Watch: The Less Explored Narratives of Partition

Ravikant, Debjani Sengupta and P.K. Dutta discuss how Partition scholarship is evolving to be more inclusive of the many lives that were irreversibly altered by the events of 1947.

The scholars grapple with how Partition represents a seminal moment in the regeneration of the subcontinent – one that continues to capture the imagination of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis alike.

Below is a transcript of the interview: 

Ravikant: We are going to discuss the Partition of India. The Partition of India, which has been discussed endlessly by scholars and academics – and I have two of them with me, professor P.K. Datta and Dr. Debjani Sengupta, who have authored several books on communalism, both on the western side and eastern side of the border, as well as the mainland of India, and we are going to explore some of the unexplored aspects of the events that are thought to be constituting the Partition of India. We don’t know when was the Partition? Is it over? Is it finished? If so, why is there so much unfinished business still, related to Partition? So I will start with professor P.K. Datta to tell us about what’s new, in terms of academic writing, sort of the new areas we can explore, to look at Partition again. There has been a kind of resurgence of writing from the 90s, early 90s, onwards when there was a shift, actually, from the causes to the consequences, as it were, in broad historiographical terms. What happened to the people was the focus and method also changed, so give us a brief summary of what happened after the early 1990s and what are the new areas in which the Partition is being studied.

PKD: Well, two things – one is the very obvious history of that violence being suppressed, and therefore the way it actually impacted social relations, on the physical locations and the kind of suffering that it involved, so that history of excavating suffering has been the critical move, and then the other move batches we made or more recently is that of the whole thing of looking at Partition as not a single experience but a multiplicity of partitions which have also happened in different areas, and also over time. Especially this is something that happens in the eastern sector. As for me, I would like to actually look back at that moment of excavation of the suffering and the violence in order to just look a little bit more at the obvious, which is the violence itself. As we know, I mean, staggering even now to just think, the 12 million people – these are official figures – were moved, or moved themselves, one million died, 75,000 women were raped and there was endless, I mean, these are just massive figures that show the kind of monstrosity of the suffering that was there. But what interests me also is the nature of violence itself. If you were to look at the history of violence in this country, which is not something that we have actually looked at, and specifically the history of social violence – I think the Partition represents a very important hiatus in that history, mainly because it opens up a new kind of possibility – that is, the possibility of looking at social violence as something that you do for the nation. This is something which is, I think, new at the popular level, because before the Partition and the Partition violence, what happens is that when you look at Hindu-Muslim violence, it is seen in terms of sectarian violence. So it’s actually, the descriptive word is communalism. That’s a hegemonic word by which you describe that. After Partition, you start seeing violence of this kind as political terms, as either Hindu right or Hindu nationalism or Muslim nationalism or XYZ. There’s a shift and this opens up new possibilities, and that’s because there is this kind of relationship that is established by the act of Partition itself, when it comes with independence, of being a founding moment. So this I think, is very, very important and it’s not that it was reversible, but – nor is it reversible, I think – but it opens up this major possibility. And I think it’s true also at a micro level when you think of the actual sequence of events that happens in the Partition. Till the violence breaks out, there are major moves and you know, Ravi and you would, Debjani would know, that there are lots of negotiations that are going on. Until the end you’re not quite sure whether the negotiations are going to, you know – something by which Partition is avoided. But it’s the violence that breaks out before the act of Partition itself that actually seals everything. So in that sense, it is the founding moment, in a secondary sense, of actual events that unfold.

Ravikant: Yeah, we were asked this question time and again when we were doing our college. The invariable question would be, was the Partition inevitable? And we had to produce as answer some kind of answer from, you know, alibi maybe, from the high politics of India at that time. You had to find the guilty men of India’s Partition in those answers. That shifted, as you rightly pointed out, when you know, oral histories – Urvashi Butalia started collecting oral histories, when people started – Debjani, you and others – people started looking at literary representations of that kind of violence. The focus was also on women in a big way and it also expanded, right, the scope expanded, the disruption to various degrees was felt in the entire North India, as it was, and I’m using North India in the most expansive possible way. So it was felt also in the North East, about which you have done some work in recent times, so tell us, Debjani, what was the picture there?

DS: I think if I take a strand from what Professor Dutta just said, about how it becomes a kind of founding moment, you know, for – for me, I think the Partition is also not just to look at the way in which the violence has played out and how the terms of violence also changes, but it is also very interesting to see how Partition reshapes the contours of geography in very interesting and very obvious ways. Because if you look at the North East which was, in British India, the frontier, of British India to a certain extent, and with 1947, the frontier then becomes the border. And the border is created and the making of the region through the creation of the border then becomes a very interesting way in which questions of ethnicity and language and and the whole discourse of who is an immigrant and who is an infiltrator, that becomes very charged in the present-day region. The northeastern region so, so what is interesting for me, you know, when we talk of the Partition, and this year is going to be 70 years of 1947, is to actually open out the long durée of Partition into geographical areas which are not part of the Partition discourse. And the northeastern region is a, you know, is a possibility which very few people have actually studied, in our, in an organic manner and, and, and I feel that because the northeastern region also has a number of complexities which overturn certain assumptions about the Partition. The assumption, for instance, that the Partition was basically to shift out the majority, majority areas – Hindu majority areas and the Muslim majority areas, this assumption, for instance, is actually very complicated when we go to the Northeast. You know, because three-fifths of the border that was drawn – we’re not shifting the Hindu and the Muslim majority areas. They were actually shifting areas which were Christian and Buddhist-dominated. The Garo Hills is a very good example of that. So, so there are very, very interesting things which need to be looked at, Ravikant, which we have, as scholars, we have, I think it’s just opening up, an we haven’t done enough work in that area but I think it’s it’s a possibility that we need to look at. For instance, the fact that Sylhet is only region in the eastern part which had a referendum and others did not. What, what about, what are the political reasons why Sylhet had a referendum and others did not? And, and, and, to go into those reasons, to see the movement of people from say, Sylhet and Cachar region into other areas of the northeastern regions is, I think, a very interesting part of studies. I think we need to look into these issues.

Ravikant: Yes this entire business of, you know, how boundaries are created all of a sudden, and new a map as it were, gets, I mean, into place which people have to get used to, is something. And the suddenness of that line comes really alive. Also, I mean the material that I work with, which speaks to the cartographic changes that you are talking about, so it’s a film that I saw and I was struck by it. It’s called Chacha Zindabad, made in 1959, and it has you know that kind of fantasy, utopian fantasy, that partition can be undone. So what if it has taken place? It also speaks to the anxiety that a lot of, you know, writers for example, felt. Whether Manto, whether Bhisham Sahni, and others. Whether art, literature and the aesthetic field itself will also be divided after Partition and so it says – I mean, the film opens very nicely, interestingly, and you can see it in the clip, it’s available on YouTube, that you know, so it opens with the cloud lumps as regions coming to the screen at the time of the casting. So regions come, they coalesce as undivided India, and then you have two borders emerging, on the western side and on the eastern side. The director, Om Prakash, his name, which can be broken in Punjabi into Om Parkash. So Om stays in India, significantly, Par goes to West Pakistan and Kash, I wish, goes to East Pakistan. So that, you know, sets the film and it is an allegory in the sense that, you know, the Muslim characters in the film, they create a wedge, they create a Partition between the parents because they don’t want to marry each other. In the end, they decide that it has – it is too much, cannot be – and takes an emotional toll on everybody who is concerned, in the two households. So they decide to undo.it. They put the car back together.

DS: Symbolic of the nation, is it?

Ravikant: A mark of undoing partition, and it ends, it’s a very nice song about Hindi and Urdu, that there is no difference between the two because these are print languages that people worry about. We are talking about a film language also, so there you don’t need to differentiate between Indian and Urdu, for example. So those things, that these fantasies in cinema, which you know it was difficult for people to believe that new geography, new sovereignty, new borders will kick in in such a way that the life that they were used to earlier would not, be could not be lived anymore. So for 11 years after that event you still have such films being made. So, but, the scholarship takes time to catch up, catch up, would you agree?

PKD: Yeah that’s true and though now I think there’s a lot of scholarship, you know, there’s Urvashi, Debjani, so many of you are doing, which is also actually playing an interventionist role because what we are dealing with is not just a founding moment, in a sense, that is the founding moment, but also the founding moment of a reproducible moment. The Partition keeps happening all the time and while we’ve talked about, you know, the cartographic, we’ve also brought in the very important dimension of the aesthetic, and it seems to me that the aesthetic too is not a single kind of a sphere but it’s actually very divided between, in some senses, the expressive aesthetics of cinema, literature, poetry and so on, theater, and the political aesthetics, where you actually, the political aesthetics is something that we need to maybe also think about a bit more, because in a sense what that also does is produce new kinds of stereotypes, new kinds of subjectivities. It permeates language, new images are being produced constantly. In fact, whole movements have produced on images. So, you know, the aesthetic field itself is a very contested field. And the field of the political aesthetic also I think had something to do with some of the possibilities that are open and if not closed, but at least subdued by the Partition, and I want to link this really, the political aesthetic, with the question of – which seems completely a different kind of idea – but the question of centralization and federalism of the polity itself. Because I think what happens in the course of those negotiations that lead up to the Partition is that many of those ideas about federalism, where the center would be weak and the provinces would be stronger, that gets foreclosed. And what you have now is the development of asymmetric federalism, in which the centralized powers become far more stronger. And this opens up the possibility, by no means reversible, but opens up the possibility of a centralization of the aesthetic, of the political aesthetic. And that too is something that we need to think about when we are dealing with the question of the aesthetic.

DS: Absolutely.

Ravikant: So, but there was also a kind of decentralization, right? In the sense that, in the cultural productions, that could be language-specific. So while there are common threads, there are also specificities. In your work, for example, we see those specificities. Why the, you know, Bengal story is so different from the Punjab story.

DS: Also because, Ravikant, the Bengal partition story is very different in the way it played out. For instance, it is not a cataclysmic division like it was in Punjab and there was no formal exchange of population, that happened on the Punjab borders, so and and the border remained porous for very long periods of time. You know, till 1971, to a certain extent, the border remained very open. It was a very unstable border, certainly. But it remained porous and there were constant movements of people, of goods movements due to kinship, due to other reasons, you know, which happened. So the Bengal partition story and the representation, its aesthetic representation, is very different from the representations that you have in Punjab and, and, and having said, that of course it’s a very large area and I can’t sort of just, you know, say it in, briefly but, but what you see in Bengal is actually a playing out of notions of citizenship, or belonging, or rehabilitation over very large periods of time. And, and, and therefore the, the the representations of these ideas are also very uneven. So, you know, many Bengali scholars who have worked on the Partition area sometimes lament that Bengali doesn’t have a Bhisham Sahni, doesn’t have a Saadat Hasan Manto. The reason, I think, that lament is a bit – you know, I mean it’s, it’s. it sort of looks at this contrasting, comparative Partition which is actually not a very productive idea, you know, because, because the political and other cartographic and other fallouts of the Partition in Bengal and the Northeast and in East Pakistan have been very, very different. So, so, for instance, I would like to just mention that the Bangladesh has a wonderful novelist called Akhteruzzaman Elias whose Khwabnama is a kind of gigantic masterpiece on how – which begins with Tebhaga and ends with 1971 and the rise and the birth of a new nation. So it spans that very interesting period of time and looks at the Partition as a, as a very interesting moment of realization of this group of peasant sharecroppers, you know, for whom the nation then becomes that space where they can belong and they legitimately can belong. So, you know, so all these other discourses also come into the Partition when we talk of the eastern, the eastern border, you know so it’s like a different room and many ways the – for instance of you know in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, you know, the Chakmas, when they realized that, you know, they, they thought there was some rumor that the Chittagong Hill Tracts will actually go to India and they raised the Indian flag. And a couple of days later they came to know that it has actually gone to East Pakistan and the Chakmas therefore became ‘traitors’ to, you know, to the larger sense of ‘who is the alien and who is the citizen’. So that the story of the Chakmas, for instance, had never come into the Partition story and it is completely different trajectory, the story takes a different trajectory, so the Chakmas started fleeing into India in large numbers. And, and the Indian government has never had a very transparent policy regarding laws and rights regarding the tribal people who have moved due to ’47 and the and the various causes. So you know if you, if you look at so there is no Partition violence, as such. You know, in that sense, in, in many instances in the eastern sector. So, so the violence is of a different kind. The violence is of a different kind, it’s the more subdued kind, it – sometimes it’s a state-sponsored violence, which is not always apparent and it’s more oblique. Can take oblique turns.

Ravikant: And there are also pictures like the one presented in Aadhagaon, which is from eastern UP, where Rahi Masoom Raza would describe this slow emptying-out of the village, of the Muslim population. How it is getting, you know, how the people are now migrating. Bistar ki khamoshi, when he talks about – and tanhaiyaan, in a very poetic and poignant manner. But to continue, to continue with the conversation that we started on the aesthetic side of it, is that, you know, if we think, physically, the vivisection comes alive but if we start thinking virtually for a moment, which, you know, our contemporary world, which is mediatised and propelled by the Internet, can help us imagine this world – that the boundaries don’t matter, right? We can watch films that somebody from Pakistan has uploaded on YouTube. We can watch and comment. YouTube is a global space where we meet. So I was struck by watching some of the films that were produced in Pakistan in the 1960s, and you – a film like Mousiqar, which uses Awadhi, Braj. If you remember a recent film called Sur which looks like a remake of that film, Mousiqar, so – in which Awadhi, Braj is being used, ‘tum jug jug jio, maharaj-ji, hum tori nagariyaan mein aaein.” Then it uses a very famous classical hori. At the end of which people get up and say “Radhe, radhe.” So these stories are still being told. You can’t, you won’t associate Awadhi and Braj with post-Partition Pakistan but there’s a longer cultural memory. But this is not limited only to cinema. Cinema also unites, right, as in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, as in Filmistan, right, recent films, but also through radio. In the sense, both Indian and Pakistani listeners take recourse to a third place called Ceylon, where Radio Ceylon is playing songs that Indian government is, has banned in the 1950s, for five whole years. So they all tune into radio Ceylon and listen to film songs, right, of the 40’s, 30s, but 50s, 60s as well. So in that sense, maybe you know, it did not take place. Of course, whenever we have wars, right, Ghulam Ali is asked not to come and perform, right. There is a barrier that gets created internally, but the larger flow which is invisible has been taking place. Barsaat ki Raat, for example, a famous film of 1960s, early 60s, was made because a couple of performers came from Pakistan, qawwals, and they performed in Bombay so that inspired a whole film. And after that you had a lot of films that were driven by qawwalis, so in that sense, you know, this is not only track two, this is not only the wishful thinking of some people. So there was something that could not really be actually partitioned.

PKD: There are two ways to look at it. One is what you just ended it with, is it some kind of a surplus, that is in excess of what is already there. I don’t think so. It is very, very much a part of our imaginary also. And, you know, and the whole imaginary of being of, having of a shared kind of culture and from there also the kind of critical questioning of violence itself and the kinds of, you know, problems of self and other relationships, you know. For instance, Amitav Ghosh’s thing and Manto is, so many, I mean, that you can – these are constitutive parts of our imaginary but you know there’s also another point that we need to think about now that you’ve also raised the whole question of globalization in a certain sense, not neoliberal globalisation but a media globalisation. I think, you know, there’s one warning that Tagore actually gives, which is that in the age where we are getting closer to the other, we are also getting more aware of our distinctions and that distinction can also slip into antagonism. In a way, actually, Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, in a way plays on that. That the proximity also produces antagonism at the same moment, you know. So it’s a much fraught, it’s a very fraught terrain of the imaginary and hence of the aesthetic that we are working on, because if you look at, say, other data, such as cricket matches, which is also an aesthetic, because we don’t play cricket anymore. Children don’t play cricket. They either have, you know, the aesthetics of statistics or the aesthetics of images, basically. But it’s really another kind of aesthetic enterprise, that it has become. And you see the way that it reproduces Partition, so the same time this is going on with maybe, the same people are writing or reading those books and empathising. So it’s a double movement, which we need to, kind of, think of, you know, the complexity of the double moment – movement.

Ravikant: It’s not a simple story.

DS: Certainly, when we look at the representation, you know, there is both accommodation and resistance, which is which is very interesting, particularly if you look at writers who are not so known to the metropolitan, English-speaking centers, you see that double bind constantly happening. You know, that’s, that there is a tremendous amount of resistance going on to this idea of vivisection, Partition, of of othering people within the same region. But at the same time there is also a kind of accommodation of what Partition is, that you know, we are now divided and we remain divided, you know. So it’s I think it’s a very interesting double bind.

PKD: And to also just take up that point, sometimes we also need to see Partition from the point of view of “Pakistan”, from the other, you know, and that may not coincide with our understanding of Partition. So we needed more, sort of complex and nuanced sort of perspective.

DS: Because that is exactly what Akhteruzzaman does, you know. He sees 1947 as a moment, which is the beginning, originally, moment for 1971. So it is, 1947 is not to him, you know that moment where, you know, a kind of angst and, you know, it is a moment of violence, but it is also the origin of what is the linguistic nationalism which gives rise to Bangladesh. So we need to look at these other pictures and other stories.

Ravikant: It was a moment of celebration and regeneration as well.

DS: Many things, for many people.

PKD: Mourning.

Ravikant: Venkat Dhulipala’s book also says there is certain depth to the idea of Pakistan, which we have so far denied. So, I mean, even the shared culture had a depth that I think the new archive that is emerging to the Internet, where you could have trolls fighting each other still, over differences, but the newer archive is a  bigger archive and it can tell us much more about shared-ness that we have not really thought enough about. Because we have been obsessed more with the–

DS: The single story. With the single story.

Ravikant:Geographies and sovereignties, yes in a way.

DS: We need to multiply those stories.

Ravikant: We need to. So there’s still a lot that can be done, needs to be done, by academics and journalists, everybody. Thank you.

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