- Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India by Neeti Nair
The partition of the South Asian subcontinent and the independence of India and Pakistan have rightfully claimed a renewed attention from scholars across disciplines. Independence, when it came after decades of anticolonial protest, brought with it one of the largest movements of people (some 12.5 million) in modern history, numerous and heartrending instances of violence, and an estimated one million dead. Neeti Nair’s Changing Homelands pursues a persistent question that has haunted commentary and scholarship on Partition from the very moment that disbelief over the scale of violence and migration began lifting: Who is to blame for the political process that led to Partition and the violence that accompanied it?
Nair approaches the question, by her own admission, to address the claims of the Hindu right that India’s Muslims should somehow be held responsible for the tragic events of 1947–1949. Nair’s evidence suggests, to the contrary, that “some Punjabi Hindus preferred Partition to a united India” (p. 1). She therefore extends an argument to the Punjab that had been made by Ayesha Jalal in The Sole Spokesman (1985) for the all-India arena, and Joya Chatterji in Bengal Divided (1994) for the case of Bengal. Nair’s answer to the question, however, is meant in part to complicate the question itself—demonstrating both that various schemes for partition of the province within the overall context of a united India were being discussed for decades and that no one, including those who were eventually uprooted, believed that Partition would be accompanied by displacements of people on that scale. In fact, Nair argues that making clear separations between those who were secular and those who were communal (and could therefore be held responsible for Partition) is nowhere near as easy as the secondary scholarship has suggested. This is perhaps where Nair’s most innovative contribution lies—in her reading of the political careers of several extraordinary Punjabi public figures: Lala Lajpat Rai, Swami Shraddhanand, and Bhagat Singh. All of these figures, covered in early chapters of the book, are placed in the exacting circumstances of contemporary events and debates. Readers seeking similarly sympathetic readings of national figures like Gandhi, “who sometimes had a penchant for the ludicrous” (p. 205), or Nehru may be disappointed.
Public debates about the future of India, as Nair ably demonstrates, were varied, dense, complex, and open-ended. Readers may regret that the book’s select bibliography does not detail the secondary literature [End Page 440] on these rich subjects. Matters as foundational as the setting of boundaries, the extent of the franchise, questions about the special representation of minorities (at different levels of government), and the method of determining and weighting that special representation were all carefully discussed even as Punjabis continued to unite across religious divides in the public sphere as they did, for example, during the rural movement of 1907 or around the treatment of political prisoners during Bhagat Singh’s prison hunger strike. “The real problem lay,” Nair ultimately argues, “in the politics of irresolution grounded in the increasing absence of a coherent and genuinely inclusive anti-colonial nationalism” (p. 258).
The violence of partition itself, Nair argues in chapter 5, was not wholly unrelated to the status of political negotiation being conducted by South Asia’s elite. Events on the ground, far from seemingly spontaneous acts of outrageous violence, appear here as linked not only to the course of political negotiation, but also to peoples’ growing awareness of the spectacular failure of the British, and their military and police, to maintain law and order. The sixth and final chapter of Changing Homelands, which presents an analysis of interviews conducted with some of those uprooted by Partition, confirms Nair’s argument about the power of elite and official domains of discourse to influence common understandings of events. Her thoughtful interviews reveal some of the complexity involved in sometimes contradictory Hindu memories of Partition: of how Muslims can be embraced...