What if...? Independence Day issue of Outlook

This week's issue of Outlook India is dedicated to "what if x didn't happen?" columns by various well-known writers. If taken literally, exercises in counterfactual history are always dead-ends -- the only history we can reason with is the one that happened. But in this case, the various speculative essays offer a good opportunity to look again at various key historical events in post-Independence Indian history.

The first one I go to, naturally, is Amitava Kumar, who is asking "What if the Partition didn't happen?"

We would not then have had our literature of the riots. Saadat Hasan Manto would’ve remained an obscure, alcoholic scriptwriter who wouldn’t create Toba Tek Singh, who doesn’t know whether he belongs in India or Pakistan. Ritwik Ghatak might still have made masterpieces like Meghe Dhaka Tara but there would not ever be in such films the bitterness of uprooting and loss. No matter. Nothing that Manto or Ghatak did—and not a single sentence penned by Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, Jibanananda Das, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Intizar Husain, and others—can console us for the terrible brutality that became the benchmark for all the violence that we have unleashed on each other since then as a free people.

I agree with Amitava here, and I add some links for readers who may be unfamiliar with the names he rattles off so suggestively.

I also went, again perhaps unsurprisingly, to the piece by Mark Tully ("What if there was no Operation Bluestar?"). The key paragraph in the essay is this one:

So even if there had been no Operation Bluestar, it’s difficult to see how Indira Gandhi could have avoided putting her life at risk. But putting her life at risk didn’t necessarily mean she would have been killed. If she had not ignored the advice to remove all Sikhs from her bodyguards or if her assassins’ plot had been foiled, Indira Gandhi would not have died on October 31, 1984. India’s immediate history would then have been very different. The massacre of Sikhs that followed her assassination would not have occurred. But what about the longer term? What about India now, would it be very different? I am not so sure. At the time many prophesied that Bluestar and those massacres would achieve Bhindranwale’s ambition of driving a permanent wedge between Sikhs and Hindus. They have not. There were plenty of Cassandras who prophesied that after Indira no one else would be able to hold India together. They too have proved false prophets.

He is probably right here. Even if Indira Gandhi had taken alternative measures to respond to Bhindranwale (and assuming she took some measures), it's unlikely that things would have come out much differently than they have.

Finally, I liked Arvind Rajagopal's "What if Doordarshan [India's state TV channel] hadn't telecast the Ramayana?" This telecast, which occurred in 1987, was an earth-shaking event in Indian mass-culture. It strengthened the convictions of the leaders of the Hindu right that India was ripe for a new religious movement, and definitely softened the earth a little more for the Ramjanambhoomi [Ram's birthplace/Ayodhya] movement. But Rajagopal, as a film and TV critic, is right to object that TV popularity does not in itself constitute a mass movement:

There’s existed for some time an illusion that ‘Hinduism’ could unite people, that it could bring an ancient civilisation together again, make it great once more. The Ramayan’s extraordinary appeal helped move this illusion out of RSS shakhas and ivory tower discussions, and translate it into a set of campaign tactics. The temporary success of those tactics was read, by the advocates of political Hinduism, as confirming the truth of their philosophy.

A technological phenomenon was mistaken for a political one. An audience congregating around TV sets at home is not a movement. A broadcast is conceived as one-way communication; politics by contrast, is two-way communication, a dialogue leading to collective change. The Ramayan broadcast could have been treated like a dialogue, but was simply treated as proof of India’s Hindu identity. Were audiences saying something the BJP did not want to hear? Few people saw Hindu pride as the chief message. For audiences, Ram rajya was a message of democracy and equality, contrasted with the inhumanity and injustice they saw around them. Gandhi used the term Ram rajya in a similar way during the independence movement. But under the BJP, Ram rajya was reduced to a war against rakshasas.

I agree with this. Many media-oriented critics of Indian society often cite the TV Ramayana's popularity that India is a hopelessly religious society. But popularity doesn't say anything about how people were interpreting what they saw. Moreover, it doesn't prove very much about political sentiments.

Rajagopal also makes an interesting point when he suggests that things might have been different if Doordarshan had chosen to broadcast the Mahabharata first, rather than the Ramayana. For the two are very different kinds of epics, with rather contradictory implications for Indian society:

The Mahabharat was screened after the Ramayan, to even bigger audiences. Its message, however, is very different. There are few rakshasas in the Mahabharat. Instead there is a Hindu joint family engaged in a ruinous civil war. Its characters are of a royal lineage, or have unparalleled qualities of strength or beauty. But each is ultimately alone. No identity, no religion or dynasty can save them. Each has to find the path of virtue, however difficult it may be. That is the lesson of this epic.


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Hello again. Briefly, on the essays in Outlook asking 'What If'. I've not read them all, just the ones about Partition.

I think both Kumar and Embree analyses rather naive. If India hadn't been partitioned in '47, I rather doubt India would have stayed that way for long. As Embree points out, the most likely form of govt. would have been a very loose federation, with provinces having the right to secede.

Given Muslim sentiment in the 1940's, I can easily imagine a later, even bloodier partition. And it wouldn't have been the last, I think. The re-organisation of Indian states along linguistic lines might well have led to yet more bloody partitions in Indian Punjab, the South etc.

Bloody as the 1947 partition was, India was likely spared even worse. Kumar and Embree imagine the best possible outcome if the '47 partition hadn't happened, but give no evidence that such an outcome would have been the most probable.


Rob Breymaier said...

I haven't read these yet...

The Muslim migration to the western portion of Pakistan was tremendous in size. We're all or most of these people from northwest India? Just curious. It could be that if the partition didn't happen that the diffusion of Muslims and Hindus (they could have lived in a larger space that included Pakistan) might have been enough to promote a more tolerant populace.

What I mean is that if all those Muslims hadn't felt it necessary to move to Pakistan and all the Hindus that left Pakistan didn't feel it necessary would we have had the same sort of attitudes.

From what I've read, before the Sepoy Revolt the division in India by religion was not that strong a force. It was the Brits who encouraged this as a means to hold on to power. That didn't happen until the mid 1800s. So over the course tens of thousands of years of history it had only been 100 years in which this policy was in place.

Of course, the policy must have been fairly well imprinted into the imaginations of South Asians because Jinnah and the Muslim League certainly felt Pakistan a necessity.

Just curiosity here.

electrostani said...

Brey, I think what Kumar is getting at is the evidence that -- for a variety of reasons -- any unified India would have likely been a very weak federation. The early history is probably less important, in my view, than what was happening in the 20 years or so prior to independence. The place to look is not British policies around the time of the Mutiny but rather the rise and fall of the Khilafat/Non-cooperation movement around 1920-21. By the 1930s, individual British policies had become less important than the political twists and turns within the various Indian nationalist political parties.

While loose federations sound nice in theory, in practice they don't work (how many functioning 'loose federations' are there in the world today? not many). Diverse populations generally only hold together under the banner of a state backed up by the authority of military power... The model of the cross-ethnic 'consociation' works pretty well in Switzerland, but not so much in Cyprus or in the Balkans. And these are relatively small places! It's difficult to imagine such an experiement on the scale of the Indian subcontinent, especially after the seed of separatism was planted.

I agree with Kumar's comment that seriously imagining an alternate, undivided India is basically a form of "timepass." But I did appreciate Amitava's musings on the South Asian writers who have addressed partition in their works(which is why I quoted that paragraph).

Rob Breymaier said...

Well, Canada and the US began as loose confederations. Canada still is a confederation - the provinces ideally have more power than the federal government.

And, isn't the supranational EU really a confederation?

Your probably right that the tensions would have been too great. But, maybe not. If partition didn't happen would Gandhi have been shot? If he hadn't been shot could India have had a similar civil rights movement for Muslims like the US had for people of color in the 60s? After all, it was Gandhi's model that inspired King.

Yes, I'm an incurable optimist.

Rob Breymaier said...

But, not the Tom Friedman type of incurable optimist.

Anonymous said...

Well, India is diverse enough as it is and it's held together pretty well, despite a few problems - notably Kashmir and the Northeast. India's democratic system has largely allowed Indian states to reconcile their regional identities with the national identity.

To be honest, the only way partition would have been avoided would have been if the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan were accepted. If that were the case, you'd have India as a loose confederation of 3 subfederations: A) Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir, NWFP, and Baluchistan; B) Most of what is now India; C) Bengal and Assam. Under those provisions, after 10 years, provinces were free to break off from the subfederations and form new groupings or stay sovereign within India.

That probably would have resulted today in a number of states, as the arbitrary groupings would have fallen apart. The result might well have been a revision in the constitution sometime in the 1970s creating a somewhat stronger central government. Again, a federation, but not a particularly loose one.

I think the biggest problems in an undivided India would have been Baluchistan and the NWFP. Neither is culturally really that connected with India and both would likely today be a center for Islamist political parties, which might have led to both a political power struggle and an insurgency.

Elsewhere, Punjab and Bengal might well have been split. Though I doubt either state would have left the Indian union, the sheer size of the states, combined with the demographic differences would have created a movement to divide both states into an east and western portion.