Partition, Can It Be
Undone? by Lal Khan;
London, 2001; The
Lahore, 2003; and Aakar
Books, Delhi, 2007; pp
225, Rs 450.
Times are changing. Once again political accounts on the "Great Partition" are coming out. By political accounts one means accounts of struggles, conflicts, bloodshed, betrayals, hopes and resurgence of efforts. Because that is the route through which the political subject emerges and resurfaces. The phrase is meant to express the act of deciphering the wars that go on underneath the social relations, the battle hymns that characterise the forces at war with each other, the class struggles that go on undiminished, unrequited, and the deaths and dialogues (the two extreme forms of political acts) that mark the events of calamity, crisis, and their resolution. We are, it seems, finally at the end of the 15 to 20 years long dreary period of boring narratives of whatever passes on as memory and sentiment.
Comrade Lal Khan's account of Partition is welcome however, not only for this reason, but primarily because it thinks the unthinkable, "can Partition be undone?". Comrade Khan, a political activist in Pakistan and a student and party organiser, who uses his nom de guerre to write this book, links his own reasoning of how the event of Partition finally happened with his other main argument of how finally we can get over the event. In other words, he writes as to how finally we shall undo Partition. On this point, comrade Khan remains consistent. He cannot be accused of invoking dialectics to suit a reason of convenience. He narrates the communist viewpoint in a rigorous manner, namely, from a class viewpoint. Thus he argues that class struggles were rising in the colony throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and constituted the national question as a social question as well.
The national revolution called for a social revolution, and social revolution needed the expulsion of the imperial bourgeoisie and the defeat or the marginalisation of the comprador national bourgeoisie. In the same vein Khan argues that with south Asia still remaining in some sense an un-partitioned region with myriad ties, radicalisation and social revolution in one country will immensely influence the other countries of the region. And thus the forces that were responsible for bringing in Partition will have to be defeated to undo Partition.
Old Thesis on Partition
In a sense the old communist thesis on Partition had always a solid core of truth in it. That thesis had combined elements of history with a sense of crisis, of the impending great moment, of the catastrophe brought about by rising mass fury unaccompanied by any strong political leadership ready to lead a revolutionary change, bourgeois betrayal, and the colonial plan to stymie decolonisation by engineering genocide. In this post-Foucault world we have of course come to accept that words such as "crisis", "revolution" and "extraordinarily rapid changes" are only illusions. Lal Khan's account reminds us of some of the old writings of Ajit Roy, whose columns had adorned this journal, older writings of M N Roy, of not so old writings of Charu Mazumdar, and other writings whose authors would not like to be reminded of their authorship in their lifetime.
One may add that the bourgeois nature of decolonisation was evident not only in bringing back the old religious wars in the middle part of the 20th century but can also ask in parenthesis, if the bourgeoisie ever got over the religious wars of early modern Europe. This was reflected more in their programmes of reconstruction - in both India and Pakistan. In the former the constituent assembly was the platform to build up the bourgeois republic, in Pakistan the armed forces had to be called in by the political class to maintain the rule of property.
Yet, the significance of comrade Khan's effort is not so much in reminding the readers of the presence of class politics in that great infamy called the Partition, but in asking the un-askable, namely the question, "can Partition be undone?" and linking class politics to that question. Like the agenda of independence, the question of undoing Partition is like a manifesto, a charter, a strong rhetoric, and therefore dangerous to the parties of stability and order. Let us see what comrade Lal Khan has to say on this, and then we can see what thoughts we are further led to.
The Need to ‘Undo'
Why has Partition got to be undone? Why can we not say that let us forget and forgive, reconcile to our two separate existences, and take our own paths? The two countries have tried that. But the existence of the continuing wounds, comrade Khan says, is a convincing argument for setting up such an agenda of undoing Partition, because with the end of Partition, the Kashmir question can be resolved, the weight of the security-bureaucratic machine in both the countries be reduced drastically, and true secularism, socialism, and democracy can be established.
Where Did We Fail?
Khan reminds us of the world's largest concentration of poverty in this region, the existence of fundamentalist lobbies in all the three successor countries, failure of liberal reformers in reining the fundamentalists, jingoists, and security lobbies, and the remorseless assault of capitalist globalisation on all the three countries to which the rulers in this region have no answer. And, thus, Lal Khan suggests, the infamy of Partition continues. The sovereignties originating from partitioned independence are not popular. They have not protected the workers and peasants. And for our continued failures we can go back again and again to the infamous event, and ask ourselves: where did we fail? Or, for instance, why did the communists fail to understand what was coming and why did they vote for Partition? Or, why could the nation not discover its own mix of national and the social? Was the fault in too much reliance on the Congress, also later on the League, or having a sectarian attitude to the Indian National Congress, and later the Indian socialists such as Lohia, Patwardhan, and Jay Prakash Narayan? Or, was the Indian National Congress a party of order and the bourgeoisie, or a national platform for independence? Unanswered as these questions remained, we may say as Mirza Asadullah Ghalib wrote in the aftermath of the massacres of Indians in 1857:
Whom should I tell that the night of sorrow is a terrible affliction. For me it is no tragedy to die. So long it were only once.
But then the hours of a long night also change. And here is where it is necessary to make a few points to comrade Lal Khan. Times have changed, hours change, and thus in undoing Partition we cannot go back to the pre-Partition days. We cannot return, we can only return, make another, perhaps new, turn. Comrade Khan also suggests such a line of inquiry in the last chapter, but the line of inquiry is not clear. With adherence to the old juridical-political theory of sovereignty, can Partition be undone? Those geographies of power are lost, and there is no point in trying to retrieve them. In this new world of autonomies emerging, new realities of labour in flux, contentious democracy, transformation, and the rise of the political subject claiming the autonomy of politics, we have to head towards not a pre-Partition future, but a post-Partition future, where shared sovereignty will have resolved the impasse caused by the rupture of the link between the national and the social.
Needed: A Manifesto
This, as has been indicated above, is an agenda, a manifesto, and thus will call for some rhetorical device also. In other words, it will go beyond analysis and proceed towards acts, it will assume the form in which analysis, campaign, audience, and authorship will be merged in one another as in a manifesto. Such a merger takes place, and will require posing questions whose solutions are suggested by the posing itself, as the ancient art of rhetoric had taught us.
Lal Khan's ideas find echo in several writings in Bangladesh, Pakistan, also thankfully in India. They need to be worked out much more, which I am sure will take place as dissatisfaction with the sovereignties increases in all the three countries. I have no doubt that the climate for asking for the undoing with the infamy will become more favourable in the years to come. The experience of the enthusiasm with which politically minded south Asians responded to the formation of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy is an assuring factor. But are the official communists listening to all these?
The book can be ordered from Wellred.