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New Delhi: British historian Yasmin Khan said that while the Partition of the Subcontinent remains a traumatic experience for its victims and continues to poison relations between India and Pakistan and Hindus and Muslims, its toxicity is also due to several misconceptions that persist and not seen in a wider, contemporary perspective.

The Partition of the Subcontinent remains a traumatic experience for its victims as well as continues to poison relations between India and Pakistan and Hindus and Muslims but its toxicity is also due to several misconceptions that persist and not seeing it in a wider, contemporary perspective, says British historian Yasmin Khan.


“What information we have (about the Partition in 1947) is through family stories, cliches… but when you read the scholarship on it, there is a different view. Among the misconceptions is the conflating of the demand for Pakistan with the violence that was seen,” Khan, an associate professor of history at Oxford University, told reporters in an interview.

“The demand for Pakistan was not a call for a violent carnage… if you take the case of Muslims’ displacement only, it nearly wrecked the Pakistan project.”

“But both these issues have been linked, virtually fused together, thus making the demand offensive and upsetting with consequences that are well known.”

“Disentangling both (the demand for Pakistan and the violence that accompanied Partition) is difficult but important,” maintains Khan, whose debut work “The Great Partition – The Making of India and Pakistan” (2007) makes a compelling case that while there was both wide support – and opposition – to Partition, virtually no one had any understanding of what it would entail or what its results would be.

The author, who was in India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, also notes that the leaders on both sides were shocked by the level of violence and tried to take steps to curb it, but it is also important to remember that they were also human and faced many pressures and compulsions that prevented them from reaching any compromise solution, despite several opportunities. “The Cabinet Mission Plan (of 1945, recommending a loose confederation) was one,” she said.

Khan says it is also important that Partition should be seen in the “broader” international context of the late 1940s, as the Second World War had ended recently, most of the Europe was in ruins, with colonial powers themselves having sustained heavy damage and expenses and there were refugees all over Europe and Asia – as well as a large number of returning, demobilized soldiers.

This was the milieu in which moves towards decolonization were initiated, but colonial powers like Britain in the case of India were themselves weakened and in a hurry to transfer power, she said.

“The focus for the British government was rebuilding the country… setting up the British welfare state, and there was a strong inclination to reduce the Empire’s commitments and bring soldiers home,” said Khan.

The situation in Palestine, also ruled by the British and seeing similar tension between two religious communities, also had many “commonalities” with the situation in the subcontinent, she said.

In this context, she also notes that since there has been extensive literature and advanced scholarship on Partition, South Asian scholarship can lead the way for the understanding of more regions that underwent decolonization – with varying results and outcomes.

Khan, who has also written “The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War” (2015), an extensive account of the effect of the conflict on the Indian “home front” as the country faced a total war and its manifold demands, as well as the political implications – radicalization and growing communal divide including among the armed forces, also argues that war also had a major role in the Partition – as well as the violence.

“Partition would have not happened without the war.. the Congress leaders were in jail (following the Quit India protest in 1942) and the Muslim League made advances.”

“There was the free availability of arms, of the trained returning Indian soldiers, including those of the INA, specially in Punjab, while the British found it difficult to maintain peace because of divided loyalties of Indian troops and pressure to send British soldiers home,” she said. (Vikas Datta, IANS)


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