MasterwwebNews 15/2/16 - Unveiling the Shroud of Partition in the Punjab

 [ Masterweb Reports: Dr Kusum Gopal Reviews Borders and Conflict in South Asia by Lucy P Chester ] - Since 9/11 the wars in Afghanistan, engagements with ‘terrorism’, the state of affairs between India and Pakistan occupy global dialogues à niveauélevé de politique, as they do, nationally. Unfortunately, there remain formidable misunderstandings as flaky interpretations continue to prevail. Thus, scholarship on this sensitive subject is to be welcomed. In this Utilitarian, Whig account of the Partition of the Punjab, Lucy Chester argues that the Radcliffe Boundary Commission represented the interface between the ‘often veiled exertion of British colonial power’, and its exercise of Power-to-control strategies vis a vis the Nationalists, meaning the south Asian elites, which led to the setting up of the Commission. She further argues that it was not the location of the boundary, “rushed and inexpert as it was”, which she nevertheless believes minimised the violence, but the “flawed process of partition” that caused the massacres. She describes the process of the appointing the Chairman, Cyril Radcliffe who had little knowledge of the subcontinent, was deemed impartial, and whose legal reputation had received the nod from Jinnah and, Nehru’s consent, as a conscientious arbitrator, loyal to the Crown. He carefully burnt several notes and documents, thus primary sources were hard to come by in understanding exactly how 2,500 miles of boundary came to be drawn in less than six weeks. As she acknowledges, such critical omissions make it impossible to know what transpired within that commission’s deliberations, making the archival research piecemeal at best. Thus, it would make essential under such circumstances to meet survivors of the Partition on both sides from different sections of society. Nor has she consulted the wealth of material in the Oral History projects undertaken by the Indian Council of Historical Research, the IGNOU and the many well–known accounts of contemporary nationalist leaders, for examples by Ram Manohar Lohia, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and others, or, even to the popular Sufi poetry and music of the times, integral to Punjabi culture.


In addition, the rambling analysis feeds on the bucolic unsophistication of colonial readings that perennial conflict between ‘Hindus and Muslims’ had existed for many centuries, and Partition brought it to the international scene (p.7). What she fails to analyse are the separatist measures at the heart of colonial polity, they were by no means veiled. From the start, the classification of people was undertaken contrary to indigenous practices. Also, forcing people to work on the land destroyed cottage industries, damaging artisanal skills and traditional livelihoods. Such interference also distorted understandings of customary laws, rituals and religious beliefs: their heimat,how they related to each other and the natural world. One important example: H.H Risley developed an official typology of racial types formulating grades in caste defined by the proportion of ‘Aryan’ blood and the nasal index along a gradient from the highest castes to the lowest. In 1910 he influentially asserted that his knowledge of facts, rules-as-representation, “...of the religions and habits of the peoples of India equipped a civil servant with a passport to popular regard.” He absurdly determined, "the social position of a caste varies inversely as its nasal index”, measuring the definition of a community as either a tribe or a Hindu caste or a Muslim. The nasal index, a method of classifying ethnicity was based on the ratio of the breadth of a nose to its height; race remained one of the principal determinants of attitudes, endowments, capabilities and inherent tendencies among subject peoples. It was used in the recruitment different parts of the Empire. One scholar notes that Risley’s experience of administrative matters, including policing, proved to be useful to Curzon during the anti-government agitation that led to the first Partition of Bengal. It also trampled upon the effervescent Bengali Islamic syncretic folklore traditions, perceptively described by Asim Roy. Beginning with the Minto Morley Reforms of 1909 a series of Acts were introduced as have been documented meticulously by other Whig scholars such as J Chatterji’s studies on Bengal focusing on the elites, in this case, grasping Hindu ‘bhadraloks’ refusing to share their power.


What exactly does Chester mean by Hindu, Muslim or Sikh identities? The perceived antipathies through collective representation need qualification. As, another Partition historian, Gyan Pandey has pointed out that these categories are “well worn, essentially tautological formulae” that determined the religious character of a mass of people by imposing a monolithic unity of faith on each of them. One needs to add also that these views were not conditioned by notions of religions as discrete groups, reflecting not just a failure to understand syncretism, but also underplaying the turbulence and contradictions in rural society. Thus many conflicts and tensions within society were frequently attributed to religious differences, but these assertions were not demonstrable by any reference to historical data. Personal identities are intimately linked with political processes and social identities are not given once and for all, but are constantly negotiated. In the Punjab as elsewhere in the subcontinent, syncretic beliefs have always been integral to personhood and identity. For over a thousand years, the prolixity of Indo-Islamic aetiologies was woven into the fabric of everyday life there was fusion and co-existence. As a matter of fact Persian was spoken by the upper-classes, while Urdu was the awaam ki zaban as also Punjabi, the language of the common person in Mughal and post-Mughal India. An important Sufi tradition was the introduction of the common kitchen integral to Punjabi sociality. Indeed, the philosophy of Sikh Gurus nurtured the traditions of langar (common kitchen) and pangat (queue). The Granth Sahib contains teachings from the Upanishads, from Islam, even Christianitywith words in Persian, Arabic Punjabi and Sanskrit. In the subcontinent, various sects and communities have simply co-existed within a pantheistic belief system: the absorption of a deity or belief from another religion does not affect its pluralistic character; it is assimilative, encouraging co-existence. Anyone can gain salvation, a good Muslim, Jew or Christian, as long as he or she follows their moral duty as prescribed by their religious texts just as one who is born as a ‘Hindu’ can. As for Sikh and Hindu there was no divide: in every non Sikh household it was customary for the oldest son to become a Sikh or marry a Sikh girl. There is a need to understand the extent to which mythology and topography have overlapped in shaping the human landscape that spans millennia. This is so vast and of such complex dimensions that it has been expressed exclusively through plurality and syncretism whether they are personal, local, regional or national.


Punjabi Culture


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