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Partition, freedom and democracy

Had Krishna Sobti, the eminent Hindi novelist, not died this January, she would have renovated our appreciation of the truth about freedom and Partition occurring together. We habitually forget this truth each time we learn it. An interview she gave to Partition scholar Alok Bhalla is one among many repositories of the insight she brought to this subject. Through her fiction too, Sobti tested the strength of the social fabric that Partition shook and tried to tear apart. Why it didn’t tear completely is a question she helps us to answer.

Krishna Sobti’s work

Six weeks after her death, a violent conflict broke out between India and Pakistan. The immediate, ostensible causes of the outbreak are terrorism and Kashmir. Real sources lie deeper. Reading Sobti’s works reminds you that the deeper roots of the India-Pakistan conflict can be found in a shared attitude of derision towards the past. Public mood shifts between indifference and disdain for the past. There is little genuine interest in the past or curiosity to figure it out. Politicians feel free and tempted to use the past to manipulate the collective mind.

As the single most important event of our modern history, Partition illustrates the general attitude I am talking about. Across the three nations produced by Partition, there is little consensus over what it means to live with Partition. But there is a shared feeling that Partition is at the heart of many problems and behavioural reflexes. Each country looks at Partition from the perspective that the state apparatus has assiduously developed over time. The term commonly used these days is ‘narrative’. It comes in handy. It is a post-modern invention signalling the decline of interest in objectivity. The relatively better educated politicians often use it tactfully to debunk serious commentary, calling it just another narrative. So, why the different nations that constitute the South Asian region bring sharply divergent perspectives to matters of shared interest is explained in terms of diversity of narratives. Are these narratives incompatible? No one seems curious to find out. Nor is anyone actively conscious that the acceptance of incompatibility means granting permanence to intra-regional conflicts. One clear reason why no one is worried is because a feeling of permanent conflict seems to offer unlimited political capital.

When SAARC was established in 1985, it created the hope that mutual understanding would be pursued as a regional political goal. For all seven members, but especially India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, mutual understanding would have meant recognising the importance of acceptable portraits of the past. Such portraits exist in literature, but historical awareness requires more than a literary portrait. It means providing reliable resources to validate a view about what happened so that we feel more comfortable with where we are in the present. This awareness is crucial to avoid a feeling among the young that they live in a dark, noisy tunnel with no known exits. An ominous uncertainty hangs over the subcontinent, best expressed by the availability of nuclear weapons to end potential conflicts.

Partition’s emotional content

Sobti had hoped that people could now recognise the complications arising out of history. In her interview with Professor Bhalla, she expressed the view that the emotional content of Partition had run out. This is not true. Though seven decades have passed, there is no sign that Partition is devoid of emotional content in India or in Pakistan. In a study of history textbooks used in the two countries, I found that in Pakistan, Partition is presented as unfinished business, while in India it is still viewed as a wound inflicted by Muslims and the British. In both nations, Partition continues to serve as an inflammable memory account. The toll it took on the two nations has not sufficed to cool the coals buried under the ashes of time. Apart from the destruction and violence suffered by common men, women and children on both sides of the border, the post-Partition suspension of reason cost India the life of its greatest leader. That injury has not healed, and the ideological divide it signified continues to grow. Sobti had assumed that the Constitution would unite Indian society around its core values. That did happen to an extent, but words and statements alone don’t safeguard values. Freedom and a sense of fraternity are among the values sculpted into the structure of the Constitution. Truth is not mentioned as such, but one assumes that it has an assured place in the edifice of law.

Truth and war

In this context, it may be useful to recall Mahatma Gandhi’s dual commitments: truth and non-violence. The pairing of truth with non-violence suggests that truth and war are not compatible. This is why the threat of war at election time is not good news for the practice of constitutional democracy. For now, the threat of war seems to have passed, but it could easily be made to linger as a memory relevant for voting day. In this sense, the brief outbreak of armed attacks is an ominous reminder of the fragility of the equilibrium that permits us to practice democracy. In Pakistan, democracy is even more fragile. There, it barely survives under the direct shadow of modern weaponry.

The India-Pakistan hostility is richly intersected by bad memories. It has perennial potential for shaping politics. Moreover, an activated conflict invites everyone to play politics. This kind of politics is necessarily manipulative. It helps to bypass more earthy questions which ought to be central to any election. These are questions like why economic growth offers little relief from unemployment, why the village languishes when the city prospers. One can add many more issues to this list. To call them peace-time issues or to designate them as being secondary in comparison to security will be to surrender to history, that too a history soaked in emotions. It is true that politics is a game played in the shadow of history. However, if it is dominated by history, then democracy can hardly serve the cause of progress, howsoever defined. It will always remain stuck in history.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT

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