Ahistorical narratives dominate our understanding of the event
It’s recently become a trope to claim that British-Asians have been kept ignorant of their history, because of some neo-colonial plot to suppress it across society. This is being claimed of partition now, on its 75th anniversary, just as it was claimed of Bangladeshi independence on its 50th anniversary earlier this year.
It reflects what seems to me a very white misapprehension, an anxiety about being unmoored from history, when, if anything, we remember too well, so mired are we in the quagmire of the past. Many activists nevertheless aim to rectify this supposed historical ignorance. They include the Partition Education Group, which lobbies for reforms to the National Curriculum — in which “Indian Independence” is already a listed topic with the same status as the two world wars.
The real motivation behind this trend is not so much historical understanding as historical revisionism. The desire is not merely to raise awareness, but to flip the narrative. There’s an attempt to entrench partition, and its sequel, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 (decades after the British had left) in the now ubiquitous discourse around the evils of the British Empire. The idea can be summed up by the headline of the Guardian’s double-page spread on partition a few days ago: “The British Raj caused the bloodshed”.
I am the last person to defend an empire which inflicted such spiritual degradation on my forebears. But there is a moral evasion involved which must be called out.
The narrative now being peddled — that partition was a colonial imposition — is a sham. India’s representatives themselves decided to partition the land. A ruthless campaign by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, champion of India’s Muslims, had demonstrated that his co-religionists would not risk living as a minority in a Hindu-majority state. The leaders of the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, of the Sikh community and of the ‘untouchable’ Dalit community all agreed an undivided India was no longer viable. In creating two independent states to replace its former colony, all Britain did was assent — in reprehensible haste — to the will of the subcontinent’s own anointed ones.
The canonisation in popular culture of this counterfactual narrative of colonial guilt was reflected recently in the television series Ms. Marvel, about a Pakistani-American superhero. Partition is described in the show as “a consequence of a century-long British strategy of divide and rule.” It is in fact a matter of record that the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s instruction to Lord Mountbatten was to keep India united. The classicists who earlier governed India were known to invoke the Roman principle of divide et impera, but the truth is that the British Raj paradoxically united Hindus and Muslims — as never before in history — in opposition to it. It was only when the post-British future loomed, that the older enmities reasserted themselves and Gandhi’s harmonious vision began to collapse.
The low-point in Ms. Marvel comes when a supposedly Pakistani grandmother claims of the causes of partition: “People are claiming their identity based on an idea some Englishman had.” Unless she is deriding Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s Anglophile founder, for his Savile Row suits, this view writes out the leaders of the national aspirations of 70 million Muslims, a perversion of history that is now taught in schools. A Partition Education Group teaching resource, answering the question “What were the causes of Partition?”, astonishingly, makes no reference to Jinnah or the Pakistan movement.
So partition is interpreted as a British plot. What concerns me about this rewriting of partition is the moral evasion involved. South Asians who pin the blame on the white man shirk responsibility for their communities’ own role in partition. Those who actually murdered, raped and rampaged in 1947 are miraculously absolved by the colonial bogey-man. Their descendants in the Western diaspora are meanwhile encouraged to retreat into the sentimental nostalgia of pre-partition co-existence and viral stories of long-lost siblings recently reunited (that old Bollywood trope). In this subtle form of denialism, they are much like white Americans who wax lyrical about how well slaves were treated in the ante-bellum South.
Partition was our decision; we must face up to it, both the good and the bad, and not indulge in childish fantasies of inagency, in the moral cowardice of pretending the history that we ourselves wrought was wrought by others. It’s this latter idea, that places the nefarious white man at the heart of history, and which is pushed in the media, in popular culture and even in education, that seems to me the real colonial imposition.
The white liberals who go along with this should ask themselves the question posed in Salman Rushdie’s great novel of partition, Midnight’s Children: “Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I’m prepared to distort everything — to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in the central role?”