India and Pakistan: 70 degrees of separation


INDIA and Pakistan have been celebrating their Independence from the British and separation 70 years ago. Farewells are never easy; the stronger and older the bonds the more painful is the separation. Not surprisingly, the Partition had been so overwhelming in its nature and impact that it took generations to recover from it. In many ways, the two nations are still living it. The bitterness still lingers on in their engagement and the daily skirmishes along the border and perpetual war of words.

Over the years, a great deal has been written to make sense of the chaos and trauma. From Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Qurratulain Haider’s Aag Ka Darya, a whole new genre came into being to chronicle history’s greatest migration. The unprecedented carnage and stories of betrayal and human depravity as well as heroism also gave birth to powerful poetry in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. The inimitable Faiz wrote in Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Freedom):

Yeh daagh daagh ujaala, yeh shab gazeeda seher

Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin

(This stained, pitted first-light,

this day-break, battered by night,

This dawn that we all ached for,

this is not that one)

But all said and done no words can perhaps ever capture the trauma of those who lost their loved ones, over and above the pain of fleeing their homes and the land of their birth overnight.

According to conservative estimates, the communal violence on claimed at least 2 million lives.

Millions of families were torn apart, mirroring the great divide between the two nations and communities. Doubtless, the greatest casualty of the Partition had been the historical relations between the Hindus and Muslims. Close friends became strangers and bloodthirsty enemies overnight.

The schism survives and festers to this day. The perpetual bickering the neighbors over Kashmir and other assorted issues and the recent rise of extremism on both sides have been only adding fuel to the fire.

All this could have perhaps been avoided if the British had not been so atrociously ham-handed and clumsy in their final transfer of power and division of the subcontinent. The whole thing had been handled so crudely that it prompted many to wonder if there had been a deliberate method in the madness.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had been assigned the unenviable task of redrawing the map, had never been to India, let alone understanding its historical and geopolitical complexities. He had exactly five weeks to do his job. No wonder he just drew a line across the map, literally, condemning millions to a fate they had little say in choosing.

W H Auden captured Radcliffe’s predicament in his 1966 poem, Partition:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate

Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

For better or worse, indeed. Interestingly, both the Indians and Pakistanis to this day accuse the departing empire of being biased in favor of the other side.

While in India the Raj is seen as the sole architect of the Partition and thus the creator of Pakistan, most Pakistanis view the British as having been soft on India.

In their unseemly haste to leave, the British messed up the whole rites of passage, plunging the subcontinent into never before witnessed chaos, forcing many to question the whole logic and wisdom behind the division.

Ruing the staggering loss of life on both sides, Pakistani columnist Mahir Ali wonders if the leaders who sat down with the last viceroy on June 3, 1947 to agree on the split would have proceeded with their compromise had they any inkling of the holocaust that would ensue:

“Nehru and Jinnah were very different personalities, yet they also had much in common — and neither of them was an enthusiast for genocide. Foreknowledge of the bloodbath that lay ahead would have concentrated their minds, possibly persuading them to revisit the options that had been available just a year earlier.”

The holocaust might have perhaps been averted if the two sides had demonstrated greater foresight and forbearance with each other. But then history is full of such ‘ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’. On the other hand, following the rise of Hindutva, many in Pakistan have been thanking their founder for earning them a separate homeland albeit at a huge cost.

Whatever the historical causes, the Partition is a reality today and the sooner India and Pakistan accepted it the better for everyone.

What is perhaps even more tragic than the tragedy itself is the path of perpetual confrontation that the two countries have followed since their split.

Imagine the difference India and Pakistan could make in their people’s lives by bringing down political temperatures and living less dangerously. The billions of precious dollars that are being spent on expensive, outlandish arms could transform hundreds of millions of lives in a region that is compared to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of poverty and backwardness.

The only people to benefit from their constant hostilities, apart from the manufacturers of arms in the West, are the militaries and militants on both sides.

Even as they remain handcuffed to history, in Rushdie’s words, the neighbors have refused to draw any lessons from the past. Defying the strong bonds of culture, food, sports, language and much else that bind them, they remain the prisoners of their past.

Across the world, countries that share far less and have fought bloodiest of wars have benefited by reconciling with their past and looking to the future. Look at Europe, the battlefield of history’s most catastrophic wars, which has emerged as a great economic power in no time by doing away with borders and walls.

Look at Southeast Asia or the miracle of ASEAN, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have emerged as powerful economies by accepting each other and working together. India and Pakistan, and other countries in the region for that matter, can achieve even more, given their rich pool of human resources. The question is, are they willing to? Will India and Pakistan ever let go of the past? Will they ever grow up?

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and writer. Email: