By Garga Chatterjee
The spectre of Partition continues to loom large in the politics of the subcontinent. How one imagines Partition and how it came about is also intricately tied to how one imagines one
self – this being particularly true for those born late enough to have no direct access to any first-hand pre-partition lived experience and consciousness. Present residents of certain urban centres of the subcontinent would probably find it hard to imagine a contemporary Karachi as a Hindu Sindhi dominated city or a Dhaka as a Hindu Bengali dominated metropolis or a Delhi whose dominant public urban culture is Islamicate in a Persian influenced manner or a Kolkata whose Muslim Bengali population rivals and even surpasses its Muslim non-Bengali population in power, prestige, cultural and economic influence. Karachi, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka – as they are today are all cities shaped or mis-shaped by Partition.
The Partition related demographic shifts in the Punjab and in Bengal were radically different from each other. In the Punjab, a near-total population ‘exchange’ took place with a huge number of accompanying deaths. In Bengal, there was huge asymmetry between the migrations, with the Hindu East-Bengali refugees fleeing the East hugely out-numbering the Muslim West-Bengalis fleeing the West. A cultural critic described the Punjab partition as a fast jhatka and the Bengal partition as a slow halal. In human terms, the Bengal partition continues, with persecuted Hindu East Bengalis still trickling into West Bengal to this day – a phenomenon that has been called the ‘long partition’. East Bengal’s population proportion of Hindus has dropped by nearly 70% from 1951 to 2011, decreasing every decade. West Bengal’s population proportion of Muslims in 2011 is about 50% more than what was in 1951. This asymmetry partly reflects the relative difference in perceived anxiety and the real security concerns for religious minorities in the two Bengals.
But beyond demographics and ‘culture shift’, there are other consequences too. Partition has enabled a certain shaping of the post-partition politics of the subcontinent down to this day. That is beyond doubt. Partition related demographic, economic and cultural change in crucial urban centres has had somewhat different consequences based on whether a city gained much more, in terms of incoming refugees, compared to the loss, in terms of original inhabitants driven away as refugees. This is crucial for the extent of control that refugees, especially well-to-do and influential ones, have had in determining post-partition politics, policy and ideology.
Many of the elites who were displaced retained their eliteness in their new host societies. In some cases, they even supplanted the ‘sons of the soil’, rendering them politically irrelevant. This happened most prominently in Sindh where the displaced Muslim Hindustanis made the local Sindhis politically irrelevant in Karachi and most other centres of urban Sindh and broke Sindhi control over Sindh politics irreversibly. Having no origin homeland to which loyalties could be unproblematically maintained without a charge of disloyalty, the refugee controlled and promoted ideology of state-formation had largely to do with mythic construction of a nation aligned not to land but ideology.
One sees a very similar reflection of this among displaced Hindu East-Bengali elites whose inordinate sway on post-partition politics by their disproportionate dominance of Kolkata (by 1951, 27% of Kolkata’s population was displaced East Bengalis), especially in the political left, was often ideological than local, thus hindering the development of strong state-identity based politics and articulation of rights along those lines, unlike all non-Hindi states along the Bay of Bengal. This was reflected in the lack of concerted protest from West Bengal against discrimination meted out to Bengali refugees by the Government of India. This has been true of other displaced elites in other times, for example, some Kashmiri Pandits, who saw in the delocalised and centralised nation their scope for status advancement that had hit a dead-end in their homeland due to demographic and hence democratic realities. In time, Delhi has come to represent a homeland of displaced elites from all over, not all due to Partition (like the Tamil Brahmins).
Displaced elites more easily went wherever lucrative opportunities existed, using self-furthering upward mobility networks and ideologies untied to land, and hence, less tied to land-based territorial loyalties and identities. It is my suspicion that if one traces the origins even of the post-liberalisation migratory elite of Bengali origin now entrenched in Delhi, those of people from East Bengal would be thoroughly over-represented. With this framework, one needs to look at the networks of bureaucrats-academics-white collar climbers of East Bengali origin who took to Delhi much more easily than other Bengalis. Those among them who came of age after Partition and their future generations grew up outside the kind of rootedness of the West Bengali of Kolkata or the Sindhi of Karachi.
Identities were often tied simply to the city and not to the broader ethno-linguistic homeland. The jump from a homeland-less urban identity to a ‘nothing but Indian’ identity is not too big. The further jump to becoming a ‘world citizen’ is not too far either. I must admit that much of what I have said is speculative and only pertains to the elites among the displaced – their eliteness emanating from economic and/or social capital and networks that tie these elites to themselves and to others. I must also add that the trans-generational trend that I speculate about does not take away the very real suffering that most of the displaced generation faced and many of their successive generations have continued to face. The story of the non-elite displaced is a sad, sad saga whose full contours are still not known. That is a still-unfolding tragedy.
I will end by asking aloud a series of question whose answers I am seeking. Most of these probably do not have clear yes/no answers, but they are worth asking nonetheless. Does the self-identity of gen-next and gen-next after next of homeland-displaced elites affect how they look at other? Do such identities also come with a lack of appreciation of rootedness of others? How does all this affect policy, given that migratory elites are very powerful and their ideologies affect policy way beyond their numbers? Do gen-next of displaced elites with urban-only identities come with a lesser appreciation of rootedness? Can they, with supreme irony, advocate displacement, compensation and resettlement of others more easily, especially those of latter generations than those who were actually displaced? What are the implications of migratory rootless elites having control over the fate the rooted subalterns who are typically the first target of eviction from a homeland in the service of ‘nation’ and the ‘greater common good’?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. It will take some time for some long-range effects of Partition to sink in.
—The author is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.