A house divided against itself cannot stand. — Abraham Lincoln
THE partition of Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947 is perhaps the most important event in the history of modern India, second only to its Independence. We are reaping its consequences in terms of geopolitics, erosion of civil liberties, communalism of politics and poverty.
The end of World War II marked the start of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the West. A Russian presence in the Indian Ocean was seen as a threat to the Middle East and its oil under western control. Therefore, the declared British policy was to transfer power to a strong united India to prevent a Russian entry therein. The failure of the Congress and the Muslim League to reach a settlement made Partition inevitable.
The demand for Pakistan did not originate from the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab, Bengal, Sind and the Frontier but from the United Provinces (UP). In UP, the Muslim minority feared an existential threat from Hindu organisations such as the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the right wing of the Congress. Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party, a coalition of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus led by Sir Sikandar Hyat Tiwana, who dismissed the concept of Pakistan as "Jinnahstan". His successor Khizr Hyat broke with Jinnah on this issue. In 1946, Jinnah and his Muslim League managed to communalise Punjab politics by painting a doomsday scenario where the Punjabi Muslims would be at the mercy of the Hindu majority in India once the British left. The same argument was used by the Hindu and Sikh leaders in reverse. Hence the Partition.
The Governor of Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, repeatedly warned that the partition of Punjab as proposed would result in widespread massacre and damage to property. His warning went unheeded. A million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were brutally murdered and another 15 million forced to migrate from the land of their forefathers. Millions lost their properties and thousands of women were raped, abducted and forcibly converted to another faith.
The damage of Partition is permanent. It altered the geopolitics of this region. China is strategically located as a Pacific Ocean power. It borders Russia, Central Asia, South Asia and South-eastern Asia. In contrast, India's strategic location has been greatly reduced. Undivided India would have bordered the Islamic world and been an influential interlocutor on the world stage. This advantage shifted to Pakistan and China. Pakistan's strategic alliance with China to balance India has allowed the Chinese armed forces to establish a strong military presence in the subcontinent for the first time in history.
The Kashmir conflict which is directly related to the partition of Punjab has made the subcontinent amongst the most dangerous, bloodiest and costly places on earth. Pakistan inserted Pathan tribal insurgents and their copycats into India as an extension of its military strategy. The Pathans have since evolved into the Mujahideen, the Taliban, regional ISIS and Kashmir jihadis. Two armies who fought as one in the world wars face each other with hostility. Both are nuclear powers with the capacity for mutual destruction. The apprehension of a nuclear device falling into "Islamic jihadi" hands is real.
The violence and chaos caused by the holocaust in Punjabinfluenced the Constituent Assembly into creating a strong executive armed with draconian powers and weak legislatures. Gurnam Singh, a retired High Court judge and Chief Minister, felt that India did not evolve into a traditional liberal democracy. It was a hybrid system, half-democratic and half-colonial where power was transferred from nominated British officials to an elected Indian executive without accountability. He cautioned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that the system was open to abuse of power, corruption and intimidation of opponents by implicating them in false cases or branding them as antinational. Little wonder that in a system with weak checks and balances, Prime Ministers can take major decisions like "notebandi" by an executive fiat, without reference to the public, legislature or even the Cabinet.
In Pakistan, Jinnah promised a nation where all citizens were equal and there was "no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another". Partition ended such sentiments. Inevitably, a state founded on sectarian violence and fear of a large Hindu neighbour turned to the military and the clergy for its identity and survival. This system has little space for non-Muslims, liberal democracy and social reform. India and Pakistan are a house divided against itself. They are an anomaly: Both are sovereign states and also an integral part of each other by their origins, history and culture. Both states can pay heed to the three Franco-German Wars (1870-1945), which cost a hundred million lives. Today, the one-time enemies are close allies and economic partners to their mutual benefit. For the same reason, India and Pakistan need to be friends not enemies. Punjab was the cradle of Hinduism, Sikhism and the evolution of Islam in India. It had seen many invasions and religious conflicts. However, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh elites were integrated by a common language, culture and shared economic interests. The forced migration of Hindus and Sikhs radically changed the religious, social and intellectual structure of West Punjab. However, 70 years of separation and conflict cannot totally erase millenniums of shared bonds.
The way forward is for the people of both Punjabs to rediscover their roots and common interests by free interaction as a first step towards reconciliation between the two nations. Secondly, the RSS Chief has a choice between an "Akhand Bharat": a confederation of India and Pakistan he advocates, or politics of division to win elections. As long as the Muslims feel insecure there can be no peace in the subcontinent. Thirdly, the Muslim clergy must rise above dogma and meet the concerns of their own and other communities. So far it has refused to come to terms with the damage it has caused. No doubt any radical departure from the status quo will meet with strong resistance and even violence on both sides. However, our politicians and opinion makers must appreciate that great issues are settled by statesmanship, courage and common sense in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
The writer, an educationist, is the President of the Guru Nanak Education Trust, Ludhiana.
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