January 19, 2020
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The Ants Write Their Own Script

Did Partition's onus rest only on its grand players or did the untold story lie outside conference chambers?

The Ants Write Their Own Script
The Ants Write Their Own Script
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Shameful Flight: The Last Days Of The British Empire In India
By Stanley Wolpert
Oxford University Press Pages: 250; Rs: 495
British civil servant Irish Portal captured the mood in the early ’40s when he said "you must never take land away from people. People’s land has a mystique. You can go and possibly order them about for a bit and introduce some new ideas and possibly dragoon an alien race into attitudes that are not quite familiar to them". But then, he added, "you must go away and die in Cheltenham".

Stanley Wolpert revisits the transfer of power in mid-August 1946. Starting with the indictment of Admiral ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, Britain’s last viceroy in India, he concludes his story with the failure of M.K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah to stop the runaway juggernaut to Partition. In the course of this journey, he covers some of the familiar landmarks until we reach the parting of ways, the only seeming solution to an intractable problem.

Nehru conceded that he and his Congress colleagues were tired men and getting on in years. He mentioned that they could not stand the prospect of getting to prison again, and if they had stood out for a united India, prison obviously awaited them. They saw the fires burning in Punjab and heard of the killings. The Partition plan offered a way out. They expected it would be temporary; that Pakistan was bound to rejoin India.

Having traversed the historical terrain from the days of B.G. Tilak and G.K. Gokhale until the present day, Wolpert knows how to weave in facts and personalities into his story. He does not burden us with postcolonial theories or other fanciful discourses; instead, he neatly fits in the dramatic moments of the ’40s in his chapters.

I suggest a change in the overall direction and orientation of our researches on the transfer of power, especially on India’s partition. That is because the grand narrative, with its focus on the British-Congress-Muslim League negotiations, does not factor in how socio-economic changes impacted on class-caste and religion-based alignments. Likewise, individual pronouncements of the leaders mislead us into believing that they were free agents. The fact is that the constituency they had created curbed their actions. As the vivisection of India became imminent, Gandhi’s own sense of impotence increased. "My writ runs no more.... No one listens to me any more.... I am crying in the wilderness."

In other words, Partition debates must be located outside the conference chambers. This is how we may perhaps delineate the local roots of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim nationalisms. That is how the intricate process of the formation of community-based solidarities, which should ideally be the staple diet of present-day historians, can be explored in the public arena, the arena of public performance and of "collective activities in public spaces".

So it may be that the untold story lies in the dusty towns and not always in the faceless metropolitan centres; in and around the bustling vernacular newspaper offices, or in the seemingly benign madrassas, temples and Sufi shrines, the focal point of mobilisation in Sind and Punjab. These were, undeniably, the sites where myths, memories and divisive religious symbols were invented and propagated to heighten communitarian consciousness.

Wolpert neither celebrates religious nationalism nor contests the pluralist heritage in what’s been one of the most multicultural societies in the world. But he doesn’t answer why a society, with its splendidly plural heritage, became the site of one of the most cataclysmic events in 20th-century history. Surely, the onus doesn’t rest, as Wolpert’s narrative implies, on Mountbatten, Gandhi, Nehru or Jinnah. The historian’s history of Partition has to be differently constructed.

This is not the moment to mourn the break-up of India or lament the collapse of a common cultural and intellectual inheritance. What we need is to evolve a common reference point, especially in the subcontinent, for rewriting the histories of an event that cast its shadow over many aspects of state and society. Such an exercise can be undertaken without calling into question the legitimacy of one or the other varieties of nationalism.

The sun in the British Empire set sooner than later; or else the likes of Mountbatten, who made a mess of the task he was assigned, would have prolonged the agony of the colonies in Asia and Africa. He ensured that the last days of the British Empire, the theme of Wolpert’s study, were inglorious, marked by violence against the innocent. The wily Mountbatten, who charmed the future rulers of India and exited triumphantly, needs to be resurrected only to be consigned to the dustbin of colonial history.

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