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The Poetry of Tragedy

August 15th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the independence and partition of India. Most Americans know little about Indian history and the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. If you only know the movie Gandhi, then you will believe that the British and indigenous peoples (Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim) shared common liberal values (i.e., a secular state based on popular sovereignty and individual freedoms). But liberalism, a European invention, did not dominate Indian politics.

Before the independence of India, there had never been a unified Indian “nation.” What we call India was a collection of states and districts that eventually came under the direct control of the British Crown. At the time of partition, there were approximately 1600 different dialects spoken on the Indian subcontinent, in other words, 1600 different ethnic identities. The idea of a unified liberal state, championed by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, was a Western invention.

Islam entered the Indian subcontinent beginning in the 8th century. The tragedy of Indian history is that Islam, with its insistence on the one-ness of God, is antithetical to the dominant religion of India, Hinduism, with its multitude of Deities. This antipathy led to conflict and violence between followers of the two religions.

When India came under the rule of the British, religious tensions faded to the background, but conflicts remained. The Sepoy rebellion of 1857, which eventually led to direct British rule, was sparked by resentment of Indian Hindu and Muslim soldiers (Sepoys) against the British use of either pork of beef fat in its ammunition. When the country moved toward independence in the 20th century its major proponent was an alliance of Hindus in the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi and Muslims in the Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

It was Gandhi’s goal to unite all of India into one new liberal state. But when the prospect of independence became real after World War II, the old animosities between Muslims and Hindus resurfaced. Fearing persecution, Jinnah insisted on a separate Muslim nation. The British eventually conceded to allow the creation of two states: India, with a majority of Hindus and Sikhs, and Pakistan, with a majority of Muslims. The plan was hastily drawn up and the border (the Radcliffe line) defined just five days before independence.

The problem with the line was that, while it was true that there were a majority of Muslims in the area designated Pakistan and a majority of Hindus and Sikhs in the area designated India, there were Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims in every district of the subcontinent. Fearing discrimination by the majority, religious minorities in both regions were displaced, seeking homes in the country dominated by their religion. The resulting suffering during the mass migration of millions led to mob violence and brutal attacks on both sides. An estimated million people died.

And what was gained? Take a step back in your mind and marvel that millions of people suffered and many died trying to cross an imaginary line because of fear and mistrust based on ideological differences. All of this suffering was created out of fabricated disunity, and all of it could have been avoided by political leaders recognizing the “other” as neighbor.

History does not repeat itself. But it does rhyme. And here we sit in the United States in 2017 tapping our feet to the rhythm of this tragic ode.

Indian Independence Day: everything you need to know about Partition between India and Pakistan 70 years on

70 years ago, Partition came into effect, dividing British India into two new, independent countries: India and Pakistan. At midnight on August 14 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, gave a famous speech which hailed the country’s decades-long, non-violent campaign against British rule: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

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