Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Nair, Neeti. Changing Homeland: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Harvard University Press 2011, pp 1- 343

by Sohini Majumdar

In this book, Neeti Nair questions the teleological assumptions about the inevitability of partition that mark a dominant mode of historical thinking, focuses on the diverse choices that the people of Punjab made at different political conjunctions. She argues that partition was not the only option that the people of Punjab opted for. Rejecting the binary of communalism and anti- colonial nationalism in historicizing the colonial encounter and partition Nair questioned the monochromatic and rigid ideological categorization. She argues that the historiography of partition have tended to view partition as a logical culmination of a process of communalism where the monolithic Hindu and Muslim community was posited against each other. Interrogating this widely accepted view, she focuses on the ‘reality’ of the conflicting and intersecting identities that came to dominate the various decisions the people of Punjab took at various historical conjunctures (p 29). Thus her focus is on the complexity and contradictions that mark the various interplay of multiple loyalties, identities, imaginings of the nation and community as well as the various sites of conflicts and negotiations at shared political spaces marking the shifts in the political conundrum which defies any linear movement from an anti colonial nationalism to that of communalism in the body politic and body civic. Referential here is Joya Chatterji’s Bengal divided : Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932- 1947, Cambridge University press, 1995, which contrary to Nair de recognition of linear progression, focuses on the parochial interest of the Bengali Bhadralok classes whose inward looking politics to dominate the Bengal politics turned them from nationalists to communalists, their politics eventually leading to the partition.

Nair opines that the option of negotiation was always sought at when Punjab navigated among various options and opinion. But, it was these missed out chances for political accommodation which caused the partition. She focuses on the political rhetoric of the Hindus being a minority in Punjab while being a majority in India. She argues that it was the colonial context that created the categories of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ which gained consequences when applied in the administrative structure (p31). Hence, it was colonial logic that lent credence to communal identity whence the British out of the multiple political identities emphasized the identity of belonging to a religious community (p31). Thus, it was the Punjab politicians who in view of safeguarding their minority interests played out in the political platform, exhibiting a diverse range of responses and choices from loyalty to anti colonial nationalism. In the process, they sometimes aligned with their co religionist in the wider nation while at other instances they sought negotiations with the other religious communities at the provincial level. And it in these diverse and twisted responses that Nair offers fresh interpretations of Punjab’s relationship with the national movement.

Nair states that the political history is complex enough to fit into clean categorizations and she questions the taxonomies of loyalist, communalist, or secularist. By focusing on the communitarian relations in Punjab, she focuses how the meaning of communalism changed according to the context. She argues this by citing the various choices the Punjabi Hindus exhibited, that deluded these clean categorizations. From a revisionist perspective, she reviews the position of Swami Shraddhanand a proclaimed Hindu communalist and a propagator of Arya Samaj who provided leadership to the anti-Rowlatt Act movement while preaching Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity even as he became involved in shuddhi and sangathan in post Rowlatt days. Similarly, she focuses on the shifting politics of Lala Lajpat Rai who faced dilemma of imaging India that equated it with Hindus and a notion that prided the national over the communal. Another fresh interpretation she offers is the reading of the non violent politics of Bhagat Singh over the issue of treating the ‘political prisoner’ which offered a scope of uniting the divided elements of Punjab politics but failed to win over Gandhi who is fairly criticized for his failure to acknowledge Singh’s ideological affinity to himself while continuing to refer to Singh’s violent past. But though Nair is successful in portraying the attitude of Punjabi Hindu elites, her book precludes any analysis of the ‘subalterns’ domain of politics.

Nair questions the monolithic frame that denigrates all kind of violence as ‘genocide’. She states that there were particular context, temporal or spatial, for every instance of violence that defies the generalizing framework. Her effort is to understand the nuances to focus on the contextual and situational aspect of violence rather than clean categorizations. The partition violence that engulfed Punjab was accompanied with a sense of disbelief. There was battle for space, with neighbours turning against neighbours with the breakdown of social equations. But this was no undifferentiated picture of communal violence. People of one religious community continued to help those of others while continuing to live their closed knit community. Such instances, Nair claimed, upset the ‘master narratives of “communal violence” (p197). There was no distinction between the perpetrators and the victims. But it was this ‘unplanned’ violence that represented the crumbling of an old order with the abdication of responsibility of minorities at both side of the border (p218). And it was this which turned the minorities into the new categories of ‘refugees’ in the context.

Conducting oral interviews of Delhi based migrants she focuses on their memories which was marked with a sense of confusion as they changed homelands. There was absence of any anticipation of uprooting among them. She portrays the various strands of understanding and attitudes towards the Muslims that marked the migrants’ sentiment which remained ambivalent there while it was clearly represented in the secular traumas. The experiences of partition are explained in the migrants’ terms and language. She argues that their experience of partition was less accompanied by sense of trauma and loss, stereotype in partition literature, since they fared well as they shifted to Delhi. Their questioning of these myths bring fresh insight to secular notions which are relevant for understanding religious differences which engulf modern South Asia.

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