By Jon Soske
The United Nation’s release of the agreement stipulating the “re-division” of India and Pakistan has shaken both countries. Signed by Gandhi, Jinnah and Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the document agrees to the redrawing of South Asia’s borders in the year 2014 on the basis of a more equitable division of economic and natural resources. Of course, few in power have any intention of such an event transpiring. Most Indian observers declared the text a forgery. While the prime minister’s office kept a cautious silence, a junior minister in the Indian cabinet assented to the document’s validity, but denied that it possessed any binding force. A reliable informant claims that a meeting of Pakistan’s senior army officers responded with spasms of laughter.
Yet the agreement has managed to cast a spell beyond palace walls, exerting an uncanny influence over the imaginations of millions. Spontaneous celebrations of the agreement have erupted in far-flung and sometimes improbable locales: Bombay and Port of Spain, Quetta and Durban, Varanasi and Scarborough (Toronto). Perhaps the reaction to the document speaks to a desire to return to the moment of partition. Perhaps it represents a desire to cleanse both states of a founding act of violence.
The release of two different images of the new border has added considerably to the initial confusion. In early February, the international press published a map demarcating only two countries – India and Pakistan – divided by a horizontal line. Afghanistan lies outside the frame altogether. Of South Asia’s other states and regions, only Sri Lanka remains a distinct entity. This proposal drew sharp critique. Did it not once again reiterate the image of the subcontinent as consisting solely of two – inherently antagonistic – communal groups? The second map depicts a border tracing a diagonal line across Pakistan, northern India, and northern Bangladesh. Interestingly, no country names are proposed. Nepal, Bhutan and southern Bangladesh’s status remain unclear. For equally obscure reasons, the UN has announced that this second map is the “official” document.
Among the signatories, Gandhi’s motivations seem clearest. He believed that he was rectifying an historic injustice. Initially, he rejected the idea of partition as “potentially disastrous”. But faced with the sectarian violence unleashed by the 1946 Noakhali massacre and other events, Gandhi reacted with horror and an unfathomable sense of personal failure. He toured the country fasting for an end to the reciprocal slaughter. He spoke openly of being buried in Pakistan. These acts summoned an assassin’s bullet. By the time Gandhi signed the document, forces in his own party were moving to create ‘facts on the ground’ and many local Congress leaders held Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa in open contempt. What does his signature mean? Perhaps everything. And probably nothing.
As always, Jinnah’s thinking remains the more inscrutable. Did this unlikely head of a Muslim state – a more secular politician than Nehru by a stretch – understand the extent to which the new boundaries would transform the make-up of Pakistan, perhaps even eliminating its clear Muslim majority? Did Jinnah understand, in Ayesha Jalal’s words, that “the most striking fact about Pakistan is how it failed to satisfy the interests of the very Muslims who are supposed to have demanded its creation?” Was the agreement his final gesture towards the utopian goal of Hindu-Muslim parity?
Since early February, a tremor has spread throughout Africa and the near east. Needless to say, India and Pakistan are not the only countries born through partition. Last week, an anonymous Palestinian leader (by rumour, Marwan Barghouti) asked pointedly: “Are there other documents still hidden in the colonial office’s vaults?” The South African satirical news site, Hayibo, came out of retirement to produce a spoof agreement that resettles the country according to a fixed ratio of white to black every square kilometre. The document has become a point of discussion at more than one international negotiating table. It may represent the ultimate lèse-majesté. From its beginning, the nation state was an ad-hoc contrivance.
Jon Soske, New Delhi, March 2013
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