Flagging the Partition Debate
Amar Farooqui
PARTITION OF INDIA: WHY 1947? by Kaushik Roy Oxford University Press, 2012, 276 pp., 695
March 2012, volume 36, No 3

It is not an easy task to decide on a representative collection from the vast literature on Partition. Kaushik Roy has judiciously selected eleven essays which together flag some of the major issues in the historiographical debate on Partition. This is of course such a contentious matter that it seems unlikely that there can ever be a scholarly consensus even on the relative importance of the issues. Nor is it possible to disentangle the historical process that led to Partition from that which produced the violence that accompanied it. In answering the question of Roy’s subtitle ‘Why 1947?’, how far back do we need to go in time in order to make sense of the insanity on display at that juncture: the medieval period, the beginning of the nineteenth century, the socio-religious reform movements of the late nineteenth century, the riots of the 1920s, the elections of 1937, or 16 August 1946? Were the events that occurred in the last few months of British rule the logical culmination of long-term trends or was it just that things went horribly wrong in those months?

One way of looking at the problem, as Roy notes in his introduction, is to regard Partition as the outcome of the actions of a ‘few bad men’. There was no dearth of preachers of hatred-not necessarily crackpots or fringe elements-whose vocabulary was often shaped by colonial discourses about Indian society. At the same time, at the level of high politics there was a deadlock to which the only solution appeared to be Partition and communal violence. The masses were, in a sense, hostages in these negotiations. This was the price that imperialism extracted for independence. Violence was ordained as the fate of the people, Partition or no Partition. Roy remarks that the developments in Panjab and Bengal cannot be seen in isolation from confabulations in Delhi or manoeuvres in London. Moreover, big business, to which the introduction makes a passing reference, was another (though not easily visible) player. Claude Markovits has pointed out that by the early forties big business, both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, was willing to agree to Partition. It needs to be underlined that other considerations apart, there was growing concern over left-wing mobilization in these years, a factor that has generally been downplayed. Roy too dismisses the Communists as being of little consequence, for which reason he has preferred not to include any specific study on their role.

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