Books · World

Partitioned Histories

Severus Snape once tormented an innocent eleven-year-old on his first day of school, making him perhaps the vilest teacher in literature at the turn of the century. As the years go by, we learn Severus’ side of the story, and that changes how we see him. Now The Cursed Child is his namesake. History is like that. It’s subjective and fraught with bias. The only way to attempt to glean the complete picture is to read several viewpoints of the same event. This is the premise for Partitioned Histories: The Other Side of Your Story by The History Project. Indian and Pakistani narratives are juxtaposed to encourage a discussion on the Indian struggle for independence in this quirkily illustrated book.

The stories of colonists versus the natives go along the same hackneyed vein. Historical accounts written by colonists typically read like this:

“India seemed to be suffering not merely from an unfortunate recent history but from deeply ingrained backwardness. It needed to be ‘improved’ by firm, benevolent foreign rule.

Education should be remodelled. The ignorance and superstition thought to be inculcated by Asian religions should be challenged by missionaries propagating the rationality embodied in Christianity.”
The British Presence in India in the 18th Century, Professor Peter Marshall

A racist summary of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I’ll let John give you a brief overview because this isn’t a post about British historians “who both used and embodied the phrase historical bias”.

The history of the Indian subcontinent has a third dimension to it: Pakistan (including Bangladesh).

For most of its history, Indians were the people who lived in the peninsular region south of the Himalayas. Centuries of migrants, plunderers and conquerors assimilated with the locals (themselves probably descendants of previous migrants, plunderers and conquerors), creating a melting pot of languages, food, culture and religion. It’s laughable when Indian politicians scream themselves hoarse about “preserving the sanctity of Indian culture” – what is Indian culture anyway?

Indians speak 22 different languages (that’s only the officially recognized ones, mind), eat a ridiculous number of foods with influences ranging from Iran to China* and pray to a mind-boggling number of Gods: It’s home to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. India’s culture would seem to be embracing diversity. And yet, enough people felt threatened enough to demand their own country. That has to be the greatest failing of the idea of India.

Why did Muslims feel threatened in India?

Remember that at the time, people in this region didn’t know what it was to live in a democratic nation. They had always been ruled by someone. Indian history paints the British as cruel colonists that were to be driven away. Pakistani history states that in a choice between British and Hindu dominance, they would rather choose the former.

What struck me as quite interesting was that Indian history seems to underline the centuries of peaceful cooperation of this multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual polity united against the British. Pakistani narrative underlines how different Hindus and Muslims were, how Muslims were discriminated against, how Hindus did not understand Muslim sensitivities and how many skirmishes broke out between the Hindus and the Muslims.

Neither side is wrong. Because India consists of so many different people who are so culturally diverse and often don’t even share a common history, that it is quite easy to slip into regional biases. This is true in India even today. A pivotal event in throwing off the chains of colonial rule was a modest one: English education. Before the British made it compulsory for Indians to have to learn English to work for the government, Indians from different parts of the country could not communicate with each other. Once they could speak in English, they could swap ideas, share grievances, concoct plans to overthrow British Rule.

This is a bone of contention in the Pakistani version of history though. When the British tried to change the education system, Indian Muslims clung to the Persian (read: Muslim) roots. So much so that when the other Indian Kings (Hindu and Muslim) started a movement to write the local language, Hindustani, in the older Devanagari script instead of Persian script, not many Muslims followed their lead. In just over a century after the start of this linguistic movement, the language would be so divided on religious lines that the states that formed would adopt Hindustani in Persian script as its official language (Urdu) and the other would adopt Hindustani in Devanagari script (Hindi). Even today, under the heading “Rajbhasa” or “Language of the State” in the Indian constitution, the line goes, “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devnagari script.” I bet the American constitution doesn’t say that its official language is “English in Latin script”. That would be redundant.

This reluctance to switch to English has been documented in the Pakistani narrative but not the Indian one. It explains why the Muslims were more backward, poorer and less likely to hold positions in the government, but were they actively singled out for discrimination over all other religions? Indian history does not address this and Pakistani history is firmly of the opinion that they were.

In the next 30 years, the British tried to stem any growing national fervour using various means including allowing the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. The Congress had many important leaders, but the ones important to this cause are Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Quaid-e-Azam and the Mahatma.

Gandhi and Jinnah were English-educated lawyers. Gandhi was simple and could tap into the pulse of the people. Jinnah was a sophisticated intellectual with a vision for a secular, democratic nation and of course he was interested in the welfare of Muslims. He was increasingly horrified at how intrinsically Hindu Gandhi’s ideas were, which were unwittingly adopted by the Congress, and eventually left it to join the Muslim League.

Gandhi wanted to create a nation with a spiritual soul. Can one pretend that that soul wasn’t Hindu? To be fair, Gandhi, growing up as a Hindu, could not have known any other way. He consciously attempted to see all Indians as equal. Jinnah was, at the time, practical. He wanted to create a nation that was tolerant and thought he could do it better than the rest of them.

According to Pakistani history, all Muslim-majority states were to be part of Pakistan and the rest was to be either India or independent princely states.

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The Indian version says that the British gave the princely states a choice to either accede to India or Pakistan or choose sovereignty with Mountbatten’s recommendation that the latter course would be inadvisable. The North-Western and Eastern states were given to Pakistan based on the Radcliffe Line. Hyderabad, geographically positioned in the middle of India wanted to accede to Pakistan but having a doughnut shaped hole in the centre of the country was unfeasible and the Nizam’s estate was made part of India. Kashmir wanted to be independent, but because of its strategic position that shared borders with China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, India wanted it to be part of it. When Pakistani forces tried to take Kashmir by force, the King called upon India for help. India refused to bring aid unless the King acceded, which he did and Kashmir was made part of India.

Pakistani history has a different view. First, that the borders were drawn by Sir Radcliffe, a man who had neither been to India, had no idea of the tensions on the ground, nor had he the expertise, as a lawyer, to undertake this task. Second, because of Nehru’s closeness to the Mountbatten family, and as Sir Radcliffe was a close friend of Mountbatten’s, it states that there was a conspiracy to give Pakistan the least amount of territory that would loosely fit Jinnah’s definition of the country while giving India the lion’s share of land and resources. When Hyderabad’s Nizam wanted to accede to Pakistan, he was shut down because he was told that Hyderabad did not have an overwhelming Muslim majority. Indian troops invaded Hyderabad and annexed it. The Nizam filed a complaint with the newly created United Nations at the time and sought help from the British and the Americans. Kashmir was a similar story. This time the roles were reversed. The Pakistani troops wanted to take the Muslim-majority state by force while the King wanted to remain independent. Under immense pressure, he acceded to India, which in Pakistan’s view was unfair because it believed that India couldn’t have it both ways, taking the non-Muslim majority and Muslim-majority princely states of Hyderabad and Kashmir.

I cannot pretend not to be biased by Indian history when I say that I wish Jinnah had stuck around to build a united India, like Gandhi wanted. Was Jinnah wrong? No, not entirely. In a diverse setting like India, it can be quite hard for the Hindu majority to see things from the point of view of the Muslim minority. Even today, I have heard several anecdotes of Hindu landlords not willing to rent their houses to beef-eating Muslims and Muslim landlords doing the same to idol-worshipping Hindus.

If you scratch the surface, India is fraught with narrow-minded problems. But, I choose not to dwell on them. Yes, it can be unequal. I don’t think that this inequality is limited to Hindu-Muslim tensions, it exists between castes, religions, genders. Yet, despite it all, India limps along, allowing some part of its population to grow up liberal, cosmopolitan, curious and accepting in a diverse culture.

Jinnah argued that the Muslims of India were a culture of their own. I disagree. This Eid, I wished my Iranian roommate and spent some time describing a biryani. I wouldn’t have to exalt the deliciousness of what could be India’s national food to an Indian, whatever their religion. Biryani is Eid, firecrackers are Diwali, a Christmas tree is Christmas, pichkaris and coloured powders are Holi. I don’t believe that Jinnah really thought that these two communities had irreconcilable differences and half the Muslims agree with me, as evidenced by those who chose to remain.

So did I learn anything from this experience at all?

I learnt that there’s another major side to the story where a large section of people were convinced to leave their homes because they didn’t think that there was space in it for them any more. I learnt that a nation was believed to be on the cusp of a civil war and in splitting it up, the carnage that was hoped to be avoided became a reality. I learnt that the wounds from that bloodshed ran deeper than I had ever known and it left me sympathetic to the plight of those on the other side of that line.


*A conservative estimate. My grandmother reckons that her rice patties in a spicy spinach and prawns broth (‘mutkula’) was influenced by Portuguese traders. I can’t corroborate this story because even omniscient Google can’t find a recipe for it!

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