As India and Pakistan celebrate independence, we revisit the partition of the subcontinent.
Seventy years have passed since the partition of India and Pakistan. But its imprint on my life and how I think persists, taking different forms as time moves on.
Strangely, I don’t think it bothered me so much when I was young and its memory was fresher. My parents had lost everything, but they rarely wanted to talk about the break the partition had caused in their lives. That was the general mood during the 1950s.
The partition must have cast a shadow over Jawaharal Nehru, the then Indian prime minister, and his government as well. But national reconstruction was all that we, the children of that era, heard about. Our nation-building was focused on the distant future and didn’t include teaching the young about the then-recent history of our country.
Filmmakers and song writers had spotted the great value of neighbourly hostility and suspicion. Bollywood picked up the idea of “gaddars” (the unfaithfuls) and continues to cash in on it. So, when war broke out with Pakistan in 1965, nobody was supposed to be surprised or upset.
Endangered liberal values
Our countries’ post-independence histories are mutually ignored, while the partition is no more than a memory poster, featuring gory details and little else. Understanding it and moving beyond it is nobody’s priority.
Neither the leftist nor the rightist view permits you to accept the partition. In neither Punjab nor Bengal – two states directly and brutally affected by the partition – is the history of it taught in schools in any depth. In other states, it has been reduced to a piece of information passed from one generation to the next, with a bunch of statistics about rapes and murders.
In Pakistan, school children are taught about the thousand-year-old roots of the partition and how Indian leaders tried to stop Pakistan from being born. A flat narrative centred on the inevitability of the partition is followed by melodramatic stories of wars with India and the sacrifices Pakistan made to protect itself.
Children studying in high-end elite schools have the advantage of better-quality textbooks, so are somewhat protected from the heady brew served to those attending government schools. Joint declarations were made in the early days of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) about the importance of examining textbooks, but no major effort has been made in that regard.
As Pakistani researcher, author and columnist Rubina Saigol has shown in her work, the nationalist fervour instilled in Pakistani schools is imbued with masculine militarism.
Until recently, India has done better in shaping its nationalism around the humanist vision of the writer, composer and artist Rabindranath Tagore, who condemned political nationalism worldwide.
But in some parts of the country, that ethos is changing. Of late, it has changed a great deal in the north. Attempts to imbue nationalism with militaristic fervour are currently in fashion. One example is the decision by M Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru Universty (JNU), to install a tank on the campus. He argues that it will enable students to overcome the effects of the critical pedagogy they have been subjected to for years.
The idea of displaying an old battle tank at JNU sits well with the current wave of majoritarian politics. It is the outcome of many decades of propaganda against secular liberalism.
This is not the first time that Hindu majoritarian ideology has met political success. But each time it regains dominance, it triggers anxiety about the future of liberal values like tolerance for diversity and minority rights.
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The partition remains relevant as a moral reference point in popular memory in India and Pakistan. It enables each to essentialise and stereotype the other.
The images of the two fit nicely together, thereby keeping both stuck in the past.
In India, Pakistan is seen as a culturally monolithic society, based on fanatic religiosity. That image is nicely scaffolded by the term “communal”, which has a specific meaning in South Asia, conveying religious separatism as opposed to liberal secularism.
As an ideology “secularism” also has a specific South Asian connotation. It means respect for all religions, and at the same time, serves as a quasi-religion among the older English-educated elites. They see themselves as secular and view others, particularly the rural population, as a mass steeped in religiosity and superstition. The English language serves as a watershed between the two, blocking the circulation of ideas, including the idea of secularism itself. What is politically more significant in this context is that the English-educated elites lack the linguistic repertoire to counter the appeal of Hindu revivalist, majoritarian propaganda.
An English-educated elite is common to both countries, but the space available for liberal deliberation is more narrow in Pakistan. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Pakistan’s electoral democracy has failed to accommodate religious actors and the second is the active involvement of the armed forces in maintaining the civil state.
Since the separation of Bangladesh in 1971, a religio-militaristic state ideology has gained dominance in Pakistan. This ideology treats India’s secular democracy as a convenient delusion. The essentialised India that lives in Pakistan’s nationalist imagination is a majoritarian Hindu country. This image enables the Pakistani state to find continued retrospective justification for the partition, as if a justification is still needed.
Geopolitical factors also contribute to keeping both nations emotionally entangled in their shared past. When other nations equate the two neighbours and talk about the risk of military conflict between them, Indian ruling elites dislike this. They treat Pakistan’s obduracy with contempt. When Pakistan refers to the unfinished business of the partition, the Indian response is shaped by the popular image of Pakistan as a wicked home-wrecker.
The political rulers of both countries recognise that war is not an option. But they cannot resist the temptation to use a Cold War ethos to maintain their hold on the popular mind and imagination. In any case, neither side has the will to disrupt established continuities in their relations.
A glaring example is the show put on every evening at the Wagah border for the entertainment of cheering onlookers on both sides. A few years ago, it seemed as though it would be stopped, but neither side could sustain the maturity of such a decision. Far too many interests are invested in the maintenance of hostility and suspicion under a teasing veneer of warmth and vernacular conviviality. Both remain respectable customers in the global arms bazaar. The heavy investment they make in military preparedness costs them dearly in a chronic under-funding of crucial social sectors like education and health.
Moving on from the past
It is difficult to say how much longer it will take for India and Pakistan to put aside the shadow of their past. This kind of assessment is both hard to make and largely pointless because India and Pakistan are not isolated entities. They are members of a complex world in which their competitive military preparedness serves useful objectives for more powerful nations. They need far greater capacities than they have at present for introspection and deliberation.
They also need to rebuild their public education systems, which have been injured by the effect of neo-liberal economic policies. Ultimately, both nations need to inculcate an educated imagination to their children, to enable them to make sense of the past and the ways it is shaping the present. The partition cannot be forgotten, but it needs to be understood.
A small initiative has recently been taken to set up a partition museum in Amritsar, India. This is a great step forward. It has already begun to attract contributions from countless people who witnessed the horror of the partition, and others, like me, who were born after that horror was over but who have lived in its shadow.
It will not be easy for the museum to maintain its focus on reconciliation and peace while it documents raw violence and brutality. Hopefully, it will receive support and participation from the other side of the border. It will add to the fledging effort made by a handful of schools and colleges in India and Pakistan to make partition studies a means of attaining peace with the past. The common tendency is to live “in” the past while keeping yesterday’s battles raging.
Professor Krishna Kumar is the author of Prejudice and Pride: School Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan (Viking/Penguin, 2001) and Battle for Peace (Penguin, 2007). He is a former director of India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.