Fragmented Identities: (Re)living the ‘Partition’ Today

India is teetering on the edge of another ‘partition’ – our cities stand on fault-lines of violent geographies.

In the last five years, I have been engaged in research to understand the aspects of discrimination and segregation, social and residential, in Indian cities. Having lived in many Indian cities in the course of my research, I have found  that our cities stand on fault-lines of violent geographies. At any point of time, a chain of violence can be triggered across the country.

These geographies of violence are not new; they have evolved from the cultural politics of cities in the period that led to the ‘partition’ of the subcontinent. The genocidal violence of Partition in 1947 followed by that of 1971 (during the Indo-Pak war) – the killings, violence, abductions, rapes and arson – tells us that South Asians have not learnt from their past experiences of violence.

This is primarily due to the fact that there has been a collective amnesia with regard to the brutality of Partition violence and forced migration of people. Nobody wanted to talk about the dark histories and scars that marked the birth and ‘independence’ of two nation-states. Everyone hoped to start a new life without wanting to learn from past mistakes.

Consequently, ‘partition’ is not just a historical event in the subcontinent; it has, unfortunately, become a process now – the memories of a historical partition are re-lived by the citizens of South Asia in their day-to-day interactions.

A city is like a living organism; it grows organically, feeds on the culture and economy produced by societies over a period of time. The ideologies of societies shape the morphology of our cities, placing them on a trajectory of growth or decay. The unresolved issues in our society, be it inequality and poverty or discrimination and segregation, have scarred it visibly; so much so that they have become its defining aspect now.

Also read: Pride and Prejudice in the Ghetto

Post-independence, it is the cities which have become the engines of growth in India. Also, over a period of time, Muslim populations in India have come to be largely concentrated in urban centres. One important aspect of the rise of virulent ideologies has been the concentrated effort to push them out of urban centres and exclude them from the growth paradigm. Ultimately, it is the urban centres that define the ideology and trajectory of this nation.

The processes of ‘partition’ are witnessed in the everyday life of the ordinary Muslim resident of the city when a building, street, language, ritual or attire becomes associated exclusively with Muslim identity. Over time these symbols have come to be stigmatised as markers of oppression, backwardness, otherness, barbarity, hyper-masculinity and violence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent comment about identifying those responsible for the “violent” protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 by their clothes is an example of such stigmatisation.

In the process, Muslims are disassociated from secular symbols. A beard, purdah/hijab, even a Muslim-sounding name, becomes a sign of separateness. Thus, the politics of the body enters the everyday life of the city, eventually becoming a familiar trope where the Muslim body is seen by Hindutva groups as an alien presence, polluting the body-politic of an imagined Hindu rashtra. In the housing sector, certain areas/localities/buildings become identified separately as ‘mini-Pakistan’ or ‘Muslim ghettos’ because of these markings. Muslims are barred from entering the residential spaces dominated by Hindus so as not to create any ‘problems’ or disturb the ‘biosphere’ created by them.

Another level of violence that is inflicted on the bodies of Muslims and their spaces is the epistemic violence born out of indifference towards the ‘other’. Spaces (areas and localities) where Muslims have a visible presence are referred to as ‘ghettos’. This term denotes a process of segregating, delineating and confining the identities and spaces inhabited by Muslim residents.

At the same time, using the term ‘Pakistan’ for spaces inhabited by Muslims  takes this concept to a new paradigm that goes far  beyond ‘otherness’. It takes away the claim of Muslims to citizenship-affirming processes and a sense of belonging to the Indian nation. Muslims are thus not identified as ‘Indian’, and everything associated with Muslims symbolises an anti-thesis of India, that is, ‘Pakistani’. A sub-thesis of ‘partition’, the nomenclature is used in everyday language  by non-Muslims  to segregate and separate Muslims, and their spaces, from the mainstream discourse.

Whether it’s a posh residential area or a slum associated with Muslims, when non-Muslims see it as a ‘ghetto’ or a ‘mini-Pakistan’, the residents of the neighbourhood automatically become outsiders associated with an imagined ‘Pakistan’ in India. This does not only make them the ‘other’ and second-class citizens but also denies them their claim to citizenship of India as a whole.  This process has become embedded in the cultural politics of our cities post-independence. The difference now is the legitimacy it has been given by the state with the passing of the CAA.

Also read: What Juhapura Tells Us About Being Muslim in Modi’s India

Both the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are a by-product of the same mentality and process which tries to displace Muslim citizens from their claim to the citizenship of this nation by creating a false narrative of the threat of Bangladeshis and Rohingya (Muslims) taking over cities. The making of Muslim spaces as ‘ghettos’ thus takes us back to 1947; the scars which never healed are deepening more and more by the day.

To continue justifying their violence against the Muslims, Hindutva groups  have vilified and dehumanised Muslims to the  extent that violence such as  lynching and hate crimes against Muslims have become an everyday affair. During my fieldwork in Mumbai, a respondent told me in the course of an  interview that Muslims are like a ‘cancer’ that should have been removed  in 1947 itself.

A process has been initiated to do just that – subdue them through a combination of CAA and NRC. Since Hindutva groups now boast a majoritarian consensus and state power, they do not need to be as violent as they were during the Babri masjid demolition in 1992; they can use the state apparatuses to do the same.

The present-day government at the Centre thrives on this majoritarian  consensus. So, at this point, any resistance from any quarter will be seen as a challenge to this consensus. The Hindutva ideology has always held that Muslims have to be weeded out to realise the full potential of a Hindu rashtra. The CAA AND NRC represent the latest, lethal move to do so.

Unless the majoritarian consensus is broken by those whom the government claims to represent, it will use the brute force of both state and societal apparatuses  to clampdown on any resistance, particularly if it is only Muslims who are seen to be resisting. What happened during the protests in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University was that both the universities were  forced to shut down because of the police violence in both the campuses. Even in Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown initiated by the apparatuses of state power following the reading down of Article 370 subdued a population of more than one crore into silence, which was claimed as their victory.

Also read: The Brave Women of Shaheen Bagh

What remains after the brutal use of state power and societal apparatuses is an eerie silence — the same uncomfortable silence that followed the Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya title suit case. There was neither a public celebration by Hindus nor public mourning by Muslims.

To put it simply, India is teetering on the edge of another ‘partition’. Much  depends on the ‘Hindu’ majority – will it say yes to a majoritarian consensus or not. The state cannot rule without it; the majority today defines the modern Indian nation-state. The nature of the contract between the state and its subjects will define the future trajectory of this nation, whether it remains secular and democratic or becomes a Hindu rashtra. Otherwise, like our urban centres,  the entire  nation will be further segmented into dangerous binaries, resulting in an unending cycle of violence and suffering.

Asaf Ali Lone is a Research Associate with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He has also been a researcher with Housing Discrimination Project, a three-year empirical research on urban rental housing discrimination in India, from 2017-2019.