Lessons in history: Looking past the pangs of Partition

Indian historian says religion primary marker for identities in S Asia.

Our Correspondent December 04, 2013
Even if exchanges between India and Pakistan could not break much ice, they reflected other dimensions of their relationship, says Dr Pallavi Raghavan PHOTO: FILE


The trauma of 1947 was so great that it eclipsed any post-partition cooperation between India and Pakistan, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi said on Wednesday.

He was speaking at a panel discussion on his recently launched book, Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The discussion was organised by the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences (MAGSHSS).

Dr Gandhi said though the upheaval during partition was immense, there was also a great deal of humanity on both sides. This then translated into cooperation between both governments and their people. The interpretations of the ambiguous Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 had created a poisonous environment that had led to the tragic events of 1946-47, he said.

He said communal and religious narratives featured strongly in the history of the Punjab. Other narratives based on class divides had a hard time trying to displace narratives surrounding the individual and his religion.

Dr Muhammad Waseem, a professor of political science at the department of Social Sciences at the MAGSHSS, said Dr Gandhi’s book reflected the ground realities of the strategies the British Empire had employed in the sub-continent. He said though it was not the primary theme of the book, Dr Gandhi had beautifully discussed the British intention to ‘divide and rule’- a policy they had wanted to continue in the subcontinent. Dr Waseem said the notion that religious conflicts stemmed largely from the middle classes had also been discussed. “Dr Gandhi writes about how the Punjab, at that time, was a victim of systemic inequalities,” he said.

Responding to the comments by Dr Waseem, Dr Gandhi said the Punjab in undivided India was both special and unique. “Punjab was the most pro-empire province of undivided India,” he said.

Dr Gandhi said his book had tried to capture the political history of that period, not particularly its social or economic history.

Political scientist and visiting professor at LUMS, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, said Dr Gandhi had presented various facets of an imperial power in retreat. He said the book, in trying to objectively examine the British imperial power, showed how the Empire had failed to hold on to the state and tried to incorporate feudal powers, consequently alienating other classes in the region.

Punjab became hostage to conflict after the British lost control of the state, especially in 1942, he said. “The Muslim League demanded a separate state for Muslims and the Sikhs too demanded to be separated,” he said.

Dr Ali Usman Qasmi, an assistant professor of History, regretted the limited access to archives and sources for researchers in India and Pakistan. The history of the Punjab was rarely considered in the issue of safeguarding religious beliefs or establishing independent identities, he said, even though primary demarcations were often drawn based on religious identities.

Dr Pallavi Raghavan of the Centre for Policy Research at New Delhi said despite the bitterness of the partition, India and Pakistan had engaged in cooperation at various levels in the post-partition era. There has been a lot of contact and exchange between the two countries, she said, and even though they could not break much ice, they reflected other dimensions of relationship between the two states.

Dr Gandhi is a historian, journalist, former member of the Rajya Sabha and currently a research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2013.


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