Ismail Khan: The partition narrative

Ismail Khanby Ismail Khan

It is 63 years since Pakistan emerged as an independent state on the map of the world. Variably referred to as the birth of Pakistan, partition of India or independence of India and Pakistan, the event is important not only for global and national power politics, but also for its imprint on the official narrative of the two states. Within Pakistan, 63 years after the event, it appears that the state’s narrative is still stuck in 1947.

That the birth of Pakistan was mired in human suffering is indisputable. Nearly one million people died and 10 million migrated in the “massive exercise in human misery” that bubbled out from the transfer of power from the British Raj to the newly independent states.

In addition to the material disputes between Pakistan and India emerging from day one, which laid the foundations of mutual animosity, equally notable is the impact of the partition narrative upon the national psyche. This is not meant to draw out any causal relationship between the psyche and the material disputes, but to highlight how the two fed each other.

As would be noted later, the state as well as the nation-building task was carried out largely by Pakistan’s two ethnic groups, Urdu-speaking and Punjabis, who suffered most while migrating from India to Pakistan. While that happened nearly two generations ago, the importance of the narration stands even today.

For one, like any tragic event around the world, partition did shape the personal lives of certain individuals who would rise in the state’s structure. For instance, the role partition played in shaping the memories of both Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, a nuclear scientist, and Hafiz Saeed, a jihadist, cannot be denied. Unfortunately, it seems that the legacy the two individuals sustained from the event was negative; comments attributed to them can be easily found in which they recall their loathing of the untrustworthy ‘Hindu India’ that made them lose relatives and property as they migrated from India to Pakistan.

This is not to say that the narrative had any specific reason that made a strong defence around it. With or without Dr Khan or Hafiz Saeed, the state would have pursued its policies. What happened was the convergence of the state’s goals and individuals who shared the state’s goal at the ideological level — something that, in the two cases, derived from their shared memories of partition.

Instead, it would be correct to say that instead of dismissing, the state sustained the river of narrative, prominent individuals being the tributaries of such a river. For, in times of desiring peace, the state had to project the softness that existed before the partition. Here, one would like to mention how Pakistan’s former ruler Pervez Musharraf, otherwise a military ruler, used to fondly recall his home in India, which his family had to leave at the time of partition, whenever he broached the subject of peace with India.

The additional reason why the role of the state as a factor in sustaining the memory cannot be denied derives from the lesser prominence given to events that rendered a trauma of the same magnitude upon its survivors. Depending upon the source of the statistics, thousands to millions of Bengalis died in the war of liberation in 1971, yet its imprint in Pakistan’s narrative is minimal. At the most, the event is recalled as Pakistan’s dismemberment with the primacy given to the external role, namely India, in supporting guerrilla fighters; the internal reasons are whitewashed. While the event and even its prominence show their mark, its primary genesis got tailored for the state’s ends.

Likewise, in our recent memory, the suffering of the people living under Taliban shadows has only recently made it into the official national memory. The magnitude of the sufferings could be discerned from the fact that prior to the military operation in Swat, US Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke had said that the “displacement caused has been the largest since partition”.

Many might argue that the survivors or victims of the Bangladesh tragedy were those who hardly shared the same location as West Pakistan and, therefore, the lessons were not internalised. The same could also be said about the Taliban, who were initially thought of as a far-flung problem. It is interesting to note how the Pakistani state representatives would point towards the topographical features of Pakistan, arguing how hills separate the Taliban-infested Swat region and peaceful Islamabad.

In the same fashion, there is a noted absence of the internalisation of partition among those segments of society that did not experience it and did not read the official narrative. A case in point was a recent attempt by Zaid Hamid to ‘wake up’ Pakistan across the country. In both Lahore and Islamabad, he was able to get a thumping applause from students in response to the speeches he delivered after pictures of suffering of people during partition were relayed with melancholic dialogue and patriotic songs running in the background. However, the speaker had to face embarrassment when he held a microphone in Peshawar, where the contemporary sufferings had been caused by the Taliban.

This is not to underestimate any event or tragedy but to emphasise how the state must be resilient to all tragedies so as to shape its memory by absorbing the collective miseries of all segments of society — irrespective of time and place. The chronological halt around 1947 may not necessarily find resonance with the contemporary realities of 2010.

The writer, a graduate of International Relations from Boston University, is presently based in Washington DC

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