India celebrates 70 years of Independence, but also needs to come to terms with the aftermath of partition, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

With these words of optimism, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, announced the arrival of the new nation at the stroke of midnight on 14–15 August 1947. This year, when India celebrates 70 years of Independence from British rule, she can proudly showcase many of her achievements: the success of her democratic system, development of education, science and technology, infrastructure, spectacular economic growth, her military might and so on. But she will also have to come to terms with the legacies of partition.

As Nehru was soon to realise, the new era was fraught with challenges. Pakistan was born the previous day and this meant the territory that was once British Indian Empire was now divided, on the basis of religious demography, into two dominions – both straddling toward their historic destinies as sovereign nation-states. What happened in August 1947 in the subcontinent needs therefore to be understood as a twin process – independence and partition – both affecting the future trajectories of the nation-states.

This story of violence and displacement continued well into the 1950s.

The immediate anxiety everyone experienced at that moment of arrival was about the award of the Boundary Commissions formed under Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had no experience of India and was given the task of drawing the international boundary within a very short span of time. He tried to draw a line according to the territorial distribution of the two religious communities, Hindus and Muslims. But the line he drew was most arbitrary and made no one happy.

Economically, Pakistan became more agriculture-based, while mineral resources and industries remained in India. More importantly, if partition was meant to solve the problems of the Muslim minority by giving them a homeland in Pakistan, it did not solve that problem, but created new minorities: many Hindus were left in Pakistan and many Muslims in India. This led to the unleashing of unimaginable violence on both sides of the border and triggered what can be described as the greatest exodus of people in human history. About one million people died, 75,000 women were reported to have been raped and more than 10 million people were displaced. These are only conservative estimates. And this story of violence and displacement continued well into the 1950s.

No wonder the Partition of India has a long afterlife. The historian’s gaze has now shifted from a preoccupation with the causes of partition and allocation of blame to an increasing interest in recovering the experiences of its victims, which produced a sense of betrayal and hatred on both sides with profound consequences for the subsequent nation-building processes and communal relations in the subcontinent. In the words of historian Gyanendra Pandey, the “‘truth of the partition” lay in the violence it produced; we should therefore endeavour to unravel how this violence was “conceptualised and remembered by those who lived through partition – as victims, aggressors or onlookers”.

The two rival nationalisms of India and Pakistan, and the relationship between the two nation-states, have been shaped by these memories of partition, as the event had different meanings for different peoples. For Muslims in Pakistan, Partition meant freedom – liberation from the domination of majority Hindus. For Hindus in India, on the other hand, it symbolised the incompleteness of Independence.

A dispute like that over Kashmir has become so complicated that it is now virtually unsolvable without a miracle or a dramatic change of policy.

These rival meanings increased the vulnerabilities of the minorities whose loyalty remained suspect, identity contested and citizenship undefined. The geopolitics of the subcontinent has thus been caught between the two rival nationalisms, informed by the memories of partition, leading to 70 years of enmity and warfare. In this adversarial environment, even a simple cricket match between the two countries evokes the rhetoric of war. A dispute like that over Kashmir has become so complicated that it is now virtually unsolvable without a miracle or a dramatic change of policy. The enmity between the two successor states of the British Empire has resulted in an unhealthy arms race and nuclearisation of the subcontinent, siphoning off funds from social development projects.

In order to ensure lasting peace and sustainable development for its citizens, it is therefore not enough for India to celebrate her independence; needing to come to terms with the legacies of partition. But more importantly, first, she must acknowledge and have a critical look at these legacies.

In order to be a partner in that cognitive process, the New Zealand India Research Institute based at Victoria University of Wellington, in collaboration with the Indian Museum and Victoria Memorial Hall, is holding an international conference in Kolkata on August 17–18, where 15 partition scholars from India, the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands and New Zealand will be presenting papers on various aspects of this long afterlife of partition, particularly in eastern India.

Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is in the History programme at Victoria University of Wellington and Director of the New Zealand India Research Institute.

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