An interview with Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar

In The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar argues that the combined interventions of the two postcolonial states were enormously important in shaping these massive displacements that followed partition.

Q: What is the significance of the 60th anniversary of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent that took place on August 14-15, 1947?

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar: The year 1947 marked the end of nearly two centuries of British colonial rule in the Indian sub-continent, but the hard-won independence was concomitant with the decision to partition the region into two separate states, so that Muslims of the region could have a state of their own. This decision was controversial and could be seen as a result of competing interests of different British and Indian political leaders of the time. However, for ordinary Indians of different religious communities, this redrawing of maps into two nation-states, cut brutally across intertwined lives. Even provinces with a Muslim majority, that were to become part of Pakistan sometimes included more than 40% non-Muslims, moreover not all Muslims were supporters of the Pakistan idea. The result was catastrophic communal violence of a scale that had never been seen before in the region and one of the largest mass displacements of the twentieth century. The 60th anniversary of Partition is an occasion to reflect on the process of decolonization and this kind of high-handed political map-making. It left enduring legacies in the region itself: the complex political status of muhajirs in Pakistan and Muslim minorities in India, the various separatist struggles for regional self-determination, and of course the India-Pakistan conflict over the status of Kashmir. However, in addition, and less visible, are the messy borderlands, the large number of families that are divided by this border, and “stateless” people to whom governments of the region continue to deny citizenship.

Q: What do you mean by the long Partition?

VFYZ: By the long Partition my purpose is to emphasize that 1947 was only the beginning of what was necessarily a long, drawn-out process of dividing a territory and its people into two distinct nation-states. Although there has been a lot of argument over why partition took place, we have not paid enough attention to understanding the historical process of partitioning itself. If the decision to partition was a contingent one, and partitioning was imagined by many different people in many different and contradictory ways, then how did Partition unfold? There were a great many unresolved questions in 1947. For instance, where did non-Muslims who lived in the region now declared Pakistan belong? Did they belong to the Indian nation, while becoming citizens of Pakistan? What about the very large numbers of Muslims in the territory now India? Were they Pakistanis, or could they become Indian citizens? Furthermore, the mass displacements were much messier than we think, for refugees of some regions attempted to return to their homes once the violence subsided; in other areas they continued to leave their homes as everyday violence continued. Who was an Indian? Who was a Pakistani? It took years to resolve some of these questions and considerable intervention on the part of the two postcolonial states. Relationships between nation, territory, citizen, and state all had to be created, for nothing was self-evident.

Q: What lessons are there to be learned from the Partition of the Indian subcontinent that extend beyond the region? Why does the Partition have relevance for other regions of the world?

VFYZ: Most immediately, the recent discussions in American policy circles of a possible partition of Iraq along sectarian lines makes the history of the Indian Partition along religious lines extremely relevant. Both India in 1947 and Iraq in 2007 are occupied by foreign powers. The British considered communal violence between Hindus and Muslims as one of their biggest problem of governance, and the Americans presently think sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis is one of their biggest problems of governance. The distance of sixty years can offer a long, sobering view on the conditions of occupation and empire in which the politics of partition was played out, and the vast human cost that was paid. In Iraq this may call for a reevaluation of the “sectarian problem” itself, but in other regions, such as Palestine and Ireland, it provides a comparative historical example of colonial partitioning. For instance, the Indian and Pakistani Custodians of Evacuee Property have important parallels with the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property in becoming paradigmatic institutions of mass displacement. Finally, border-making, genocidal violence, mass displacement and the figure of the refugee are central to the history of the twentieth century, How can we understand the national remapping of the world without the Partition of 1947?