There are a few things that Alok Bhalla wants to prove in this collection of dialogues with Partition authors Indian and Paki- stani. He asserts that undivided India had a vibrant composite culture where communities intermingled freely. It was destroyed by the entry of religious politics. Though tensions did exist, no one could dream that violence would reach the level of genocide. Zamindars and the Muslim bureaucrats were the main supporters of Partition, the ordinary man mostly a victim of events that spun out of control. With a few minor variations this is the standard liberal Indian take on Partition. And most importantly, it differs from its ideological counterpart across the border by its assertion that religious politics of intent and the historical circumstance of colonial rule and departure created the cracks that led to Partition—that there was never a sense that it was ‘inevitable’ – a frequently repeated Pakistani assertion. Interestingly the authors who mostly differ with this notion of ‘inevitability’ include a Pakistani — Intizar Husain and an Indian — Kamleshwar – both from UP, the focal point of the demand for Pakistan.
Those who mostly agree instead, are Punjabi Hindus who fled from West Punjab to India – Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti and Krishna Baldev Vaid – the last to an unnaturally pessimistic level. Interesting, because conventional wisdom holds that the Punjab never asked for Partition and had the most shared existence of communities in which religion and caste were not too important.
Yet the Punjabi authors assert, Partition had to happen. Of course even here, there is a difference from the Pakistani notion of ‘inevitability’. The Pakistanis go back to Mohammed bin Qasim to maintain that Muslims were always a separate race and the 98 percent Hindu converts who make up the community also magically joined their ranks the moment they converted. Therefore a clash of civilizations was bound to be. The Punjabi authors here go back only to the political developments of the early 20th century that created the cracks that would widen later.
Definite clues to the coming of 1947? Krishna Sobti emphasizes separate electorates and the greed of the Punjabi peasantry that eyed their landlord’s lands and their potential freedom from debt. Bhisham Sahni remembers revivalist movements like the Arya Samajis (his grandfather was an active one) and the Muslim League that encouraged people to see themselves as distinct and superior and reservations that would make Hindus try harder for the same seat. Vaid stresses the dietary restrictions of the Hindus that “hurt’ the Muslims and Sobti, a rising, new Muslim consciousness consolidated by Iqbal that “changed the old ways of relating to each other” so fast that as Bhisham Sahni claims, “friends and family came second.” More likely as Sobti explains, it had to do with power. “Now that there is talk of granting women 30% reservation in various spheres, their status at home is bound to change. Don’t you think I’ll assert myself if I know I will always get a job? (laughs) The same thing happened with Hindus and Muslims.”
UP on the other hand – conventionally and factually, the heartland of Muslim separatism — was the place that didn’t see much violence, where people seemed to have paradoxically, a greater religiosity and a deeper understanding of each other and where Leaguers and orthodox Hindus could easily be friends – almost till the very end. And yes, dietary restrictions were in place but nobody seemed hurt – there was a take-in-stride attitude to different ways of living — centuries old and part of everyday life.
This is at the heart of what Bhalla tries to put forward – a notion supported by every one of the authors he talks to – even the Punjabi ones who see early signs of separation and anger. Sobti calls this shared way of life “a workable harmony” and adds, “’Secular’ is not a word I’d like to use for the way of life that existed before the Partition. The weave of that common culture was so strong and dense that it still lingers, not as a memory but as a source of strength….Each respected the other’s ‘otherness’.” Sahni credits this to the liberal thought of the medieval times because of which, “differences in faith, customs, eating habits were taken for granted.”
Therefore clearly Partition could hardly be ‘inevitable’ – at least not in the way Pakistani historians put forward. Intizar Husain’s stories string together the lore of Ram and Krishna with Imam Hussein, “I am a Shia Muslim,” he says, “who thinks there is a Hindu sitting inside me because I was born in this land.” He tells Bhalla he can recall collecting the diyas off his parapet adjoining his neighbour’s on Diwali. Kamleshwar says and remembers the opposite – “There is a questioner called Mehmood who resides within Kamleshwar.” He adds, “When tazias went through our neighbourhood, Hindu women would carry their children under them for blessings and gather their makhanas showered over the tazias to take home as prasad.”
Bhalla’s conversations also document the minutiae of the time when the changes started happening and the silences began. Kamleshwar’s friend Ahmed, walks past without greeting him, he later learns, on the instructions of the local mosque. The Muslim roadside repairer of punctured tyres takes down posters of suddenly ‘Hindu’ actresses Kanan Bala and Devika Rani. Bhisham Sahni loses his friend Altaf to the local League unit. Sobti recalls that Hindus and Muslims stopped buying from each other’s shops after 1945. Indeed, Bhalla’s dialogues travel far beyond the literary milieu in their depth of exploration.
The only irritant is the professor’s own conversational technique that sometimes overpowers his authors instead of letting their words come through naturally and giving the reader space to absorb them. Bhalla is a man of strong opinions on everything from Gandhi and centre state dealings to man-woman relations and he makes sure we get to hear them. This is especially glaring in a non-conversation — his lengthy introduction where he seems, at times, almost to take the Partition personally (perhaps as every Indian should???) and presents the migratory experience in Partition literature as overwhelmingly negative.
There is no doubt that the mohajir experience has been bitter in hindsight and perhaps it is represented as such by the writers who experienced it then. Post-1971 the issues of nationality, home and identity became even clearer. But surely, this can only be one side of the picture in real life. Migration continued well into the sixties and Muslims left in droves for Pakistan in those early years to make better lives – and they usually did – at least materially. Ask the small time lawyer from Faizabad or the local magistrate from Bahraich – or at least, ask their grandchildren living comfortably in Karachi’s Defence today, how fast they rose once they migrated when a new economy had to be created and jobs filled. Ask also their relatives who stayed behind in old crumbling homes where time must have seemed to stand still, how their lives progressed in those early years. Perhaps one came to acquire an inner peace with his decision and the other didn’t. But then again, one quickly acquired three cars in his driveway, the other maybe, not even one.
The bothersome assertiveness is therefore unnecessary since the notions he suggests speak so flawlessly for themselves through his conversations. In fact his dialogue with Intizar Husain is a masterly probing of the writer’s early ambiguities – and he achieves a feat in getting Husain, an equally masterly evader who can run rings around interviewers, to give reasonably direct answers to uncomfortable questions. This book is a treasure trove of ideas, memories and the clarity of hindsight. It presents a decisive moment in time through people who lived through it. It proves that Partition meant so many different things to different people—yet tells us inheritors of its legacy how, in the end, they could all define it only in terms of loss.
Alpana Kishore has reported extensively on Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan and is working on a Partition project on post-1947 Muslim choices to stay or go in the absence of violence. Currently she is a Scholar of Peace fellow with WISCOMP for a project on the effects of armed conflict on Kashmiri nationality and identity.