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