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The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories: Citizens and Aliens in the Subcontinent

Citizens and Aliens in the Subcontinent Rita Manchanda Partition did more than just divide the subcontinent, it divided the academies and the scholarship, with bounded researchers privileging distinct

Citizens and Aliens in the Subcontinent

Rita Manchanda

artition did more than just divide the subcontinent, it divided the academies and the scholarship, with bounded researchers privileging distinct “national” trajectories in exploring rival paradigms embedded in Pakistan’s “two nation theory” and India’s “secularcomposite-nationalism”. And beyond 1947 came the mapping of the separate political careers of the nation states of south Asia. However, a new generation of scholars, encountering fresh historical materials, inspired by post-colonial theorising and drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches, challenged the orthodoxies and provocatively overturned the old certainties within the “high politics” school of Partition historiography and broke fresh ground in spawning an outcrop of counter narratives of Partition historiography from below. It was a template shift towards capturing fragments of the lived experience of subordinate groups – women, non-dominant minorities, oppressed castes and classes and marginal regions. It focused on the pain and loss of displacement and violence as a category of analysis.

Fifty years on, and the anniversary of independence was characterised by a flurry of research interest in the “other face of freedom” – Partition. It consolidated the research interest in exploring the nexus between the high politics that produced Partition and people’s everyday lives caught in the vortex of that historical moment, negotiating survival within emerging nations. More provocatively, in exploring “belonging” it knocked at notions of nation, state and democracy.

The current renewed interest in Partition is marked by a growing consciousness in the public imagination that Partition’s anxieties and dynamics defined our past and continue to shape and threaten our contemporary socio-political relations in

Economic & Political Weekly december 22, 2007

book review

The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar; Columbia University Press, New York, 2007; pp 289, $ 50.

and between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has found articulation in proliferating studies on “the aftermath” of Partition or “the long shadow” – largely explored by scholars working outside the region. Undergirding this research trend is a parallel track premised on the discursive paradigm of Partition within the contemporary conflict resolution discourse. It has led to a critical review of the hegemonic construction of the 1947 event as a unique socio-historical phenomenon and encouraged comparative theorising and problematising of Partition based “ethno-nationalist” conflict settlements, worldwide.

Rethinking Boundaries

While both research trajectories have encouraged a novel degree of comparative analysis, Partition studies remain trapped in a “nationalist” psyche that challenges the possibility of a non-partisan discourse or what political historian Ayesha Jalal describes as the inevitable branding of “made in India” or “made in Pakistan”. It is here that Vazira F-Y Zamindar’s study

The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia is an exciting and impressive intellectual debut in moving the “national” boundaries of how we in south Asia write histories. She brings in from the margins the refugee narratives in Delhi and Karachi and scripts the making of a modern nation state, borders and citizens through the state’s bureaucratic response in controlling the movement of peoples and violently demarcating who belongs and who does not.

The book is an experiment in writing a shared history and in the analytical process of moving boundaries, rethinking what we know of categories such as “Indian and Pakistani Muslims”. Moving the boundaries, the study posits, is necessary because notwithstanding how

differently Partition is invoked by the two sides, the story of the bureaucratic violence in controlling the movement of peoples and the making of citizens and congealing of boundaries, constituted parts of a shared history. You cannot understand the whole range of significance of an occurrence to which sources testify by grappling with one side alone, argues Zamindar, as she examines the role of the two states in casting the dual figure of a refugee marked by religious difference and the institution and administration of permits and passports system to control moving peoples.

The permit system introduced by India to check returning Muslims (at one time 350 a day) and the passport system introduced by Pakistan to control the influx of Muslims from India, congealed borders and categories. And most importantly, it affected an ideological closure to the logic of the two nation theory (and the Muslim League’s invocation of Pakistan for all Muslims) and repudiated the claims of the subcontinent’s Muslims on Pakistan. Zamindar, ethnographically tracks the situation of north Indian Muslim families as Partition produced two states and left unresolved the question of the national status of the Muslims of the subcontinent.

Bureaucrats Decide Who Belongs

The book revisits the discursive terrain around the political paradox of Partition and the crisis of “Can a Muslim be an Indian?” – analysed by Gyanendra Pandey and stretches it to interrogate the paradox of a “non-territorially imagined nation” being translated into a territorially bounded Pakistan excluding four crore Muslims. Zamindar goes further and empirically embeds it in a meticulously researched tracking of the role of the two states in making the dual figure of the refugee and in instituting neutral and bureaucratic regimes that forged policies of refugee and


refugee rehabilitation into a tool for making citizens and aliens. The book historically situates the debates on loyalty and citizenship, not just as a discursive debate, but examines their institutional sites on the two sides of the emerging border. The border here is drawn between Karachi and Delhi and runs through families.

The study, as Zamindar self-consciously asserts is part of a broad historiographical shift in which attention has turned to examining what happened at Partition. It begins where most histories on the causes of Partition leave off, that is, at the threshold of Partition and independence and tracks the stories of mass displacement, refugee rehabilitation and resettlement. The title of the book The Long Partition… “asks us to stretch the understanding of partition violence to include the bureaucratic violence of drawing political boundaries and nationalising identities that became in some lives interminable”.

Epitomising this is the story of Ghulam Ali, a limb maker in the army, who opted for India where his family home was, but found himself on the wrong side of the border engulfed in violence. He joins the Pakistani army but is discharged as his loyalty is suspect. Deported and incarcerated in a relentless cycle of being classified “Indian and Pakistani”, he is finally allowed to stay on in India on humanitarian grounds but with his national status unresolved and dubbed “undefined” and placed under constant surveillance. Indeed, standing out in poignant and dramatic relief in the midst of the tedium of bureaucratic regimes of control, are these narratives weaving record and memory vividly capturing fragments of the lives of the archetypal Toba Tek Singh, of divided families and government servants under suspicion of disloyalty.

Legitimising Discrimination

The study explodes the myth of “voluntary” exodus of both Hindus in Karachi and Muslims in Delhi by meticulously documenting how the two states’ institutional response to refugee rehabilitation and resettlement of the two religiously defined categories “Muslim refugees” and “Non-Muslim Refugees” legitimised the “public” (excludes Muslims in India and Hindu-Sikhs in Pakistan) predisposition towards meeting the needs of “our people” and pushing out and dispossessing “the other”. At the material level it centred on the housing crisis and the introduction of the evacuee property ordinance. Zamindar draws a provocative but prescient parallel with Israel in the working of evacuee property and “intending evacuee” property legislation in emptying and creating internal dispossession. Delhi then had a Muslim population of 33 per cent; and Hindu-Sikhs in Karachi were more than 47 per cent.

Zamindar, in reminding us of the political legitimacy given to the discriminatory working of the evacuee laws (repealed in India in 1954), invites us to stray across the eastern border and visit Partition(s) in the east where its contemporary incarnation, the Vested Property Act (repealed 2001) has disposed and emptied out Hindus from Bangladesh. But here Zamindar’s study betrays the weaknesses of Partition studies, ignoring Partition in the east, except for stray references of the “hostage theory” (protection of minorities in one state, guaranteeing protection of the minorities in the other state) being intact in the east. Indeed, this indifference to the east is particularly perplexing given the focus on refugees and the rich seam of refugee studies explored by scholars of Partition in the east (http://

Refugee and migration studies have tended to assume that the refugees/ migrants produced in the so-called exchange of population were seamlessly absorbed. The international refugee regime declined to take international responsibility on the technical ground that the Indo-Pak refugees had not lost the protection of their (transferred) state [Uberoi 2006]. Zamindar opens up this closure. There is an unevenness in her ethnographic tracking of Hindu-Sikh exodus from Karachi in comparison with north Indian Muslim movement, though she demonstrated creativity in finding a resource in corruption cases filed in Karachi. The study argues that the departure of Hindus and Sikhs from Karachi is central to understanding the very tensions of Partition’s ambiguous new nations. It raised the question – Could Hindus and Sikhs become citizens of Pakistan without belonging to a “Muslim” nation? Or were they considered Indian citizens from the start as Sardar Patel seemed to suggest. Also, the displacement of the region’s minorities challenged the very equation of where north Indian Muslims could belong, if not in Pakistan. Both Indian and Pakistani governments handled Muslim refugees with considerable ambiguity using bureaucratic controls – one to exclude, and the other to discipline and limit the political participation of Muslims.

The study makes bold to claim that “the highly surveillanced western Indo-Pak border…was not a consequence of the Kashmir conflict, as security studies gurus suggest, but rather was formed through a series of attempts to resolve the fundamental uncertainty of the political Partition itself – where did and where could ‘Muslims’ like Ghulam Ali belong.”

Zamindar’s book is lucid, imaginative and painstakingly researched and evocatively written, though a trifle repetitive. It is a fresh, valuable and exciting addition to the interdisciplinary fields of Partition and refugee studies. While challenging our assumptions of the settled notions of the Hindu-Muslim exodus, it stretches our understanding of the ways in which Partition drew the categories of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh in the unsettled conditions of the formation of nation states. Fundamentally, it leads us to question the profound tensions and ambiguities that continue to shape the modernist paradigm of nation, state and citizenship in south Asia.



Uberoi, Pia (2006): Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p 298.

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december 22, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly

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