Partition, according to former imperial strategist, Olaf Caroe, was the "negation" of Indian power. It was actually much more than that. The 69th anniversary of India and Pakistan's acquisition of sovereignty from the colonial regime is an apt moment to reflect on how we look back at partition, and, assess the consequences of that event, which continues to profoundly shape our time.
While the bloody history of India's division invites unanimous regret and condemnation, retrospective views are divided. Indian views of partition are diverse with intellectuals from the left and right engaged in what are often zero-sum reflections. One narrative from the left is partition is an accomplished fact, and, nostalgia over "what if" counter-factuals is futile. Perhaps a noble instinct for harmony overrides the search for more complex enquiries into our past. Curiously, there is a general reluctance to deconstruct and critique the two-nation theory that formed the basis for partition. Is this because critical histories are seen as somehow equivalent to a conflictual outlook on today's Pakistan or even questioning its existence? Whatever the deeper reasons are, most narratives are unwilling to challenge the over determined master discourse: that partition was simply inevitable.
The narratives from the right are also prone to contradictions. The typical view is partition was good because it relieved India from a large section of a Muslim population that would have interfered with socio-political stability and undermined post-colonial India's resurgence. Contemporary Islamic radicalism and extremism in South Asia is viewed as vindicating this argument, evading the fact that such radicalism is a logical manifestation of partition. Such a crude communal construction is sometimes accompanied with a parallel outlook that highlights the adversity of partition — the collapse of a basic subcontinental cultural unity that preceded British colonialisation. This latter belief sits rather uncomfortably with the crude mirroring of the two-nation theory that endorses the division of the subcontinent on the basis of majority communities.
What do we make of these competing narratives? It is ironic that both the left and right, either explicitly or implicitly endorse communal constructions to formulate their histories. For the left, nationhood is understood largely via a Eurocentric historical standpoint where homogeneity is the only basis of a national community. The idea of India as an exceptional case with a deeper historical ethos and culture transcending religion and cohering an otherwise diverse polity is beyond the analytical repertoire of most left commentaries. Indeed, partition is not viewed and analysed as a conscious top-down political act but a natural, if regrettable, outcome of a Hindu-Muslim cleavage (regardless of whether these contestations were encouraged and perpetuated quite grand strategically by the Raj in the decades preceding 1947). For example, it is rarely noted that in the 1946 elections, despite all the communal exhortations by the Muslim League, the League received only 32 percent of the vote share in Punjab and 37 percent in Bengal, electoral results that can hardly be called a decisive referendum in favour of separatism. Anyhow, the fact that post-partition India with more Muslims than in Pakistan and a large Hindu majority can sustain a secular national identity remains a puzzle for the left.
For the right, the construction of an ancient Indian past built on a shared cultural ethos — that is part imagined and part real and not necessarily contingent on a precise territorial identity — views partition as a dramatic shock to India's unity. But for the political right, such a view is actually a deep contradiction to its own advancement and electoral rise since 1947. The political right, insofar as its communal ideology is concerned, would simply not have the traction that it has acquired after 1947 but for partition. Plainly put, there is a basic hypocrisy and inner contradiction in this worldview where the political right's ascendance as an electoral force was buttressed by partition even as strands of its ideological discourse espouses a subcontinental unity purportedly transcending communal ideas.
Shadow of partition
It was a fairly popular view in India that once the partition generation in the subcontinent passed from the scene, past scars would heal and transform India-Pakistan relations. But demographic turnover and relatively cautious published histories have still not diminished the structural consequences of 1947. Partition casts a long shadow affecting both India and Pakistan.
The first aspect is the national identity crises that we witness on a recurring basis in Pakistan, and, perhaps more subtly in India. As Farzana Shaikh has eloquently described in her book Making Sense of Pakistan, identity conflicts lie at the very roots of Pakistan's existence. Shaikh's principal argument is that the role of Islam in Pakistani political life has never been adequately squared by its leadership, which has struggled to construct a nation based solely on religion. The contest and interplay between two rival discourses of Islam — the "communal" espoused by the ruling feudal-military elite sufficient to sustain the two nation-theory and the "Islamist" favoured by the religious establishment seeking to impose a doctrinaire version of Islam — according to Shaikh, account for the ideological incoherence in Pakistan. Despite being conceived "as a Muslim homeland built in the name of Islam", seven decades later Pakistan remains "a state still trapped in myths of its own making".
The creative challenge before Pakistan's rulers was "to provide a constitutional niche for Islam that recognised its importance in the creation of the state while containing its influence in dictating policy" and to eventually perhaps create a state "capable of standing without the aid of Islamic crutches". And yet, "mobilising Islam in order to substitute for the absence of political legitimacy was a legacy of Pakistan's nationalist movement" itself. Jinnah's short-lived Freudian slip (the famous declaration of 11 August 1947) of appealing to a principle of "equal citizens of one state" and one that has subsequently sustained the secular pretensions of some Pakistani elites was retracted by Jinnah himself on 25 January 1948 where he called "to make Pakistan a truly great Islamic state". Indeed, Jinnah and subsequent generations of Pakistani leaders were "unable to resist the temptation of mobilizing the language of Islam to generate power".
If Pakistan's identity crisis was a self-contained dynamic then disengaging with partition history or treating it as an esoteric academic question is a reasonable assertion. But this is where Indian intellectuals, just like our founding fathers, have been unable to come to terms with the structural consequences of partition. Pakistan's national identity crisis is India's internal concern too. To be sure, Indian leaders undertook extraordinary efforts to consolidate and rebuild a truncated India — both in material terms, and, more importantly in ideational terms where concepts of equal citizenship and secular and plural values formed the core of India's national identity. While this was a normative part of the nationalist movement, the unexpected and bloody blowback of partition made a state-driven assertion of a secular national identity a strategic endeavor to counteract the communal roots that naturally came to the fore within India after its vivisection based on religion. India's post-1947 domestic political trials and tribulations can to a large extent be understood as Indian political elites playing catch up to the consequences of partition, and, often succumbing to the allure of communal-based electoral strategies.
At another but equally important level, partition while buttressing a state commitment to a plural national identity, simultaneously constrained the evolution of a more natural Indian-ness where the pre-colonial past could be re-discovered and engaged in less antagonistic and communal terms. Historical contestations of the pre-colonial phase of Indian history are so severe between the left and right that India's nationhood has been reduced to a technical event — the post-1947 transfer of power from the British regime. Is it not astonishing that India with all its historical texture, complexity and civilisational richness has equated itself in this regard with the "other" (Pakistan) in defining its nationhood as a recent and sudden phenomenon? It is almost as if India's past has become as much of a baggage as Pakistan's sheer absence of a historical provenance!
In sum, Pakistan's national identity crisis is structural and involves a race to the bottom where the impulse for a purer communal and religious core to safeguard nationalism and counteract centrifugal ethnic forces has produced a dynamic of radicalisation that is both instrumentally cultivated and leveraged by the institutional guardian of the nation state — the military establishment. And, yet it also has a life of its own with even democratic and liberal forces impelled to imbibe the communal project that underpins Pakistan. But India's national identity problem can hardly be overlooked or ignored. Indian contestations have reached a historical point where electoral politics constrains the path towards Indian unity and a more stable identity developed on a shared ethos or culture that might transcend or at the very atleast not conflict with other ethnic and religious identities. In fact, mitigating identity contestations ought to be a strategic quest for India's elite because Pakistan has for long made it part of its security doctrine to poison and heighten communal fissures within India — from Kashmir to across the heartland.
The second consequence of partition is, of course, the unending geopolitical conflict in South Asia. The natural frontiers of the subcontinent enveloped by the formidable Himalayan range extending to the Hindu Kush was suddenly disrupted by two antagonistic states sharing new frontiers without any constraining features. An India that looked out for decades, albeit for British imperial ends, was suddenly after 1947 locked in an unexpected confrontation with its antithetical "other" inside the secure confines of the subcontinent. While the search for co-existence and a live and let live policy has been a genuine part of the Indian foreign policy toolkit vis-à-vis Pakistan since the Nehru era, the national identity crises has exacerbated the search for a stable regional order. Perhaps nothing has buttressed the fragile Pakistani nationalism more than the image and very existence of the other — India. Again, as Farzana Shaikh narrates, "This negative identity is rooted in the specific character of Pakistani Muslim nationalism that was moulded in opposition to the claims of Indian nationalism rather than in response to British colonial rule." From the very start, Pakistan chose to juxtapose itself against India to compensate for its lack of "Pakistani-ness".
The intersection of international politics with this identity crisis made the equation even more explosive and has frustrated India since 1947 when Delhi suddenly became aware of the larger geopolitics of partition during the Kashmir crisis. As a means to achieve parity with India, Pakistan's foreign policy was also driven by a parallel quest to punch above its weight in international affairs along with a "perennial quest to be validated as an equal of India". This search for validation drove Pakistani elites to forge unequal but durable strategic partnerships with the US and later also with China. And validation it has received and continues to receive from its two powerful patrons, surprising and befuddling Indian elites today as much as it did back in the Nehru era.
Barring unforeseeable shocks, the consequences of partition cannot be undone. Yet, the notion that India can somehow escape and swallow its past and the events of 1947 to claim its place in the world is simply a delusion. The destructive agenda of partition continues to impact Pakistani politics, subcontinental geopolitics, and even India's search for a stable national identity. Interrogating the past, might reveal more complex and authentic histories that must be confronted if India is to craft a confident national "self" that enables modernisation and development while withstanding the living reality of a communal and theocratic "other" in a state of perpetual identity crisis. The shadow of partition is longer than many of us would like to believe.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is research scholar at King's College London