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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review: Remembering Partition

Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. By Gyanendra Pandey. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 202).

In recent years, most historians have agreed that the partition of British India was a messy and convoluted event that set off a chain reaction of violence, nationalistic uprising and intense political debate. In his highly acclaimed book, Remembering Partition, historian Gyanendra Pandey takes an in depth look at how Indian partition was viewed and understood by different communities within India, and how the “rupture of violence” triggered a ultra-nationalistic movement between opposing communities within former British India.

Pandey’s thesis is made clear right from the start. As he states in his introduction, the book’s purpose is to focus “on a moment of rupture and genocidal violence, marking the termination of one regime and the inauguration of two new ones.” And, “It seeks to investigate what that moment of rupture, and the violent founding of new states claiming the legitimacy of nation-statehood, tells us about the procedures of nationhood, history and particular forms of sociality” (1). In addition, Pandey endeavors to explain how this moment of violence and fervent nationalism caused rival segments of the population, who were formerly under the same British banner, to move in opposition to one another and seek to legitimize their respective claims to national independence.

To set the stage for the impending violence, nationalistic surge and mass migrations to come, Pandey attempts to break down Indian partition into three separate and smaller partitions (24-25). The first of Pandey’s smaller partitions was the Muslim League’s insistence and demand for an independent Pakistani state. As Pandey notes, this was to be a Muslim-majority state free from Hindu influence and control (26). For years, Muslims living under British rule had witnessed the increasing strength and influence that the Hindus had on Congress, and as a result, sought to find their own unique and sovereign state free from the growing Hindu majority.

The second of Pandey’s smaller partitions is the acceptance of Hindu and Sikh leaders to allow the partition/quasi-annexation of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal. This partition was Both Punjab and Bengal were to be divided with the Muslims controlling one half while the Hindus and Sikhs controlled the other. The division of these Muslim-dominated areas was heated to say the least. Pandey points out that this division essentially se the stage for much of the violence that was to come.

The third and final of Pandey’s partitions, which was also the most important, was the systematic forced removal, massacre, rape, torture and forced conversion of hundreds of thousands of people (35-39). Pandey argues that it was during this stage of partition that nationalistic lines were drawn and allegiance was tested. Violence became the medium through which national pride evolved. It also helped to trigger the mass exodus of people to areas where their respective religion was “accepted.”

Through these mini-partitions, Pandey argues that the partition of India was not a straightforward event where the “keys” were simply handed over from the British in 1947. Instead, partition has a deep cultural and nationalistic history that dates back at least a few years before the actual “transition” of power from the British. National, religious and cultural allegiances had been tested through the fires of violence and forced migration, all of which created a highly tense and volatile period of Indian history.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Pandey attempts to explain how history and historians who have studied Indian partition tended to take a more all-encompassing or macro view of the events leading up, and in their mind, concluding in 1947 (50). For Pandey, this simplistic view of the history of Indian partition ignores important fundamental issues that are unique to the development of Indian nationalism in diverse locations throughout the country. For example, Pandey points out how events in local areas (like Delhi and the Garmukhteshwar) became the “standard” that was then applied to the entire national landscape and historical dialogue by historians who failed to understand that many of these events were highly localized in nature (147).

Along with the misapplication of the local with the national, Pandey also points out that historians have mistakenly misinterpreted what partition meant to the individual. As he states, the violence of partition was partition for many of its participants. A large number of people were forced to either stand defiant to the violence or make huge compromises (like converting to another faith) in order to survive (190). Pandey argues that it was these horrors of the actual people who participated that is left out of the historical record. As a result, Indian partition is seen, by many of its participants, not on the large nationalistic scale, but on the local level where violence, rape, etc. is forever interwoven with partition.

As future historians attempt to dissect the national (and local) story of Indian partition, Pandey’s Remembering Partition will likely serve as an effective barometer by which to judge one’s research. Remembering Partition is an invaluable addition to the historiography of Indian partition that changes the reader’s understanding on an event, which on the surface seems uneventful. By helping to shed light on the true nature of Indian partition, Pandey’s work is likely to stand as a bright beacon on insight on this often misunderstood historical event.

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