Partition Still Casts Shadow On India-Pakistan Ties Historians Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal say that tensions between India and Pakistan can be traced back to the divisions set up in 1947. They say the violence that accompanied the partition of the Indian subcontinent could have been avoided.
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Partition Still Casts Shadow On India-Pakistan Ties

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Partition Still Casts Shadow On India-Pakistan Ties

Partition Still Casts Shadow On India-Pakistan Ties

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Peace talks between India and Pakistan remain stalled, derailed by last month's deadly attacks in Mumbai. The Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba is blamed for the siege in which more than 160 people were killed. Over the next three days, we're going to explore the simmering conflict between these two countries, both of which are now nuclear powers.

BLOCK: And we begin in August 1947 at the close of empire, when British rule ended and India and Pakistan were born.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. JAWAHARLAL NEHRU (Former Indian Prime Minister): At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

BLOCK: That's Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru at ceremonies on August 14th, 1947.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. NEHRU: A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long-suppressed finds utterance.

BLOCK: The soul of that nation was the new Indian state, a secular state with a Hindu majority. And carved out of both its eastern and western flanks through partition, was Pakistan, with an explicit Muslim identity. Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, addressed the new nation on its first day of independence, August 15, 1947.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. MUHAMMAD ALI JINNAH (Former Governor-General of Pakistan): Muslims of India have shown to the world that they are a united nation and their cause is just and righteous, which cannot be denied.

BLOCK: Jinnah said the goal should be peace within and peace without. But the history of the last 61 years has proved otherwise, to say the very least. We're going to talk about the divisions between India and Pakistan that start with that division on the map. And for that, we're joined by two prominent scholars of South Asian history, Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal of Harvard and Tufts Universities respectively. Welcome to you both.

Professor AYESHA JALAL (History, Tufts University): Thank you.

Professor SUGATA BOSE (History, Harvard University): Good to be here.

BLOCK: And let's talk about the period leading up to partition in 1947. There had been a lot of conflict and spasms of violence over this question of whether India should be united or split. What were the arguments on both sides, Professor Bose?

Professor BOSE: Well, first of all, I should say that there was a long history of Hindu-Muslim political unity as well in the course of the independence movement. Hindus and Muslims fought together shoulder-to-shoulder for India's independence. But of course, at the end of the day, the political leaders could not agree on how power was to be shared once the British quit India. And so partition took place ostensibly on religious lines, but of course, there were many Muslims who stayed behind in what was India.

BLOCK: And the man put in charge of partition, of drawing the map, was a man who had never been to India before, and he had very little time to do it.

Professor JALAL: Well, and he basically didn't see the reality on the ground. He simply went and took an aerial view and decided that this is where the line was going to be drawn. So it was rather an arbitrary line, which in some instances cut villages into two and, in fact, sometimes even houses into two.

Professor BOSE: Yes, this was Radcliffe, of course, who was brought in to implement the partition. And he had outdated maps, outdated census figures and very rapidly he decided on drawing these lines of 1947.

BLOCK: With the partition into two countries, India and Pakistan, there were huge migrations of many millions of people that followed toward the areas where they would join their religious majority and also what follows were unspeakable acts of violence on a massive scale between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. What is the best tally of how many people were killed in that period?

Professor JALAL: Well, I mean, we know now that over 18 million moved both ways, and the tally of the fatalities is still not really well-established. It sort of goes from anywhere from half a million to a million, and it could really be more because recent researchers suggest that there are people who are simply missing, amongst whom women are a prominent category.

BLOCK: One accusation that has been made through history, since 1947, is whether the British were to blame for a very hasty partition and also for inadequate - completely inadequate preparation for what would follow.

Professor JALAL: Well, yes, absolutely. I mean, I think the evidence is overwhelming to suggest that the administrative operation was extremely badly planned. The reality on the ground was ignored. The British simply didn't want to get their hands dirtied in this business of keeping Indians from going at each other's throats, with the result that the British military did not actually try to prevent people from massacring each other or abducting each other or taking possession of property. So this could have been avoided. There's no question about it. But I don't think that that was a priority at the time. The British were primarily concerned about getting out and getting out quickly.

BLOCK: When you think about the present-day tensions between India and Pakistan, India, a Hindu-majority nation, Pakistan, an Islamic republic, how much of current conflicts can be traced back to 1947 to the divisions that were set up then, and how much of it has been supplanted by what's transpired since, Professor Bose?

Professor BOSE: I think the decisions of expediency taken in 1947 cast a very long shadow on the subcontinent. And we are still paying the price for the kind of partition that took place, including the partition of Punjab and Bengal.

BLOCK: Professor Jalal, Professor Bose just said they're still paying the price. Of course, the difference now is that both India and Pakistan are nuclear countries, nuclear-armed countries.

Professor JALAL: That's correct. I mean, partition may have been a question of conflict management, but it was certainly not conflict resolution. What was required was a power-sharing arrangement, which was not possible in '47. But the creation of a false international border meant that the two countries have not only fought wars but internationalized their grievances.

Professor BOSE: I would add that Mahatma Gandhi, you know, did not take part in the celebrations on the 14th, 15th August, 1947. He quietly mourned the human tragedy of the partition sitting in a Muslim neighborhood in Calcutta. So that, I think, is a very powerful comment on what actually happened. I think that we need to return towards a way of thinking about salutations, being able to negotiate their differences and transcend them. There's nothing that is inevitable or set in stone in history. It's a question of contingency and how events unfold and how certain human choices are made or not at critical turning points.

BLOCK: Well, Professors Bose and Jalal, thanks to you both.

Professor BOSE: Thank you very much.

Professor JALAL: Thank you.

BLOCK: Historians Sugata Bose of Harvard and Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University. Tomorrow, we'll continue our series with a look back at the last time the nuclear rivals almost went to war.

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