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August 16, 2019

Lessons from partition

Opinion

August 16, 2019

August 2019 is not only the 73rd anniversary of Pakistan and India’s independence from the British Raj, but also marks the 73rd anniversary of the painful events which followed the announcement of the partition plan. Forced migration of millions of Muslims to Pakistan and millions of Sikhs and Hindus to India, communal violence, massacres, abduction of women and children, gang rapes, and killing of women (both by members of the opposite community as well as by their own family members, who wanted to protect their ‘honour’) are some of the bitter memories of independence.

Relations between oppressed locals and their colonizers remained peaceful in the run-up to Partition 1947. However, those who were about to get independence from the British Raj and who had been living with each other, more or less, peacefully for ages were at each other's throats. Rioters were on a killing and looting spree without knowing the boundaries of their respective countries. British India was divided into Pakistan and India on August 14, while the borders dividing Punjab and Bengal were kept secret till August 17, when they were officially approved.

The primary reason behind the communal riots was a hasty and unplanned partition. Lord Mountbatten moved up the transfer of power deadline from June 1948 to August 1947, whereas Cyril Radcliffe, chairperson of the Boundary Commission, marked boundary lines on the basis of out-of-date maps and dated census material. Although the communal riots came to an end, due to the hasty partition, the region is still being haunted by that haste.

Without understanding the heterogeneity and peculiarity of princely states, Lord Mountbatten left it up to the princely rulers to decide whether to accede to India or Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir, with a Hindu Maharaja and more than three quarters Muslim population, was one of the few princely states adjoining both new dominions where there was a real decision to be made. The difference between the aspirations of the majority Muslim population and the Maharaja sowed the seeds of conflict over which both neighbours have fought four wars plus a recent aerial skirmish.

The UNSC has declared Jammu and Kashmir disputed territory, whose fate was to be decided by the Kashmiri people through a plebiscite; this is also the principle stance of Pakistan. Initially, India too accepted this solution. First Jawaharlal Nehru famously said in 1952, “Kashmir is not the property of India or Pakistan, (it) belongs to the Kashmiri people. When Kashmir acceded to India, we made it clear to the leaders of the Kashmiri people that we would ultimately abide by the verdict of their plebiscite. If they tell us to walk out, I would have no hesitation in quitting Kashmir. We have taken the issue to the United Nations and given our word of honour for a peaceful solution. As a great nation, we cannot go back on it,”.

India and Pakistan after attaining their independence, despite the Kashmir issue, could have lived like decent neighbours, had successive Indian governments stuck to the vision of a pluralistic, democratic nation-state that India’s founding fathers envisioned at the time of independence. However, after Nehru, subsequent Indian governments kept drifting away from their commitment on Kashmir and from their words to the Kashmiris in Indian occupied Kashmir who feel betrayed, excluded and marginalized.

Where can the exclusion and marginalization of Indian-occupied Kashmiris lead to? For an answer to this, let us discuss another partition in the region. This is the partition of Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh. One may argue that due to various policies and actions of the then central government, a 'perception” of deprivation, exclusion, marginalization, and exploitation (at the hands of the then West Pakistan) started developing in our eastern wing soon after independence.

Such feelings when they get an identity be it creed, ethnicity, provincialism, sectarianism, or class lead to two groups the haves and the have-nots. In our case, the people of East Pakistan found themselves among the 'have-not' group and so they turned against the West Pakistan based rulers (the haves). These factors provided an entry point for Indian interference in East Pakistan, which played an active role in the partition of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. However, despite its active involvement, India did not learn any lesson from that partition.

The recent decisions of the Modi government to deprive Kashmir of its autonomy, impose a media blackout and extended hours of curfew and blockades will just fuel the feelings of deprivation and exclusion among the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian policymakers seem to forget that social injustice destroys the basic fabric of a society, and lack of democratic governance and economic disparities shake the foundations of a nation. This held true 72 years ago when the British Raj was compelled to divide and quit India. This held true in 1971 when we lost East Pakistan. And this will prove true for India in the case of Jammu and Kashmir too.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

Twitter: @abidsuleri

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