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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.
Panoramic view from the Chandigarh Secretariat.

Report on the City Beautiful

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

I remember the first time I heard about Chandigarh, the planned capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. It was during my first sojourn in India, after I had already spent several months exploring the country. It was a long and boring Saturday afternoon, and I was looking at the Rough Guide to India. I came across the city map of Chandigarh, which has perfectly rectangular, uniformly-sized blocks. I thought: Huh? I was used to seeing Indian cities that had been laid out haphazardly, so how did Chandigarh get to be built on a grid?

As I learned later, Chandigarh was built after Partition to replace Lahore, the traditional capital of Punjab, which was now in Pakistan. (At this time, Punjab and Haryana were a single state.) Prime Minister Nehru was in favor of building a totally modern capital for Punjab, to represent India’s arrival on the world stage as a modern nation. The individual who gets most of the credit for designing Chandigarh was the Swiss-born architect and prophet of modernism Le Corbusier. In reality, Le Corbusier was not the sole creator of Chandigarh, as he modified a town plan worked out earlier by the American architect Albert Mayer. The first phase of Le Corbusier’s plan, which ended up getting built with some further modifications, called for twenty-nine numbered sectors separated by huge landscaped boulevards. The state government buildings are in the Capitol Complex in Sector 1, and the main commercial district is Sector 17. Northeast of the city, in Sector 6, is a large city park centered around Sukhna Lake, an artificial lake impounded by a long embankment.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Chandigarh has gained a certain notoriety for its unusual town plan. The scale of the city makes it impossible to get anywhere by walking. The population density is too low to support a metro, and the city buses run infrequently. More than anywhere else in India, the people of Chandigarh have to rely on private automobiles to get around their city. In fact, Chandigarh is the only place in India that has more registered motor vehicles than people. (This includes scooters and motorbikes as well as cars.) The shopping center at Sector 17 is so large and sparse that it is never crowded and bustling like the commercial districts of other Indian cities. James C. Scott devoted a couple of pages to Chandigarh in his seminal critique of authoritarian high-modernism, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). He included a black-and-white photo of Sector 17, which looks like a massive concrete wasteland with a few tiny human figures standing in it.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott's Seeing Like a State.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

Five years after first learning about Chandigarh, I have finally gotten a chance to visit the city. I could not draw any definitive conclusions about Chandigarh from a few short days there, but I did see enough to conclude that dire reports of the city’s poor planning and un-Indianness are exaggerated. While I do agree that it was foolish to make the city as big and spread-out as it is, it is still unmistakably an Indian city. Although private cars and motorbikes dominate the roads, there are also plenty of cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, bicycles, and even horse carts. Sector 17 is a little bigger than it needs to be, but I feel that the austere photograph in Scott’s book misrepresents the place. It was likely taken early in the city’s life, before the place had had a chance to mature. In 2015, the shops around Sector 17 have brightly printed signs above them, like shops everywhere else in India. Far from being a concrete wasteland, the plaza in the middle of Sector 17 now has pipal trees and park benches in it.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

Chandigarh is certainly unusual, but it is not exceptional in India. Planned towns in the Indian subcontinent date back to antiquity. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two archaeological sites in present-day Pakistan, are the remains of two nearly identical cities built more than three thousand years ago. Although we know nothing about Harappan society, it is clear that they had a strong and centralized government that was able to enforce the town plan. Texts from later Indian antiquity describe the ideal city as a large square subdivided into square blocks, with the king’s palace in the central block. It is not clear whether such a city was actually constructed in antiquity, although the builders of Jaipur did follow the ancient guidelines when they laid out their city in the early eighteenth century.

The arrival of British colonists brought European-style town planning to India. Some Indian towns still have cantonment areas laid out in perfect grids for the British who once occupied them. Since independence, extensions of many existing Indian cities have been built on lines similar to Chandigarh. For example, Dwarka Sub-City in Delhi National Capital Territory was laid out by the Delhi Development Authority. (Other cities have similar agencies overseeing their expansions.) Dwarka is not built on a perfect grid, but it is built sector-by-sector with large streets separating the sectors. It does not seem to be a very efficient use of space. The Delhi Metro runs through Dwarka, but much of the sub-city is not convenient to the metro. The housing societies are built for people who own their own cars.

Apart from the scale, the most significant difference between Chandigarh and Dwarka is the underlying motive for construction. From start to finish, Chandigarh is infused with modernist ideology; it declares that India has arrived as a modern nation. Dwarka, on the other hand, is just a place for middle-class people to live.

Chandigarh's Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

Chandigarh’s Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

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