Framing Partition: Empire and Violence in 1947 India

December 18th, 2007

The competing nationalist accounts of India’s partition, each trying to present its own party as an innocent victim, fail to explain the intense and complex violence of the event (Bose & Jalal, 135). The division of communities and the violence itself were inextricably linked—animosity contributed to both, and both contributed to animosity—so one cannot understand either in isolation. The first portion of this essay (which addresses division) must therefore be read with the understanding that the splitting of the land and of the communities bound religion to identity, making possible the framework for later ‘cleansing’ and group-based retribution. The emergent picture among the manifold causes of partition violence reveals that the British rhetorical construction of stark community divisions was a critical driving force behind the slaughter.

Divisions between the religious communities in colonial India foreshadowed partition itself. The increasing social rift can be seen as the outgrowth of early discursive categories. In 1871 the British government implemented a decennial census which included religious labels, thereby drawing a primary official line through the heterogeneous Indian population (Bose & Jalal, 87). Elites also began to talk about “majority” and “minority” communities, convincing those on the Muslim side of that line that they were to be disempowered, and convincing many that religion was a political issue (100).

Divisive rhetoric from the outside shapes self-perceptions on the inside. Viceroy Curzon announced in 1905 that Bengal was to be split, implying that East Bengal would re-ignite a sense of the glorified Mughal empire (95). When the province was ‘un-partitioned’ in 1911, Muslim political organizations were angry at the reneged promise for a source of community pride, initially constructed by British rhetoric (98).

One of the first examples of violence arising from the British repositioning of internal divisions occurred in 1905 with Muslim riots against Hindu landowners (98). The British government had been using the Brahman caste as an intermediary in the exercise of power, exacerbating existing economic resentments (87).

This categorization of the Indian population continued to become steadily more politicized. The national application of separate electorates in 1909 forced the newly forming communities to maintain separate political parties (138). It also framed Muslim identity as homogenous (Gilmartin, 1079), fostering the development of a Muslim opposition community to check the power of the educated Hindus from whom the British had felt the strongest early anti-colonial pressures (Bose & Jalal, 137-8).

Separate political parties encouraged power wrangling, motivating leaders to try to increase their followings. Thus, after the Muslim League’s poor showing in the 1936-7 elections, Muhammad Ali Jinnah developed the ambiguous demand for Pakistan as a representation of a Muslim “nation” (143-8). This idea’s simplicity attracted Muslims who were afraid of the British promise of minority status (Metcalf & Metcalf, 205) and thus helped to solidify the political side of the social community and Jinnah’s “symbolic capital” (Gilmartin, 1071). The “Islam in danger” slogan later epitomized the tendency to politicize religion, generating mass support rooted in identity rather than ideology (Metcalf & Metcalf, 210-1). The League’s success in 1946-7 contextualized this history of identity politics and linked it to the idea of Pakistan (209).

Early violence exacerbated polarization and contributed to later retributory violence. In particular, the killings in Calcutta inspired by Jinnah’s “Direct Action” day corroded relations between Muslims and Hindus (Bose & Jalal, 150). The extensive pre-existing preparation for such a day on both sides, however, reveals that the immediate political instigators were simply sparks on the kindling of social division (Chatterji, 232-3).

Power sharing failures finalized partition, particularly the partitioning of Punjab and Bengal. Jinnah’s proposal to include both complete provinces in Pakistan was anathema to the minority groups it would have created (Bose & Jalal, 147). Also, the Indian National Congress’ uncompromising push for part of these provinces contributed to the inevitability of their partition (Chatterji, 225). Thus, power was increasingly framed as a zero-sum game, and after violence in Calcutta spurred the British to hasten withdrawal, Viceroy Mountbatten constructed a partition ultimatum founded on such perceptions (Bose & Jalal, 150-1).

Increasing rhetorical and material division, culminating in the macropolitical act of partition, allowed members of each ‘community’ to otherize the opposite community, making large-scale violence possible. This could be seen in the press; for example, after the Calcutta killings, propaganda was circulated among Hindus in Bengal blaming the crimes on ‘the Muslims’ (Chatterji, 241-2). In the confusion of the actual split, radical journalists similarly inflamed emotions in order to bolster paramilitary strength (Jalal, 481).

Several psychological causes of violence emerged which were founded on these solidified community identities. One such was the idea of ‘cleansing.’ At the moment of partition, the new nation-states with claims to religious identity needed legitimation (Gilmartin, 1086). Expulsion of ‘outsiders’ was a way to acquire it (Skurski & Coronil, 1).

Revenge was related to ‘cleansing’ in its link to the new (and separate) nationalisms. Much of the violence was, at some level, retributory—primarily because the perpetrators frequently identified all earlier perpetrators and victims as representatives of their respective communities (Aiyar, 20, 22-23). Also, patriarchal norms linking women to cultural identity made female bodies a particular site for group-based retribution through rape (Butalia, 188).

Literary representations of partition convey an understanding that this violence was not an organized process. The social situation described above did not directly cause every act of aggression, but it inspired and legitimized enough to mask many others. Examples of such opportunistic violence included local and national leaders manipulating violent situations to assure their own power (Gilmartin, 1085).

The violence in the Punjab was more fierce, organized, and rapidly-escalating than the violence elsewhere, indicating another important precondition which existed there—militarization. One third of all eligible Punjabis had served under the British in World War 2 (Aiyar, 28). The region also had easy access to arms from deserters (31). This preparedness built on a militaristic socialization tendency throughout the region and amongst the Sikh jathas specifically (28). Additionally, many Sikhs, including these military groups, had powerful religious ties to the land that was being divided, which led to rapid, religious organization (Metcalf & Metcalf, 217). Finally, the fragmentation of the local and colonial governments left open the space for paramilitaries to exercise power in substantial areas (Jalal, 478). This enabled the use, in some cases, of professional army techniques for mass slaughter (Aiyar, 28).

The events of 1947 did not occur in a state of complete anarchy. Governments existed, but largely failed to prevent the violence. One reason for this was complicity. Many government officials had allegiances and motives similar to those of the public at large, leading them to aid in organizing attacks. For example, some released train schedules to paramilitaries, resulting in the bloody train massacres which became emblematic of partition (25).

Active participation wasn’t the only reason for the government failure. The new, transitional states had little legitimacy or bureaucratic infrastructure, a failing which hampered their ability to enforce laws and stop violence (35). The British rush to leave (Jalal, 473) and the unexpected scope of the violence (Aiyar, 35) exacerbated this inherent instability. Plus, military-style violence, especially in the Punjab, would have been difficult to control for any government (Aiyar, 35).

The superficial causes of the intense violence surrounding India’s partition were manifold, but their roots lay in the rhetoric of colonial policies designed to divide religious communities and thereby impair organized resistance. The events which led to independence also led to ethnic violence because they were necessarily divisive—they constructed absolutist social and political categories based on simplified religious identities, and they linked the legitimacy of each new community with the enforcement of its religious claim to existence.

Works Cited

Aiyar, Swarna. “‘August anarchy’: The partition massacres in Punjab, 1947.” South Asia 18 (1995): 13-36.

Bose, Sugata, and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Butalia, Urvashi. “Community, state, and gender: Some reflections on the partition of India.” In Mushirul Hasan, Ed., Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Chatterji, Joya. Bengal divided: Hindu comunalism and partition, 1932-1947. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Gilmartin, David. “Partition, Pakistan, and South Asian history: In search of a narrative.” The Journal of Asian Studies 57.4 (1998): 1068-95.

Jalal, Ayesha. Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. A Concise History of India. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Skurski, Julie, and Fernando Coronil. States of Violence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.


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