Books

back to issue

PANGS OF PARTITION: The Parting of Ways (Volume I) edited by S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. Indian Council of Historical Research and Manohar, Delhi, 2002.

THE volume under review is a collection of seventeen essays put together by the editors of the Indian Council of Historical Research as part of a two-volume project undertaken by the Council to mark the fiftieth year of the partition of India on the eve of independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Evidently the Council felt that ‘it was time to review some of the established theories concerning Partition, focus attention on a wide array of individual and collective experiences of migration, trauma and the intense nostalgia of the displaced for the undivided past.’

In a way this also reflects a growing awareness, in recent years, amongst the historians of modern India that while a great deal of multilingual literature has emerged from the pen of creative writers, biographers and journalists on both sides of the divide, as also contemporary bureaucrats and politicians (both Indian and British), historical scholarship has been somewhat lax. Through this volume, with a majority of the contributions from historians, the editors have attempted to cover this gap.

The different essays cover a wide range of subjects directly or indirectly connected with the events, personalities, political and social groups involved in the process of Partition. Some of them are based on archival research while the others have mostly relied on secondary published sources. Two papers by B.R. Nanda and Chittabrata Palit deal exclusively with Gandhi and the Partition, both essentially reiterating the Mahatma’s fairly well-known position on the question of Partition and his disillusionment. Sucheta Mahajan’s analysis of the Congress Party and its involvement in the process is reproduced from her already published book – no fresh ground explored here.

The essays by S.K. Singh on issues of tribal communities in different parts of India and Partition, Kanchanmoy Majumdar on communal politics in Central Provinces and Berar and Parshotam Mehra on the developments in the North West Frontier Province in the immediate post-partition days though are a welcome addition to the information and understanding on these relatively less-known areas. Salil Mishra’s well-argued and polemical essay questions the widely held view that the Congress leadership’s refusal to go for a coalition with the Muslim League on ministry formation was the turning point in the history of Partition.

S.K. Chaube’s essay on the formation of the Constituent Assembly and Bir Good Gill’s paper on the Akalis’ Azad Punjab scheme are speculative exercises generally avoided by historians, as there are no answers to the questions of ‘Ifs’ in history. Historical reconstruction with hindsight is always problematic. Khwaja A. Khalique’s essay falls into the category of a somewhat laboured and often slanted effort to explain what the author himself calls the ‘Genesis of Partition’. Without accusing him of any such intention it is relevant to point out that most efforts to trace the partition script back to the Islamic arrival in the subcontinent are associated with the followers of the religious incompatibility theory. As to the essay by Jayanta Sengupta on Orissa princely states, the reviewer is unable to find any logic for its inclusion in this volume; it would have been a useful contribution on the issue of merger of such states into the Indian Union. V.N. Dutta tries to figure out whether Lord Mountbatten unduly influenced Sir Radcliffe to change the boundary award in favour of Indian Punjab. Maybe he did or maybe he did not – who knows?

The volume under review has not really charted fresh ground on the subject. Most of the issues raised have been discussed and written about in the existing literature on the subject. The book nevertheless does serve the purpose of bringing together already known knowledge into one place which will be useful to those who hitherto have not known the story of our partition.

Rana P. Behal

 

PANGS OF PARTITION: The Human Dimension (Volume II) edited by S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. Indian Council of Historical Research and Manohar, Delhi, 2002.

EVEN now, after half a century has elapsed, the fact and memory of Partition manage to sear the consciousness of many Indians, and certainly of those from the Punjab and Bengal who lived through it and have continued to live with it for a long time. But it is only recently, in the last few years actually, that a different consideration or exploration of what it means to us has been attempted.

This new consideration has deliberately moved away from a nationalist account of the event and a high politics rendering of it, to what could be called a ‘people’s history’ – in other words a history lived, experienced and recalled in ways that conventional histories ignore as being ‘ahistorical’ and outside their purview. And so it has hovered at the edge of our consciousness, never frankly confronted or unravelled, so that we’ve never really come to terms with it. It’s too huge, too unwieldy, too messy, even to be sewn up neatly and laid to rest.

As the volume under review makes abundantly clear, we’ve only just begun to plumb its depths. Despite its range and variety and the eminence of its contributors, I am only able to skim its surface, offering a bird’s eye view of the terrain it covers. The 23 essays in ‘Pangs of Partition’ fall into the following categories, roughly: critical reviews of literary texts; reflections on historiography and how Partition has been represented in history; commentaries on representations of it in art and film; interviews and reminiscences; discussions on language and translation; even a book review disguised as a comment.

Perhaps this is what makes it difficult to do more than dip into the volume, especially because literature dominates. Some of the essays have appeared elsewhere in different versions, but others, like Satish Gujral’s ‘Crossing the Jhelum’ are an unexpected delight. He is among the very few who has painted and written Partition, and he writes with rare economy and pathos. In slow, measured brushstrokes (verbal this time) he speaks of the reluctant realisation by many Hindu families, including his own, that they could no longer stay on. Their pain is palpable.

Gujral is one of three creative artistes whose works are not only discussed but are themselves present in the volume, the other two being Bhisham Sahni and Kartar Singh Duggal. Alok Bhalla’s lengthy, leisurely interview with Sahni is another of the volume’s delights, with Bhishamji speaking candidly of his evolution from an apolitical student in Lahore to being a Congress sympathiser (working on the Congress’ street-cleaning programme) to becoming a Communist Party worker and an IPTA activist. Bhisham Sahni is one of the few writers in the volume who recollected Partition in tranquility in ‘Tamas’ and his interview moves back and forth in time past and time present to highlight the present-tense-ness of Partition for many Indians.

How past-tense it is for our writers of school history textbooks is discussed by Krishna Kumar in his brief review of English-language textbooks in India and Pakistan, from which he concludes that nationalist historiography on either side of the border serves Partition ill – it is dispensed with virtually parenthetically to independence and nationhood in both countries. Nobody, it seems, neither leftists nor Islamicists, wants to recall it particularly for children.

The outpouring of Partition stories, novellas, plays and novels from Punjab has obscured the marked absence of literary renderings from Bengal. While many of the essays dealing with Partition fiction are reassuringly familiar – Manto, Khushwant, Intizar Hussain, Attia Hossain, Amrita Pritam, Krishna Sobti, et al. – Tapati Chakravarty’s analysis of why it is more or less absent in Bengal is interesting. She argues that a left rationalist and nationalist ideology in Bengal was unable to forge a literary idiom in which trauma and extreme disjunction could be expressed. While the 1940s saw an explosion of social fiction in Bengal in which everything from the Bengal Famine to the ills of the bourgeoisie were laid bare, Partition (it would seem) left Bengali fiction writers literally at loss for words.

She recognises only three novels as being ‘about’ Partition – Jibanandan Das’ Jalpaihati, Sabitri Roy’s Swaralipi and Pratibha Basu’s Samudra Hriday. What about Jyotirmoyee Devi’s Epar Ganga, Opar Ganga? She doesn’t figure, but I wonder why. Poetry, on the other hand, she says, had not only linguistic but imaginative capability to register and register Partition and this it did to stunning effect in the work of Das, Bishnu Dey, Mangalacharan Chattopadhyay and others. It’s a debatable point – after all, the communists supported the Muslim League – and an unusual one, but doesn’t to my mind adequately explain the absence.

All said and done, and despite the opening up of Partition historiography, the overwhelming preoccupation of most Indian writing on Partition is with its past-tense-ness – why and how it happened, how it sundered families and communities, how it lives on – and this is why I say that we have been unable to come to terms with it. Of course we must lift the silence that surrounds it, just as we must uncover as many hidden histories as we need to. But it’s time also to resist falling into the victim mode as a nation and a citizenry (as we do each time there’s a fresh outbreak of hostility between India and Pakistan), and guard against playing the old familiar tunes. Let’s step back for a moment and examine what Partition has meant to people on all sides of the borders of the three countries involved – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Ritu Menon

 

FRACTURED MODERNITY: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India by Sanjay Joshi. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001.

Sanjay Joshi’s Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India is a refreshing new book on the dynamics of middle class politics in colonial Lucknow. Offering a fresh perspective, the book revolves around the many-layered, often paradoxical nature of modernity, a concept familiar to us, yet difficult to unravel. The author, unafraid to indulge in theoretical speculation, excels in taking us through the various dimensions of this multifaceted idea and reality. Forcing us to think of our present polity and society, the author takes the case study of Lucknow as an axiom through which we can think of similar histories and trajectories of many parts of India.

One may begin reading Sanjay Joshi’s book backwards. For it is in the conclusion that the author places the book firmly in a historiographical debate on modernity, though he articulates the main arguments insightfully and consistently throughout. Joshi bases his work on a few important propositions that he sets out to establish through examples from primary sources, buffeting his arguments with intellectual discussion. He proposes the following for his study of colonial Lucknow of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries: that one way of studying colonial Lucknow is to examine the emergence and growth of a middle class; that this middle class can be best understood if we look at it as created by and a creator of a public sphere; that this ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ of the middle class was a process through which it wished to acquire political, social and moral hegemony; and most significantly that the modernity of the middle class in its politics and ideological postulations was necessarily fractured, impermanent, protean.

It is the last point that Joshi has explicated at length. He has rejected the idea of an ‘ideal-typical’ modernity – secular, liberal and progressive – of any middle class anywhere in Europe, though the myth of its existence has worked as a trope making modernities elsewhere seem unfinished, indeed unachievable. And just as modernities everywhere were built on the old and the new, ‘traditional’ and emerging hierarchies, with secular and religious composites woven into them, so did the modernity of Lucknow’s middle class – ergo that of India. This has led Joshi to reject the point of view of those historians who have argued for a derivative modernity (P. Chatterjee), or those who have celebrated the ‘difference’ of third world modernities (D. Chakrabarty). This inconsistent modernity, Joshi has argued, was an aspect of the quest of the middle class for empowerment, and it used traditional (including hierarchies derived from perpetuation of caste) and new (ideas borrowed from its Victorian counterpart) ideologies to achieve its goal.

In the first chapter Joshi traces the emergence of the middle class and its notion of itself as a ‘public’. He covers the ground from the ‘service gentry’ background of this class, its upper caste and financially ‘better-off’ status, to its exploitation of the educational and professional opportunities that came its way. Joshi examines the contradictions inherent in the use by this class of ideas of western Enlightenment to marginalize the traditional elites and its use of older caste hierarchies to put down the lower classes. The self-conscious use of ‘public-ness’ by this class has been delved into, however limited the public sphere may have been (in Habermas’ sense of the term). However, while the distance between the ‘public’-appropriating middle class and the lower castes/classes has been reiterated, Joshi has not commented upon the resulting incomplete hegemony (in a Gramscian sense) as limiting the political ambitions of this class.

In a study that has consciously chosen to discuss the role of the public sphere in the making of a middle class, the second chapter is devoted to analyzing the ideological moorings of its ‘private sphere’, perhaps a concession to the enormous work that has appeared in this field in the last decade. The author has explored the uneasy sangam between Victorian bourgeois ethics concerning a good housewife and the many borrowings from the more indigenous notions of a pativrata that animated the writings of domestic improvers of the period. This uneasy blend, according to Joshi, informed the ideas of even women emerging in the public by the early 20th century. This made an autonomous feminist politics impossible, even as it did not allow traditional patriarchy to survive either. While one may agree with the overall arguments placed here, a shift of focus on conflict encountered in ordering new patriarchal agendas would flesh out the complex ways in which patriarchal structures change.

In the third and the fourth chapters the author goes back to the public sphere, discussing a ‘publicized Hindu religiosity’, first in the late 19th century and then in the 1920s. Joshi is at his best here as he scratches out the manifold contradictory positions that gave birth to the politics of nationalism and communalism simultaneously. He has rejected the attempts of those historians who have located a syncretic culture in pre-colonial Lucknow, emphasizing the Shia Islamic bent of Lucknow’s nawabs. He has also examined why Islamicized elites like the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kayasthas now set about affirming their Hindu identities. The author examines this shift in stance as a need for empowerment, along with the effects of the Orientalist vision of the state, its administrative and legal structures, and the representative politics of the city. The celebration of Hindu masculinity and the reified notions of Hindu religiosity that emphasized community and numbers, however, could do little to alleviate divisions arising from caste hierarchies. This tension was inherent in the politics of shuddhi and sangathan.

Joshi also examines why the anti-Muslim rhetoric became more strident into the 1920s, especially as nationalist campaigns waned. He locates the change in Lucknow in three moments: the Hindi-Urdu controversy, the representative politics of the new century, and the Hindu-Muslim riot of 1924 over Muslim prayers in the Aminabad Park. Yet the growing sharpness of the anti-Muslim rhetoric, again, had its limitations in an ideology of Hindu ‘reasonableness’ that only sought the strengthening of the Hindus rather than the decimation of the Muslims. The same middle class, Joshi maintains, could espouse secularism and Hindu empowerment in the same breath.

By focusing on the contrary nature of modernity itself, Joshi’s book works anew on the conundrum of finding secularism with sectarianism, nationalism with communalism in India. It offers a way of understanding Hindu/Hindutva politics in a country that is constitutionally structured around principles of secularism, and must necessarily defend pluralism in order to survive.

This book on the middle class, however, has not taken account of petite bourgeoisie so to speak. Joshi has concentrated on the well off upper caste, though those who still need to work, but has left out the middling caste aspirants both to an upper caste status and a middle class lifestyle. Indeed the problem of hegemony may be best understood in the milieu of those who aspired to join its ranks. Also we get to know very little of a Muslim middle class. Though this may have been outside the scope of Joshi’s work, the material in the first two chapters that did include some discussion of the way changes were affecting parts of the Muslim society could have been carried further in this well-argued book on the nature of modernity.

A book that covers very wide ground on the making of a middle class, from its social and cultural background to its quest for political power; it is a must read for those interested in the social history of North India.

Anshu Malhotra

 

WOMEN, WAR AND PEACE IN SOUTH ASIA: Beyond Victimhood to Agency edited by Rita Manchanda. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.

IN recent years, South Asia has earned itself the doubtful distinction of being one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, whether it is internally – as in North East of India or Sindh in Pakistan – or across borders, whether it is over long standing issues or more recently created imbalances. For the people of South Asia, the violence of conflict is no longer a distant drum, echoing somewhere far away, but something they are as likely as not to encounter in their own backyard.

In the welter of writings on the subject and despite the fact that there ought by now to be widespread awareness of the issue, very little attention has been paid to women. As Rita Manchanda points out in her well-argued introduction to this volume, this is perhaps because women have ‘traditionally’ formed the humanitarian front of the war story, being represented mainly as grieving mothers, raped women, widows struggling to survive, and refugees. But, as the seven essays in this important volume point out time and again, one lesson that has been learnt with the long experience of conflict in the region, is that women can no longer be looked upon only as victims of conflict. Instead, their roles are much more complex and multiple. Indeed, over the years, what was until now seen as external conflict (as opposed to conflict within the home) has made its way deeper into the home and the private sphere, and women have emerged as resisters, as participants, as peace activists, as family heads and so on.

The essays in this volume demonstrate these multiple realities both empirically and competently. As Darini Rajasingham Senanayake points out in her detailed study of Tamil women in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the conflict has, in many ways, provided women a way of entering into and claiming the public space. She demonstrates how the conflict opened up new spaces for women’s agency and leadership, within the changing family and community structures, even as it has changed and destroyed others.

Nor is such change uniform across caste and class for while in Sri Lanka, Hindu Tamil women have been able to benefit from such an opening up, for Tamil Muslim women the situation has worsened, if anything, something that echoes Rita Manchanda’s exploration of the impact of conflict on women in Kashmir. For Kashmiri women, gaining an entry into the public sphere, stepping out of the home into the marketplace, is fraught with difficulty and tension, particularly in the resistance they face from families, and the fear of the security forces that keeps them indoors.

But in order for women to step into and access the public space, the ‘parent’ parties of which they are members need to be open to their participation in other fora. The example of women members of the MQM, perhaps the largest or second largest (after the Sindhiani Tehriq) women’s membership based organization in Pakistan, provides some telling insights. Despite the women’s clearly stated desire to be able to talk to other women about their lives – something initiated by the Women’s Action Forum through their ‘listening’ meetings – the parent party has not been at all open to allowing women to speak out, so much so that Altaf Hussain himself cautioned MQM women not to speak to WAF activists. Anis Haroon’s moving and well researched essay describes the ambivalences and complexities that attend on any effort at intervention on the part of women’s groups.

Like the MQM, groups fighting for self-determination or azadi in Kashmir have not been particularly open to women, and those organizations that have been formed (for example the Dukhataran-e-Milat and the Muslim Khawateen Markaaz), have remained on the fringes of the realpolitik of conflict. A different reality obtains in the North East of India, particularly in Nagaland and Assam where, as Paula Banerjee shows, women’s politicisation in the Assam agitation, and the role of the Naga Mother’s Association have resulted in changes in their lives. The Naga Mother’s Association in particular, is unique in that its members have been in the forefront of keeping the channels of negotiation and dialogue open between the government and Naga activist groups.

If peace has had a chance at all in Nagaland, the women have played a central role in it, and they have done so using their standing in society as mothers. Banerjee also looks at the tradition, in the North East, of the formation of women’s groups and mahila samitis which has made it possible for women to move into other organizations and to take up the fight for their rights. This is something that is completely missing in Kashmir where there is no real tradition of mahila samitis or other kinds of collectivities.

Another question the essays address is how, once conflict has taken place, do we understand peace? Does it only mean a return to the status quo – which may have been terrible for women anyway, or can we rethink what we mean by peace in the light of what we know today? In this context Meghna Guha Thakurta examines women’s narratives in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and looks at their search for peace as well as their attempt, still ongoing, to define a space for themselves within this conflict. A jointly-authored essay on the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and the involvement – apparently fairly major – of women in it looks at the complexities that arise with the marriage of religion and extreme left ideologies. Together, these essays make for a timely and important book on a subject where there is much to be learnt. The work that is now being generated – of which this volume is a good example – represents only the beginning of this education.

Urvashi Butalia

top