Today in history


73 years ago, on this day, India was divided. 

Of course, this is a well-known fact. But it's worth repeating. We must remember that the division of India and creation of Pakistan was an imperial act, driven by self-serving motives. 

Indeed, it's an easy thing to forget. In the intervening years, the political class in both countries, which owed its existence to this new configuration, took the existence of the two (and later, three) nations as a given. It was deemed as a historical, cultural and geographical fact, on the basis of which all later thinking sprouted. Each year, the countries drifted apart, obsessed as they were with one another. However, we must remind ourselves - periodically if we must - that this division is an artificial, imperialist one.

I am sure there are plenty of people who will disagree to this. They will, because their political power, status and affluence depend on not agreeing with the artificiality of this division. They do their best to keep alive the spurious 'two nations' theory that some self-interested politicians and their imperial handlers came up with. This has been long discredited, especially in 1947, when Pakistan fell apart as it tried to impose its idea of a monolithic Islamic nationhood on its Eastern domain, resulting the creation of Bangladesh. 'Muslim nation' was no historical fact: Most Indian muslims had similar ancestry, language, food and festivals as their neighbours. The only thing that differed is the electorate, which their British masters fashioned for them and their self-appointed champions took advantage of. But nations are not built entirely on politics and when they are, people pay an enormous price.

Indeed, let's not make it sound like a conspiracy by Muslim leaders alone. There were a lot of leaders on the Indian side who played their part in the scheme. There were some who subscribed to the two-nation theory and saw all Muslims as intruders. But there were also others, like Nehru, who were impatient for independence and wanted to achieve it at all cost. The temptation to make history was too much for them to resist. I don't know whether they thought the partition was temporary and some day, with economic development and educational progress, it would be undone some day - but that would be unlikely. They signed up to the imperial design willingly and condemned many generations of Indians to hatred, enmity and poverty by doing so.

And, the partition made the empire permanent. Among the many theories of partition, I find the geopolitical explanation most viable. The geopolitics of Central Asia and the need to keep the Russian expansion in check has influenced British imperial policy since the mid-nineteenth century. When the impossibility of holding onto India became obvious, the Churchill and Attlee administrations were desperate to hold onto their geopolitical influence, no less to maintain their eye on Iran, then the main source of oil. They were right in assuming that Pakistan would be locked permanently in a geopolitical competition with India and would hardly be a viable state all by itself. They did use their presence in Pakistan for almost half a century to promote the Anglo-American agenda in the Central Asia and Arabian Sea region. It is only lately Pakistanis have started revolting against that design. 

Like the other imperial partitions, the partition of India is a tragedy for its people. It cut India off from the Silk Road and disengaged it from the wider Persian world. It impoverished all the people in South Asia and stunted its potential, not only economically but also culturally and socially. The partition unleashed the demons inside in all the new nations, not least in India where a politics of xenophobia now endangers its democratic path. The British and Americans promptly appointed themselves as advisors, regretting the cycle of violence in South Asia and lecturing all sides on the necessity of cooperation and restraint while selling both sides enough arms to keep the conflict alive. As time goes by and the conflict becomes more and more vicious, this partition has given the world a faultline more dangerous than any other.

As I look back with sadness (and I can not resist doing a bit of 'what-if' history in my mind), I can see those imperialists toasting themselves on the great success of the partition. Crocodile tears were indeed shed, but Lord Mountbatten and his armies did nothing to stop the slaughter during the partition; the violence served their strategic objective to keep the new nations permanently locked in hatred. They and their masters must have congratulated themselves on their foresight: They have destroyed what used to be a great civilisation and nipped in the bud a potential counter-balance to Anglo-American hegemony. Fresh from the disasters of the Second World War, they established here the norms that would govern the liquidation of the empire without losing their geopolitical influence.

But I also look at this with hope and expectation. Now, it's going on the reverse: The ruling classes in Anglo-America are intent on scoring self goals now. The world order they built is unravelling. The conflicts they engineered are turning onto themselves. The plaything nations they thought they would forever control are stealing their fire. Geopolitics is biting back; the Indian ocean world and the silk route are poised to integrate one more time. The spheres of influence are rising again. The societies in South Asia are indeed as xenophobic as ever, but this is the breaking of the times. If all Americans can find to stem the rot is a Trump and the British sink into five years of chaos under the current blundering administration, a lot is possible. 

While people in Pakistan and India celebrate their respective Independence days in style (which they do by parading their arsenal, often bought at great price from abroad), I shall mourn. These were the days we sunk into dependence, rather than being free. This day, 73 years ago, we committed ourselves not to freedom but the permanent bondage of violence; we committed ourselves to poverty and kept sending or bravest and most committed young men to fight and die in pointless wars. We should acknowledge the tragedy this was; that recognition would be the first step towards redemption if we have to set this right, ever.

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