Book Summary: Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India

    Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gyanendra Pandey, professor of Anthropology and History at Johns Hopkins University, and a leading figure of the Subaltern Studies group of critical historians of South Asia, here proposes to probe the still-suppurating wound that is the Partition of the subcontinent.

I can’t think of a better way of describing the aims of this book than letting Pandey speak for himself:

This books focuses on a moment of rupture and genocidal violence, marking the termination of one regime and the inauguration of two new ones. It seeks to investigate what that moment of rupture, and the violent founding of new states claiming the legitimacy of nation-statehood, tells us about the procedures of nationhood, history and particular forms of sociality. More specifically, it attempts to analyse the moves that are made to nationalise populations, culture and history in the context of this claim to nation-statehood and the establishment of the nation-state. In the process, it reflects also on how the local comes to be folded into the national in new kinds of ways—and the national into the local—at critical junctures of this kind (1).

In international legal terms, the “moment of rupture,” was the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, when the Republic of India achieved its independence from the British crown (Pakistan had become sovereign on the 14th). But in human terms, the moment was much longer than the stroke of a clock’s hand. It was a three years’ (ca. 1945-47) ordeal of massacre, rapine, arson, riots, and mass population transfer—an ordeal sparked by the very idea that the Western sovereign state-form would be imposed upon South Asia. Abandoned by a British government that was eager to quit South Asia whatever the human cost, manipulated by indigenous political elites who saw sovereign statehood as a chance to consolidate and increase their own power and wealth, the masses of the subcontinent took to their heels, fleeing to the safety of areas dominated by their co-religionists, and in the process creating the conditions necessary for the storms of violence that have come to be called, by an appalling but apt metonymy given that some victims were torn limb from limb, “Partition.”

Against the usual historical discussions of the theme of Partition, which have sought to elide or compartmentalize its violence as an aberration, a brief straying from India’s path to modern nationhood, Pandey’s argument is that the violence is central, because “in the history of any society, narratives of particular experiences of violence go towards making the ‘community’—and the subject of history … violence too becomes a language that constitutes—and reconstitutes—the subject” (4). Hence his aim, in another formulation, is to “recover the history of Partition…as a renegotiation and a re-ordering, as the resolution of some old oppositions and the construction of new ones … to see [Partition], in a word, as a history of contending politics and contending subject positions” (17-8).

Pandey expresses regret that he cannot do what he considers a proper job and examine Partition as it affected all of India and (West and East) Pakistan. (How any one scholar could do such a job is an open question.) Still, the area he does focus on—Punjab, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh, is geographically massive and of immense historical importance to South Asia’s post-colonial experience.

After the introductory chapter, Pandey examines, in “The three partitions of 1947,” the Muslim League’s demand for “Pakistan,” the splitting up of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal, and the “physical” partition—the slaughter, the rape, the forced migrations. “Historians’ history” investigates the modes by which that history produces the “truth” of horrendous events and at the same time elides it. “The evidence of the historian” analyzes the role of rumor and testimony in the historical discourse of Partition, focusing on violence against women and on casualties. “Folding the local into the national: Garmukhteshway, November 1946” considers a village that was the site of a massacre of Muslims in November 1946. Pandey examines how Gahrmukhteshwar has come to stand in for the violence of Partition, through a process of “localization,” a way of stripping violent events of their historical significance. “Folding the national into the local: Delhi 1947-1948,” looks into the plight of the refugees who had fled to Delhi. “Disciplining difference” scrutinizes the ways in which nationalist thought delimits a core citizen-type, and thus gives rise to notions of “hyphenated” citizens and nationals, who are “never quite” parts of the whole nation. “Constructing community” grapples with the question of what constructs the community, “the subject of history,” what constitutes a “we” as “we” and a “they” as “they.” Violence and the memory of violence, Pandey argues, usually have a hand in this enterprise.