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A Tale of Two Partitions

T he Indian subcontinent and Palestine were partitioned at the same time and to help nation building their first generational partition narratives were based on selective memory. The second generational narratives by scholars question the earlier "official" ones. However, Palestinian intellectuals face a difficult task questioning the dominant narratives since their people are still struggling for a national territory.


A Tale of Two Partitions

S S Tabraz, D Sambandhan

first partition of Palestine took place in 1921, following the League of Nation’s granting of mandate to Britain to govern the territory, leading to the establishment of Transjordan (Jordan). The second partition

The Indian subcontinent and Palestine were partitioned at the same time and to help nation building their first generational partition narratives were based on selective memory. The second generational narratives by scholars question the earlier “official” ones. However, Palestinian intellectuals face a difficult task questioning the dominant narratives since their people are still struggling for a national territory.

n August 14-15, 1947 the Indian subcontinent and nine months later on May 14, 1948, Palestine were partitioned to resolve the most contentious issue of postcolonial governance in the then British territories. Apart from the fact that one of the principal parties in both these disengagements was British and the basis of the disengagement was religious/ethnic, nothing seems to be similar in these two cases. Yet there is a striking resemblance between these cases when seen from the perspective of how partition in each case is remembered; how state-building projects in India, Pakistan, Israel and among Palestinians have shaped the partition narratives of the respective first generation; and finally, how these dominant narratives were revisioned by the scholars within the second generation. This makes possible the comparison between these historically simultaneous partitions, the ensuing nation building processes and the way in which they are still remembered and contested.

Remembering ‘1947’ and ‘1948’ Corresponding to the collective memories of overwhelming pain and torture the “partition” of 1947 in the subcontinent is a singular event the scale of which remains unprecedented in human history: some 10 million people were displaced and between 1.5 and 2 million people perished in an orgy of violence and bloodshed. Indeed, to millions of Indians and Pakistanis who actually lived through that horrendous event, and to their children and grand children, the term “partition” triggers off traumatic memories but these memories, in an unusual paradox, also end up in a tension of opposites. The pain and sufferings of partition, of course, were eventually redeemed in the end in south Asia by the triumph of core narratives of national liberation leading to the birth of two sovereign nation states – India and Pakistan.

Unlike in south Asia, partition was not a clean and one-time affair in Palestine. The endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947 became, for all practical purposes, notional as it was rejected outright by Palestinian Arabs, though fully accepted by the Israelis. This notional plan eventually became the basis for Israelis to declare their inde pendence when the British at long last withdrew in 1948, an event which became the genesis of Arab-Israeli conflict. Hence, it is “1948” which has come to invoke painful partition memories in Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

For Israelis, fresh with the memories of Nazi Holocaust, the 1948 traumatic experience engendered fears of extermi nation. Incidents of atrocities perpetrated by Arabs during the “1948 war” streng thened those fears. This Israeli partition trauma has a striking parallel with the Indian and Pakistani experiences as it too resulted in the creation of the state of Israel. But the interesting parallel ends there. While there is a great deal of solidity built around the sovereign states of India, Pakistan and Israel over the years, the Palestinian national narrative is still in a state of fluidity as it has yet to culminate into an independent state of their own. For Palestinians, together with the memories of Jewish atrocities, “1948” means the generation of refugees – displacement of around 6,00,000 and 7,00,000 Palestinians and the ongoing national suffering and humili ation that remains its legacy. Thus the term “1948” is still known as ‘al Nabkah’ (catastrophe) and remains the basis of the national liberation movement for Palestinians for whom liberation and redemption still remain elusive.

In all these four cases, “partition” refers to a set of interrelated historical events, each having an intense emotional significance for millions who lived through them. The reason why the shadows of the past have come to define the continuing hostile relations between Indians/ Pakistanis and Israelis/Palestinians is because these partition narratives always remain instrumental in defining and demonising the inimical “other”. Besides this

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essential duality, every narrative has a unidimensional trajectory as well.

Nationalist Necessities A new beginning becomes an absolute necessity with the birth of a new state. Accordingly, every postcolonial state invariably takes resort to what Clifford Geertz (1973), in his seminal contribution, called “integrative revolution”. The single most important task facing these newly independent states remains the issue of nation building in which traditional affiliations based on primordial attachments must be replaced by the loyalties to emerg ing national institutions and identities. This is required to enhance legitimacy of state authority, reduce threats of internal dissension, and maintain civil order. It is these national necessities that explain the emergence of national myths and heroes. Not surprisingly, in the subcontinent millions who hitherto identified themselves through religious, caste-bound, regional and linguistic associations suddenly became “Indians” and “Pakistanis”. In the new state of Israel, likewise, Jews of various affiliations suddenly came to define themselves as Israelis. Palestinians too acquired gradually a national consciousness between 1948 and 1960s with the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

These beginnings, however, are never as unproblematic and uncomplicated as they appear, for each nation must perforce take a certain version of its partition story from among other competing versions by evoking some memories and suppressing others to mobilise their communities toward “integrative revolution”. In the Indian case, the national ideology based on ideas like “unity in diversity” and “composite culture”, although real as they are, demanded such historical narratives of partition as would be silent on regional strife and Hindu-Muslim hostilities. Thus whichever version one takes, it is never a full and accurate account of events. Why this should be so is explained by Gyanendra Pandey (2001) who, in the context of Indian historiography, contends that historians work to produce the truth of partition violence and elide it at the same time. There are different methods through which this is done. One is to declare such violence as “non-narratable” and hence un historical and inexplicable. Another is to describe it as “a freak occurrence, like a natural calamity, which requires no histori cal explanations”. These techniques have all gone on to privilege a certain version of partition which downplays its sufferings and celebrate the immense achievement of India’s state-building process.

In similar fashion, dominant accounts of establishment of Israel are based on suppression of unwanted memories. In the Israeli narratives, thus, the fact of destruction of Palestinian entity is ignored, with implication that Israel had no part in creat ing the Palestinian refugee problem and that Arabs had simply fled the territory after heeding to the counsel of their leaders. Palestinian memory of al Nabkah, too has been similarly distorted in textbooks used to teach the history of 1948 to Palestinian Arabs. Ironically, Palestinians, since they became refugees in neighbouring Arab states, had to learn Egyptian and Jordanian versions of their own story. What unites these different versions is the fact of omission in Arab historiography of any discussion of cumulative failure of the Arab states and Palestinian leadership to protect and defend Palestine’s Arab commu nities and their legitimate entitlements.

Oppression of Memory The irony in south Asia, however, is almost oppressive for the dominant narratives here not only suppress memory but also deliberately forget. Why is it that references to tens of thousands of women who were abducted, raped and killed during partition were simply eliminated from this memory? How is it that no tribunal was established either in India or Pakistan to try the guilty when it was clear that these horrific atrocities were perpetrated by hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs? The act of forgetting is complete with the fact that there are no memorial sites anywhere in India or Pakistan to commemorate those killed in these horrendous events accompanying the subcontinent’s Partition. In west Asia also, no Israeli court persecuted any of the Jews responsible for the massacre of Palestinians and no Arab court persecuted any Arab responsible for killings of Jews. Thus, all these dominant first generational narratives of partition are based on selective amnesia which informs every act of omission, suppression and silencing as an essential feature of nation building process.

Revisionist Articulation It is in response to this amnesia and excessive dissatisfaction with the first generational narratives that in the 1980s emerged a reaction among the second generation Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis and Palestinians to offer a radically different conception of partition’s memory. The revisionist articulations of this generation have rendered previously held national narratives as untenable.

The story of Indian revisionism begins with Subaltern Studies, published in 1982, a highly specialised collection in eight volumes of writings by the galaxy of subaltern scholars like Ranajit Guha, Partha Chaterjee, Gyanendra Pandey, Sumit Sarkar and others who conceptualised the Indian national struggle from the perspective of “subaltern” groups who were oppressed and silenced by the hegemonic structures of British raj and its Indian elites. Besides them, there are contemporary Indian intellectuals like Aijaz Ahmad, Mushirul Hasan, Shahshi Tharoor and others who are influential in revising the subcontinent’s recent past. In a scathing critique of the Indian National Congress, Ahmad (2000) questions the validity of Congress nationalism which failed to protect a fifth of the territorial nation that it claimed to represent and this, he claims, can be understood “only if the creation of Pakistan is seen as the severance of ‘the diseased limb’ as Patel put it in 1946”. Similarly, Hasan (1997) criticises the Indian state’s failure to live up to its liberal values. In his biography on Nehru, Tharoor (2003) offers a liberal revisionist critique of Nehru’s socialism and economically unviable fiveyear plans. What this scholarship has done is to present a far more comprehensive picture of partition’s national and regional legacy than the first generation “official” narratives had previously allowed.

Similarly in Pakistan, Ayesha Jalal’s publication in 1985 of The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan introduced a radical departure from previously acceptable accounts of the role of M A Jinnah and his Muslim League during the tumultuous period of

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partition. From the perspective of how poorly Pakistan protected the interests of south Asian Muslims, she argues that Jinnah’s motivation was more to become the sole spokesman of the Muslims than to demand a separate state for them. Furthermore, works of Pakistani scholars like Akbar S Ahmad, Tariq Ali and Yunas Samad have done much to put the acceptable hagiographical narratives on Jinnah and Muslim League into acute crisis.

Israel’s New History However, the most celebrated case of historical revisionism has come about in Israel where the second generation scholars including Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shaim, Tom Segev and others have come to be known as “new historians” for their radical departure from the first generational narratives on partition and subsequent Israeli history. The first challenge was posed by Morris in his book The Birth of Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 published in 1987. Of late, Morris has come under criticism from the left for his views on the necessity of ethnic violence during the tumultuous 1948. However, the Israeli debate on Zionism has come a full circle: from classical Zionism where empty land was waiting for Jews to populate it, to post-Zionism where after having fulfilled its national function of state building, Zionism must be done away with, to finally neo-Zionism which has come as a reaction to fissiparous tendencies inherent in post-Zionism. These vitriolic debates have all resulted in the fragmentation of national consensus on various issues which were just out of bound for discussion in the previous generation.

If second generation Indians, Pakistanis and Israelis have successfully discredited the official narratives of partition, their Palestinian counterparts find it difficult to do so for the simple reason that without a national territory of their own such efforts would not only be subversive but also an affront to the living memory of all those Palestinians who are still refugees. Yet des pite this difficult political context, the second generation of Palestinian scholars like late Edward Said, Salim Tamari, Rashid Khalidi and others have nonetheless questioned the dominant narratives revolving around al Nabkah. Khalidi (2001) decries the leaders of Arab Palestine throughout the Mandate period who stifled the growth of national political parties. Said (2001), in his various writings, has been even more scathing in his critique of Palestinian political leadership and the militarisation of Arab societies at large. Commenting on the consequences of 1948, he observes, “it is the immense panorama of waste and cruelty that stands out as the immediate result of the war itself”.

Finally, even at the risk of a highly inade quate reductionist analysis, if the two partitions are to be compared, the legacies of west Asian partition would stand out. Not that the subcontinent’s partition has diminished in the collective memory – on the contrary, it is there in the form of estranged relations between India and Pakistan and could be found latent in Hindu-Muslims relations within India but as a whole the partition debates in south Asia have boiled down to debates over Kashmir. It is the Palestinians, on the other hand, for whom the legacy of partition remains a living reality. The three sets of historical experience best capture the Palestinian existential dilemma – those within Israel proper, those who have stayed put in the occupied territories of West Bank and the Gaza Strip after 1967, and finally those in diaspora leading lives as refugees. The Palestinian story of two generations of refugees, under occupation for 40 years and no honourable resolution in sight, thus, makes it as one of perpetual dislocation, displacement and dispossession. Indeed, the revisionist scholars have done much to shake official narratives of their respective nations but it is not clear if theirs is an essentially elitist rendition or if it resonates with those still struggling with partition’s most painful legacies, the people who are still displaced and dispersed.

Email: References

Ahmad, Aijaz (2000): Lineages of the Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia, Verso, London.

Geertz, Clifford (1973): The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York.

Hasan, Mushirul (1997): Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims since Independence, Hurst, London.

Jalal, Ayesha (1985): The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Khalidi, Rashid (2001): ‘The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure’ in Eugene L Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds), The War for Palestinians: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Morris, Benny (1987): The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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

Said, Edward (2001): ‘Afterword: The Consequences of 1948’ in Eugene L Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds), The War for Palestinians: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tharoor, Shashi (2003): Nehru: The Invention of India, Arcade, New York.

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Economic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007

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