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The House Divided

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John Lyddon
John Lyddon

"It has been argued by some people that the policy of partition always led to Civil war. It certainly did in India and Cyprus and Palestine and Ireland. This was not bad thing for Britain. It kept them busy and instead of fighting us they fought each other. This meant that it was no longer necessary to have a policy about them."

The above quote was played for laughs on the classic British political satire "Yes Prime Minister." Those familiar with British foreign policy of the 1940's will recognize what makes the observation about partition so trenchant. Carving up countries and setting artificial boundaries to speed up the dissolution of the Empire may have been convenient for the bureaucrats involved, but for Pakistan, the hasty decisions made more than 60 years ago resulted in upheaval that continues to this day.

Over the years its society has radicalized to the point where it's mind boggling. A series of incidents involving mob "justice" enforcing the country's blasphemy laws (a legacy of colonialism, ironically enough) have focused the world's attention on the plight of the country's minorities. Less well-known is the targeting and execution of Muslim sects like the Ahmadis and the Shia. The Hindu exodus reinforced as Pakistan celebrated its 65th independence day. The majority of Pakistanis either ignore these atrocities or blame foreign intelligence services and neighboring countries for its problems.

This degradation of society and the blame game did not happen in a blink. The transition of a multi-religious society into a nation characterized by religious chauvinism has its roots. It originated when India was divided in the name of the religion. Since then a systematic brainwashing of the population has been carried out by a variety of means, including distorting history via school textbooks, although some independent scholars tried their best to present an accurate picture of the past and, hopefully, show a path to a reasonable future. But their objective versions are unpopular among the general masses. The convenient lies and inconvenient truths about the partition of the Indian subcontinent have turned normal stories into legends. It's indeed a mythical version of history that's been rendered to the Muslim population in Pakistan, through state backed textbooks. As it happens there are always two sides of each version. Both enigmatic. One written by the victors - the "creators" of a state for Muslims, and then the survivors who suffered the consequences of the division of their motherland.

The official history dictated and enforced by the state has not allowed the factual narrative to come forward. However, a new book published this year by the Oxford Press about the partition, "The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed" by Ishtiaq Ahmed, relies not only on British communique but also the survivors' version of events. The book portrays the short sightedness of the political leaders who succumbed to their egos, consequences be damned. It takes all concerned parties to task. The Muslim, Hindu and British leaders' squabbles, hasty decisions and uncompromising attitudes lead to poorly thought-out partition the haphazard carving up of the Punjab. "The fundamental premise underpinning my book is that if there was no partition of India there would be no partition of Punjab, but, equally, it does not mean that if India were divided so must Punjab," says the author. Historically, the Shias and Ahmedis that are brutally targeted on daily basis now were against the creation of Pakistan. What was fed to the general population of the Punjab was religious chauvanism. "Pakistan ka matlab kya, La ilaha Illallah" - What does Pakistan mean, There's no god but God - was the mantra just a few months before the partition. The second part of the line was taken from the first testification of faith in Islam. The hardline version of Islam that exists in Pakistan today has blossomed over a period of decades.

At least 10 million Punjabis crossed the border and around 800,000 were murdered in the month of August in 1947 in an orgy of unspeakable violence and atrocity. The book argues that such ethnic cleansing would not have been possible had state functionaries not exploiting their power and authority to rid the country of people considered alien and unwanted because of race, religion etc. The state in its present form still appears helpless when Pakistanis are killed by extremists. The Saudi influence and the Afghan war only played the role of catalysts.

Some of the people who migrated interviewed by the author recalled being fearful yet determined to return home as soon as the violence passed. This never happened because it was not just the land that was divided but also the population. The scholarly work describes how common people succumbed to the decisions made not by their representatives but by their masters. How the Muslim League that later advanced the demand for a separate Muslim land achieved anemic results at the ballot box despite its relentless campaigns of agitation and fear-mongering. It highlights how the feudal lords of the Punjab wanted to save their skin and escape the new order of land reforms that were coming their way by advocating for a new country. The individual stories collected by the author from survivors on both sides are heart-wrenching. Most distressing of all, however, is that the Punjab's vibrant tradition tradition of live and let live was replaced with the poisonous religious nationalism that now exists in full force throughout Pakistan.

As mentioned earlier, the book also includes the correspondence between the Hindu and Muslim politicians as well as official British records. Ahmed describes the pre-colonial social structure and dynamics of Punjab, where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived in peaceful coexistence for centuries. Punjab's society was pluralistic and bound together by common linguistic and cultural traditions. Relying on numerous interviews of individuals who migrated after the partition, he lists accounts of the brutality of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Although there are interviews available in "The Journey to Pakistan: A Documentation of Refugees" and the Khosla Report as well as the Sikh Gurdawara Parbadhak Committee (SGPC) reports, but this book widens the spectrum and sheds light on the major decisions taken by key players of that time.

The writer believes, and rightly so, that a democratic formula could have helped surmount the communal differences, but that the failure of political leadership of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to reach a power-sharing agreement exacerbated the agitation. The book thoroughly discusses the Cabinet Mission Plan. It details the terrible results of the hasty decisions made by the British administration, particularly the "Radcliffe Award" which was made public - get this - three days after the partition. Was the U.S. in favor of the partition?: "The Americans were in favour of the Brits leaving India and united if possible but they accepted as fait accompli the division when the Britts finally did it," says Ahmed.

The book concludes that the partition of India resulted in the first case of ethnic cleansing after the Second World War. That organized terror against the Muslims of East Punjab bore all the characteristics of retributive genocide. That a loss of lives initiated the gruesome and violent religion-based politics that still dominates the region. Anyone interested to know why Pakistan is the way it is, and how did what, seriously needs to read this scholarly work.