May 13, 2021
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The 'Daily' Reality Of Partition

Politics In Newsprint, In 1940s Kanpur. Examining the role of the press, especially the vernacular press in those turbulent times.

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The 'Daily' Reality Of Partition
The 'Daily' Reality Of Partition
Nations are necessarily exercises in remembrance and forgetting; they remember through ritual commemoration and forget through collective amnesia. In the fiftieth year of their Independence, Indians however, decided to commemorate what they had hitherto chosen to suppress or forget. As the subaltern became the authorized alternative to elite officialese, quite a few sacred binaries were opened up, if not reversed. 

Partition as the effaced annexe to our national history became the privileged site for such corrective treatment. So half a century after it happened, Partition and not just Pakistan -- which has always been a constant with the Indian state and people -- again found itself at the centre of both political rhetoric and academic ruminations.

But Pakistan and Partition had always made good copy. Right from its ill-defined birth in 1940, through the myriad definitions that were attached to it, till 1947, when its contours first became visible, the Pakistan demand was one sure way for politicians of all hues to get reported on the front page of national and local newspapers. 

The imprecise parameters of the idea of Pakistan added to its mystique. It travelled the whole gamut of terrain from utopia to dystopia. On the one hand, it was heralded as a panacea for all the problems of Indian Muslims (and of India, by extension), on the other, it was decried as a satanic conspiracy aiming to indefinitely stall India's march towards freedom and progress.

A thematic developed with Partition and Pakistan at its centre. Major national events -- Quit India movement, Cripps and Cabinet missions, Rajagopalachari Plan, Mountbatten Plan and so on -- followed one after another; local incidents abided their own dynamic. There remained, however, a kind of basic continuity in the way all these happenings were articulated by the contemporary press and digested by the public opinion.

News of various 'happenings' was refracted through the prism of Pakistan: the reader was encouraged to understand these newsworthy happenings through the over-arching categories of nation, culture, religion, history and tradition -- all of which were seen as hostage to the notion of Pakistan, or conversely, for the Muslim League sympathizers, to be actualised only through Pakistan itself.

Historians have used newspapers mostly to corroborate opinions and viewpoints backed by hard archival data. Works on the print media have seldom gone further than commenting on its links with political parties, or on the impact of the national movement on the press. The press is seen as a contemporary commentator, a kind of participant observer of the political scene, and it is this very participatory nature which supposedly makes the newspaper unfit to serve as an unbiased and objective historical source. 

Moreover, the non-fixed nature of the newspaper-- in Benedict Anderson's phrase 'the one-day best-seller'-- denies it the very finality normally associated with printed texts.2 Conversely, the news-papers have also been used as direct pointers to popular consciousness. But rarely have they been opened up to historical scrutiny as historical agents involved in the formation of discursive structures that map events.

A product of modernity, the newspaper ventures information that is instant and efficient. Efficiency and speed in collection and dispatch are vital for the dissemination of news as print. The mechanics of this rendering of the event into news is, however, a temporal process that is kept well hidden from view. What is overlooked, or wilfully forgotten is that the 'daily' gives news that is delayed, by at least a day.3

Yet this late news has a kind of immediacy-- for the reader the event happens only when it flashes as printed news. Moreover, the spatial economy of the newspaper conveys the relative importance and newsworthiness of the event: front-page left side (the right-side, in case of Urdu newspapers) news in bold typeface solicits attention as an event of signal importance.

It remains in this privileged position till another of its ilk shifts it to the inner pages, or even out of the paper, and finally out of the reader's mind. The format of news production then automatically limits news reception. News values and news judgements not only direct our thinking to specific areas, but also direct it away from other, apparently non-important, areas, contributing thus to our mental maps of the world.

In the realm of politics, they define -- and define away -- opposition.4 Analyses of news value show that this choosing and prioritising of information is not random but involves an implicit understanding of the nature of society, the location of power in it, as also a notion of how this power is or should be exercised. 

Key categories of news-worthiness -- the elite, the government, political parties -- all have, according to Stuart Hall, the routine knowledge of social structures inscribed within them. "To be intelligible to its audience the press must infer what is already known, as a present or abstract structure, but [this structure] is a construction and interpretation about the world".5

It is an 'interpretation' that parades itself as truth. This was also the case with colonial India, in the 1940s. The press was then, for many, the only available means of engaging with the wider world. Most contemporary newspapers were openly partisan (of course with an eye on the colonial censor), though partisanship was glorified as service to the national movement. A nation could only be made if 'national facts' were known by all. 

The press, and especially the vernacular press, rendered singular service in disseminating the preferred nationalist view of the events, as the only correct way of understanding them. Moreover, many a time the truth offered by the press was the only version that reached the individual in a small town or qasba.

By commenting on and reiterating ad infinitum a subject -- say, for example, Pakistan -- the press in effect constructs images. These images, like coins of exchange, acquire public acceptability and can be recalled by the sheer mention of a single word, or by a news clip from the past. Crucially, this image cannot be dismissed as irrational fabrication. 

The veracity of the press account may be questioned by some, but few people would doubt that the event reported took place in some other way. "For people living in a second hand worlds symbols focus experience (and) meanings organize knowledge, guiding the surface perceptions of an instant no less than the aspirations of a life-time".6

The dependence on mediated knowledge about the world increased manifold in a milieu where the levels of literacy were not very high but the level of political participation was considerable.Along with pamphlets and posters, newspapers formed the basic source of knowledge about leaders and political parties.

The only other means of mass communication remained the grand sabha or public meeting, often organized as reaction to reports (gathered primarily from newspapers) about events or calamities of national importance. As riots took hold of the country from about 1946 to 1948, Kanpur was deluged with various 'days' being celebrated or observed. There was a Noakhali Diwas to protest against atrocities on Hindus in Noakhali, a Bihar Day (yaum-e-Bihar) for those against Muslims, and a Pakistan Day that was countered -- not through a Hindustan Day but, interestingly by a Punjab Diwas. 

These were organized after reports of massacres or riots were published by the local newspaper. In turn, these sabhas themselves were news enough to get reported in local papers, often inciting other reports and events. Beyond such obvious relations between these 'aural' gatherings and printed material, orality freely, and crucially, intermixed with printing and literacy. 

The last and most often, the mass audience of the newspaper was the one that heard it -- transliterated, moreover, from the shuddha bhasha (pure language) into a variety of regional, local dialects, and explained with the help of familiar, and frequently, even familial metaphors and analogies.7

It is to open up and interrogate these images that accrued to Pakistan and Partition at a local level that I look towards the Vartman, a local but immensely popular newspaper published from Kanpur during the 1940s. In its pages, Partition is enacted at various levels, and Pakistan established, before it actually came into being. 

In its own way, the Vartman was engaged in outlining and consolidating a realm of knowledge that revolved around Hindustan and Pakistan, nation and community, religion and individuals, Hindus and Muslims, and others different from them. Though these characterizations were formed over years, Partition made them more strident and uncompromising. 

Inasmuch as Vartman was involved in the fashioning of this discourse in Kanpur, and as much as it was part of it, it offers insights into the complexities of the movements for and against Pakistan.

By the 1940s, Vartman was an influential presence in the journalistic landscape of Kanpur. The first and only daily paper to be consistently published from Kanpur for about two decades, Vartman positioned itself as the plebeian counterpart to the Pratap, the better -- known weekly printed from Kanpur. 

From the very beginning Ramashankar Awasthi, its proprietor and editor, very consciously located the paper within a Kanpuriya idiom. Almost all its pages were steeped in local colour. National news was of course important, but its local ramifications mattered more to Vartman

Interestingly, the process through which the news of a national event got translated into local jargon was quite transparent in Vartman. The paper framed its report in three stages. The first was when an event made it to the front page as news.8 Catchy headlines laid out the paper's -- and supposedly its readers' -- reaction to the news. 

Stage two appeared two days later: a long editorial on what presumably was judged as the most important news item worth commenting on. This editorial delineated the relative importance, or non-importance, of the 'news' and placed it in its historical context. It broadcast for its audience the 'actual' meaning and the correct way of understanding the event/news.

Stage three commenced -- again approximately after two days -- when the daily satirical column "Manoranjan" unscrambled that editorial for popular entertainment. Through a dialogic tone and impudent lampooning, the argument was given a local inflexion, placing it firmly within the realm of the prevalent common sense.

Vartman addressed its own, largely Hindu, audience in Kanpur. This predominantly upper caste (though not always upper class) readership was divided politically between the Congress -- and its two factions in Kanpur-and the local Hindu Sabha. Vartman, in deference to this division, was constantly engaged in a delicate balancing act. 

Inspite of the paper's latent leanings towards the Hindu Sabha, the national stature of leaders like Nehru and Gandhi almost always tipped the scale towards the Congress. Most of the time, however, Vartman tried to walk the tightrope -- rooting for the Congress while fraternizing with the local Hindu Sabha. As such, it offered a perfect platform for the Congress right wing, which by 1945, had come to hegemonise and author the public discourse in Kanpur.

From around the time C. Rajagopalachari put forward his argument for a rational consideration of the Pakistan demand (July 1944), and convinced Gandhi to hold talks with Jinnah, the paper's rhetoric was crowded with the motif of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the still ambivalent nature of Jinnah's Pakistan, Vartman's Pakistan was understood as an all-encompassing catastrophe about to befall India: a death-wish from "the unparalleled horrors of which even a thousand Gandhis (sic!) would not be able to save India, its history and culture".9 Gandhi's consent to meet Jinnah at the latter's house in Bombay was portrayed as his acquiescing in the demand for Pakistan. 

Further, 'Gandhi's love for Muslims' and his 'mastery of the art of surrender' was a pointer that shuddha, unalloyed Pakistan would inevitably result out of such meetings. Jinnah's rebuffs to Gandhi's offer were insults added to injury, and the breakdown of the talks was something to be welcomed. Sab achcha hi hua! (All's well that ends well!) was the paper's verdict on the episode.

For Vartman, Pakistan was not just synonymous with Muslim communalism, though it was primarily that. The discomfiture with Pakistan -- at such an early date when its contours had hardly taken shape -- was that it questioned, centrally, the totalising narrative of Indian nationalism. 

Vartman showed Pakistan as miasmic: it totally destabilized the category of nationalism, making it open and accessible to all other groups within the political spectrum. As the paper remarked early on, "giving in to the Pakistan demand would only lead to end-less partitions. We will not be able to sit peacefully. All minorities would ask for the right to self-determination. How would we then stop them? Even women would one day demand a separate Jananistan".

To counter the Muslim League's two-nation theory, Vartman (almost) posited India as a multi-national entity, led into modernity and progress under the aegis of the Congress party. The Congress's seminal work of infusing the spirit of nationalism into an eternal but fragmented India, was what legitimised its (attempted) monopoly of the national political space.

Since Pakistan had opened a Pandora's box by contesting this monopoly, a radical restructuring of the nationalist discourse was required. Either the discursive limits of the nation were to be modified/extended beyond the ideal represented by the Congress, or, conversely, various contesting groups/nations be disciplined and appropriated within a hierarchised (rather than homogenized) nationalism. Vartman's advice was to go for the second option. It provided a blueprint for it.

If the Congress represented the modern, constructed version of Indian nationalism (svadhintapriya), the Hindu Mahasabha represented the 'natural' nationalism (svabhavik rashtravad) inherent in the Hindu community. Members of the Hindu Mahasabha, the Ambedkarites, Dalits and other such groups were argued to be plain 'selfish' nationalists (swarthvadi), while the Muslim League, at the nadir of this scheme, represented 'aberrant' nationalism -- indeed, communalism -- based on fraudulent principles, without any legacy of participation in the freedom struggle, or of any kind of sacrifice for the nation.

It can be seen that this hierarchical layout took care of both the past and the future, while adroitly delineating the present. The svadheentapriya could agree to partition -- Pakistan -- but certainly not the rashtravadi for whom the territorial unity of the country was as sacred, if not more, than a territorially compromised freedom. 

Since both freedom and integrity were desirable, the political impasse could only be overcome if these two categories of nationalism borrowed from each other rather than remain separate -- and opposed -- political entities. Only then -- by the sheer weight of majority -- would true nationalism be able to realize complete liberation and block any kind of Pakistan, Achhootistan or (god forbid!) Jananistan

Vartman was prophetic in asking for this convergence. Its pages soon recorded Veer Savarkar's entreaty to Congressmen to join the Hindu Mahasabha, followed, a mere twenty days later, by Sardar Patel's invitation to the Mahasabha members to join the Congress in their fight for 'the unity and integrity of India'.

Since Pakistan at this point existed more in the pronouncements of the leaders, Vartman too framed its argument through them. Gandhi and Jinnah formed two levers against which the narrative of the paper was positioned. Till about 1944, Jinnah was viewed more as a strong and powerful leader, well able to extract his 'blank cheque' from Gandhi and the Congress. 

With the fragmented Muslim politics of the United Provinces acknowledging his supremacy, the Hindi press was not far behind in lionizing him as such. It is interesting that though he was projected as leading a paper organization rife with internal squabbles (all of which was reported with much glee), Jinnah's leadership over the Muslim masses was never questioned.

Rather, a messianic appeal was attributed to him: "Mr. Jinnah is as popular among Muslims as Gandhiji is among Congressmen". However, "unlike Gandhi, Jinnah commands a community of chauvinistic, aggressive believers. United by religion and passionate about it, they were compelled by the force of their belief to wipe out the kafirs". This fanatical zeal, when coupled with the 'backwardness' of the Muslims, made them incapable of nationalist thought. 

With Jinnah obstinately clinging on to the Pakistan demand, his image, however, increasingly began to take negative overtones. Throughout 1944-47, Vartman portrayed Jinnah as an irrational and overbearing madman. Even his inconsequential interviews and speeches were reported on the front page, and always with reference to Pakistan. 

By the mid-1940s Jinnah had no other identity left, save that of the satanic progenitor of the idea of Pakistan. In a curious reversal, Jinnah was imaged, through Pakistan, the child becoming the father of the man.

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