“The nation is a very novel idea, and imposing it on millions of people is hard work” | Joya Chatterji on south Asia in the 20th century
Joya Chatterji talks to Matt Elton about her book, Shadows at Noon, charting the tumultuous course of south Asia’s 20th-century, including the violence that followed the creation of three new countries after the withdrawal of the British empire, and the legacy of partition
Your book Shadows at Noon covers what you describe as “the South Asian 20th century”. What do you mean by that term?
I focus on the area ruled by the former British Raj, formally or informally. I think of there being a kind of united south Asia in which glimmers of the British empire (and the social structures that predated it) could still be made out throughout the latter half of the 20th century – long after the British themselves had left.
I’m also keen to push back against the idea that the history of India, Pakistan or Bangladesh can be understood independently of that of the others. They’re too intertwined. It just wasn’t the case that they were all somehow born entirely anew after the partition in 1947 or 1971. In trying to understand the processes by which they were fashioned, and the effort that was put into trying to create new nations and new citizens so apparently different from each other, we can also see much about the parallels and the commonalities.
One of the landmark political moments in this history is the 1947 Partition of India. Do you think that it is misunderstood outside south Asia?
The level of ignorance is quite astonishing – even in Britain, where you might expect a greater awareness because of its close involvement in the event, not least by British prime minister Clement Attlee and [last Viceroy of India] Lord Louis Mountbatten. Of course, that’s partly because many partition migrants haven’t told their stories, so we’re missing out on a fully layered version of what happened – although this has begun to change.
What do you mean when you write that Pakistan was formed almost entirely by refugees?
Muhammad Ali Jinnah [Pakistan’s founder and first head of state] was a refugee, as was Liaquat Ali Khan, his right-hand man and Pakistan’s first prime minister. In fact, the core leadership of the Muslim League [the Indian political party campaigning for Muslim interests in the first half of the 20th century] all came from the United Provinces – roughly the region encompassed by the modern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
So these men, who had such an influence on the creation of Muslim Pakistan, came from this north Indian cultural and literary world. They had a certain idea of how to write, how to comport themselves, and how to carry themselves. They knew Shakespeare and Yeats, and [Indian poets] Mirza Ghalib and Altaf Hussain Hali, and were part of a group dense with culture and education.
They quite naturally and seamlessly moved into positions of leadership, and regarded the people of the regions that become Pakistan as a bit earthy, a bit ‘less’ than they were – they were kind of snooty about them. So there was always a tension between the Urdu-speaking elite, who began to control the new Pakistan’s bureaucracy and many private businesses, and provincial political leaders who asked: “Who the hell are you? We’ve been here long before you were.”
Pakistan has a very tense origin story. In India, though, the refugee influx did not have quite the same effect because, even though refugee numbers were pretty much the same across the Punjab, what remained of India after partition was so much larger and could therefore more easily absorb all those refugees into the state.
Having said that, signs of those divisions and tensions are still evident in India today. In Delhi I live next to an urban village, created when people were squeezed out of areas that were formerly agrarian communities; new refugee settlements had cropped up where they had once farmed. Delhi is a prime refugee city: its language has become Punjabi, even though the school syllabus is in Hindi. We Dilli-wallas [people of Delhi] all understand Punjabi, because that was the language of the refugees.
You write that, following partition, people in the new nations had sky-high expectations of their new freedoms. Was there a real sense that this was a time of new opportunity?
Absolutely. There were many disparate nationalist movements across south Asia during the early decades of the 20th century – violent, non-violent, religiously inclined, secular – but each one had a utopian element, and a belief that, after independence, everything was going to be just fine for everyone. But when the new states were born, there were absolutely catastrophic conditions.
Living through the partition aggravated an already serious problem of poverty because it divided the surplus-food-growing regions, which went to Pakistan, from the rest of India. This deprived Pakistani peasants (as they suddenly had become) of their markets, and Indian consumers of their main staples, wheat and rice.
The length and depth of the nationalist tradition meant that the resulting pressure on the political system was enormous. People had really felt that something new was going to be born, that some wonderful dawn was going to break – but of course nothing of the sort ever transpired. All that happened was that one flag came down and another went up. The resulting disillusionment with the state has become a big factor in the emergence of what we could term the politicised public and cynicism towards the state.
One of your key arguments is that, despite multi-generational efforts to make inhabitants of these new states feel different from their neighbours, they are more alike than is sometimes allowed for. Can you expand on that?
The discourse surrounding the enmity between these states is strong, as is the idea that their fundaments could not be more different – particularly during the years of Nehruvianism [the postcolonial vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister 1947–64]. There was a common view among Indians at that time that Indians were secular, and embraced unity and diversity, whereas Pakistan was a religious state.
In many ways, that was nonsense: early Pakistan was rather liberal and, before the 1971 partition that created Bangladesh, had a much larger minority non-Muslim population that it had undertaken to protect. But people in India were fed those stories so often and in so many ways that they largely didn’t challenge them. Of course, many people in each country came from ‘the other side’, and remembered people who still lived there.
Until their dying day, a refugee might not understand why they suddenly needed a visa to travel to what they regarded as their home. Their personal identity no longer matched with where they were allowed to live. So this is in many ways a very complicated, tragic story.
To what extent were the events of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh inevitable because of the way Pakistan had been formed in 1947?
I don’t think that anything in history is inevitable. I certainly don’t think that what happened in 1947 was inevitable. The lines that Cyril Radcliffe [the British lawyer who headed the boundary committees tasked with determining the new borders] drew up to divide India and Pakistan, for instance, were peculiar in themselves. Nobody could have predicted the form that Bangladesh [whose border with India is still marked by Radcliffe’s lines] took, nor its size, nor the fact that it would dominate the population of post-partition Pakistan.
But once the cookie started crumbling that way, there was always going to be a problem. The result of partition was that one region of Pakistan [East] spoke a different language – Bengali – from the other, and had a large Hindu minority, plus a weak, porous border with India. It also had a strange relationship with the Muslim League and its Urdu-speaking elite. There was an incursion of Urdu-speaking people into East Pakistan, taking a lot of the plum jobs in the administration, so there was a degree of tension from the start. Some steps were taken to alleviate it, but I think it was always too little, too late.
Nobody could have predicted the form that Bangladesh took, nor its size, nor the fact that it would dominate the population of post-partition Pakistan. But once the cookie started crumbling that way, there was always going to be a problem
I’m Bengali, so perhaps I’m seeing it too much from the Bangladeshi point of view. But it seems to me that there was a kind of wilful blindness in the administration, unable to acknowledge this majority and the need to respect it, so a day of reckoning was always going to come – and when it did, it came in rivers of blood. I didn’t write about the civil war in the book, because it was so ghastly that I just didn’t have the words to describe it. Pretty much every household in Bangladesh suffered death, lost land to looting, and so on. It was a total war on society, by armed forces run amok – just unbelievably brutal.
After the creation of Bangladesh, a second genocide took place, this time against people who did not speak Bengali. They were described, inaccurately, as ‘Urdu-speakers’. Every wave of nation-making has generated a rise of hatred for ‘the enemy within’; in this respect, Bangladesh was no exception. But in other respects it has followed its own path, particularly on ‘development’.
After the disastrous famine of 1974–75, and the assassination in 1975 of the first prime minister, Mujibur Rahman, non-government organisations [NGOs] took the lead in developing Bangladeshi society from below. These groups, unlike the planners across the border, don’t hector the poor about what is best for them, and they don’t treat citizens as children. They work instead with village-dwellers who have their own ideas about what might help. So my suggestion is that the history of Bangladesh is not (or not only) that of its warring parties.
You argue that understanding why states fail to control people is crucial to understanding the history of the state in south Asia, in both the colonial and post-colonial period. Why?
The south Asian state has, historically speaking, controlled some people with spectacular cruelty some of the time, and completely failed to manage people at other times. Those choices are interesting. The state, generally speaking, has turned a blind eye to social crimes. It has not attempted to control what happens in the family or in the household, turning a blind eye to men killing or beating their female relatives, or to conditions of bondage or ‘gentle slavery’.
The reasons for this were essentially the same during and after colonialism: first, that the state has never had the capacity to tackle the problem, and second, because it is afraid of intruding into dimensions seen as being dictated by religious belief, or local systems of control. So whole aspects of social crime and oppression are seen as the domain of local patriarchs and powerful landowners, rather than central government.
What the state is interested in is any potential challenge to the state itself – then it comes down really hard. Insurgency, wherever it has taken place, has been crushed with as much force as possible. In many ways, the authorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have used the same baton as the British empire – though in many cases even more violently.
You also take a wider, thematic look at South Asia’s past, and one of those themes is food. Why did you focus on that?
I chose it because hunger – actually, not just hunger, but starvation – was a potent cause of anti-British sentiment from the late 19th century onward. The famines of the late Victorian era represented the common ground between every nationalist project: everyone believed that sorting out the issue of food was an incredibly important priority.
The immediate cause of those famines was usually drought caused by inadequate or untimely rainfall. But the wider cause was over-taxation of the peasantry, and a tax burden that left them no capacity to save in a good year and no means for surviving in years of drought. Famine was widespread but, in the era the book looks at, it fell particularly hard on southern, central and western India. A modest estimate is that some 15 million people died in consequence of a spate of famines between 1886 and 1900.
This precariousness of life, the loaded meanings of food, and the many inequities – within society and family – in the doling out of such food, made this a necessary topic in a book of this sort. But I also wanted to look at food in terms of its relationship with caste, which is a subject you have to explore if you want to write about south Asia. It’s striking that the main demands of south Asian people on both sides of the new borders were bread, clothing and a hut. Those were their basic expectations – and, in the main, they got none of them.
So I wanted to trace the history behind why food became such a charged issue, and to illuminate the complicated system of ideas around it. In south Asia, food is not just food, but is tied into a tightly woven network of belonging, status pride and revulsion. Finally, I wanted to push back against the widespread oversimplification of the subject. There’s no such thing as an ‘Indian diet’, for instance.
Famine was widespread but it fell particularly hard on southern, central and western India. A modest estimate is that some 15 million people died in consequence of a spate of famines between 1886 and 1900
The processes of modernity and globalisation make everyone all around the world eat in more diverse ways but, even historically speaking, people in India ate a diverse array of food according to what was available in their environment. So there were lots of concepts surrounding food that I wanted to take apart, because if you don’t understand the topic, you can’t understand why south Asia today is still so peculiar about food, or why there is so much waste in a land of hungry people.
Food is a key marker of caste, you see. ‘Interdining’ groups – made up of people from the same caste, or sub-caste, of which there are thousands – believe themselves to share status, and in most cases that they are better than those ‘beneath’ them. Upward mobility is registered through adopting new ‘higher status’ food practices, such as giving up meat. What happens to those of ‘low status’? Well, the book shows that, too. It shows the contradictions in ‘the system’, but does not spare the reader from its most harrowing details.
Another aspect of culture you write about is wrestling. What led to your decision to include that sport rather than cricket?
I love cricket, but South Asia’s love affair with that sport is well known, and people are probably less aware of the extent to which wrestling has been a South Asian phenomenon. I also wanted to focus on wrestling because – unlike cricket, which began very much as a sport of the elites – it was and remains the pastime of the common person.
Even South Asians such as myself, who live in a bubble of books and paintings and films, may be unaware that this obsession even exists. So I hope that when, for instance, readers now watch an Indian movie featuring a big fight scene, they will have an awareness that what they’re watching originates from this historical love of wrestling that’s shared throughout Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Are there other events in this story that readers may not be aware of?
One of the types of event that has occurred repeatedly in south Asia is political assassination. My book features a section of images of people who were assassinated – and, let me tell you, it’s very long. From Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 to Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the sheer number of ‘founding fathers’ and strong leaders who have been killed is astounding, and the theme is even more striking if we consider it from a border-crossing perspective. It’s caused a huge amount of instability.
What key myths or misconceptions about the south Asian 20th century would you like your book to correct?
The fundamental one is the idea that political projects such as nation making can ever be totally successful. There’s always going to be what I’d call some leakage at the edges, where people question the ideas and values behind these new nations. Even in Britain, with its diverse population from a whole range of backgrounds, we can see how complicated it is. The nation is a very novel idea, historically speaking – and imposing it on millions of people is hard work.
Joya Chatterji is emeritus professor in the history of modern south Asia at the University of Cambridge, and author of Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century (Bodley Head, 2023)
This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.
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