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Seventy years of Partition

It was seventy years ago today that India won its independence from the British Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of the new country, described the winning of independence as India’s “tryst with destiny,” the culmination of decades of struggle.

Yet not one but two nations emerged from British India that fateful week in August 1947: India and Pakistan. The Indian National Congress of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru had called for a unified secular state for all Indians, regardless of religion. The Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted a separate homeland for South Asian Muslims, out of fear that Muslims would be a marginalized minority in a unified India.

Bending to pressure from the Muslim League, the British and Congress agreed to the partitioning of India on religious lines, with the two Muslim-majority regions becoming the eastern and western wings of Pakistan. (East Pakistan would become Bangladesh in 1971.) For Bengal and Punjab, states on the border, a commission led by British judge Cyril Radcliffe drew a new international boundary running between Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority districts within the states. The Radcliffe Commission consulted no other data aside from population statistics, and they conducted no field surveys.

The partitioning of India caused a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale, as Muslims left India and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan. Ten million people were displaced and between 250,000 and one million killed.

Why so much bloodshed? Partition corresponded with a surge of violence between the religious communities. This violence was not spontaneous, as it is often remembered (when it is remembered at all). The Indo-British co-production Gandhi, released 35 years after Partition, includes a scene of refugees on the move near the new border. One column of Muslims trudges and rides bullock-carts toward Pakistan; the other, of Hindus and Sikhs, heads the opposite direction. One of the refugees flies into a rage and hurls a rock at the people heading the opposite direction. This unhinges an avalanche, and in short order both sides have fallen on each other and are cutting one another to pieces.

Episodes like this may have happened on occasion in real life, but the majority of the violence was premeditated, not spontaneous. It was also perpetrated not by amateurs, but by professionals—veterans of the Indian Army from World War II, with training and weapons that they could use for ethnic-cleansing.

The final episode of the British miniseries The Jewel in the Crown (based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet) has a more authentic portrayal of the violence of Partition. A band of Hindu militants stops a train and murders all the Muslim passengers. The militants know where to look because one of their conspirators left chalk marks on the exterior of the carriages at an earlier station stop.

Only a small minority of Indians, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis are old enough to remember Partition; but the scars of the event are almost everywhere in South Asia. There is of course the Indo-Pak border, and the seventy years of suspicion and hatred that it represents. In Pakistan, the province of Sind lost its business class, almost all Hindus, who migrated to India. (Some of them ended up in Jaipur, where their descendants run shops in the old city.) In India, Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces) lost its Muslim upper class to Pakistan. Hindustani, the common language of northern India, was split definitively into Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan. Urdu and the Muslims who spoke it were second-class citizens in India. Jinnah’s prediction had in a way become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Learn more

  • The Great Partition, by Yasmeen Khan, is an account of the human toll of Partition. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Midnight’s Descendants, by John Keay, begins with an excellent discussion of Partition. (The rest of the book, alas, is not so good.)
  • The works of Urdu short-story writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto are still read on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. (Hindi speakers read Devanagari transcriptions.) Some of them have been translated into English (including my favorite, “Toba Tek Singh”). Manto’s life story is itself a parable of Partition: Formerly comfortably ensconced in Bombay, he moved to Pakistan for his wife’s family, where he wrote stories of Partition and drank himself to death.
Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

Scootermobility

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

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