The India Pakistan Partition of 1947—Turmoil, Trauma & Ongoing Tension–A Conversation with Renowned Historian Dr. Priya Satia

A Desi Woman Podcast
The India Pakistan Partition of 1947---Turmoil, Trauma & Ongoing Tension--A Conversation with Renowned Historian Dr. Priya Satia


Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She’s a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She’s your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello and welcome to another addition of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today we are so excited to welcome renowned historian, Dr. Priya Satia. Dr. Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, and Professor of History at Stanford University where she teaches modern British and British Empire history. Her first book, Spies In Arabia, The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, 2008, won three major prizes. Including the AHA’s Herbert Baxter Adams Prize. Her second book Empire of Guns, The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, 2018, also won three major prizes, including the AHA’s Jerry Bentley Prize.

Soniya Gokhale (01:40):
And were the finalist for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize, LA Times Book Prize in History. And the Laura Shannon prize, in contemporary European studies. Her latest book, Time’s Monster, How History Makes History, 2020, was named, wan a BBC History Magazine, and the New Statement’s Best Books of 2020. Her prize-winning work has also appeared in several edited collections and scholarly journals, such as the American Historical Review, Past & Present. Technology & Culture, History Workshop Journal, Annuls, and Humanity. Professor Satia also writes frequently for popular media, such as Time, The Nation, Washington Post, the New Republic, and to name a few. Professor Satia, welcome to the show.

Priya Satia (02:39):
Hi, Soniya. Thank you for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (02:41):
Thank you for joining us. And Priya, for the benefit of people like myself or other listeners who may not have a deep understanding of historical events around the partition of Pakistan and India, which represents the largest mass migration in human history. The question comes to mind, who thought this was a good? And how did World War Two impact the way it transpired?

Priya Satia (03:08):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s, it’s a big question. So there were a lot of different parties who think that partition is a good idea. Um, but it’s not clear, (laughs), all the way up to the end whether they’re talking, if whether, you know, one person’s partition is the same as the other person’s partition. Like everyone is using this word, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone who’s proposing it. So there’s a lot of confusion about what actually happens partly because of that lack of clarity about what it means to do a partition. So, uh, as a kind of technique for dealing with decolonization, partition already exists, you know, in, in sort of the British repertoire. And it’s something they’ve already done in Ireland in 1922. It’s something they’ve already proposed in Palestine in the 1930s. It, and it didn’t, you know, get applied there. But they had come up with a plan, proposition partition of Palestine.

Priya Satia (04:02):
And sometimes it’s the same officials moving from, you know, each of these locations and sort of offering the same sets of what they think of are solutions to, in colonial context have been sort of pitted against each other for so long. And that’s complicating the process of decolonization. So when it comes to India, you know, you’ve again, got British officials who are thinking in terms of partition. But that doesn’t explain everything. At the same time, there are Indians who have become attracted to the idea of partition for slightly different reasons, having to do with the World Wars that unfolded in this period.

Priya Satia (04:39):
So we have to rewind a little bit and see that in World War One, just demonstrated to so many people in the world how dangerous nationalism was, how destructive it could be, how, uh, prone to crisis the nation state system was. So people were also in the 1920 and ’30s trying to think of creative new ways of ordering the world. Could you have more federal structures? Could you organize territories according to other ideals? For instance, Islamic ideals. Could you have Pan-Asia forms of organizing, or Pan-Arab, of Pan-African, or, you know, [inaudible 00:05:18] ways of thinking. There are a lot of creative ideas. And partition emerges amongst Indian thinkers as part of that swirls of ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as what the British Imperial officials are talking about when they proposed partition.

Priya Satia (05:34):
And so you see thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal, uh, also known as Allama Iqbal, who’s the po- poet and philosopher who’s often credited as sort of the father of the idea of Pakistan, proposing that, you know, he’s trying to think outside the box of the nation state. And he says, “What if we think of kind of a Muslim India within India?” You know, and he’s, he’s thinking of something federal, he’s thinking of a place that’s for people of all religious background, but that has kind of, that kind of elevates Muslim, uh, or Islamic ideals. It’s a, you know, and that’s, that’s one idea of partition. And, uh, there are others too.

Priya Satia (06:11):
And what happens is he passes away in 1938. But increasingly as you get into World War Two, in that context, and we can talk about that in a minute what exactly changes in World War Two. But it, it becomes clearer and clearer as you get into the war, that partition is about two separate states. So that’s a very, very new idea in that emergents, really only in 2014. Up until that point, it’s really unclear that partition is gonna imply an actual, you know, creation of separate states. It, it seems to be more about something more federal for a lot of the thinkers who are talking about it. So what happens in World War Two is that the partition idea has not been gaining a lot of popularity in Bengal and Punjab, which are the two provinces that have the largest Muslim populations.

Priya Satia (07:01):
And the reason for that, is that in those areas, Muslims are in a majority. So they’re not really worried about, you know, being a minority that’s dominated by Hindus in an independent India. And so the idea is not very popular there. And so Muhammad Ali Jinnah was ahead of the Muslim League, decides he needs to offer something that’s more radical, more dramatic. And so at that point in 1940 he says, “Actually the goal of the Pakistan movement is the creation of a separate Muslim state for Indian Muslims.” And then in the war, the congress party, and I’m assuming the audiences know who these different players are. But, you know, let me know if, if I should clarify.

Priya Satia (07:43):
The congress party, uh, the party of Nehru and Gandhi, and [Malana Assad 00:07:48], and others, they decide to launch a movement to demand that the British leave India immediately. They almost just unilaterally declared dependence. This is in 1942. And the British respond by brutally repressing this very popular movement known as the Quit India movement. And so the entire congress party, eh, and leadership and, you know, a hundreds of thousands of followers are jailed. Thousands are actually killed. And so congress was sort of out of commission, you know, for s- for several years of the war. And, eh, then while they’re jailed or silenced, the Muslim League decides to work with the British, and they, uh, start to get traction even in Bengal, even in Punjab.

Priya Satia (08:33):
They start to form governments in different provinces. And sometimes those governments are ironically in coalition with right wing Hindu parties that are also starting to flourish with the congress in jail, such as the Hindu Mahasabha. And so sometimes you have coalition governments in place, uh, betwe- you know, where if Hindus Mahasabha and Muslim League are sharing power, even though their line, their party line is that Hindus and Muslims, (laughs), cannot coexist, right?

Soniya Gokhale (09:01):
So you have studied extensively on the context of World War Two and the transfer of power, and how they were critical in shaping some of the violence that ensued. And, and you touched upon some of that. Can you just clarify that many of our listeners are in South Asia, as you mention the different parties at play. We had the congress party in-

Priya Satia (09:23):

Soniya Gokhale (09:23):
… India. And then if you could speak to the others in the region.

Priya Satia (09:27):
Yes. So all of this is, I mean, India is a patchwork area in this period. There’s areas that are ruled directly by the British that are, you know, British India. But interspersed in that region are what are known as the Princely States. Areas that are technically, you know, autonomous. They have their own local princes or Rajas, or what have you. But it’s understood that they answer to the British also. There’s kind of an indirect rule process going on in those areas. And so it’s a very complicated set of polities there that have to either come together in some way or the other. And so, and there are many political parties as well.

Priya Satia (10:09):
So the Indian National Congress is the party that’s claiming to speak, you know, for the ma- for all Indians, and sort of the mainstream nationalist movement, and Gandhi is really important in giving it sort of a solid mass base. At the same time, there’s also, you know, the Muslim League, which is claiming to speak for Muslims. But as I said earlier, doesn’t necessarily have a lot, (laughs), traction among many Muslims for a very long time. Because congress is also saying that they speak for Muslims.

Priya Satia (10:42):
There are other Muslim organizations too, that are staunchly against partition. Like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, ha- led by figures like Maulana Madani. And the, you know, you can even think of like the Khaksar movement in Punjab, uh, started in Punjab. Which has millions of followers, um, buy the 1940s. That’s also absolutely against partition. There are also right wing very Hindu nationalist organizations, like the Hindu Mahasabha I mentioned. Then there are the left wing groups. There are the c- there’s the Communist Part of India. There’s the Hindustan Republican Association, you know, going … Bhagat Singh is, has already been executed, uh, at the time we’re talking about in the 1940s.

Priya Satia (11:22):
But, you know, in the 1920 and all, you know, he also represents another form of anti-colonial activity against the British. So there’s a lot of ways to be, there are a lot of ways to be anti-colonial between the two World Wars and India. And then there’s also the Indian National Army, right? Uh, led by Subhash Chandra Bose in the, during World War Two, who fight alongside the Japanese to push the British out of the country militarily, right? So there’s that more kind of openly militaristic way of pushing out the British too. And while congress in j- is in jail, some of these other options are getting more taction. And so when the congress people come out of jail at the end of the war, they are in, confronting a very, very, uh, transformed political terrain. And have to adapt their strategies. They have, you know, s- less room for maneuver in a sense, at that point in 1945, ’46.

Soniya Gokhale (12:17):
Well, along those lines, um, I wanted to ask you, why it appears that Britain and in reading one of your interviews you did with Stanford, that it appeared British official had hurried events at very turn in terms of the dismantling of not only the Imperial state, but also their removal from, from India. And I just wanted to get your, your thoughts on that.

Priya Satia (12:44):
It became clear that, uh, India was going to get some kind of independence in 1947. The British do speed up the calendar for departure as much as possible. They, you know, run down their investments in Indian infrastructure. They certainly don’t wanna add anything to that. And so you see, you know, British troops who are in the country, who are still there from after World War Two are kept their barracks. They’re not allowed to, they’re given instructions not to help in any violence between Indians. And information collecting units are run down. British officials are focusing on ar- arranging their own departures.

Priya Satia (13:24):
They’re not really interested in sort of the everyday political challenges of a country that’s about to step into a new future, uh, in a, in a world that’s, you know, in the, in the midst of post World War crisis. So they’re speeding things up, making it harder to deal with violence. And then making the violence much more likely at the same time, because basically law and order is breaking down. There are no troops. The Indian army is itself being divided. The British army is told not to interfere. Officials are either are not paying attention or they’re leaving. Or if they’re Indian officials in posts, they’re openly partisan, can’t be approached, can’t be trusted. Same with the police.

Priya Satia (14:02):
And then, eh, you have a terrified population then dealing with this situation in which no one is taking responsibility. No one is guaranteeing life, property, you know, minority protection. Nothing like that. And so the British do have a big hand, you know, in sort of abdicating all responsibility, and just focusing on, um, securing their own ends. Which was that, whether it’s, eh, one country that emerges or two, they want, they want that new country to stay in the British Commonwealth. And frankly, having two countries makes it easier for them to feel like they’ll continue to have some kind of role as kind of an umbrella unifying force through the Commonwealth, uh, in managing South Asian affairs. And, and they’re particularly interested in maintaining access to India’s military manpower going forward.

Soniya Gokhale (14:51):
And I do wanna ask you, in researching for this podcast, I was really taken aback by the chilling narratives of the violence that ensued amidst the partition. And I know that you have a personal connection to this. And in fact, much of your research, or some of your research has focused on the personal stories of people living through the partition. And your own family was affected by the event. And so I have to ask you, what was it like to live through that turbulent time, and its continuous effects on the country today?

Priya Satia (15:25):
Yeah. My own family was affected. My mother’s family, um, moved from West Punjab from Multan. Uh, which is in West Punjab, they moved to old Delhi during the partition. My father’s family wa- is from a place very close to the border, so they didn’t know which side of the border their town fall on. And that brought its own uncertainties and anxieties, for places that were, you know, where, where people knew the border would fall, but the border itself wasn’t announced until after independence day.

Priya Satia (15:54):
Uh, so they didn’t know what to expect and what would happen. And you can imagine what a, what a terrifying situation that would’ve been. So a lot of people moved, um, they were hounded out basically. Kind of a, a systematic ethnic cleansing by these, you know, paramilitary volun- you know, volunteer kind of policing and militia groups that have grown up during, because, uh, you know, right at the end of the war. Often, you, you know, absorbing, uh, demobilized soldiers who still had their arms with them. Sometimes even bombs with them. These groups are going around in Jeeps and they’re doing most of the killing.

Priya Satia (16:28):
And, eh, you know, kind of terrorizing people out of their homes and villages. But when they leave, it’s a really common pattern you see is that people think that, uh, this, the move is temporary. They really don’t think this is a permanent, permanent move. That’s why they leave their valuables, their jewelries at home. They bury it in the walls or in the floors, because they’re assuming they’re going back. Even leaders in this time, political leaders thought this was a temporary situation that, uh, you know, the main goal was to get the British out. And then once we do that, at least on the Indian side, if not so much the Pakistani side. That eventually they would be brought back together as a single place.

Priya Satia (17:07):
So it was only, you know, after the 1960s that you really start to f- get this realization that, “Okay, this partition is, is long lasting. And it’s a, a hard border, not a, an open border.” For many years it was a very open border, and you could go back and forth quite, quite freely. It took time, you know, to actually do a partition on the ground in everyone’s minds. And the legacies of this are tremendous, because the whole experience was so traumatic.

Priya Satia (17:36):
So much violence, so much violence against women. So many people orphaned. So much, uh, you know, that was devastating to see for very, very young people. And, you know, there are all these efforts now to collect the oral histories of witnesses to these events, so that we get a better understanding of what it was like, and what the lasting effects of it have been over time. And I think it’s safe to say that, you know, a lot of post independence history in India and Pakistan is still being shaped by what happened in 1946 to ’48, the violence of that period. And so it’s not something that’s just safely in the past, and over. It’s still with us. It’s still living history.

Priya Satia (18:21):
And even as that generation passes, our failure to have dealt with everything that happened properly to memorialize it, to have any kind of, you know, transitional justice or reparative justice, or healing, uh, any kind of memorialization process, or anything like that. The absence of that I think, uh, means that it will continue to be this open wound that continues to affect how, you know, politics and society are evolving in South Asia. Uh, until that’s all kind of dealt with much more constructively.

Soniya Gokhale (18:53):
Professor Satia, you have done an immense amount of research as well in regard to the work of poets who wrote about the partition at the time. And so I did wanna ask you, how did poetry and poets help to shape the meaning of what was happening, both around the partition and other traumatic circumstances at the time?

Priya Satia (19:19):
Yeah, sure. So first, it’s important to remember that poets were not figures on the sidelines in this period. Not just in South Asia, I mean, in many places in the world, poets had a sense of a having a special political role. And so you see that there’s a pattern of really important leaders in this period, in this time and place also pursuing literary careers as poets. Whether it’s [inaudible 00:19:45] somebody, uh, the leaders of the Khilafat movement, like Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Hasrat Mohani. Or you think of someone like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was really important in the communist movement, um, in Andiva- in pre-partition India, and then alter in Pakistan.

Priya Satia (20:01):
You know, even Maulana Azad had been poet in his youth. You know, Gandhi and [inaudible 00:20:06] poets, but they’re really, I mean, their prose writing is, is really important to what they’re doing too. So there’s a pattern here of poets being also anti-colonial leaders. And it’s not unique to South Asia. But it, it has a really important place in understanding partition. Because what I written about, and other scholars like [inaudible 00:20:26] at UCLA is the per- one who’s working, or got me thinking along these lines. Is that there’s something in the idiom of, or the poetry, right? It’s about separation, right?

Priya Satia (20:36):
You know, in, in the original [Sufi 00:20:38] idiom it’s about our separation from the divine. In the more worldly version it’s about the beloved s- separation from her lover. And then in this political idiom, in the partition idiom it’s about one’s separation from one’s homeland. Right? Or from your old community, or your … You know. And so you can see a kind of adaptation of that very familiar culturally kind of familiar and deep poetic idiom, tha- it’s been adapted to deal with partition by important thinkers and activists in this time.

Priya Satia (21:15):
Uh, in one way, you know, they’re expressing the trauma and pain of partition. You see that happening. And you know, that longing for homeland for instance. It’s also being used to express the kind of hope that this might be something transitory in that the real freedom, you know, when they’ll get over even this violent episode, and they’ll all come to terms with one and other, you know, with love and brotherhood, and freedom, and all those ideals fulfilled. The longing for that always unattainable utopia, that’s also something that can be expressed, uh, through that kind of traditional poetic idiom. And so that’s something that I talk about in some of my work, the kind of habitual recourse to that, and the kind of coping function that offered.

Priya Satia (21:59):
And also, you know, because of that, that poetic kind of habit of dealing with, with the partition. I mean, there’s, that’s part of the reason why this poetic tradition I think has such mass appeal today, even on both sides of the border, and in Bengal too. Uh, Bengali poetic traji- pra- traditions I think you could tell a parallel story there as well. And you see it in, in mass culture. You see it, ’cause a lot of these poets wound up in the film industries. So you see it coming out in movies as well. You see it coming out in art, theater. Stories you can think of someone like Saadat Hasan Manto to in his stories. Uh, Toba Tek Singh being the most well known, that’s kind of trying to address the, the sheer insanity and absurdity of partition, right?

Priya Satia (22:44):
And so the other argument I make is that, you know, in this idiom, you know, the lover divided for the, from the beloved, or the human divided from the divine. It’s, it’s always about, uh, itself divided, right? A divided self. And I think, you know, in so far as partition was trying to create, you know, Indians as very separate from Pakistanis, and these are two distinct identities, I think even today we can say that that is kind of a failed project in that instead you have people who even today, even the descendants of those who came, uh, who lived through partition, have a much more divided of self. You know, Pakistanis who still feel an attachment to India, and vice versa. Right? Indians who still talk about Lahore, right? As if it’s theirs, right? So I think it’s just a different understanding of selfhood.

Soniya Gokhale (23:30):
And, you know, I, my last question for you is rather broad. But what can we learn from this history? I mean, I know you’ve stated in a previous interview, partition is not a solution for allegedly intractable conflict between communities. And I just wanted to hear you expand on that just a bit more.

Priya Satia (23:50):
Sure. Yes, it’s interesting to see how often partition is still proposed as a kind of solution in areas that are facing some kind of, you know, violence between communities that are identifying different, you know, whether it’s in Syria or Israel, Palestine or the Sudan. Or, you know, all around. Even c- you can even think of, uh, Brexit or the Scottish Referendum this way. But, you know, as you can see in the case of India, or Ireland, or, you know, Korea, or even, you know, the old partition of Germany, right?

Priya Satia (24:20):
That partition didn’t actually ever solve anything. Like India and Pakistan have had so many wars. It, it’s is a nuclear armed zone. The [Koshneer 00:24:29] situation is still unresolved. Minorities on both sides still feel so vulnerable. Are still scapegoated and manipulated, and so on. And so I think it doesn’t s- actually solve anything. And we have to get away from this way of trying to fix a difficult situations, and instead try different, uh, tactics. And I think the idea that, okay, you have to sometimes tolerate things like partition with all the violence they entail as a kind of necessary evil to get to something better. That is a, a very, very false narrative. Because you don’t ever get to somewhere very much better.

Priya Satia (25:05):
And it’s, it’s just ethically very dubious to make that argument. It’s very instrumental. Like saying it’s, it’s basically saying the ends justify the means, right? That’s the kind of ethics that we agree with. I mean, you know, a, a lot of the anti-colonial thinkers in this period that I’ve just mentioned like Gandhi for instance, like someone like Faiz Ahmad Faiz too. Even like Iqbal, they would not condone that ethics. Right? They would say, “We’re accountable in the present. You can’t justify an evil by saying in the future something good will come.” You always have to be accountable in the present, and find some other way of creating connection, and overcoming that sense of conflict, you know, whatever is the cause of the conflict. It sounds corny, but it’s really, (laughs), as simple as-

Soniya Gokhale (25:51):
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Priya Satia (25:52):
… prioritizing love and connection, and partnership, and networks of sisterhood and brotherhood, and things like that. The, those values are real values, and they really do matter. Um, and should be cultivated. And there should be things like transitional justice to, and reparative justice to create healing so that these, these wounds don’t go on creating fresh wounds all the time, the way, you know, you see in South Asia.

Soniya Gokhale (26:17):
Wow. Thank you so much for that response. And we can not thank you enough for joining us today, Priya.

Priya Satia (26:25):
Oh, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for your interest and for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (26:29):
Thank you.



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