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Aug 14, 2004 1:18 pm

Historians at Play

In celebration of India (and Pakistan's) Independence, Outlook India - a monthly magazine - is having a stellar series asking historians/journalists and activists to imagine some contrafactuals in the Indian past. What a way to start a weekend!

I highly recommend the ones written by my favorite historians of South Asia:
Shahid Amin imagines an India without trucks:

Modern India is unimaginable without colonialism, and pucca colonialism without the railways, the lines that ran on desi steam for firenghi profit. The railways made all of us Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai what we are. They helped push goods and ideas around, eased pilgrimages to various teerths, and allowed that inveterate passenger, M.K. Gandhi, to carry his message to the thousands thronging wayside stations for a fleeting darshan: the Mahatma had set guidelines for how effusive nationalists were to exercise platform discipline. But the odd steam-gurgling ‘lorry’ aside, the sahib’s simply yoked their steel-rails to our mricchakatikam-style bullock carts. So that Devdas Dilip Kumar’s final train journey to Paro ends dramatically on a creaking bailgari, and the hooch that would lay waste the less affluent came to mufassil warehouses well into the mid-sixties in bonded barrels carted by a pair of bullocks.

Irfan Habib imagines a Hindu fundamentalist India:
What if there’d been turning points at which we did become a Hindu state?
This scenario is so difficult because that means we should have had a different kind of national movement, we would have no Karachi resolution of can be counter-factual but you can’t be to such a degree. How the whole national movement was constructed around the Congress and other parties also prevented the formation of a Hindu state. As Gandhiji said,"The nation is not built on religion." And of course, there were other elements in the national struggle like equality of women. Hindu-Muslim unity was not the only touchstone for secularism. Secularism means you rely on reason, not religion.
Ainslie Embree imagines a united sub-continent:
I would like to suggest that while many of those great ideals have been fulfilled for the Indian people in the India that came into being on August 15, 1947, they might have been more fully realised, not just for India but for all the people of South Asia, had the Cabinet Mission’s three-tier constitutional idea been adopted. It is a very big ‘What if?’

  • A three-tiered India would have had at least the same industrialisation that has occurred and the areas that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh would have profited from it. It would have been a vast"free trade zone" with no equal in the world.

  • It would have been a democratic republic, without military dictators. There would seem to be no reason why Muslim voters could not have exercised their franchise, just as they do in present-day India.

  • This vast new India would have been a secular state, fulfilling the dream so often enunciated by Indian leaders both before and after 1947. Nehru’s commitment to secularism can scarcely be doubted. To that must be added a reminder of Jinnah’s speech on August 11, 1947:"You can belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are all citizens and equal citizens of one State." Would not he and Nehru—and a host of others—have said that for the Three-Tier India?
History cannot be reversed, but the realisation that there was nothing inherently improbable in a very different scenario in 1946 surely helps in looking at South Asia in a different way in 2004.
And finally Mushirul Hasan takes on the history of communalism in India:

Q. So obviously we go back to the question, why Partition then? And what if Partition had not happened? Of course, the non-serious answer is that we would have had a great Cricket team, but would there not have been obvious problems of governance?

A. Well [smiles] united India was governable under Akbar in the 16th century. 

Q. But then it was a different geographical entity and he was busy all those 50+ years in fighting those opposed to his rule and conquests...

A. No, the Mughal Empire was run through a very efficient bureaucratic apparatus. So governability wasn't really a problem. Governability is not the main issue. The man issue is what has acquired salience now. i.e. the distribution of power. Whether it is Mandal or the opposition to reservation for SCs and OBCs. The centrality of distribution of authority and power is the key question in a society that is socially stratified and a society that is so unevenly developed. So in an unevenly developed region, caste antipathies become extremely important. In an undeveloped society, the struggle for loaves and fishes becomes even more intense. So if a young student asks me what Partition is all about, my answer is: Don't look at it as a conflict between two communities, because if you begin to do that you would not understand the struggle for the levers of power and the struggle. That struggle is at a higher level when you and me compete for a position in government, but there are other deeper level of society where the introduction of new institutions create conflicts among people who have lived together for centuries amicably.


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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

There is an interesting connection between Shahid Amin's and Ainslee Embree's comments. Amin's talks about railroads, Embree's about partition. Put them together and you get four possibilities. Imagine that it's August 1947, and:

1. There are railroads, and partition takes place.
2. There are railroads, no partition takes place.
3. There are no railroads, partition takes place.
4. There are no railroads, no partition takes place.

Scenario (1) is what actually happened in history.

Skip to scenario (3). Suppose that there had been no railroads between East and West Punjab and that partition had taken place. Wouldn't the death toll of partition have been higher? For my part, I know I wouldn't have been born. My (Muslim) family escaped Amritsar at gunpoint by train. Had there been no trains, my paternal family would likely have been killed.

Scenario (2) is a variation on Embree's counterfactual.
Suppose that there had been no partition. Here we face two possibilities. Either (a) no partition --> no violence --> no need for emigration; everything's fine. Or (b): no partition --> violence takes place anyway --> refugees have nowhere to go.

I find (b) more plausible, in which case Embree's counterfactual might have been a death trap even if there had been railroads.

Scenario (4) is similar to scenario (2), but worse in case (b). Imagine you don't have partition, and you don't have railroads, AND there is ethnic bloodletting. The death toll would have been unimaginable.

I would be curious to know whether historians have discussed the ramifications of a "no partition" scenario in a serious way. The idea of a non-partitioned India has a sort of romantic appeal to it, but I wonder whether it was ever feasible. (No one nowadays seems to think that a unified Palestine was feasible. You can be called an anti-Semite for merely making the suggestion.)

Sorry if there is an obvious answer to this question, this isn't my field.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Yes, I've been nourished on the romantic idea from works of literature and from a general commitment to secularism, but I still have trouble reconciling it with the history. (A similar stumbling block arises in the Palestine/Israel case.)

I've often heard it said that communal violence was sporadic and localized, but I don't see how to reconcile that with the actual events of Partition. If it was local and sporadic going back to 1942, why did it eventuate in such a catastrophe in 1947? 1947 was hardly sporadic or local (in the relevant senses of those terms).

As for there being no widespread communal violence in India until Ayoydyha, couldn't one explanation be the massive out-migration of so many Muslims during Partition itself? Had they stayed, events might have been accelerated.

Think of it this way: If we assume that some significant percentage of out-migrating Muslims left India because they were really threatened, and likewise with out-migrating Hindus/Sikhs from Pakistan, it is precisely the migration that slowed the march toward widespread communal violence. There is no Hindu-Muslim violence in Pakistan because there are no Hindus there, and there was little Hindu-Muslim violence in India because the Muslims most threatened by it had already left.

You may be right about railroads, and perhaps I am over-generalizing from my family's particular experience. Our family had seven children (some very young) which would have made a non-rail escape seem overly daunting. And the idea of being inside a train (falsely) seems more secure than being out in the open. Since our family made it safely to Lahore by train, it's tempting to infer that trains were the only route to survival.

Your hypothesis about train stations and mobs makes sense, but has anyone actually done a study of survival prospects re train vs. non-train migration during Partition?

Manan Ahmed - 8/16/2004

I can see that your central fulcurm is that there would have been violence, no matter what. The railways either get victims out of the meleé or leave them in a death trap.
From the history of communal riots available to us, there is no reason to insist on such a certainity. Starting from 1942, the communal riots were localized and intermittent and largely a spill over from anti-British protests. Which is not to say that the probability of such riots escalating in a united India would be low. However, one can see that not until 1992 (Ayodhya) did we have really wide-spread communal violence in India.
Another historical wrinkle is that railroads, in fact, increased the death toll on either side of the border. It gave the killing mobs exact points where to stop and attack trains overflowing with innocent and helpless civilians. Those who were able to come across safely, did so in horse and cattle caravans with armed militia circling around.

As for whether historians have discussed the ramification of a no-partition scenario - yes, they have. Ayesha Jalal, Mushirul Hasan have both discussed it in their works. And several others. The real discussion of this "romantic" idea has been in the works of literature by Manto, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Ishfaq Ahmed, Bedi, Faiz etc.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/15/2004

The Shahid Amin discussion of trains and trucks curiously omits any hint of the coming AIDS crisis in India, in which long-distance trucks are a powerful transmission route. Perhaps a more train-oriented development model, while a bit less commercially responsive, would have been healthier?