Thursday, January 8, 2009

Communalism and Partition

Explaining the Paradox and Challenging the Paradigm

Desde entonces un rio nos divide: / agua sangrienta, barro de marismas! / No hay nadie en esta tierra que lo olvide. / Desde entonces la patria no es la misma.1 -Pablo Neruda

“Inertia is ever immune to experience. So horrors follow upon horrors.” -Eqbal Ahmad

I would like to take up here some very serious and unanswered questions raised by the history of decolonization in South Asia. Specifically, I would like to address and consider communalism and partition. While these terms might not immediately invoke for everyone the images and emotions that they do for most South Asians, I fear that, for better or worse, the modern world is united in confronting these complicated and painful phenomena, even as it is divided by them. “Now the time has come,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore nearly a century ago, “when we must make the world problem our own problem...” (Nationalism, p87)

The idea that something called communalism leads to something called partition will likely sound paradoxical to anyone unacquainted with South Asian history. However, I would like to suggest and warn that what we are confronted with in understanding the path from communalism to partition, is not a paradox, but a paradigm. Moreover, it is a paradigm that every modern political organization must confront, whether it is an affinity group of friends or a nation-state of millions.

The South Asian scholar Bipan Chandra explains communalism as an ideology or belief system that often begins as an innocuous set of assumptions, but which can easily and quickly develop into extremist and violent behavior. Chandra describes this development as a process that takes place in three stages. The first stage is the belief that everyone who is part of a certain identity group shares a common set of interests. Next, the nascent communalist takes it a step further: people who belong to different identity groups have a different sets of interests. Finally, in the third stage, the communalist comes to believe that the interests of different identity groups are incompatible. The development and spread of communalist ideologies can thus lead to confrontation, conflict, and, if things get bad enough, the demand for partition.

The world has a lot to learn from the history of communalism and partition in South Asia. But before we begin to investigate the particularities of this history, it is important that we begin by remembering that there are a lot of wrong questions and wrong answers out there. I feel that the questions which dominate the discourse surrounding partition in South Asia tend to avoid the heart of the matter. Principally, I am thinking of two questions which continue to confuse and confound us without getting us anywhere.

The first question is, was the partition of South Asia inevitable? Whether we answer in the affirmative or negative, so what? How does an answer to this question inform our understanding of the ongoing dilemmas that Indians and Pakistanis continue to struggle with today? Neither a yes or a no will really get us anywhere; they won’t explain the paradox and they won’t challenge the paradigm.

The second question is, who is to blame? Was it the Muslim League, as the dominant history reads, or was it the Indian National Congress, as recent scholarship suggests? While the diplomatic record is interesting, I think it is esoteric. The causes for partition are certainly worth investigating, but the specific individuals and institutions who carried it out are not solely responsible for its occurrence. As the saying goes, society prepares the crime, and the criminal only commits it. Knowing who was responsible will not explain for us what to do about the paradigm that plagues us.

There are also many wrong answers to the question of where to place the blame for communalism and partition. Before I go any further I feel impelled to challenge some of these answers. I am especially inclined to challenge them because they come from the same radical discourse to which I wish to contribute. I think that the legacy and trajectory of these questions is well-intentioned, but pernicious.

The first wrong answer is to place the blame on colonialism. Now I must be careful here. Without a doubt, insurmountable culpability is on the colonizers. The enormity of their crimes and their guilt and their debt is really horrific beyond imagination. How on Earth could I possibly say that the colonizers aren’t to blame? Communalism was actively encouraged by the Raj, and a Brit drew the line which cut the subcontinent in two. Chandra writes:

“Above all, communalism was one of the by-products of the colonial character of the Indian economy, of colonial underdevelopment... Every existing division of Indian society was encouraged to prevent the emerging unity of the Indian people... It was, of course, the communal division which survived to the end and proved the most serviceable.... it was to become the main prop of colonialism, and colonial authorities were to stake their all on it... In fact, communalism was the route through which colonialism was able to extend its narrow social base to sections of workers, peasants, the middle classes and the bourgeoisie whose interests were otherwise in contradiction with colonialism...The British administrators also followed a policy of relative inactivity and irresponsibility in dealing with communal riots...” 403-409

So why is ‘blame the British’ still the wrong answer? Bearing the infinite crimes of colonialism in mind, where can this answer take us? Where can we go next? How can we heal ourselves and our societies if the legacy of colonialism still rules both? In this case, placing colonialism at the center of our analysis grotesquely fulfills the colonial project. By allowing it to define everything, we surrender even the possibility of authenticity. It imprisons us in an indeterminate prison of ‘post-colonialism’. Colonization thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; its determination to find the world stagnant and backwards holds the world in stagnation and backwardness. In the absolute claim that partition is the fault of the Raj, the colonized are denied any agency or responsibility for their behavior, past and present. It is not my place to say it, but I fear that until the colonized can internalize the blame for their collective position in the world, they cannot be free enough to change it. This may be difficult to swallow, but colonialism will not be escaped until colonization is no longer the determining force in society. And this will not happen while it is treated as the sole determining force in our understanding and analysis.

The second wrong answer is to place the blame on religion. This is a particularly frequent allegation in the context of South Asia because communalism and partition developed along religion lines, between Hindus and Muslims. Chandra recommends that “we must distinguish between religion as a belief system... and the ideology of a religion-based socio-political identity, that is, communalism. In other words, religion is not the ‘cause’ of communalism”. (p413) The principal problem with condemning religion for the violence and trauma of partition is that it excludes the vast majorities (who are religious) from taking part in any kind of solution. Condemnation of religion is another problematic tendency of radical discourse. It excludes those whom it presumes to advocate for. Long-term solutions to problems of religion cannot be secular. Especially when mandated by a centralized hierarchy like a nation state, strictly secular politics create a vacuum at the center of power that the most opportunistic and extreme of religious politicians will eventually if not immediately come to fill. I will return to this problem at the end.

Assigning blame will not in itself contribute towards any lasting kind of liberation, but it is always useful to investigate and understand causes. If partition was at least partly a result of communalism, to what can we attribute the rise of communalism in South Asia? Colonization is one answer, but it is not sufficient to explain present-day life in South Asia, which is more than ever afflicted with the problems of communalism and partition. As Eqbal Ahmad wrote in his essay Partitioned Land, Divided Sentiments,

“Partition did not resolve the problems it aimed to solve. Rather, the problems -- of ensuring the rights and representation of minority groups and of containing expressions of religious and cultural chauvinism -- have been vastly augmented by a host of new impediments to the common weal.” (p403)

While the immense work of decolonization cannot by any means be announced as accomplished, it is no longer pragmatic to “heap all our problems on the doorstep of colonialism”.2 To explain the ongoing problems of communalism and the concurrent demands for partition that persist today throughout South Asia, it is necessary that we look not only at colonial legacies but at endogenous factors within “postcolonial” society.

It is tempting but specious to try and “solve” these problems by pointing to a few causes. A radical holistic approach demands that we not seek to impose a single analysis onto South Asian reality. Therefore I will direct my energy in the remainder of this essay to invoking some unanswered questions about elements of South Asian history that I feel have received less criticism than they deserve. Foremost among these is the lauded ideal of democracy.

Democracy is popularly perceived as a panacea to all varieties of social unrest and discontent. In his book The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani urges his readers to look twice at this contentious assumption: “Liberal pieties that claim democracy to be a pacifying force can be no more reassured by India’s experience in this regard than by the evidence provided by long periods in the history of the United States of America or France.” (p49-50) Much analysis and governance on all scales of the political spectrum suffer from severe near-sightedness when it comes to understanding the history and trajectory of democracy. ‘Rule of the people’ is a highly ambiguous prerogative. As Michael Mann has documented extensively in his chilling book The Dark Side of Democracy, democratic polities have been some of the most genocidal regimes in history. While I think it would be rash and dangerous to take this as grounds for abandoning popular sovereignty, it is nevertheless important to not see any promises inherent in the idea of democracy. Here especially, the world has much to learn from South Asia.

Khilnani writes that “[t]he language of representative politics... entered India through a utilitarian filter, at a time when British liberalism was at its most rampantly collectivist and paternalist.” (p24). Institutionalized democratic politics in South Asia was born in the context of a highly constraining colonial order which inevitably shaped its institutional development. This was no secret, however, to the nationalist leadership that lead the anti-colonial struggle. Mohandas Gandhi in particular is to be credited and revered, but only along with countless others, for their tireless and visionary work in combatting the incipient communalism that they saw emerging before and at the time of independence. Many invoked Hindu-Muslim unity and were outspoken in their condemnation of communalist tendencies. Unfortunately, Gandhi’s leadership was not inherited by his successors in power.

“The national leadership had never invoked religious identities for electoral purposes,” Khilani continues, “This taboo fell in the 1980s, and religious and caste sentiments were now routinely invoked in national elections... The Indian nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru had not only resisted invoking religion, but had also scrupulously avoided defining the nation in terms of a majority community. But the populist turn in Indian politics redefined democracy as majority rule.” (p183) Whether or not this process of development, from democracy to majority rule, is an inevitability, is an open question. It has certainly proven highly difficult to reverse. One factor that is specifically responsible for this in South Asia is the electoral process.

In South Asia as elsewhere, the transition from democratic rhetoric to electoral politics was a quick and seamless one. On the face of it there seems no great contradiction; the distinction between the rule of the people and the rule of the representative is more or less accepted as an inevitability in modern day nation-states. But the distinction has immense consequences. Khilnani writes:
“The centrality of elections, and the desperate value staked on winning them, made for ingrained political corruption in the public arena... The increased electoral participation encouraged politicians to make communal appeals, and they had to become more ingenious in mustering political support.” (p54) “Electoral volatility foreshortened the horizons of political time: the mere capture of power rather than its responsible exercise became the exclusive aim of politicians... As elections gained in importance, levels of democratic participation in both national and provincial politics climbed... So, too, did levels of violence, and the connection was not random.” (p49)

The correlation between violence and democratic party politics cannot be dismissed as an anachronism of a postcolonial society. Too many minorities, from the Armenians to the Tamils, to indigenous peoples all over the world, have been oppressed and exterminated by majorities, for us not to consider this with utmost seriousness. But it is not as simple as ‘democracy equals genocide’. The transition is not immediate; there is a definite process.

Representative politics and the electoral process are highly prone to degenerate party behavior over the long term. Electoral competition encourages a ‘race to the bottom’ in the politics of constituency building. The premium placed on speed and size encourage parties to appeal to the lowest common denominator of mass political psychology. “Democracy was intended to recognize the claims of Indians as individuals.” writes Khilnani. “In practice, it was led also to recognize the claims of groups, and this certainly scattered seeds of future tension.” (p173) The process of recruiting constituencies, which seems to be a definite necessity of any form or representative politics, is highly susceptible to domination by communal politics and ideology. “Thus, paradoxically,” Khilnani continues, “democratic politics must itself produce the very identities and interests which it presupposes in order to function in the first place. And this process of identity creation is a dangerous business, more akin to conflict than competition.” (p49) I don’t think that there is no easy solution to this dilemma. It is a global problem, within communities and across continents. The rule of the people can quickly become the rule of the majority. And majority rule is only a crisis away from mob rule. This is not hyperbole; this is as serious as it gets. This is how democracy turns into fascism.

I don’t think that the answer to this tendency is to reject popular sovereignty. A murderous majority is no alibi for an equally murderous dictatorship. Nonetheless, if we are to preserve any kind of legitimacy for the idea of popular sovereignty, we must understand and confront what makes majorities murderous. And I don’t think we can really understand any of this if we don’t think critically about the whole project of modernity and its chosen institutional structure: the nation-state.

In the same article on partition, Eqbal Ahmad writes that “[i]n the age of nationalism and mass politics, alienation is likely to translate into the demand for ‘self-determination’ and separate statehood.” (p404) From inception, the organized anti-colonial movements in South Asia were nationalist and they clamored for a state. Anti-colonial and separatist movements the world over have demonstrated this memetic effect: the oppressed mimic the institutions of the oppressor. There are reasons, of course, but the consequences are predictable. Ahmad continues: “As nationalists everywhere have been prone to do throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, India’s leaders, too, equated national unity and good governance with centralized power arrangements.” (p408) This kind of centralized power, whatever its possible merits, must not evade our analysis if we are to understand the fascist tendencies of democratic regimes.

It is important to understand the demand for a strong center. It is a demand not only of fascist dictators but of revolutionary socialists. It is the prerequisite not only for the immense militaries that the Right loves, but also for the ‘development’ and redistribution that is a consistent theme among the global Left. According to the recent scholarship of Ayesha Jalal, Asim Roy and others, it was this demand that was chiefly responsible for partition in South Asia. Their work argues that the insistence of the Indian National Congress on a strong center prompted their refusal to accommodate to the demands of the Muslim League for a weaker center that would tolerate some degree of provincial autonomy. Thus, Asim Roy writes, “it was not the League but the Congress who chose, at the end of the day, to run a knife across Mother India’s body.” (p387) In the end, for better or worse, it was the unconditional demand for an ideal nation-state that cut the continent in two.

Tagore recognized long ago that “[t]he political civilization which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based upon exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep at bay the aliens or to exterminate them.” (p76) The conflicts and consequences of nation-states take different forms and have different vocabularies, which often renders comparisons less than obvious. Nonetheless, I believe that the movements of communalism and partition are a paradigm of the modern nation-state. It would be erroneous to lump all these distinct experiences together; there is a world of difference between, for example, black nationalism in the United States and the Chechnyan resistance.. But they both result from an endemic tendency of the modern nation-state. The tyranny of the majority, and the rule of the mob. The persecuted need protection, and the only language that tyranny speaks is the language of the nation-state. In an essay on Pakistan, Eqbal Ahmad gives insight into what I think is one of the primary sources of conflict of the modern world:

“We are witnessing the emergence of two clearly identifiable, seemingly hostile, but symbiotically linked trends toward fascism and separatism. Of these, fascism is the more serious threat although separatism is generally being viewed as the imminent danger... The two trends complement each other no less than they are antagonistic. The separatists draw sustenance from the excesses of the emerging fascist elements and from the increasingly protofascist practices and attitudes of the present government. The fascist elements will expand and their values will become institutionalized through their growing participation in the repression of alleged ‘separatist’ ‘subversive’ ‘threats’ to national security. Thus, separatism would derive its increasing popularity from the growth of fascism, and fascism its justification from the existence of separatists. These complementary enemies, incapable of destroying each other, shall nevertheless damage the society and the peoples they pretend to serve. Symbiotically linked, they may sustain each other while devouring the healthier, progressive elements in... society.” (p431-2)

I think this passage not only explains the culmination of communalism in South Asia into the partition into India and Pakistan, it also explains the modern day separatist movements in South Asia, most violently eminent in Kashmir and Sri Lanka. Most importantly, we must remember the legacy of separation in South Asia. Far from solving the problems, partition seems to have doubled the problems. Both India and Pakistan today are torn between new fascists and separatists. As Ahmad encourages us to understand, it is usually the separatist movements that are maligned, but it is the fascist tendencies that are most dangerous in the long run. And in an essay titled In Truth, Dark Times, Tarun Tejpal chillingly reminds us that

“[f]ascism almost never rings the bell. It slips in through the backdoor, climbs in over window-sills, pads up the basement, locates a rotten rafter to make its covert entry. Dictatorship is showy. It lodges itself in the living room, confident it commands the house. Fascism is sneaky. It quietly settles into every room, knowing it runs the house. Dictatorships can be overthrown by the people. Fascism is the people.”

We are lead by this history to question whether any of these problems can be resolved in the long run within the context of the nation state. The track record of these things is pretty hideous. The ‘strong centre’ that justified partition to the Indian National Congress, has proven disastrous. By some measures, modernization has been three times more catastrophic than partition. Ashis Nandy writes that there are

“an estimated fifty million Indians whom development has uprooted during the last fifty years. This more than three times the number of people displaced during the Partition riots in 1946-48. People have not forgotten the sixteen million displaced by Partition but they have forgotten these fifty million. A large potion of the displaced are tribals and Dalits; one-third of India’s entire tribal population has been uprooted in the last fifty years, and fifteen percent of our tribes have been fully uprooted.” (p139)

I have not tried to formulate any easy answers here to the problems of communalism and partition. Instead I have endeavored to demonstrate that these are not questions limited to Indians and Pakistanis. The menace of communalism and partition hangs over the whole world. Much of the world is already deep in it. Eqbal warned us: “[c]lass struggle will be overshadowed by civil conflict. The voices of reason and revolution will be drowned by those of reaction and revolt. Nothing will grow except the defense and security services.” (p441) I hope that by considering the history of democratic politics and nation-states, we can better conceive that the question of whether partition was inevitable in South Asia, is really a question that devolves upon the whole world. Our answer is ongoing. Partition was a ‘blunder of Himalayan proportion’, but the rise of communal violence made into an inevitability. “Like the South Asian subcontinent,” Eqbal wrote, “our sentiments remain divided... Indians and Pakistanis make awkward, complementary enemies. While opposing nationalisms, which is for us a recent ideology, pit us against each other, history and nature are against the rivalry between us.” (p408)

Can large and diverse nation-states avoid such inevitable blunders? Can democracies protect and empower the minorities that live within them? Is there an escape from majority rule that doesn’t destroy the practice of popular sovereignty? These are open questions, but to answer them, especially within the context of the modern heterogeneous societies in which we live, we must shed many pretensions about how power should work. Tagore entreats: “know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.” (p159)

Are partitions in every community, country and continent inevitable? Perhaps this question evades the heart of the matter by suggesting that the answer is outside of our own hearts. To return to a point I left unfinished, we cannot end communalism by condemning religion. In the short run, secular solutions can help mitigate the spread of religious problems to some extent. But in the long run, solutions to problems of religion must be religious, or they will never go away. “[G]ods and goddesses,” suggests Ashis Nandy, “are integrally related to the anti-gods or demons. No theory of violence, no metaphysics of evil... is complete unless it takes into account this relationship.” (p135) To avoid the terrors of partition, we would do well to think of what Gandhi said: “the only devils in the world are the ones inside our own hearts.”

It is the trauma within our own hearts that allows the fascism to creep in, that nurtures the politics of exclusion and extermination. Until we can tame our hearts, we cannot hope to free our societies from the paradigm of communalism and partition. In pursuit of freedom, we can fall into murderous self-love, or we can climb into a healing respect for difference.


1. From now on, a river divides us: / bloody water, mud of swamps, / There is no one in this land that forgets it / From now on the country is not the same. (translation mine) From the poem Es Triste.

2. The phrase is from Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah.

Nationalism, by Rabindranath Tagore, 1917
India’s Struggle for Independence, by Bipan Chandra
The Idea of India, by Sunil Khilnani, 1997
The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, edited by Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo, and Yogesh Chandrani, 2006. Referenced chapters: Partitioned Lands, Divided Sentiments, 1997, and Pakistan: Signposts to a Police State
The High Politics of India’s Partition: The Revisionist Perspective, by Asim Roy, 1990
In Truth, Dark Times, by Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 40, Oct. 2008
A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods and Goddesses in South Asia, by Ashis Nandy, 2001

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