Exit Wounds: The legacy of Indian partition

Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_08_aug_09_0150Though blessed with many able administrators, the British found India just too large and diverse to handle. Many of their decisions stoked Hindu-Muslim tensions, imposing sharp new religious-political identities on Indians. As the recent experience of Iraq proves, elections in a country where the rights and responsibilities of secular and democratic citizenship are largely unknown do little more than crudely assert the majority’s right to rule. British-supervised elections in 1937 and 1946, which the Hindu-dominated Congress won easily, only hardened Muslim identity, and made partition inevitable.

This was a deeper tragedy than is commonly realized—and not only because India today has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan. In a land where cultures, traditions, and beliefs cut across religious communities, few people had defined themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith. The Pashto-speaking Muslim in the North-West Frontier province (later the nursery of the Taliban and Al Qaeda) had little in common with the Bangla-speaking Muslim in the eastern province of Bengal. (Even today, a Sunni Muslim from Lahore has less in common with a Sunni Muslim from Dhaka than he has with a Hindu Brahmin from New Delhi, who, in turn, may find alien the language, food, and dress of a low-caste Hindu from Chennai.) The British policy of defining communities based on religious identity radically altered Indian self-perceptions, as von Tunzelmann points out: “Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”

More here.