For An Uncensored History
From 1857 To 1947
By Jawed Naqvi
13 August, 2007
60th year of our independence is as good an occasion as any to take
stock of our mistakes and dream about a better future. My fellow columnist
Irfan Husain last week invited us to have a ball with this game of counterfactual
history. What if there was no partition? Irfan has drawn interesting
scenarios for an undivided India that were partly rooted in the Cabinet
Mission Plan, that failed to get everyone's approval. Let me join the
In a sense what happened
in 1947 was a vertical division of India into three arbitrary time zones
— East Pakistan, India, West Pakistan.This was marked by an even
more arbitrary uprooting of willing and unwilling people who were dispatched
to all sorts of uncharted destinations. Millions were required to adjust
their lives to the new meridian of longitude they were assigned. In
the tragic melee that followed, many remained glued to the old wall
clock that often had no hands to indicate the real time, like a scene
from Ingmar Bergman's surrealistic movie Wild Strawberries.
Most of our discourse on
partition is filtered through the so-called Hindu Muslim prism. This
conveniently imbues the two groups with identities that are then used
to describe their jostling for equal space in post-colo nial India.
But a less popular and perhaps more accurate way of analysing the same
reality could be to sift the vertical separation from the horizontal
reality, the social fault lines that existed then and fester today in
India and Pakistan. This approach will help expose the myth of Muslim
and Hindu identities, the truth of which can be felt palpably in the
present mess confronting the two countries. Since we regard the uprising
of 1857 as the first conscious step towards our collective quest for
freedom, in which Hindus and Muslims were explained as equal partners,
it would be fair to begin the scrutiny of this methodology at the very
To offer a fair critique
of the largely untenable Hindu-Muslim paradigm, I should first eat crow.
In a column on July 2 about the callous treatment meted to Begum Hazrat
Mahal, one of the leading women rebels in British India, I unintentionally
failed to convey a less flattering perspective on the heroine of 1857.
This was because I didn't have the crucial source material then, which
I now have.
Without meaning to diminish
Hazrat Mahal's heroic battle with colonialism, let us simply quote from
an original document, a proclamation by her son, Birjis Qadr, that carries
the full authority of the Begum. There is an intense bias against the
lower class of Indians, as well as towards people of inferior caste,
which reminds me of Manu, the mythical Indian king who prescribed caste-based
privileges and punishment. And since caste is not a feature of the
Hindu social order alone, for it includes Christians, Muslims and Sikhs
in its ambit too, it is tempting to conclude that India's royalty that
fought the British were scornful of fellow Indians of the lower order.
The Indian Council of Historical Research has come out with a collection
of proclamations issued by the rebel leaders.
Documented by Dr Iqbal Hussain
of Aligarh Muslim University, it is a must read for students of social
history on both sides of the border.
Birjis Qadar (Wali of Oudh)
urges his subjects in a proclamation dated 25th June 1858 that his government
respected the right of religion, honour, life and property, in that
order, something the British ostensibly didn't. Then he explains his
claim. "Everyone follows his own religion (in my domain). And enjoys
respect according to their worth and status. Men of high extraction,
be they Syed, Sheikh, Mughal or Pathan, among the Mohammedans, or Brahmin,
Kshatriya, Vaish or Kayasth, among the Hindoos, all these retain the
respectability according to their respective ranks. And all persons
of a lower order such as a Sweeper, Chamar, Dhanook, or Pasi cannot
claim equality with them." Prince Birjis Qadar doesn't stop here.
He twists the knife deeper:"The honour and respectability of every
person of high extraction are considered by (the British) equal to the
honour and respectability of the lower orders. Nay, compared with the
latter, they treat the former with contempt and disrespect. Wherever
they go they hang the respectable persons to death, and at the instance
of the chamar, force the attendance of a nawab or a rajah, and subject
him to indignity." This is the reality the partition discourse
tends to overlook. How much was the support of the Ajlaaf Muslims and
the Ashraaf Muslims — the lower and upper crusts — to the
Muslim League and the Congress respectively?
Just as there is no homogenous
Hindu order there wasn't any compact Muslim community in India ever.
The very description of Hindu, a word that does not occur in the Vedas,
appears to be a political camouflage to conceal a diverse people locked
in a perpetual caste struggle for
centuries. Similarly the use of Muslim in the South Asian context hides
the reality of the Muslim outcasts — mehtar, halal khor etc —
whose lot is not dissimilar to the abuse and exploitation wreaked on
the Hindu Dalits by both Muslim and Hindu upper classes. Add to this
the potent mix of the tribespeople that both sides lay claim to as members
of their faith. On both sides of the divide today the lower castes and
the tribes are being hunted by the largely Ashraaf or upper caste ruling
elite. Do you know how his peers at home admonish an upper crust Muslim
boy today? "Stop behaving like a chamar," they tell him.
Apart from the unremitting
reality of the Muslim and Hindu Dalits, others who would continue to
suffer had there been no partition are subcontinent's tribes. It doesn't
matter too much whether they are Hindu, Muslim or Christian, if religious
categories must be ascribed to them. In the absence of partition perhaps
the joint army still led by upper caste Hindu, Sikh and Muslim officers
would be targeting the tribes as they are doing today in the northeast
of India, or in Balochistan or NWFP, or in the heartland of India, some
of whom are being hunted as Naxalites or Maoists.
On a separate matter, one
of the acts of independent Pakistan was to declare an entire lot of
people who claimed to be Muslims as nonMuslims. In the game of "if",
had there been no partition at least the Qadianis would continue to
enjoy their claim as Muslim. There is, therefore, another way of looking
at the partition, for example through the eyes of the majority including
Muslims in the three time zones whose opinion was never sought nor did
it count for much. And those who stayed back include all manner of linguistically
and culturally diverse Muslims, tribes-people and Dalits who continue
to defy the simplistic Hindu-Muslim paradigm of the discourse.
However, to come back to
the game inaugurated by Irfan Husain last week, I would like to hazard
a few more guesses. One of them concerns the fate of this column. Had
there been no partition in 1947, our newspaper Dawn would continue to
be published from Daryaganj in Old Delhi where its first editor was
Pothen Joseph, a highly respected Syrian Christian intellectual from
Kerala. It is of course possible that Ahmad Ali Khan, the left-leaning
progressive editor who subsequently crafted Dawn's liberal ideals would
still have taken over, but by flying to Delhi instead of sailing to
Karachi from Mumbai where he had worked in an Urdu newspaper run by
the Communist Party of India. Who knows?
More importantly, there would
be no core issue surrounding Kashmir. Hari Singh's son, a scholar of
Indian scriptures, Dr Karan Singh, would be ruling Kashmir. Or perhaps
the land reforms started there by Sheikh Abdullah would have swept the
entire subcontinent. Who knows?
Lata Mangeshkar would be
singing in Karachi (something she could still be invited to do if the
cultural censors in Pakistan were not so stubborn), and Noorjehan would
have done more beautiful films with Dilip Kumar. Who knows? In the final
analysis neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Faiz Ahmed Faiz, two icons of the
subcontinent, was happy about the way the partition eventually played
out. Had there been no partition, Mahatma Gandhi would not be killed
by Nathuram Godse. And Faiz would not have written Subh-e-Azadi —
This leprous daybreak, dawn night's fangs have mangled. This is not
that long-looked-for break of day, not that clear dawn in quest of which
those comrades set out. Who knows?
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