Partitioned Selves, Partitioned Pasts: A Commentary on Ashis Nandy’s “Death of an Empire

Vinay Lal

Outside South Asia, the partition of India evokes little recognition. As the British left India, the largest single migration in history took place: well over ten million, and perhaps as many as fifteen million, people crossed borders, and a million or more became the victims of murderous assaults. Both the Governments of India and Pakistan established commissions for the “recovery” of abducted women who numbered in several tens of thousands. Numbing as these figures are, they barely register in world histories: perhaps that indifference to the calamity that afflicted India and Pakistan betokens the view that life in South Asia has never had much value, and that the violence of the partition can be seamlessly assimilated into a narrative that pitches the Hindus and Muslims as foes locked into battle ever since Islam became a dominant political force in India in the early part of the 13th century. Partition came, moreover, in the aftermath of the most immense bloodbath in European history, and the emaciated women and men liberated from concentration camps were so palpable a testimony to the holocaust unleashed within Europe that many other holocausts would be all but invisible to European eyes and ears. There is, howsoever loathe we may be to acknowledge it, an hierarchy of suffering, and the industrial killing of Jews was construed as the paradigmatic experience of genocide in modern history.

Yet even within South Asia, nothing even remotely resembling the massive literature — scholarly studies, survivors’ memoirs, biographies of the Nazi leadership, among numerous other genres — generated by the Holocaust was to come into existence, and until the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence was celebrated in 1997, the public memory of partition was encapsulated in a handful of notable works. For the solidly middle classes, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1954) appeared to capture best the violence that engulfed the Punjab; for those with a more sophisticated literary sensibility, and a much greater appetite for self-mockery, chilling sarcasm, and the naturalist style of de Maupassant and Balzac, the short stories of Saadat Hassan Manto would epitomize nonpareil the immense tragedies and absurdities behind the partition, indeed the near complete banishment of moral restraints. Barring some other imaginative endeavors over the previous five decades — a couple of films (largely inaccessible) of Ritwik Ghatak, the film Garam Hawa (“Hot Wind”, director M. S. Sathyu, 1973), the television serial Tamas (director Govind Nihalani, 1988), and scattered short stories by a few writers — the partition appeared to have been avoided rather than confronted. And, then, not altogether inexplicably, a mere three or four years ago, emboldened perhaps by the passage of 50 years, the emergence of new critical idioms of scholarly thought, and confidence in Indian democracy’s resilience, scholars and public figures began to put the partition under more rigorous scrutiny. The drought has given way to something more than just a trickle of water.

The piece that follows by Ashis Nandy is a contribution to this growing literature, but it carries in every respect the imprimatur of Nandy’s distinctive style of thought and its delivery. Before moving to a consideration of some of the nuances and ironies of “The Death of an Empire”, it would be useful to place Nandy within the orbit of Indian public and intellectual life, as well as the more global world of engaged criticism and activism. Easily one of the leading academic and intellectual figures in India, Nandy is among the country’s most insightful and imaginative cultural critics, certainly its most original voice. Though he is a forceful critic of Hindu militancy, and wrote a devastating indictment of the movement to reclaim the Babri Mosque as a Hindu monument (before it was destroyed by Hindu militants in December 1992), he has incurred the wrath of the secular left on frequent occasions; and though much of his work is a sensitive probing of the politics of sexuality in colonial and modern cultures, some feminists are prone to represent him as a defender of obscurantist patriarchal traditions. A lifetime student of the Indian state, Nandy has unraveled in myriad ways the development regime which lies at its center without, in the fashion of some, prematurely writing its obituary.

Nandy belongs to no camp, and consequently, in the cliched expression, everyone loves to hate him. He is, not only in India, but with respect to the dominant frameworks of knowledge, a true dissenter. In this sense, it would be a mistake to view Nandy as a Gandhian, or as an iconoclast or eccentric, or indeed as a dissenter who can be neatly packaged for the utility of those whose voices are heard in opposition to globalization, environmental destruction, or the oppressiveness of science. The idiom of piety, indeed of resistance in its postcolonial mode, with its fashionable jargon of the subaltern, implosion, hybridity, and the like, is seldom if at all encountered in Nandy’s writings. Thus, to advert only to Nandy’s writings on the culture of science, it should be obvious that Nandy is critical of the categorical claims of modern science and its inability to live with pluralist conceptions of science, but this cannot be read as a diatribe against science as such. Where much of the well-intentioned humanist agenda of reform is animated by the expression, “act locally, think globally”, Nandy would urge us to “think locally, act globally”. If the only universalisms that we can think of, and live by, are those bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, then the future of humankind seems ominously to belong to its past.

Nandy’s very large oeuvre of writings is a testimony to his insistent endeavor to enhance the conditions for the ecological survival of plurality, but it also manifests a profound concern, as “The Death of an Empire” so amply suggests, for victims — the victims of colonialism, development, big science, contemporary knowledge frameworks, and the often genocidal impulses of modernity and its most characteristic expression, the nation-state. His short piece begins with reflections of the transformation of Calcutta under his own eyes as the partition loomed large: neighbors turned into enemies, entire communities transmogrified into gangs of marauders, quiet streets washed by streams of blood. Here, too, the ironies are compelling: three million people died in Bengal on account of the famine of the 1942, but people who found themselves incapable of protesting before food stores and ration shops suddenly found themselves equipped to kill in the name of religion. Before the late eighteenth century, there was no conception of a monolithic Hinduism, and in the late nineteenth century, the immensely popular and influential Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji cajoled his Hindu countrymen and women, not with much success, to imagine themselves as part of a Hindu nation. The first partition of Bengal in 1905 by the British, ostensibly on the grounds of facilitating administration but clearly attempted with the intention of separating predominantly Muslim eastern Bengal from largely Hindu west Bengal, evoked such opposition that the British had to rescind the partition.

In Nandy’s account, the masculinist, middle-class and majoritarian enterprise of Hindu nationalism was riddled by other anomalies. The British had declared the Bengalis to be an “effeminate” people; the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Rajputs, among others, were described as “martial” races. As though to lend credence to this absurd sociology of knowledge, the “effeminate” and the “martial” races entered into a compact: as Nandy notes, “the lower caste musclemen and the criminal elements . . . and even up-country Hindus, Sikhs and Nepali Gurkhas . . . became the heroic protectors of middle-class, sedentary, upper-caste Bengali Hindus.” Not only did the theorists of nationalism lack the wherewithal to be nationalists, they expected conformity among Indians to the notions of masculinity and manliness that they had inherited from the British. Thus Gandhi, much derided by some Indians as an effeminate bania, a Gujarati vegetarian spendthrift bent on keeping India backward, was ridiculed because he counseled the Hindu families who had suffered losses in Noakhali and Sylhet in eastern Bengal to desist from retaliation. Publicly, Gandhi might be critiqued loudly for supporting Muslims rather than his Hindu brethren, but one cannot doubt that his repudiation of masculinist violence and the logic of the nation-state was far more unnerving for the modernizing elites.

In the riots that shook Calcutta, indeed Bengal and Punjab, Nandy finds the seeds of many dominant elements of India’s contemporary political culture. Uniquely among Indian theorists and cultural critics, Nandy has been the first to set his eyes on the middle class, but increasingly he has turned towards the slum — and in the process, he has not only explored the nexus between the middle class and the slum, but offered the startling insight that the middle class itself constitutes the most intractable slum of Indian political life. “The slums are the natural bastions of people”, Nandy writes, “with broken community ties and nostalgic memories about faith grounded in such ties.” The middle classes expected the slum dwellers who had acquired new loyalties amidst their dislocation to die, if necessary, in the common cause of the defense of the nation and the faith; but they were themselves not prepared to offer any such sacrifices. The mercenary spirit is perhaps intrinsic to the middle class, which is more deeply mired in modernist narratives and has fewer resources to extricate itself from the idea that the only viable form of political community is the nation-state. Yet for all his strictures against the middle class, Nandy does not for a moment forget that great moments of compassion, fellow-feeling, and heroism are to be encountered among all communities, and as he pointedly observes, more recent investigations of partition violence, including those launched by Nandy and his many associates now working on a large study, suggest that many people went to enormous trouble to furnish members of the other religious community with housing, food, and safe passage. Not only that, perpetrators of gross violence were sometimes perfectly capable of large humanitarian gestures: as the Mayor of Lahore in 1947 was to recall many years later, he and his Muslim friends threw Molotov cocktails to (in Bush’s language) smoke out the Hindus from their dens, but he also rescued Hindu and Sikh friends “from their vulnerable residences and conveyed them to safe places under a hail of bullets.”

The most perplexing question, of course, is how it came to pass that “Hindus” and “Muslims”, however provisional our appropriation of these designations, overlooked their shared pasts, their customs in common, to arrive at a wholly different understanding of themselves. To the British, who partitioned as well Africa, Cyprus, Ireland, and Palestine, the partition of India may have been no more than a convenient administrative arrangement, an expedient political device that enabled them to effect a rapid departure from a burdensome colony. The death of an empire belongs, however, merely in the realm of history, but with partition Indians began to labor under the more severe form of psychic and cultural death. How did Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs each partition their selves and begin to imagine that their pasts were disconnected? What part of themselves did they expel, and how are they beginning to suture their selves and their pasts? “The Death of an Empire” invites readers to an unsettling if illuminating rumination on these matters, and is sure to send them to Nandy’s longer works.

See Also on MANAS:

Ashis Nandy, “Death of an Empire

Ashis Nandy Bibliography

Ashis Nandy, Colloquially: excerpts from “The Defiance of Defiance and Liberation for the Victims of History: Ashis Nandy in Conversation with Vinay Lal”, in Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy, ed. Vinay Lal (Delhi: Oxford, 2000)

Ashis Nandy: An Intellectual Profile

Partition of India