Enemy Citizens

Siddhartha Deb

  • BuyThe Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan
    Yale, 251 pp, £9.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 14333 1
  • The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar
    Columbia, 288 pp, £29.50, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 231 13846 8

‘Toba Tek Singh’ is one of a number of stories about Partition by Saadat Hasan Manto, a brilliant, alcoholic Urdu writer who himself moved from Bombay to Lahore in 1948. It is set in a Lahore asylum whose inmates are about to be split up according to their religion. When they are taken to the border for the exchange, the story’s Sikh protagonist – known as Toba Tek Singh after the town he comes from – refuses to co-operate. He lies down between the new boundary posts ‘on a piece of land that had no name’, resisting to the end a displacement he had expressed no wish to be part of. The story is about the breakdown of language, and its most memorable line is a piece of nonsense repeated by Toba Tek Singh: ‘Upri gur gur di annexe di be-dhiyan di mung o daal of di laalteen.’

Manto’s story, which was published in 1955, comes at the very beginning of a long attempt in the subcontinent to understand the meaning of Partition. In Britain, Partition has usually been seen as a footnote to decolonisation, and when it is discussed at all, it is in a matter-of-fact way, focusing on the contentious decisions made by Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress. In contrast, the South Asian response has taken the form of fiction, memoir and film as well as historiography: something the British wanted to see as final is constantly being reinvestigated. But there has also been a more reductive approach in India and Pakistan, one that emphasises Partition’s inevitability. Since the moment of division was also the coming into being of India and Pakistan as modern nations, Partition is often treated as a subplot in the grand narrative of independence. In this nationalist version, Partition was unfortunate but unavoidable, and served a useful function in so far as it distinguishes India and Pakistan from each other. This insistence on difference was manifest in the recent attacks on Mumbai, both in the rhetoric of the young men who saw themselves as carrying out a sacred mission on enemy territory and in the Indian government’s speculation that the assault had its origin in Pakistan.

These two recent histories make clear that the nationalist view is false. Not only were Indian and Pakistani nationalism shaped by Partition, both books argue, but Partition itself wasn’t the clean break claimed by national histories. The one thing that was clear in 1946, Yasmin Khan writes in The Great Partition, is that ‘two parties, the Congress and the League, would be at the forefront of leading and designing the new state, or states.’ Everything else was uncertain, and if the British had not been in such a hurry to disengage, decolonisation might not have involved partition at all.

By 1945, it had become clear to all concerned that the British no longer had the stamina to remain in the subcontinent. More than two million Indians had served in the British forces, with 24,000 killed, but subcontinental opinion had been greatly divided as to whether blood should be shed on behalf of the colonial masters. In 1942, the Quit India movement had been launched by the Congress, and thousands of activists and leaders, including Mohandas Gandhi, sent to jail; the British assiduously courted the League as a counterforce. The following year, a famine had struck Bengal, one of many agricultural crises stemming from British faith in the free market, and at least three million people had died. By the time Japanese forces invaded north-eastern India in 1944, there were Indian soldiers fighting on both sides.

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[*] LRB, 24 April 2008.