People of the past

The deeper premises that led to Partition still shape politics in South Asia

There are two abiding images of the meaning of August 15. There is Nehru, in his inimitable way, announcing a new tryst with destiny. There is the poignant absence of Gandhi, mourning loss, the erasure of an ethical ambition. India marches on, with all its contradictions. It wilfully refuses the destiny that Nehru was exhorting his fellow citizens to embrace, its energies expended on so many transitory moments that the future seems not even a distant gleam. But somewhere, there is also the shadow of that ominous past Gandhi so feared. India can, in all its bravado, say it has transcended its recent past and moved on. It can say, with some justification, that there is a new generation that is too young to even understand the Emergency, let alone Partition. Pakistan may have an identity crisis. But India does not. And yet, hidden in this protestation, there is still an anxiety. Does the unresolved aftermath of Partition still haunt us in ways we do not acknowledge?

Whether Partition was good or bad is now an academic debate. The crude fantasies of overcoming Partition that occasionally pop up are just that: fantasies devoid of political realism. But, equally, it is complacent to think that Partition does not affect us. It affects the direct victims of violence, a subject we still don't know how to acknowledge. But anyone who harbours the illusion that we have put the aftermath of Partition behind us need only take one look at politics in India. The illusion will vanish quickly.

The deeper premises that built up to Partition still frame the politics of South Asia. The first, and in our context, practically unworkable and morally insidious, is the alignment of ethnicity and territory. The aspiration to align the two is still at work, from Pakistan's western frontier to our Northeast, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka. And states, haunted by the idea that territorial loss is loss of self, counteract this, often with brutal force.

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