Can’t afford mistakes of Partition again

During my schooldays in Kolkata in the second half of the 1960s, most newspapers published Independence Day supplements. A recurrent feature of these supplements was a question: is Partition irreversible?

The question was understandable. Perhaps relatively unnoticed by the rest of India for whom Partition — and the horrors associated with it — was principally a North Indian experience. The official memory of Partition had us believe that it was the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from western Punjab and Sind that was all important. Subsequent literature beginning from Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and concluding with the televised version of Tamas in the late-1980s, dwelt at length with the bloody mayhem that followed the drawing of the Radcliffe Line in one part of India.

The concern was legitimate. However, there was another Partition in eastern India that involved Bengal and touched a corner of Assam. That Partition had its own dynamics. The exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan to West Bengal, for example, didn’t happen all at once but occurred in phases and is still ongoing. However, that experience was both under-documented and viewed with relatively less intensity by the Government of Jawaharlal Nehru. Bengalis resented this discriminatory treatment and, in the process, developed an anti-Centre mindset that still persists to this day. The grievances were carefully nurtured by, first, the Communist movement and, subsequently, by the regional party that now rules West Bengal.

Broadly speaking, this was the context of the various articles that looked to a day when the two Bengals could be re-united and the Hindus of eastern Bengal could return to the land of their forefathers. During the run-up to the Bangladesh war, this expectation was at its peak. It was only after 1972 and the formation of the new country that it became self-evident that returning to their cherished eastern Bengal was now an impossibility. In the subsequent five decades, the concern isn’t about a return and reunification but a worry that West Bengal will be transformed into a West Bangladesh and that all will be lost for Bengal’s Hindu population.

The worry may seem spurious to many who seem unconcerned by the slow demographic transformation of the State, but it would be myopic to dismiss its growing hold on the mindset of Bengal. In days to come, this is bound to influence political alignments in the State even more profoundly.

The idea of a lost world is always difficult for communities to digest. There are many peoples for whom the question of return to the land of their forefathers is now an impossibility. The Germans from Silesia and East Prussia were ethnically cleansed after 1945 and the lands resettled with Poles. The Germans of Sudetenland too suffered the same fate. Nearly two-thirds of what was Hungary prior to 1918 slipped out of control after the peace treaty. Hindu Sindhis, arguably one of the most entrepreneurial communities of India, are today a people without a land. There are fears that such a fate could overcome the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The impossibility of return for those who fled on account of their faith and ethnicity is compounded by the transformation of the original homelands. Last week, I read a message from a Bengali Hindu lamenting the loss of a Kali temple in Baluchistan that occupies a special place in the hearts of Bengalis. The temple is still in existence and, presumably, there is a semblance of worship that is continuing — at least on special occasions. But the idea of a temple that exists in the midst of a community of worshippers has gone forever. There are just no Hindus left in Baluchistan and the temple has been reduced to a relic of a bygone age. Presumably, this is likely to be the fate of the gurdwaras in Kabul since the exodus of the entire Sikh community from Afghanistan is a matter of time.

The case of what was once referred to as Kafiristan in Afghanistan is particularly interesting. Populated by peoples who were ethnically different from Afghans in neighbouring districts, the peoples of Kafiristan followed religious practices that were uniquely their own and couldn’t be lumped into the other organised faiths of the region. This was the situation until mid-20th century when evangelists from Pakistan with the aid of state power mounted a campaign to turn Kafiristan into an Islamic haven. The region was renamed Nuristan and the peoples not only embraced Islam but became its most fanatical followers. An entire culture disappeared.

There are individuals who still entertain notions of an eventual reunification of the subcontinent. The sentiments that guide these dreams are laudable and, if nothing, promote a detailed study of history and even vivid counterfactual history. However, pointing to the reunification of the two Germanys after 45 years of separation isn’t instructive. The division of Germany after 1945 was political. But it wasn’t accompanied by a cultural schism. When a cultural schism, as has happened between India and Pakistan, or an ethnic reordering, as happened in Germany’s former eastern territories, takes place, a return to an idyllic past becomes an impossibility.

Irredentism is romantic and in rare cases the seemingly impossible is made to happen. But in most cases a new normal becomes irreversible.

There is a case for studying the history of the Partition of India and even profiting from the mistakes committed by the political leadership. However, to hope that the clock of history can be turned back is a pipedream. At best we can say Never Again.

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