- Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India
Gyanendra Pandey’s book begins with a definition of two versions, two kinds of history, of the Partition of India in 1947: “Whereas historians’ history seems to suggest that what Partition amounted to was, in the main, a new constitutional/political arrangement, which did not deeply affect the central structures of Indian society or the broad contours of its history, the survivors’ account would appear to say that it amounted to a sundering, a whole new beginning, and, thus, a radical reconstitution of community and history” (7). How, he asks himself, is “this other history” to be written? Similar questions have been asked by several recent commentators on the extraordinary violence that accompanied the withdrawal of British colonists from the Indian subcontinent and the creation of the two nations of India and Pakistan. Their forceful answers have resulted in major shifts in our understanding of the agents, victims, everyday processes, and long-term consequences, of Partition violence and the dislocation of populations. Remembering Partition follows upon the work of Shail Mayaram, Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Veena Das, and Alok Bhalla in focusing on the trauma of Partition, and in asking how mass violence (perhaps a million people dead) and dislocation (up to ten million people chose to, or were forced to, migrate from their homes) brought into being not only the belligerent contours of the new nations of India and Pakistan, but also re-defined the “Muslim” and “Hindu” citizens who lived within their borders. Such scholarly writing, and that of Pandey here, has produced a complex picture of the events and human misery that we sum up under the rubric “Partition.” Equally, this scholarship has raised historiographical questions of the kind that Pandey formulates above. To that extent, perhaps the most important feature of Remembering Partition is Pandey’s insistent and elaborate challenges to what he calls “historians’ history.”
In the last five years, revisionist historians and cultural commentators have made certain that our narratives of the Independence and Partition of India no longer rest on the clarities of colonialist, nationalist, or even liberal-humanist historiography, each of which agreed on at least one foundational principle, that the grandeur of the drama of Independence, of the formation of two postcolonial nation-states, necessarily overshadowed the regrettable, aberrational, violent sub-plot of Partition. Pandey too argues that the events of Partition (even more than those of Independence) were central to the dynamic “process of nationalising the nation” (17), which is his term for the making of the postcolonial Indian (and thus Pakistani) nation, and of ideas of normative and marginalized citizenship in each case. Far from being a regrettable phenomenon that could be wished away, the violence visited upon people during Partition—by each other, by organized political groups, and by various organs of the state—played a constitutive role in the molding of India and Pakistan, as well as of various sub-national collectivities. Following upon this insight, Pandey argues that the study of Partition should result in not only accounts of inhuman brutality and of the gamesmanship of high-level political decision-making, but also “a history of struggle—of people fighting to cope, to survive and to build anew.” Via such “a history of the everyday in the extraordinary” (18), Pandey seeks to critique the privileged idealisms of nationalist thought, which he believes not sufficiently concerned with the unequal citizenship-rights of minorities and oppressed communities within a nation, nor with the enormous “violence and intolerance” it has “taken to produce the ‘successful’ nation-states of the twentieth century?” (19).
Pandey’s aims are laudable, but Remembering Partition often achieves its polemical ends by offering thin, if not reductive, characterizations of the historiographical positions it would rebut. Pandey suggests that any historian who concentrates on the violence suffered and enacted by common people—Sikhs and Hindus attacking Muslims, Muslims attacking Hindus and Sikhs—risks alienating not only nationalist historians but also leftist historians (in the case of India, these were often the same) who would focus...