Ian Talbot, ed. The Independence of India and Pakistan: New Approaches and Reflections. Oxford: Oxford University Press. vi + 295 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-906478-6.
Reviewed by Rohit Wanchoo (Delhi University)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
The Making of India and Pakistan
In this volume, Ian Talbot, an established scholar, has presented the work of both well-known and younger scholars working on themes related to the partition of India in 1947. Many of these essays were initially presented at an international conference at Southampton University in 2007 and a subsequent workshop in 2010. The book is divided into three sections with articles by nine scholars dealing with violence, the high politics of partition, and a few themes of the “new history” school.
Genocidal massacres in Punjab, according to Paul Brass, were “not ordered by a state, but they were also not merely, or even at all, spontaneous” (p. 16). Loot, capture of property, and abduction of women were also important motives. Brass argues that “violence was a principal mechanism for creating the conditions of partition” (p. 22). The violence in Calcutta, particularly the killing in August 1946, which was followed by violence in other parts of the country, led the British and the Congress to accept partition. Although the Sikhs were not entirely to blame for the violence their principal objective at that time was to “regroup into a compact area” (p. 29). They wanted to take the lands and property of the Muslims in eastern Punjab “in exchange for what they would lose in the west.” He quotes the Sikh leader whom he interviewed in 1967 about these events. Master Tara Singh claims, “We took the decision to turn the Muslims out” (p. 23). Brass argues that because neither side would gain by violence in East and West Bengal after the decision on partition had been taken, violence was no longer politically necessary in Bengal. Relying primarily on documents in volume 12 of the Transfer of Power series, Brass argues that after the Rawalpindi violence in March 1947 the Sikhs were driven by “a conscious political motivation to regroup and consolidate as a community” (p. 38).
The second article, by Ilyas Chattha, drawing upon his doctoral thesis, has offered a substantial assessment based on previously unutilized local police records. A thousand First Information Reports from twenty police stations from four districts provide the basis for his observations. Although these reports used essentialized categories and stereotypes in recording events they revealed both opportunistic violence and well-planned attacks, particularly between March and August 1947. Chattha agrees with Ayesha Jalal that at the local level the struggle over territory in Punjab was reflected in “strategies to appropriate the property of neighbours” (p. 67). Looting and arson was most widespread and individuals and armed bands were both active. In Lahore criminals played an important role in looting and “the circumstances of partition transformed criminals into freedom fighters” (p. 71). Endorsing the views of several scholars like Ian Copland and Shail Mayaram the author argues that violence was used against minorities in both East and West Punjab. In fact violence was “organized with military precision, using sophisticated weapons and transportation” (p. 85). The police reports suggest from the record of the names of the perpetrators, that low-caste village servants were actively involved. Partition violence was a product of multiple factors--the weakness and biased attitude of the police, the role of several political leaders and criminal groups, and the widespread feeling that no punishment would be inflicted for criminal acts if the perpetrators were going to be the majority community in the region after partition.
The detailed analysis of the violence in Sheikhupura city in August 1947 by Ian Talbot draws on the fieldwork done by Ilyas Chattha. While communal violence earlier was concerned with changing the balance of power at the local level violence during partition sought to create “the circumstances in which rival communities could no longer live alongside each other” (p. 93). Sikhs in Sheikhupura were prosperous landowners and included old settlers and recent colonists. Muslim tenants cultivated large tracts of land--some 417,570 acres--owned by Hindus and Sikhs. The worst violence occurred in the Sikh localities in spite of the fact that the relations of the Sikh landlords with their Muslim tenants were better than that of the Hindu landlords of Bengal with their Muslim tenants. The Hindus together with the Sikhs owned more than two-thirds of the property and business activity of Sheikhupura. Talbot endorses the view of Governor Evan Jenkins that there was a “communal war of succession” in the final weeks of colonial rule.
Exaggerated claims by rival communities created the context for communal clashes in areas adjacent to Sikh princely states and also in Lahore--in order to influence the Boundary Award. While rich Hindu businessmen left Lahore the rich Sikh landlords were reluctant to leave. Giani Kartar Singh was hopeful that they would get Sheikhupura and Lyallpur and Lahore as well. There was no anticipatory migration and violence erupted after the Radcliffe Award was announced. Horror stories brought by refugees from East Punjab led to “retributive violence.” There emerged a “pressing need to drive out local minorities” to accommodate the influx of refugees (p. 114). Because communal anxieties and preparations for armed conflict were developing after the Rawalpindi massacre in March 1947 the violence in August 1947 cannot be regarded as a “sudden irruption.” Like Lahore and Amritsar, Sheikhupura was “a prize to be fought over and contested” (p. 115). Violence in Sheikhupura was also greater than in other parts of Punjab because road and rail linkages brought Hindu and Sikh refugees from the rural areas to the city at the same time as Muslim refugees started pouring in from East Punjab.
Gurharpal Singh questions the “conventional” historiography which asserts that it was the Sikh ambition to create Khalistan which intensified violence in the Punjab. This view was expressed by Zafrullah Khan in 1948 and Paul Brass also endorses it in this volume. Gurharpal Singh asserts that “all communities” were equally implicated in trying to assert their will “during a communal war of succession” (p. 128). He cites the study by Jha and Wilkinson which concludes that security concerns were more important than expropriative violence both in promoting ethnic cleansing and in the movement of co-religionists into areas that were cleansed. This may be true but seizing of lands, arson, and looting simultaneously affect property and person. Also, insecurity is about both the present and the future.
The protagonists during 1946-47 were “only too ready to establish their respective claims by force.” While the role of the Muslim League was “transparent” in the Punjab that of the Congress and its “proxies” was not insignificant. The author agrees with Nick Lloyd in this volume that Jenkins, governor of the Punjab, was unable to control “two nations” fighting a war of succession “orchestrated by the Congress, Muslim League and the Akalis.” He argues that the conventional historiography regarding the role of the Sikhs fails to “verify the line of causation.” One cannot but agree that the “ecology of violence” between 1946 and 1950 needs to be examined with greater use of local sources and a more comprehensive framework (pp. 133-134).
In the section on high politics Victoria Schofield explores the circumstances of Archibald Wavell’s dismissal and its consequences. Wavell was in favor of staying on in India a bit longer and if he had received requisite support “ dangerous loose ends” could have been taken care of (p. 152). Given more time the Kashmir issue could have been resolved. The state could have joined India or Pakistan or it could have been divided into Muslim and non-Muslim majority areas. If there had been no war over Kashmir “the character of partition might have been very different” (p. 153). Wavell might not have been opposed to the partition of India since he had himself brought up the issue of identifying “genuinely Moslem areas” before Pethick Lawrence did so in February 1946 (p. 155). He also believed that if Pakistan was conceded Bengal and Punjab would have to be partitioned. Moreover, Wavell was aware of the grave consequences of not providing a homeland for the Sikhs. Therefore, a few months delay in granting independence under Wavell could have reduced the violence during partition.
On the other hand, experience in Southeast Asia, particularly in dealing with the Dutch East Indies, had made Wavell’s successor, Mountbatten, “aware of the need to adjust policy to the limitations of power” (p. 173). The British government did not want to create the impression that it had suffered a defeat in India. This would have affected public perceptions in Britain and the empire. For an honorable exit the cooperation of the Congress was required and Mountbatten was most capable of securing that. Talbot argues that the transfer of power in India was preponed not because of the impetuosity or ignorance of the viceroy but because of the “futility of resisting the tide of Asian nationalism with depleted administrative and military resources” (p. 182). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the negative consequences of hastening the process of partition were quite substantial. Arguably, greater knowledge of South Asian communal politics would have been more valuable for the last viceroy of India.
Sten Widman provides a useful survey of the Kashmir problem and the significance of this region in the nationalist imagination of India and Pakistan. That a Muslim majority state is a part of India is proof of its “secular” character. Pakistan claims Kashmir on the basis of the two-nation theory. With the rise of religious nationalism in both countries the importance of Kashmir has increased. Interestingly, the author argues that whenever the Kashmir problem has declined in importance in public life in India it has not revealed “some new can of worms” (pp. 205-206). On the other hand in Pakistan it has generated problems.
The political role of Sir Evan Jenkins, the governor of Punjab between April 1946 and March 1947, has been the subject of much controversy. Nick Lloyd asserts that twenty-three “predictions, reports and warnings” sent by Jenkins were ignored by Mountbatten (p. 126). There would have been less violence if these warnings had been heeded and something done to allay the fears of the Sikhs. The same author, however, also believes that it was not a lapse on the part of the governor that he did not impose martial law as demanded by Jawaharlal Nehru and even Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jenkins believed that the Punjab Disturbed Areas Act and Punjab Public Safety Act of March 1947 were as draconian as martial law. Lloyd wonders “what extra provisions martial law would have brought” (p. 226). Jenkins never adequately explained his position on martial law. Two decades later, in November, 1967, all he wrote was that police had “orders to shoot actual rioters, but I declined to be a party to indiscriminate massacres” (p. 240, n54).
Some underresearched themes are examined in the third part of the book. Paul Griffin looks at the fate of Christians. He points out that colonial-era migration of Christians westward to the Canal colonies had led to the establishment of fifty-three Christian villages, a noteworthy development since the majority of Christians were landless. At partition the Christians, regarded as neutral like the Anglo-Indians and Parsis, did not become targets of violence. However, after Hindu and Sikh landlords left, more than 250,000 Christians became unemployed because the influx of refugees from East Punjab curtailed opportunities for the Christians. Their inability to get agricultural land led to migration to towns where, lacking capital and skills, they became sanitation workers. This left Pakistani Christians more urbanized than the rest of the population. However, the tiny class of Christian landowners in the villages and in the professions was less affected by partition.
Finally, Ritu Bhagat’s essay, part of a larger work on refugees in post-partition Delhi, deals with the articulation of identities based on consumption of food, which is linked to individual and collective memories. She argues that restaurants started by Punjabi refugees in Delhi have “become sites where processes of identity and memory are ‘emplaced’” (p. 269). Moti Mahal, Pindi, and Embassy became emblems of the inventiveness and enterprise of a community which was eventually able to change the cuisine of Delhi. New and lasting bonds were forged by refugees who gathered here. Punjabi food culture “helped refugees to both materially and emotionally adapt to the profound dislocation of partition” (p. 280). The author recommends similar research on food and identity among Mohajirs in Karachi and East Bengali refugees in Calcutta.
Local and district-level archives, unutilized local police records, and contemporary newspapers and pamphlets can yield data which will enable a new generation of scholars to connect events and discover linkages that historians speculate about today. There was less violence in Bengal than in Punjab. Could the difference in the violence be explained by the numerical weakness of the East Bengal landlords or Bengali Hindus, absence of demobilized soldiers, or the weakening of political will after years of peasant mobilization by the Krishak Praja Party? Could it be that self-made peasant proprietors were fiercer in their struggle for land than rent-receiving landlords--or even the rent-receiving middle class in East Bengal? Although scheduled caste groups were not generally targeted, it is a fact that very large numbers migrated to East Punjab. What happened to Chhuhras and Mazhabhi Sikhs during partition and immediately after? Should not references to looting by lower caste groups--found by Chattha in the police records--be taken as one more stereotype, like “badmashes” (professional criminals) that needs further investigation?
Although there is still scope for more research, it must be acknowledged that Ian Talbot’s edited book makes a valuable contribution to the field of partition studies.
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Rohit Wanchoo. Review of Talbot, Ian, ed., The Independence of India and Pakistan: New Approaches and Reflections.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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