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The 70-year itch

Updated August 09, 2017

ON the outskirts of Barcelona a couple of years ago, my wife and I popped into a corner store to purchase a bottle of water and a couple of other things. The shopkeeper spoke no English. He clearly wasn’t a local, but he visibly brightened up when we inquired whether he might be familiar with Hindi or Urdu, immediately asking whether conversing in Punjabi might be an option.

As soon as he discovered I was a native of Lahore, he embraced me as a long-lost brother. His Hindu family belonged to Gurdaspur, and although neither of us was old enough to have witnessed the events of 1947, much of the ensuing conversation was dedicated to lamenting the wund — the divide — of that fateful year.

Before we left, he insisted on a toast — consumed from teacups — to the unexpected ‘reunion’, and it took a great deal of persuasion for him to accept the few euros we owed him. I walked out of the shop with moist eyes, wondering, by no means for the first time, what on earth Partition was all about.

It isn’t particularly surprising that many of the comments in the run-up to next week’s 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence likewise consist of laments. They can broadly be divided into two categories: those that revisit the horrendous toll that Partition entailed, and those that mourn India’s descent into a communal mindset spearheaded by the spiritual heirs of those who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.

If Pakistan’s trajectory does not figure quite as prominently in the discourse, it’s largely because it was delineated long ago, with the secularist ideals that its pre-eminent founding father unequivocally espoused on the eve of independence buried beneath the articles of faith that were crucial to the struggle for separatism. For whatever it was worth, one of the consequences of the two-nation theory was to divide the subcontinent’s Muslims roughly equally between three nations.

Pakistan’s trajectory was delineated long ago.

That is not the only example, though, of a lack of foresight. One can only wonder whether the Indian leaders who sat down with the last viceroy on June 3, 1947 to agree on, and then announce, the accelerated split would have proceeded with their compromise had they any inkling of the holocaust that would ensue.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were very different personalities, yet they also had much in common — and neither of them was an enthusiast for genocide. Foreknowledge of the bloodbath that lay ahead would have concentrated their minds, possibly persuading them to revisit the options that had been available just a year earlier.

Of course, the British role cannot be overlooked, although it is questionable whether a slower path to independence and Partition — by mid-1948, as originally envisaged — would have substantially reduced the bloodletting. On the other hand, heeding the demand for Indian independence a decade or so earlier may have led to very different consequences.

In the event, Cyril Radcliffe — “Having never set eyes on the land he was to partition,” as the poet W.H. Auden put it — was invited to sketch the borders. The haphazard process no doubt deserves to be lampooned. Gurdaspur was among the leading bones of contention that were allocated on the basis of politics rather than population. “… The maps at his disposal were out of date,” Auden points out, “And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,/ But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect/ Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,/ And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,/ But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,/ A continent for better or worse divided.”

On the other hand, what are the chances any boundaries could have been drawn that would have satisfied everyone, or even most people? Even though India had rarely, if ever, been a completely united country before the advent of the British Raj, its veins extended throughout the subcontinent, and any divide would inevitably have entailed slashing those veins — and contending with the blood that was bound to flow, even though its quantity might have come as a shock to many.

For several decades thereafter, it was possible for more enlightened Pakistanis to look upon India not by any means as an ideal, but at least as a neighbour that had broadly marched ahead as a secular democracy. The inexorable ascendancy of Hindutva, however, is a reminder that some Indians remained envious of Pakistan’s deadly romance with religious fanaticism, and have finally succeeded in projecting a mirror image, reflected in lynchings and increasing curbs on the freedom of expression.

India, unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh, has never come close to military rule, but is militant rule much better? Sure, Pakistan got there first, but at least it was through a coup rather than the popular vote.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2017