Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Train to partition

Book Review: Non-fiction/ Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten by Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph, 432; Rs695 (Hardback)
From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, the history of Punjab is replete with uncomfortable events, but Rajmohan Gandhi provides a compassionate account.
Normally, we hear of Punjab and think about the partition that horribly divided it into East and West. The scare is permanent, as one of the world’s bloodiest human exodus took place in its terrains in 1947.The leadership was incompetent then, and sadly things have hardly changed even after close to seven decades.

Rajmohan Gandhi, a gentleman and scholar has his argument well placed. He believes in the potential of ‘course correction’, which could happen with different groups making honourable compromises and settlements. Though his genteel wishes never ignore the realities of historical setbacks, which turned the region into the centre of bloodbath during Partition, Gandhi keeps his chin up when he speculates on alternatives.

An unprecedented wave of killings and suffering was the byproduct of virulent political-religious agenda. Gandhi’s Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten has a message, however. ‘Partition could have arrived with proper settlement and talk, though it arrived with a bit of uncertainty and terrible violence that uprooted millions’, he says. So, during those uncertain times, even the promise of democracy could hardly deter the ‘wildness of few!’

From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, the history of India is replete with uncomfortable events—Rajmohan Gandhi has chosen to dwell on them and elucidate the bygone times with his own findings through years of years of tireless research. Gandhi’s love for history and research is exemplary—his last two works being A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and The American Civil War, outcomes of his erudite devotion to the past.

This book, too, heavily relies on the facts—and not all are in circulation as far as mainstream ideas and ideologies are concerned. At places, facts do justice with the plots but the thin appearance of perspectives tilt the balance of the book closer to academic studies. In that, it reads well. The book etches in detail throwing light on the history of undivided Punjab and the life and times of the ruling classes. Apart from that, it also brings out the untold story of the Punjabi Muslims.

So far, stories of Punjabi Muslims have been mostly neglected by historians. Surprisingly, there isn’t much historical records even from Pakistan in this regard. Contrary to the trend, Rajmohan Gandhi covers almost 250 years of undivided Punjab, from Mughal, to Sikh to British rules, with a sound back up of research into what can be called the ‘subaltern egoes.’ His findings on the diversity amongst the Muslims of undivided Punjab and their cordial living with Hindus and Sikhs are both refreshing and substantial.

The need, however, is to ponder more on that phase of history in order to defy the lateral ‘hate base’ created before Partition, which has not halted yet. The Punjab has seen an endless wave of invasion and experiments with dangerous politics, which have turned this otherwise mild land into a zone of ceaseless tragedy.

Today, the two divided Punjabs on both sides of the border are weaker on all counts. But the book is hopeful of a better time ahead, and indeed it is possible—even if only few leaders in India and Pakistan would realise the follies of staying perpetually at loggerheads with each other.

Rajmohan Gandhi recalls a very turbulent past of Punjab, to pave way for a humane discourse on this land. Instead of pursuing obsessively high-decibel diplomacy inevitably mixed with ugly battles—the Indo-Pak relations would only improve through such softer sides of exchange.

The Partition story and preceding times need a thorough reassessment from historians and public intellectuals alike. Gandhi’s truthful interpretation of history will open a new chapter of understanding—both India and Pakistan need it urgently.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on October13,2013)

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