and raising the banner of revolt against colonial rule. The birth of Pakistan, a prized trophy for some, destroyed Mohammad Iqbal's melodious lyric of syncretic nationalism--Naya Shivala (New Temple)--once the ideal of patriots and freedom-fighters. It severed or fragmented cultural ties, undermined a vibrant intellectual tradition and introduced a discordant note in the civilisational rhythm of Indian society. The birth of freedom on that elevated day--August 14, 1947, for Pakistan and August 15 for India--did not bring India any ennobling benediction. On the contrary, the country was shaken by 'a volcanic eruption'. In the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, renowned Urdu poet: This is not that long-looked-for break of day/ Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades/ Set out, believing that in heaven's wide void/Somewhere must be the star's last halt/ Somewhere the verge of night's slow-washing tide,/ Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.

So, which country did poets like Faiz and writers like Manto belong to? India or Pakistan? Manto, for one, tried in vain to separate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India. He asked himself: Will Pakistani literature be different-and if so, how? To whom will now belong what had been written in undivided India? Will that be partitioned too? The uppermost question in his mind was: Were we really free? Both Hindus and Muslims were being slaughtered. Why? There were different answers: the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Surely, "every question had an answer but when you tried to unravel the truth, you were left groping". And there was no answer.

Manto's postscript on a colossal human tragedy must not be ignored by social scientists. His anguish was not of an individual, but were shared by the silent majority on both sides, including those 1,000 persons who, after 18 months of separation, met at the Husainiwala customs barrier in February 1949. They did not pull out daggers but embraced one another. Their sentiments can neither be reflected in the elegant exchanges between the viceroy and secretary of state nor in the unlovely confabulation between Congress and League managers.

Today, the curtain is drawn on the Husainiwala border; so people from India and Pakistan gather every evening at Wagah to witness a colourful military parade. With anguish writ large on their faces, they seem to echo the widespread feeling that never before in South Asian history did so few divide so many in so short a time. Indeed, never before had so few decided the fate of so many.

"What a world of loneliness lies upon Shabbir (Hussain, grandson of the Prophet) this day!" Everyone who heard these lines in Gangauli lamented. They did so to mourn Hussain's martyrdom in Karbala, but also because "the cut umbilical cord of Pakistan was around their necks like a noose, and they were all suffocating". Now they knew what 'a world of loneliness' meant! Life was not the same anymore with relatives across the border. People were worried. They were alone and depressed. The nights became intolerable. "There was a desire to dream, but what was there to dream about?" The atmosphere was foul. It was such that "the blood of one's veins was wandering hopelessly in Pakistan, and the relationships and mutual affections and friendships...were breaking, and in place of confidence, a fear and deep suspicion was growing in people's heart".

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