Author Pallavi Raghavan(Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Pallavi Raghavan(Courtesy HarperCollins)

Interview: Pallavi Raghavan, Author, Animosity at Bay: An Alternative History of the India-Pakistan Relationship

We will have a calmer relationship with our history if we understand that the past cannot be used to justify and perpetuate the grievances of the present
By Chintan Girish Modi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 09:44 PM IST

Often, even as India and Pakistan exchange lists of nuclear installations and hold talks about the Indus Water Treaty, ceasefire violations and retaliatory shelling continue along the Line of Control. This unsteady dynamic is a defining feature of bilateral ties between the nations. Historian, educator and author Pallavi Raghavan believes we will be able to have a calmer relationship with our history if we understand that the past cannot be used to justify and perpetuate the grievances of the present.

260pp, Rs 699; HarperCollins
260pp, Rs 699; HarperCollins

What makes you approach history through the lens of teaching for peaceful coexistence?
Looking at the very same history can provide us with ammunition to sustain antagonistic positions. It can also provide justifications for entirely different political narratives — ones that do not necessarily uphold exclusivist, majoritarian or identity-driven politics. It is vital to incorporate these into classrooms, particularly in places like South Asia where people wrestle with the past and the implications that it offers us today.

How were you able to write about Partition without anger or sentimentality, without being weighed down by all that has been said and written before?
While there’s a massive amount of writing on the present dynamics of the relationship, relatively little exists about the older history. The fact that this book comes across as new should also probably be seen simply in terms of a vacuum being filled. The whole point of working in a history department at a university is that you no longer have to be invested in any particular tradition of understanding the past. You can be equally free to explore all. If you are sitting and writing a PhD thesis in 2008, like I did, it also becomes easier to consider the actions of the different people in my story during the 1950s from a slightly removed angle.

Why did protecting the rights of religious minorities become one of the key issues that shaped India-Pakistan relations in the early years?
Many of the discussions amongst Muslim politicians, particularly from the United Provinces, had concerned themselves with the question of how a collective framework for minority rights — which was equally workable all across the subcontinent — could be thrashed out. The years after Partition, in some ways, saw the continuation of this conversation. Part of the reason that the states of India and Pakistan were created in the first place was to protect the interests of minorities who were ‘left behind’. There was a desire to create new states that would behave like a safeguard for their religious brethren even across the boundary line. In a way, talking through the religious minorities question was something that both states could do only after the Partition.

If the first five years of diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan were marked by a spirit of cordiality and cooperation, what went wrong later?
As things stand today, the India-Pakistan relationship seems to have gotten lost in a particularly horrible situation. For two countries, whose challenges are so peculiarly similar, and that have so much potential for a truly productive partnership, to be struck in a time warp of perpetuating hostility is a really sad reality of the outcomes of the dreams of 1947. However, the reasons that underpin this hostility aren’t new: indeed, they were evident from the first weeks that followed 1947 itself.
Conflict in Kashmir, a tendency towards majoritarianism, the merciless persecution of minorities — these were all realities of the post-Partition landscape as well. What was different were the intentions of the leadership. They also put in great efforts to explore the contours of possible settlements and solutions. It’s not that the problems are new but what has shifted is the emphasis that either leadership places on trying to resolve, or come to grips with, the processes of partitioning while also pursuing paths to stable statehood.

Why do numerous Indians have a hard time accepting the finality of the Partition as an administrative decision, and Pakistan as a sovereign country rather than an estranged sibling or prodigal son?
It seems to be symptomatic of an inability to come to terms with and swallow the fact of the Partition once and for all. The actors who were at the helm of affairs immediately after the Partition themselves tried so hard to put this into practice. Partition was not a process that happened just in South Asia because of the rank villainy of this or that actor but rather was a reasonably well-established strategy to inter-ethnic conflict in many parts of the world in the 20th century.
The question shouldn’t be “Why has Partition happened?” This strikes me as being one of the more futile areas of enquiry about the 1940s. “Now that it has happened, what are the best ways to move forward with this fact?” is the question that needs to be asked. The leadership can choose to take different paths, and pursue different kinds of relations with one another.

What makes several Pakistanis perceive India as a perpetual threat rather than a country with shared cultural heritage that is too diverse to be described merely as Hindu?
The use of a particular understanding of history is often the most valuable tool that different actors — political leaders, the media, bureaucrats —have when offering justifications of various positions taken with regard to the India-Pakistan relationship. It becomes important for professional historians to further open up understandings of the past, and to bring out facets that don’t easily adhere to the interpretations offered by the nation-state. I want to highlight how these justifications were often developed much after the fact of Partition. The Partition-era actors themselves often had far more pragmatic and solution-oriented approaches to India. We need to remember that the story of “othering” is just one of many different kinds of narratives that can be shaped around the subcontinent’s history.

How did growing up in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park neighbourhood around refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, influence your personal understanding of the Partition?
Chittaranjan Park is a world unto itself. It has got its own rules; its own self-appointed guardians of truth, virtue and honour. Scratch hard enough, and you’ll find that most middle class neighbourhoods in Delhi have a strong underlying story of Partition running through them. Many families have descended from refugees, and were allotted land or have purchased land on the basis of Partition-time agreements.
The Partition is very much a lived experience in Delhi — and many other South Asian cities like Calcutta, or Karachi, where discussions about who is an “insider” versus who is an “outsider” are had with politicized implications. All cities cutting right across the region have a bunch of people who complain about how a “new” set of people have arrived and have soaked up all the resources that they were previously entitled to. And there’s another set of people saying that they are entitled to the resources of rehabilitation offered by the state because of how they were deprived of their land during the Partition.
It is important to move beyond this and see how, almost 75 years down the line, there are no “victims” of Partition. Both these groups of people actually form highly influential, and often very exclusivist, political lobbies in their own right and have different kinds of constituents.

Interviewer Chintan Girish Modi
Interviewer Chintan Girish Modi

What can a book like yours offer readers who consume narratives of the past spun by politicians, religious leaders and digital influencers?
For all the complaints made about the “cottage industry” of Partition studies in South Asia, more academic books about Partition are probably a good tendency. In the din of the necessity to reach out to wider audiences that read popular history, and the inability of academics to do this, the equally pressing necessity of academic history writing can also be missed out.
It’s true that academic styles of history writing and interpretation suffer from all kinds of massive, systemic shortcomings and deep-rooted problems. At the same time, academics are amongst the few people who can really always push the envelope forward, and explore truly new ways of thinking about the past.
There is increasingly a more dispassionate assessment about the history of different actors in South Asia, and how much responsibility they bear for the outcomes of today. It’s a slower process but it does influence the “mainstream” thinking about history and society in the long term, and in ways that encourage people to consider the claims of those “wronged by history” and also its “victors” in equally dispassionate terms.

Could you share some memorable experiences in Pakistan?
One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher was to teach a course on the Shared History of South Asia to undergraduate students of India and Pakistan together. A colleague from Pakistan -- the well known historian, Ali Usman Qasmi -- and I had decided to explore the ways in which history is perceived by students on either side of the boundary, and how this is shaped by “statist objectives”. Teaching this course showed us that there were other equally viable and strong ways of conceptualizing historical narratives about the subcontinent, which were not only about the states of India and Pakistan. It became clear that the idea of India or Pakistan was just one of many different alternatives about how the territory of South Asia can be understood.
All this enabled us to see that the states of India and Pakistan actually have a pretty fragile and insecure hold on the history-making process of this region. It’s important to see how it’s equally possible for actors to contextualize themselves into different historical trajectories than the ones that lead up to the nation: for instance, these could be the region, or the language, or the caste. Understanding this dilutes the extent to which we have to give our allegiance to just one exclusivist identity. It turns out that you can be many things, not just one.

What can historians do to make sure that the knowledge they produce isn’t used to instigate hatred, revenge and violence?
In order to have a more deeply-rooted, and comfortable reconciling with one’s past, it’s important to see that the markers of identity that we use today aren’t final — they’re not the last word. People whom we think of as our ancestors played around with all kinds of different ways of defining themselves and their subsequent generations — with many good reasons that weren’t necessarily aimed at shaping the ideal citizens of India or Pakistan in the future. The more we can show that the past isn’t a place that can be used to justify and perpetuate the grievances of the present, the better we would be able to have a calmer relationship with our history.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.

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