India-Pakistan: Vazira Zamindar on the raw wound of Partition

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow”

Vazira Zamindar is filling in a critical back story of fury and fear in our world, The Long Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and after. It was one of the great post-colonial wounds, and it keeps on wounding, visibly and invisibly. Partition has been the root of endless public miseries: ethnic cleansing, chronic warfare, constructed “national” and religious hatreds. It’s also, as Professor Zamindar testifies for herself, “a wound within.” It’s the mother of many millions of individual identity crises that seem never to go away.

Ahmed Rashid’s recent “lament for a troubled Pakistan” makes a similar zig-zag connection from 1947 to 2011, from the corrupted legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and the frenzied fundamentalism behind the murder last month of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab state. He writes: “Jinnah was a liberal, consensual, inspired Muslim who categorically and repeatedly stated that Pakistan would be a state for Muslims to pursue their religion and culture, but never an Islamic state. He welcomed all minorities to live and worship in freedom. Jinnah himself never sold his house in Bombay. That was the kind of vision needed for a new country that was multicultural and multi-ethnic, one that had been the seat of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. That was the Pakistan we grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. But that Pakistan is now rapidly being lost…”

Vazira Zamindar, on the history faculty at Brown, is herself a child of one of those many “divided families” that never saw the division coming. Jinnah, she is reminding us, was a cosmopolitan lawyer who never envisioned an Islamist state.

Something that’s easily forgotten today is that the whole region was a multi-religious society, and people lived together… [with] class conflicts, and ethnic conflicts, and resource conflicts which often got translated in terms of religious boundaries… And still it was a profoundly multi-religious society, so any project to create a Muslim Pakistan or a Hindu India would necessarily have to be an extremely violent one…

The argument for Partition was decided in 1947 by a narrow elite. Instructively, ironically now, the Muslim religious leadership at the time opposed partition. Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last British viceroy, was accused of rushing it. Nehru and Jinnah can both be charged with a heedless ambiguity about the consequences. A democratic choice in the matter would have come out differently, Vazira Zamindar is saying: “The way people actually live on the ground … is with a heterodoxy of practices. People learn to live together in ways that governments don’t learn to live together. 

I would argue that in 1947, it was still unclear how these two entities called India and Pakistan would inscribe themselves as two nation-states. I think it is the following decade that’s quite decisive, and one could say it’s still an ongoing process of creating this distinction: the need to constantly articulate this distinction, through hostilities, through enmity, through making the border between these two states almost impossible for citizens of the region to cross.

There is a line on the ground that disappears very quickly when people cross it.

Vazira Zamindar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, January 31, 2011.

We are talking about the many reasons Partition is debated to this day. The fact that people keep reflecting on the question marks the spot, Vazira Zamindar says, to begin “a critique of the present… I want to hold onto that question as a sign that people can still imagine a multi-religious society. It’s a sign that people are fed up with our terribly divided present, that they don’t want these wars. They don’t want conflict.”

Related Content

  • Nothing could better demonstrate the need to break with the fearful, contentious and militarized geopolitics of the last decades than the movement for democracy and peaceful change in Egypt – which now stands in a balance between a terrible status quo or worse and an unknown but very hopeful future. The world is changing, it’s ours to make it a better one, and the time is now to stand up with our brothers and sisters around the world who need our support and attention!

  • Glen S.

    I think Chris nailed it in his first real question regarding identity politics and people having to choose who they were and what the priority of these labels was. The heart of the idea of freedom (in my opinion) is choice, and when political forces, especially outside forces, thrust themselves upon a group of people forcing them to take sides along lines individuals had probably not considered, that freedom of choice is severely undermined. Pluralism and diversity, and ultimately unity, are what creates stability. Fragmentation along singular and micro-cultural lines like religion, “ethnicity,” or other false identity parameters causes conflict. The nations discussed at the beginning, Ireland, Israel and the occupied territory, India and Pakistan, Bosnia, and other nations such as the soon-to-come Northern and Southern Sudan, are the most fragmented, the most unjust in their political dealings with their neighbors, and the least stable. The more we move towards monoculture, the more we are subject to the fundamentalist mindset, the irrational xenophobia, and the violence of identity politics. This is the inherent fallacy of these partitions, and why nations so created are destined to fail. But somebody benefits from this fragmentation, which is the real shame.

  • India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine as global “double helix” of contemporary historical pathology

    Professor Zamindar glimpses a deep pattern of postcolonial ethno-sectarian violence within modern globalization.
    In the case of Israel/Palestine, the backdrop is even more pathological, in a way that is never discussed:
    After the Germans murdered the Jews of Europe, they received the Marshall Plan and the Palestinians received the “Holocaust bill.”

    This central global historo-pathology of our world, in a kind of echoic postcolonial pattern, constitutes a kind of poisonous “double helix” with India/Pakistan and the upheaval described by Kushwant Singh’s 1956 novel “Train to Pakistan.”

    In the one case, we have the deep wounds of partition as explored by Professor Zamindar, in the other case, the deep wounds of non-partition. The colonial exit was “sauve qui peut” with disastrous results.

    This comment marries the Radio Open Source interview with Professor Zamindar to Prof. Zamindar’s own reflections from:

    Q: What lessons are there to be learned from the Partition of the Indian subcontinent that extend beyond the region? Why does the Partition have relevance for other regions of the world?

    A: by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar:

    “Most immediately, the recent discussions in American policy circles of a possible partition of Iraq along sectarian lines makes the history of the Indian Partition along religious lines extremely relevant. Both India in 1947 and Iraq in 2007 are occupied by foreign powers. The British considered communal violence between Hindus and Muslims as one of their biggest problem of governance, and the Americans presently think sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis is one of their biggest problems of governance.

    The distance of sixty years can offer a long, sobering view on the conditions of occupation and empire in which the politics of partition was played out, and the vast human cost that was paid. In Iraq this may call for a reevaluation of the “sectarian problem” itself, but in other regions, such as Palestine and Ireland, it provides a comparative historical example of colonial partitioning.

    For instance, the Indian and Pakistani Custodians of Evacuee Property have important parallels with the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property in becoming paradigmatic institutions of mass displacement. Finally, border-making, genocidal violence, mass displacement and the figure of the refugee are central to the history of the twentieth century, How can we understand the national remapping of the world without the Partition of 1947?”

  • Asjad

    I can’t remember the name of British politician who suggested couple of years back that most of the current political problems in the world have been cause by the Britain in early 20th century. Partition of India on religious ground was one of them. Even it was not popular demand of Muslims. In 1940s Muslims of subcontinent were divided in three political ideologies:

    • Secular, unionists and nationalists
    • Muslim leaguers (with vague ideology but clear on the agenda to protect the economic interests of elite class of Indian Muslims
    • Pure religious Muslim groups

    Majority of Muslims were a part of secular, unionists and nationalists but when Muslims League under Mr. Jinnah start getting momentum in early 40s then number of British loyalists also went to strengthen Muslims league (e.g. Unionist Party of Punjab). Here some historians believe that it happened because of hidden backing from British establishment. Although on that time religious political groups of Muslims were very small but still they were also against the partition of India.
    I am in an opinion that the partition of India was a part of greater plan of British Empire’s new world order. They knew that Congress party under Gandhi and Nehru is very close to socialist ideology and they will go towards socialist block but newly created nation on the basis of religion would be their front line defense against communists. Every country has their social fault lines and India was not exception either even more complicated in terms of religious and ethnic contradictions. But the way British Empire exploited that religious fault lines to protect their long term interest was cruel and coldhearted decision. Immediate effect 12.5 million people displaced and close to one million people slaughtered and lot more other atrocities associated with that political decision. That was immediate effect and what we are looking now in region and especially in Pakistan and in Indian Kashmir and in Baluchistan is long term effect of that wrong diction of partition. The question now is how to stop this chain reaction?

  • Jeech

    The Muslims living in today’s India have payed the most for making of Pakistan. They still, have to answer by their speaches and actions, for supporting Muslim league they did seven decades or two generations ago. They have to live with the shame to be Indian Muslims. They have to live amoung the skeptical eyes which rejected the separation of actually Indian Muslims.

    But people in Pakistan have forgotten the wounds, they live here just like people in Iran and and Arab word live or Muslims living in other part of the world, but still, greatful for Indian Muslims for supporting the separation from Hindu elites.

    • Alain

      I beg to differ . Muslims in India enjoy all the rights that are given by our constitution. Moreover they aren’t made answerable for the partition . They even serve in our armed forces. And even a Muslim has been our president.

  • Potter

    This is a different way to think about the India-Pakistan partition- that it did not need to happen inevitably, and it was, sadly, harmful and not for the better. This partition seemed to emphasize ( maybe only) religious differences and provoke animosities and fears on each side, and provoke argument over land and influence ( nationalism).

    I don’t remember hearing in this interview about the effect of those two countries developing nuclear weapons, India first. This must have pushed the split deeper between the two while threatening the whole area, giving Iran more cause to feel the need.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different- you can’t say these are the same people on either side entirely, though some are very close in ethnicity. One side saw and felt an invasion happening. A kind of partitioning happened though, psychological and physical, eventually not anymore aiming to work it out as was the goal of some original Zionists. Working it out was apparently too steep a climb. There would have been a better outcome though (some Arabs actually welcomed the Jews) had that leaders pushed for that. (I disagree here with R. Melson- partition did sort of happen though not formally with final borders to date)

  • Potter

    Since this interview, just yesterday, the news of the killing of another liberal, another good man who was outspokenly against the Muslim blasphemy law (even though most Muslims want the law and the government is not threatening to repeal it-) This news of Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti’s death comes to us little more than a month after Salman Taseer’s assassination also by Pakistani Taliban. There are even celebrations. Bhatti felt it coming and had asked for protection but got nothing. It’s hard to know what to say except that something awful there happening and maybe people too frightened unwilling complacent to do something about it.

    Another Brave Man Killed

    • Jeech

      Yes this is really sad that people attempt crimes when the institutions fail. Insulting Islam is highly intolerable in Pakistan. It’s said that Muslims didn’t creat the state of Pakistan to make people insult Islam, God, Quran or prophets. The guy killed Mr. Taseer (Muslim) was no way Taliban. While Mr. Bhatti (Christian) was killed by unknown men. Our interior minster revealed later that they were Taliban. Anyway, it’s very much clear people don’t tolerate insult of Islam. The blasphamy law is their to manage. The people who believe in insulting Islam has no place in the state created in name of Islam.

      It’s said existance of this law makes some people to misuse it against the personal revalries but it’s neglected what law in Pakistan is not misused ever?

      I heard that a bill is going to be passed in the US congress against blasphamy laws all in the Muslim world. I wonder why so much inflaming policies are made in the time when the US is stricking Muslim countries?
      What really is the connection in between all those policies?

  • Pingback: CAMBRIDGE FORECAST GROUP: RADIO OPEN SOURCE COMMENTS « Cambridge Forecast Group Blog()

  • Pingback: Interview with Pratap Mehta on Pakistan « Indus Asia Online Journal (iaoj)()

  • Pingback: RADIO OPEN SOURCE: CFG COMMENTS « Cambridge Forecast Group Blog()

  • idrees

    Refreshing analysis to learn lessons from the past. But learning of lessons is only an ipso facto and a after the fact activity. There is always the ‘X’ Factor/the uncertainty principle/the law of unintended consequences or simply put, the innumerable variables ensure that while everything in the universe is cyclic, it is not congruently cyclic and that not even history quite repeats itself.
    Partition of India in hindsight is a monumental failure in management. It was cut to the quick. It needed thorough advanced planning and adoption of measures where reason, self-restraint and civility over uncontrolled emotions and sloganeering would exercise management control. The making of Pakistan and the making of Israel suffer from very inferior planning and execution, sub-standard management of total initial processes and conditions, which consequently have created untold misery and upheavals in the region. It is bureaucratic inefficiency and human insufficiency at its best.

  • Jawad

    important and interesting one…

  • Pingback: » Blog Archive » vazira zamindar on the “long partition”()


    Pakistan was made inevitable by mass violence. So many Hindus and Muslims were killing and maiming one another, committing atrocities and looting, in Bombay, Calcutta, Punjab, Sind and Bengal that the interim government simply could not cope. Jinnah was completely silent about the riots, but he was very explicit that he wanted an India that was effectively two countries, of which Punjab, Sind, Bengal and Northwest Province would have Muslim League governments. The army itself was waiting to be divided. Sardar Patel could not maintain law and order with the forces he had. The biggest opponent of Partition was Gandhi. Nehru and Patel went to him and pleaded with him: please agree to Partition, and let us restore order in what India will be left, otherwise there is no end to this communal violence. Gandhi did not say yes, but he let Nehru, Patel and Jinnah work out Partition with Lord Mountbatten. Once he was killed, no one in the leadership was left to argue for harmony with Pakistan. And once the Americans started the cold war with the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s joining the American alliance (for a very good price) and India’s refusal made coming together even less possible. It is glib to say that Partition was the work of an elite. It was pushed by the masses in small areas of India that went on killing one another in the name of religion.