‘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.
The Labour government that came to power in 1945 had no desire to continue administering this restive population, and in 1946 negotiations began with leaders from the League and the Congress. The League’s leaders, especially Jinnah, worried about what sort of future a Muslim minority would have in an independent India. Their fears were ably exploited by the British and fanned by the attitude of the Congress, which had begun to move away from Gandhian ideas of inclusiveness (although these had been at best imperfectly held) towards a more explicitly Hindu identity. The League did well in the elections of 1945-46 by channelling Muslim uneasiness into a demand for a homeland called ‘Pakistan’, but Khan points out that at this stage it was not a clearly articulated territory.
Jinnah himself seems to have prevaricated in his understanding of Pakistan as a separate, sovereign nation-state distinct from India. It seems more likely, in the early days of the constitutional negotiations, at least, that he was rallying his supporters in order to extract the best possible deal from the British for the League, and would have settled for a federal solution if it guaranteed a firm element of decentralised power in the hands of Muslims.
The jostling for power between the Congress and the League was made far worse when the British decided to cut their losses. ‘By mid-1946,’ Khan says, ‘the British government was reluctant to invest a penny more in India’s administrative infrastructure. Intelligence units were run down and reports reaching district officers, magistrates, policemen and Criminal Investigation Departments suffered in quality.’ She adds that as the colonial apparatus began to withdraw, armed militias proliferated, especially in North India, where the worst of the violence would take place in 1947.
All this will sound familiar: the British playing off one group against another for decades before suddenly abandoning them once it seems no longer feasible to hold onto the territory. The British adopted the same method in Cyprus (as Perry Anderson recently made clear in these pages) and in Palestine, and present-day imperialists often propose a similar solution for Iraq. In India, the British had had a long time to perfect its system of divide and rule. After the uprising of 1857, in which Hindu and Muslim soldiers fought together to restore the Mughal emperor, the British went to great lengths to create an intricate taxonomy of caste, class and religion, a patchwork of conflicting interests which apparently could be held together only by the higher logic of imperialism. The British insisted almost hysterically on the hostility between Hindus and Muslims, and by the time decolonisation came, this had been internalised by the most influential members of both communities.
It is therefore not surprising that when the British came up with a fairly reasonable settlement plan in 1946, proposing a federal system in which both provinces and Muslims would be given a degree of autonomy, no one was willing to consider it. Both the Congress and the League rejected the plan, with the Congress especially unwilling to accept a federal system. There was an immediate ratcheting up of violence, with killings in Bengal, Bihar, North India and Punjab. It was against this backdrop that partition began to be considered: because it involved a territorial separation, most leaders hoped it would put an end to the killings.
Neither of the conflicting parties had previously given the idea much thought. But Mountbatten emphasised the urgency of the matter, and both Nehru and Vallavbhai Patel, a hardline Congress leader and future deputy prime minister, were in a hurry to start ruling an independent India. After a series of discussions between Mountbatten, the cabinet in London, and the leaders of the Congress and the League, it was decided on 2 June 1947 that the provinces of Punjab and Bengal would be partitioned. The result, in the words of a contemporary, was an India in the shape of an elephant with its two ears forming Pakistan. Most details were yet to be worked out, from where the boundaries would be drawn to the fate of those who might find themselves part of a minority in their new nations. Despite this, Mountbatten pushed for a hand-over date to be settled, and decided that instead of taking place in 1948, as originally proposed, the transfer of power would happen on 15 August 1947, barely two and a half months after the decision to partition had been taken.
Most people were bewildered when they first heard about the plan, and didn’t know what to do when the escalating violence began to force them out of their homes. The boundary commissions finished preparing their maps by 12 August, but they were not made public until 17 August, two days after independence and the day on which the first regiment of British troops set sail for home. By this time, ethnic cleansing had already started: women especially were targeted. As people began fleeing, more anxious to find safety among their own community than to become citizens of as yet abstract nations, trains full of refugees criss-crossed the country. Stopped along the way by marauding bands, the trains were often filled with corpses when they arrived at their destinations, with only the driver and his crew left alive by the mob. Many fled on foot, in columns of people up to 45 miles long, according to Khan. When they reached the other side of the border, some received help from government and social agencies, but most were forced to fend for themselves. Once again, women and children were especially vulnerable: pimps and criminals were lying in wait for them. Many who left their homes did so with the expectation that they would return once the turmoil subsided. But by the end of 1947, there were three million refugees living in camps in the two countries. By 1948, Punjab had been more or less ethnically cleansed, but the process still continued in Bengal, where 12,000 refugees were arriving every day from East Pakistan. Rehabilitation schemes favoured the middle classes and the literate, and the arrival of refugees, especially in Delhi and Karachi, set off other displacements, as they occupied the houses of members of minority religions in revenge for their own expulsion.
Both Khan and Vazira Zamindar attempt to untangle the causes and effects of the exceptional violence, and do so rigorously and even-handedly, but there is no escaping the melancholy tone that pervades their books. Khan writes of the way that earlier accounts of Partition ‘have had a tendency to segregate two sub-genres artificially: the histories of Partition victims … and the histories of bureaucratic and political intrigue acted out in the marble-floored rooms of Lutyens’s New Delhi’. The task she sets herself is to bring together the experiences of the masses and of the decision-making elite, and what this reveals forcefully is that the people who suffered most were not those who had taken the decisions. Khan shows that hostility between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims was to a great extent the result of modernisation, and that religious identities were particularly pronounced among the ‘educated, middle-class urban milieux of the burgeoning cities’. These people, not the peasantry, were the most vocal proponents of Pakistan or of a unified, Hindu-dominated India, and it was their ideas that would flow back to the villages.
‘Women’s bodies were marked and branded, with the slogans of freedom, “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Jai Hind”, inscribed on their faces and breasts,’ Khan writes, adding that at least a third of the brutalised bodies recovered later were those of girls under the age of 12. ‘The rest of the women tended to be under 35 and from villages. They were not then, most tellingly, members of the political classes who had fought for, or who had rejected, Partition.’
More than earlier historians, Khan is interested in the alternative possibilities that existed during that tumultuous time. Until the Partition plan stipulated that Pakistan would consist of parts of Punjab and Bengal, other shapes had been suggested, ranging from the non-territorial to those demarcating islands and corridors with a Muslim majority in India. Nor were alternative forms of territory and sovereignty suggested only for Pakistan. One idea was that independent city-states should be created in Calcutta, Delhi, Karachi and Lahore, each ruled by an elected governor. Many of the rulers of the princely states imagined separate futures for themselves, and occasionally carried out ethnic cleansing: the Muslim Meos were massacred in the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur in present-day Rajasthan, for example. In the rural areas of the princely state of Hyderabad, a peasant uprising lasted from 1946 to 1951, beginning as a rebellion against the feudal Nizam of Hyderabad but continuing as an insurrection against the Indian state, which seized the Nizam’s lands in 1948. Kashmir’s Hindu king, who ruled over a largely Muslim population, tried at first to keep his options open before caving in to pressure from the Congress. Soon after, Indian soldiers were flown into the Valley to face off against Muslim irregulars supported by the Pakistani army, so beginning a cycle of occupation, insurgency and proxy wars that still continues.
In The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia, Vazira Zamindar unravels the aftermath of Partition rather than the processes leading up to it. She focuses on the urban middle class, conducting ethnographic interviews and contextualising them with archival research. She shows that even members of the middle classes, if they happened to belong to minorities in the new nations, were subject to bureaucratic ill-treatment. In fact, Zamindar argues, the very nature of India and Pakistan as postcolonial nations should be attributed to the way they ‘comprehended, intervened in and shaped’ Partition as its effects rippled through the early years of independence. ‘The highly surveillanced western Indo-Pak border, one of the most difficult for citizens of the region to cross to this day,’ she writes, ‘was not a consequence of the Kashmir conflict … but rather was formed through a series of attempts to resolve the fundamental uncertainty of the political Partition itself.’
Zamindar looks in detail at what happened in the cities of Delhi and Karachi, and what emerges is not the story told in nationalist accounts, which portray Pakistan as a sanctuary for Muslims and India as a secular homeland providing shelter to expelled Sikhs and Hindus. None of those responsible for making the decision had foreseen the mass exodus and savagery that would be sparked off by Partition. Neither had most of those affected. In the province of Sindh, Zamindar writes, local leaders were perplexed and unhappy about the exodus of local Hindus, which they attributed to Muslim refugees from North India, ‘who have brought heat and passion into the placid life of this province’.
Jinnah had said that after the founding of Pakistan, the categories of Hindu and Muslim would matter little, but the movement of refugees created a different kind of citizenship, in which belonging to a state was folded in with an individual’s religious allegiance. Zamindar shows that Sindhi Muslims in Karachi eventually had to accept their commonality, in terms of citizenship and faith, with Muslims who had come from North India. A similar process took place in Delhi, where the demands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Punjab took precedence over the rights of Delhi Muslims. It was a continuation of what had happened before Partition, when news of the violence, carried across the subcontinent in pamphlets and newspapers, began the stitching together of imagined communities based on a common religion – communities that overrode those formed by a common language and culture.
Once citizenship defined by religion began taking hold of the government, too, people found themselves being dispossessed by official fiat rather than armed mobs. Muslims who returned to India from Pakistan, either because they had not intended to move permanently or because they had changed their minds, and even Muslims who had never left, found themselves stripped of jobs and property and declared to be ‘enemy’ citizens. Alongside the categories of citizen and refugee, both governments constructed another category, the evacuee, which allowed them to seize properties which belonged to members of minorities.
Zamindar’s analysis of the way this was done is remarkable for what it has to say about India and Pakistan, but valuable too because it brings Partition back into the mainstream of 20th-century history. She notes, for instance, that the institution of a Custodian of Evacuee Property in India and Pakistan not only looked back to the British Custodian of Enemy Property created during World War Two, but came at almost the same time as the Absentee Property Act passed in Israel in 1949. There were many other indications, from the introduction in 1948 of a mandatory permit system for people wishing to cross the new borders, to its supersession in 1952 by an even more repressive passport and visa system, that India and Pakistan were becoming modern states in their response to the anxieties of Partition. That this was not merely a side-effect is clear from the extracts Zamindar gives from government files, which show an obsession with fifth columns, borders, passports, dispossession and surveillance. It turns out that the lunatic Toba Tek Singh was right all along.