Betwixt and Between: Reflections on the Partition


Dr Kusum Gopal

AS we stand witness to the enormity of human suffering, of Arab, of Afghan refugees being forced to flee to Europe from their ravaged homelands, Vazira Zamindars Ethnography on the Partition of the Punjab brings  to the fore resurgent memories of another refugee crisis which wraps the Subcontinent in its wraith, that of its interminable Partitions. She digs up  ongoing  relevant, critical concerns on the making of refugees, the experiences of displacement  (uprootedness would have been a better description) have thus far remained unexplored: it was  not a onetime event but was being/is being continuously negotiated,  dependent on the contingent conditions whereby old social geographies were/are being wiped out. Deep shadows remain — both Muslim refugees and non-Muslim refugees, lost their homes and these losses cannot be underestimated. Those who were forced to leave simply could not conceive of the Partition as permanent or final—some  returned but they were unable to move into their homes because those houses had come to be occupied by others.  She focuses on ‘the institutional sites’ making concrete the separation of Hindu and Sikh refugees and Muslim refugees  into the distinction of India and Pakistan governments to map identities, geographies, and histories into bounded nations.”

Zamindar’s ethnography has provided valuable insights on the magnitude of the bureaucratic violence hitherto unexamined–of drawing boundaries, nationalising identities, defining citizenship –all of which remains catastrophic. The colonial ways of seeing was pitted against the ways of being of ordinary men and women. She states the case of Ghulam Ali, a havildar  trained as an artificial limb maker posted at the military workshops in Chaklala, near Rawalpindi had chosen to remain in India, Thus, he applied for citizenship which was denied to him — he was deported in 1957; such occurrences were common., No matter how ordinary men and women felt, the State empowered itself to decide otherwise. Reputable scholarship has highlighted how colonial institutions and Black Letter Law manipulated religious identities constructing communalism as an elemental facet of India when the opposite was true. Here Zamindar could have included the millennial syncretic traditions of the Subcontinent which made the experiences of being uprooted extremely painful. Indeed, British policies desecrated traditions of harmony and co-existence. For example, the powerful Folk legends such as the legend of Jhulelal, a classic from the Sindhi mystic of Sehwan. At the shrine of Uderolal in southern Sindh, there are both a dargah and a temple. And at the famous dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan, Hindus still perform the Mehandi ceremony at the annual Urs. Numerous Hindus were  and still are  followers of Muslim Pirs, and would make sharbat for Muharram processions, while Muslims often visited Hindu temples to partake of the Prasad. After Sindh was annexed by the British who engineered the population divide, gradually through divisive legislation separated Sindh from Bombay, which finally happened in 1937 at the cost of Hindu-Muslim solidarity in Sindh. Indeed, Karachi over centuries remained intricately linked to the Malabar Coast and later on with Bombay.

The Partition drew upon the colonial constructed categories of Hindu and Muslim and Sikh whereby people were forced to rely upon such identities –classifications were in themselves controversial because they pitted these two groups against each other  negating the realities of shared conviviality and sacrifices made for freedom. Indeed, wholly undermining the diversity of Muslim communities as she has pointed out but also of Hindus and Sikh belief systems. The Muslim League had lost the elections but was propped up by the British — most Muslims were opposed to the idea of Pakistan and several millions had participated in the anti-British struggle. As an example, freedom fighter, Gafoor of Matia Mahal  who had gone nine times to jail fighting British rule– he felt he experienced bad kismet upon Partition.  Rafi Bhai another informant who witnessed Nehru’s speech at Lal Kila — said, to him, Independence was a desolate, empty  experience. Whether it was the Hindu /Sikh exodus from Karachi or the Muslim exodus from Delhi it was not just the terror that they had to contend with it was the deracination. Since its eventuation, the Partition’s tensions cannot be resolved begging the questions– not just why the Partition but what was it all about? 

As she states, many legal agreements were drawn up to facilitate the Partition such as the Karachi Agreement of 1949 albeit the success was ephemeral. A Partition Council was set up –Everything was to be divided from personnel — Employees in various capacities from railway engineers, clerks, all those in government service were asked to choose between India and Pakistan. It is extraordinary how furniture items, weather instruments military hardware were also included. She does not mention the Armed forces– nearly all the Regiments were halved — and Regimental silver such as the case of the Bengal Sappers was sent to Pakistan dealing a mortal blow to the rich legacy of the Armed forces. She states, the Custodian of Evacuee Property was initially set up to protect the properties of the displaced, the evacuees, until such time that they could return to them.” 

The marauding refugees embittered from being forced to flee from Karachi and west Punjab unleashed a genocidal rampage forcibly occupying the Muslim homes in Delhi– the worst areas being Karol Bagh, Sabzi Mandi  Paharganj being the worst areas where killings, lynchings arson, loot occurred — it was she notes, the blind rage of the dispossessed, The settled Muslim families here were forced to take refuge in Jama Masjid, Humanyun’s tomb, Idgah, Purana Qila and also Red Fort, The Indian government sought to protect them as the Pakistan High Commission also looked in, In addition to the 12,000 government employees, in Purana Qila there was only one tap of water for the 50,000 people seeking refuge there from the violence.

In predominantly Muslim areas there was comparatively little disturbance. Evacuee property legislation enacted for Sind and west Punjab first protected the evacuee & declared illegal property occupation then gave the houses to refugees houses. Most homes were broken into and no one could do anything —“qabzakarna” or forcibly occupy. Thus, many homes forcibly abandoned by the Hindus and Sikhs were occupied. The refugees from Purana Qila and other Muslim refugee camps in made their way to new capital, Karachi, in the province of Sind. In Pakistan, Muslim refugees came to be officially called muhajirs. and not Urdu word panahghir (the seeker of panah or refuge) invoking the migration of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in  622 A.D. Yet what needs to be emphasised which Zamindar does not is that muhajirs were not accepted by the Pakistanis and the MQM party that grew out of this rejection is important to understand. Muhajir is a term of abuse and those who have Indian origins in Pakistan are subjected to ridicule to date, The MQM movement has had violent confrontations with the Pakistani state.  Mujahirs were a disenfranchised lot but they have alwayscontrolled  the financial goings on and have thus  held the Pakistan state to ransom.

Zamindar could have included important historical evidence to strengthen her ethnography –Gandhiji was against the Partition and did not participate in its proceedings whereas Nehru, Setalvad and a few others allowed it to happen.  Zamindar does not mention this but she notes he was deeply horrified by the violence and visited these camps only because he wanted to reassure Muslim residents to stay in the city and he wanted them to return to their homes. Also because of his intervention, Maulana Ahmad Sahib a staunch nationalist of Jamiat-e  Uleman ei -Hind  stayed back. Zamindar notes that Gandhi instructed the bureaucrats such as GD Khosla that it was his moral duty to bring back and resettle all the Muslims in their homes.But Khosla stated that the Muslims do not wish to stay to which Gandhi strongly objected,, when I go they want to stay!.. They are our people. You should bring them back and protect them! But like the other officials Khosla did very little. On 12 January 1948 Gandhi started fasting one of the conditions of him breaking the fast was that all Muslims must be resettled in their homes. There were several other opposing voices such as the Al Jamiat an Anjam a nationalist paper which fiercely responded to accusations that all Muslims were Pakistanis. Muslim nationalists such as Maulana Azad and others remained in India. Certainly more Muslims chose to remain in India than flee to Pakistan. As her ethnographic evidence validates that Partition was not about Hindu Muslim divide, to control the movements of people and enforce motional identity, the permit systems came into force in India.  This measure only served to cause greater uncertainty as those who returned were forced to take legal measures which often went against them. Later in 1952 the Indian the Pakistan governments introduced the passport system   “to achieve categorical closure”; yet even that was hard to achieve. Even the emergence of passports to distinguish citizens from aliens, nationals from foreigners, but it was not clear cut either: passports and citizenship could not be taken for granted, Passport system was seeking to align citizenship still in flux with other forms of belonging and relationships. For example, the then Pakistani High Commissioner HS Suhrawady a member of Pakistan assembly felt that there was no conflict within him about being an Indian which he claimed he was and to live in India while representing Pakistan: such ambiguities remain unresolved. Recently, in 2003 Muslims from Kerala working in Dubai who quit their jobs, bereft of identity were left stranded in Karachi where they were given Pakistani passports which they used to return to India only to get deported at Wagah border.

The irony was that Muslims were not welcome in Pakistan. The government refused to accept a quota for refugees. There were deep tensions of receiving Muslims into Sind and west Punjab; many non Muslims refused to leave Sind. Indeed, Pakistani officials were loath to admit refugees, and as she notes that the permit system was not an effective measure for the Pakistani state. In areas illegal border crossing emerged such as in the Sind desert, at Khokrapar, where thousands of Muslims from India entered. The question of heimat is about personhood, about anchorage of spatial and of emotional ties such as social and moral interconnectedness, the earliest experiences or acquired affinity. In Germany, for instance, citizens have their heimatort –the municipality where the person or their ancestors became citizens on their identification highly affects a person’s identity: echt auf die Heimat;  or in France, droit au foyer;  or Italy: dirittoalla Patria, or Spain derecho a la patria. These concepts  now regarded as a fundamental human right, indeed, a precondition to the exercise of the right to self-determination. 

Thus in determining nation states the post-colonial authoritarian bureaucracy continues to violate heimat. Zamindar  perceptively observes that the imposition of the Nation States remains contentious accounting for the ambivalence of emotional identities caused by arbitrary political boundaries. Thus, questioning the need for Partition and the mass eviction of people. Nation states are seen to be not just the ideal but the only form of governance. In Europe various regions once part of the Roman Empire and then subsequently other empires the Hapsburgs, Bourbons and so forth evolved a regional consciousness naturally deciding over three centuries the need to separate to exclude based on of their particular form of Christian worship, language, culture and thence polity: nation states are a consequence of specific cultural and historical events. And yet, they remain negotiable, for example, the boundaries of the former Westphalia State remain unresolved in some instances, as also the recent question of Scottish Independence.  In the Subcontinent, inspite of the Partition cultural engagements, emotional geographies and  human ties  remain stronger than ever and resilient. In particular, by way of narrative, knowledge and memory are never lost, nor disembodied from the emotional experience of people on both sides of the border: they surge back to life again and again, across generations, because of triggers in individual and group remembering. Such themes have been, continue to be disregarded in historiographies, indeed ethnographies of the Subcontinent.

Zamindar combines her fieldwork with impressive archival scholarship conducted mainly in Delhi and Karachi, trawling through unnoticed government records, accounts by contemporaries, of nationalists and contemporary newspapers such as the Jang using some of its perspicacious cartoons. In the best traditions of Oral history and accurate translations of the transcripts–she makes cognisant the emotive power of Urdu through personal narratives: knowledge and memory are never lost, nor disembodied from the emotional experience of people on both sides of the border; they surge back to life persistently, across generations, memories of shared grief, or joy which triggers individual and group remembering. Such themes have been, continue to be disregarded in historiographies, indeed ethnographies of the Subcontinent. Hers is exceptionally good scholarship- bridging the abyss, correcting understandings formulated by the clerical, flaccid, Whig/Utilitarian approaches as indeed, other historiographies that overlook, for instance, cultural symbols, emotional geographies, the power of heimat that render the widespread ambivalence of accepting rapidly, enforced nationhoods that have not solved the unending refugee crisis, personal identitiesindeed,  making rather contentious, the  necessity of the Partitions. She concludes, there is a serious need to  re-think  what it means to be a Muslim but also what it means to be Indian and Pakistani because emotional geographies continue to overlap despite the estrangement.

Dr Kusum Gopal is a UN Technical Expert for the Indian Subcontinent, MENA Region, West and East Africa, Vietnam and Northern Europe.She can be reached at: [email protected]

The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia
Refugees, Boundaries, Historie
Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar
Penguin, Viking 2008
ISBN9780670082056, xv +288pp

More Articles By Dr Kusum Gopal

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‘Purging Racism, The Enemy Within’- An Analysis
Hindustaniyat: Pining For Its Spirit
EU Model For Sub-Continent
Unveiling the Shroud of Partition in Punjab

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