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Unpartitioned Nostalgia: Memories of the Ruling Class

Unpartitioned Nostalgia: Memories of the Ruling Class

partition margaret


Akshay Pathak

Continued from here.

#70yearson, a global campaign to remember the tragedy of 1947, might soon be trending on social media. Meanwhile, if you Google ‘partition of India’, the search engine blasts you with image after image of hordes of human bodies – living, dead, half-dead, in caravans, walking through ruins, hanging from trains. All of that interspersed with portraits and images of Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah – men and women in flawless clothes, rosy cheeks and dimpled chins. Of late I have been wondering about how Google, besides providing us with an access to our day-to-day, also shapes our memory of past events.

Memories, and a certain memorializing, especially for those drunk on power, can easily turn into hallucinations. Analysing the present or speculating on the future often requires one to nestle cosily with an imagined past – a past that is not entirely fictional, but purposefully reconstituted.

partition margaret

(Image: Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Eitingon in India, 1947)

So when ‘experts’ with their global reach repeatedly call for saving history from being ‘forgotten’, needing it to be memorialized and museumized, the curious ought to get curious-er. I began with Google to link back to the previous piece in the series and also to link to how we imagine our lives today.

Such imaginations, even of a virtual geography, especially when dealing with the past, are often reconstructions of what is handed down to us – documents, narrations, accounts from the past, paintings, photographs, and not in the least, stories handed down from one generation to another – the dubious terrain of nostalgia. These could be seen as raw material that has been fed into the memory machine, much like Google, albeit accessed, monitored and regulated by a few who process it into some sort of a consumable narrative.

The narrative apparatus, as Fredric Jameson calls it, is summoned and furthered by the propertied classes, more precisely the Savarna castes in our geography, mostly expressing the desires and anxieties that come with ‘class comfort and privilege.’ The same classes with the wherewithal to render this memory, however inaccurately, as a collective one end up making Indian history sound like, what anti-caste thinker and Round Table India’s editor, Kuffir calls, ‘a bad zombie movie’.

The looming danger of loss, a conception born out of material relations in the present, is atavistically connected to an event of large scale violence in a recent past (relatively speaking that is) involving immediate family members and their passed-on fears and anxieties, which needs to be memorized, or memorialized, both as a warning against any such repetition in the present or future and as a knowledge tool to maintain some order, following the rupture. Further, some infantile regression to a more innocent and harmonious past provides the bedrock of such a narrative. The nuts and bolts that give the apparatus a collective appeal are supplied by the subject testimonies of people from diverse social groups, the end effect of which is mostly a racialisation of personal experiences.

Take the many testimonies in The Other Side of Silence, one of the most famous works on the Partition, by feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia. Although right in the introduction the author outlines her investigations into the past as not being that of a historian per se, her text unwittingly installs itself in the historical canon. The book traverses the usual tropes of loss and violence that dot much of partition literature, which isn’t to say it is fabricated; it is only that in this attempt to memorialize or archive what is being claimed as forgotten/internalized/erased (a rather dubious and unverifiable claim made for millions of people), the collective ‘complicity’ of ‘every family having a history of being victims and aggressors’ seems a narrative dislocation of guilt, suggesting we are and were all, more or less, responsible and affected – even as the work claims to focus on ‘smaller, invisible players: ordinary people women, children, and scheduled castes’ rendered as the ‘zombies of history’.

Further, the author delves deep into tracts published back then in the Organiser, a weekly run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which gives us a sense of an emerging communalization of a secular ideal that was allegedly violated, another recurring theme across such literature. Overall, the book gives us glimpses into the acts and thoughts of some good and bad Hindus and Muslims, men and women, in an effort to show the chaos and despondency that befell the people (nation?) who had struggled long to gain freedom from the British.

The chimera of a conflict that reproduces the secular and the communal reveals a dialectical relationship between these two ideals. Previously, I referred to cricket matches and TV soap operas that enable this symbiotic narrative of war and peace. The seeds of these mass media popular representations, however, are to be found in the literature of the partition, which in turn mirrors the ‘common wisdom’ handed down (or willfully extracted) from generation to generation of the same propertied classes who survived the catastrophe, albeit with stories of loss to be retold, who readjusted to the newly constituted state as fully documented and documenting citizens.

My inherited nostalgia would then trace this trajectory to a land from where my grandparents moved. A little more digging brings forth images of traders and their retinues traversing what has come to be known as the Silk Road – merchants from Multan, Sindh and Shikarpur carrying products born out of the labour of the bahujan masses across tough terrains with the aid of tribesmen and women. The khatri merchants, as Scott C. Levi points out in Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road, were merchant capitalists who created and recreated much of the history and geography of what later came to be imagined as the Punjab. The khatris, says Levi, weren’t yet a fully formed caste, more like an assortment of clans, in the 16th to 18th century, though their modus operandi was similar to those of the banias of present day India, in terms of how they employed and trusted blood relatives and other kin and maintained large networks spread across the subcontinent. This class character is perhaps not atypical of many similar classes throughout history, but for them to develop into a caste, or jati, one has to see at what point does the brahmin enter the picture.

As fortunes and settlements that they spawned grew, a system that best ensured a tight control over those dependent on the ‘benevolence’ of these merchant aristocrats was that promised by brahminical ideology. So it is with much pride that Gurucharan Das, while introducing Levi’s interesting book on the matter, claims how his ‘ancestors introduced the brahmins to these geographies.’ The relative prosperity, albeit of the ruling classes, that these arrangements had ensured was what constantly attracted invaders from the west. The merchant aristocrats, irrespective of their shifting religious affiliations to either Islam or Hinduism (there are records of Muslim khatris of the time too, also known as Khojas), under the watchful blessings of the priestly brahmins, were overseeing a society full of unrest and social discrimination and inequality.

khatri noble

(Image: Khatri nobleman, in Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam by Col. James Skinner)

The Silk Road saw the patronage of different regimes of Muslim rulers (Mughals, Afghans among others). The khatri merchants, though gaining in material power, came into inevitable confrontations with other merchant capitalists, particularly of Islamic vintage. Some perhaps converted in the process. And these could very well be among those encounters that eventually led to the emergence of a set of responses that were rooted in this nebulous idea called “humanity” which as Nanak conceived was a challenge to the existing social order in terms of its vision for a more egalitarian society. Further, this could be even considered as a moment of ‘enlightenment’ in the 16th century influenced in turn by contemporary anti-brahmin movements labelled collectively as Bhakti, all of which predates and challenges the Eurocentric ideas around historical progress.

Nanak, as is common knowledge, was also a khatri. Babasaheb Ambedkar clearly stated that brahmins couldn’t produce a Voltaire; the khatris, however, could produce a Nanak.


The challenges posed by Nanak, as documented after his death in accounts relating to his birth and life, the Janamsakhis, and the presence of many tribes on the Silk Road (as mentioned later in the essay) make it clear that the nature and form of these castes were not fixed once and for all. This is also borne out by the British Census Commissioner Denzil Ibbetson, who as a result of his survey and analyses, available in the book Panjab Castes (a reprint of the chapter on The races, castes, and tribes of the people, in the report on the census of the Panjab), offered some clear warnings that challenged ‘popular conceptions’ around the institution of caste. Among several of his observations in the report published in 1883, two could be pertinent to our argument here:

  • that caste is a social far more than a religious institution […]; and that conversion from Hinduism to Islam has not necessarily the slightest effect upon caste
  • that there are Brahmans who are looked upon as outcasts by those who under the fourfold classification would be classed as Sudras; that there is no such thing as a Vaisya now existing; that it is very doubtful indeed whether there is such a thing as a Kshatriya, and if there is, no two people are agreed as to where we shall look for him; and that Sudra has no present significance save as a convenient term of abuse to apply to somebody else whom you consider lower than yourself; while the number of castes which can be classed under any one or under no one of the four heads, according as private opinion may vary, is almost innumerable.

In effect, these undefined, loosely formed or still forming clusters of people or jatis, organized and graded around a slightly better defined and forever gaining-in-dominance brahmin class, provide numbers and subjects for the collectivity that eventually comes to be defined more clearly in the context of the emerging nation state. The propertied classes, as discussed later, would have their own contestations for power, the forming and reforming of alliances between them, as well as with the British. This would also see a consequent strengthening of caste order as we know it today.


With the coming of independence to India, the world had the chance to watch a most rare event in the history of the nations: the birth of twins- India and Pakistan. It was a birth accompanied by strife and suffering. ~ Margaret Bourke-White

The newly formed Indian and Pakistani states saw caste fortifications of certain clans like never before. Brahmins and khatris, consolidators of religious identities in the politically charged times of the 19th century and material beneficiaries of the reorganization of the Punjab post-independence, were clearly overrepresented in anthologies that sought to narrativise partition. These, then, would also end up being at the forefront of projecting and protecting the idea of India. A common trope that got established in that process, one that was to eventually be used in a pan-Indian sense to justify their hegemony, was the grit, industriousness and merit of these classes – of having survived such a humongous tragedy and bouncing back against the vicissitudes of fate.

The other recurring theme is that of the ensuing trauma and the need for a closure, a reunion, a righting of history, expressed as a violent communal call for unification, or in its passive aggressive secular form, imagined as a peaceful retreat to harmony.

Bombay cinema, popularly known as Bollywood and populated disproportionately by khatris, gave flesh to and fuelled this imagination. See for instance the 1960s film Waqt, one of the earliest films directed by Yash Chopra, Bollywood’s celebrated director of eternal romance. The film’s story by F.A. Mirza exemplifies the ‘true grit’ of Lala Kedarnath, played by a charming Balraj Sahni, who is part of a large and prosperous khatri family, in the unfortunate event of an earthquake that rents his life asunder. The scattered sons find their own paths to wealth – one becomes a ‘sophisticated thief’ as per Wikipedia, another is adopted by rich people, the third is forced to live in poverty but with undivided riches of motherly love (essayed by Shashi Kapoor who is often the recipient of such love). Two of the three brothers, the very handsome Sunil Dutt and the then extremely popular Raj Kumar, in the dark about their actual kinship, fall in love with the same woman, Meena, played by Sadhana. The drama plays out in a landscape of big bungalows, imported racing cars and haute couture. The family, separated by the ugly tragedy, is of course reunited in the end.

partition poster

The pathos of parting, the narrative resolution of which is the reestablishment of a cohesive family unit, akhand bharat in its molecular form, is at the heart of the movie. There’s a film trivia that B.R. Chopra, Yash Chopra’s elder brother who was also the producer of this film, wanted to cast Prithiviraj Kapoor, another Khatri patriarch (the fourth generation Kapoors still enjoying superstardom in the industry) and his three sons in the movie. Even though the idea never came to fruition, this anecdote serves our purpose of illustrating some of the ideas that are being charted out here. Turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path.

Fanciful imaginations of this akhand bharat, an undivided India, are what pre-occupied Yash Chopra till his later years. For instance, we have Veer Zaara, his last film, released in 2004, the year when the Congress government under Sonia Gandhi was back in power and plans for reclaiming a secular India were being peddled around. The movie traces the reclamation of love and amity between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindu Rajput protagonist Veer Pratap Singh, played by a Muslim actor, Shahrukh Khan, is imprisoned in Pakistan, as result of his love for an aristocratic Muslim girl Zaara Hayat Khan, played by a Hindu Rajput Preity Zinta. The love story, courtroom scenes, tropes that constitute Chopra’s Punjab, all coalesce to form an allegory on India’s partition, or more precisely Punjab’s, still resonant as a dominant imagination even after about six decades.

This yearning for a reunion of the propertied classes, riven by national borders, requires a deeper sociological analysis than what can be understood through the stilted binary of secularism-communalism. In her search to find a witness to prove the Hindu prisoner’s innocence, the lawyer in Veer Zaara, played by Yash Chopra’s future daughter-in-law Rani Mukherjee (a Bengali Brahmin), is startled to find the female protagonist actually residing in Veer’s village.

The movie lays out the conflict and a perfect resolution: while the Hindu son of India, and hence the true symbol of Bharat, lies rotting in a prison in Pakistan, the daughter of Pakistan has made her lover’s nation her home. It is a twisted response to the two-nation theory propounded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. The pure love of Veer and Zaara (borrowed in essence from folk stories such as Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal) provides the ruse through which the essential inseparability of akhand bharat is illustrated.

This popular imagination is presented and perceived as evidence and a supposed reflection of the undying wish and yearning of the people inhabiting the nation. Abhijit Baawa, a young scholar from the University of Pondicherry, told me that my preceding piece reminded him of the nostalgia for an ‘unpartitioned India’ in Kerala, where he is from, and how this grand narrative managed to lodge in his mind, when he was growing up there in the 90s, as a passionate bond to an imagined distant past in a distant geography, thereby perhaps sidelining or even erasing very particular local histories – echoes and fortifications of the idea of India that this post-partition industry churned.

Such re-iteration of a united India has been the leitmotif of the contesting ideologies of the elite in India. The secular and the communal provide a strong and dominant unit, which finds its raison d’etre in this two-nation theory that supposedly rent asunder a prosperous happy family like that in the movie Waqt, or more poignantly, results in the separation of Veer and Zara, the eternal lovers, or another recurring theme of brothers parting in childhood in some mela to be climactically reunited later.

Moreover, this contestation has been embellished with a religious flavour, the underpinnings of which take us back to the conflicts emerging in this particular geography around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, in 19th century, with the aggressive expansion of British Colonialism in Punjab, accompanied by the proliferation of print capitalism as an extension and facilitator of Christian missionary activity, feuds between propertied classes led to the rise of the Arya Samaj, the Singh Sabhas, and the Ahmadiyya movement – dominant reformist yet reactionary movements led by upper castes, which attempted to racialize and homogenize entire communities.

circa 1880: A view of the Scinde Delhi and Punjab Railway, a few miles from Lahore, looking towards Meean Mir on the plains of Punjab in Northern India (modern day Pakistan). (Photo by W. Harris/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 (Image: Scinde, Delhi and Punjab Railway, a few miles from Lahore, ca.1880)

Also picture vast swathes of lands being navigated by travellers, merchants, and armies on rudimentary roads, and then picture the entry of railways connecting fast-emerging urban centres, and all the many people settled near and far from the rivers that eventually gave a sense of oneness to this geography. All of this infrastructure speaking yet again of hard labour, migrations, and slavery. While Nanak brought forth a massive challenge to the power structure and provided a humane space to many, dominant historical narratives still offer us mere glimpses of the discontinuous lives of those shaping geography with their sweat and blood.

It is not just the imprimatur of khatri merchants that marked the Silk Road but also of jats and other tribes that facilitated and participated in this trade, whose labour was what fuelled the trade in the first place. These routes also saw rampant slave trade. Although organized history often only reveals canonized understandings of how kings and aristocrats organized and fought to retain and/or expand control, the actual machinations of time conceal things far more complex. As Kuffir says: Indian history is such a colossal crime because by depriving the Dalit-Bahujans of any past, it steals their future too.

The grand imagery always pictures a mass of people passively living through circumstances imposed on them by rulers or by competing theologies of the time. The idealized opposition, to borrow a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, for this grand imagery is the foregrounding of the small ‘individual’ speaking for a ‘collective’, preferably from the ‘margins’, and almost always mediated by someone with the power and resources to define – both exist in a cosy harmonious relationship.

Yet when we read literature or watch movies made by the forgers of this imagery, the same harmony takes the form of a fantastical or celebratory co-existence of communities, masking the protracted violence that must have simmered underneath this phantasm. Two rather celebrated cinematic works offer further glimpses into this past harmony. Tamas and 1947: Earth, are both adaptations of literary works. The former is a television film based on a Hindi novel with the same title written by Bhisham Sahni (brother of Waqt’s Balraj Sahni) and the latter is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India (Ice Candy Man). The screen adaptation of Tamas was done by Govind Nihalani.The movie Earth 1947 was directed by Deepa Mehta, a darling of global film festivals. Both directors have also inherited the nostalgia of partition from their own families and lived experience.

The stories of both films, set in Lahore, paint scenes of a somewhat happy co-existence and bonhomie. Yet, the mohallas pictured in Tamas provide insights into the spatial separation that is the result of caste segregation. Violence engendered by men supposedly led astray keeps erupting intermittently in these spaces that are turning into ruins – smoke issuing from burnt houses being a repetitive backdrop of most scenes. The invisible violence that keeps the mohallas segregated is somewhat overshadowed by the visible violence of riots that follow. It would be instructive here to quote writer V.S. Naipaul, one of the most astute and sharp observers of India, as far as writers in English go. Though referring here to the Emergency that India saw in 1975, he might as well have been talking of 1947, when he says:

The violence of the riot could burn itself out; it could be controlled…But there was an older, deeper Indian violence. This violence had remained untouched by foreign rule and had survived Gandhi. It had become part of the Hindu social order, and there was a stage at which it became invisible, disappearing in the general distress.

The movie Earth illustrates the earlier harmony in the form of a crude metaphor. Servants and orderlies of the affluent Parsi couple, whose daughter Lenny is the narrator, and certain others like the ice-candy man (played by Aamir Khan) congregate in a garden, where the Ayah (Nandita Das) regularly takes Lenny for a stroll. They sit and joke, gossip, flirt. The contrast to that is the tension at the dinner table of the Parsi household, where guests – a British officer, a Sikh gentleman, all elites, trade hostilities that arise from a sense of national pride and freedom.

Partition destroys the seemingly harmonious romances and deep friendships that were hitherto unencumbered by religious barriers. The harmony now makes way for betrayal and violence. It is a great loss for all and sundry and is even unnameable so much so that everyone has a conspiracy theory about it.

“Partitioning two lives is difficult enough. Partitioning millions is madness,” says Butalia. The force of these two lines cannot be denied, but for a society whose harmony was built on brutal rules of segregation, the statement needs to be put in a broader context. It is not that the author is unaware of this reality. In a segment titled ‘Margins’ the author expresses surprise at discovering caste in a Dalit woman called Maya although the rest of the women in the book are mostly casteless or ‘middle-class’, a term often deployed to further shift the burden of caste on to the oppressed.

A contrasting response to the contest between the two-nation vs. the ‘united nation’ theory, or the communal-secular binary underlying it, can be found in another celebrated piece of partition literature. Rahi Masoom Reza, well known as the script and dialogue writer of the popular television series Mahabharat, has also authored a novel on partition called Aadha Gaon (The Divided Village, translated into English by Gillian Wright). At one moment in the story, at a community discussion in the Gangauli village in pre-partition UP, an assembly of traders and weavers is debating the idea of supporting the Muslim League, when Haji Ghafoor, one of the characters, clearly unhappy with Jinnah and the idea of Pakistan, agitatedly says:

 “And we’ll still be weavers. Will the Sayids start marrying their children to weavers in Pakistan?”

 Remember in this context Babasaheb Ambedkar’s famous response to Gandhi in the wake of the Poona Pact: “Gandhiji, I have no homeland.”

These two statements, one fictional and the other historical, can offer a counter-narrative to the dominant narratives I have tried to illustrate here. But then again, contrast the above statements with the narrative of Toba Tek Singh, the celebrated Urdu short story on partition by Saddat Hasan Manto, a writer who is often peddled as the secular mascot of the secular-communal dyad that animated discussions of the elites across both the nations. In this short story, the protagonist, a patient, a landed Sikh, but living in a mental asylum, ends up in a no man’s land, a metaphor seemingly floated to transcend the dyad but more often than not ends up validating the secular credentials of the global elites of both the countries.

partition truck

 (Image: A Truck carrying refugees across the new ‘border’ during 1947)

But as it emerges, for those talking of homelands, new and old, and for those who survived to archive it or ‘transcend’ it, the mourning of loss is, at the very least, a call to reinstate order, both cosmic and material. Take for instance the short story, Sikka Badal Gaya (A New Regime: translated by Jai Rattan from Hindi) by Krishna Sobti, a significant contributor to this narrative discourse.

On the surface of it, the story is about the loneliness of an old widowed landlady, Shahni, who has lost both her husband and son and is now staring into an abyss as she is to be transported like a commoner to a refugee camp. The story recounts her last day of looking at the vast estate her husband bequeathed her, and the constant invocation of the village’s utter helplessness at losing its ‘benefactor’, barring a few conniving souls who have their eyes on the loot that is to follow. The scene of her farewell is painted in the tragic metaphor of what is seemingly happening to the entire nation, the loss of what one has built and cherished over generations. As she is about to leave, one of the villagers asks her to take some cash with her, given the ‘bad times’, to which she replies sarcastically:

“Bad times…. Will I ever live to see better times?”

 The hopelessness is very real, except that the chances of Shahni reclaiming the ‘class comfort and privilege’ on the other side of the newly drawn border were rather high compared with most others who were transported across the border. The fictional here is not too far away from the factual, as was illustrated with evidence around land allotments in the preceding piece, as well as how it is underlined by the testimonies of the likes of Damayanti Sehgal, a teacher from ‘a good family’, featured in Butalia’s book mentioned earlier. Sehgal’s travails in the days of partition paint a horrific picture of the time. She was dispatched with a boy servant and several hundred rupees (she can’t quite recall how much exactly). The selfish servant abandons her and she rolls about like a stone until she lands up somewhere in a cottage in Dharamshala, whose owner turns out to be a student of hers from back home! The six or less degrees of separation in a caste society should indeed not be a matter of surprise. Even in times of tragedy, or particularly in such times. Turn in any direction you like..

She eventually is convinced to join forces with Mridula Sarabhai, Premwati Thapar, Anis Kidwai, Sushila Nayyar – famous women from ‘good families’ in the service of the nation, and as part of Central Recovery Operation, helping the poor, rehabilitating refugees, even as the presumably good men from their families – husbands, brothers, fathers – are also deployed to ‘guard’ and preside over the fate of millions of refugees. The loops and whorls of the fingerprints of these shared services can easily be found etched on the surplus wealth of the propertied and governing classes in India, and with this pattern of gendered division (and collusion) of ownership. Or more easily, a forensic test would reveal the genealogies of those invested in the narrative apparatus called partition nostalgia. The intergenerational investments in the idea of India and Pakistan and the returns that they have yielded could offer a clue to the origins of the anxieties that fuel the nostalgia that animates partition narratives.


“Pakistan diyaan mujaan hee maujaan/ Chaarey passay faujaan hee faujaan/ (What fun for our lovely land, Wherever we go, armed forces stand
~ Ustad Daman (translation by Waqas Khwaja)

In 2017, going by the dominant discourse in the media, the nation that was created (and partitioned) seventy years ago is reportedly once again in the throes of impending destruction. The paranoia and anxieties of the same classes, irrespective of the ideology that they openly espouse, have mutated several times over the past several decades. The two strains – the communal and secular – march forth in a synchronised fashion: one calling for a muscular rebuilding of the nation even as the other harks back to a harmonious togetherness.

It is in this context that the memorialization of partition as a dominant narrative apparatus, and in a pan-Indian sense, is gaining further urgency. The discontinuity of this particularly strong narrative is revealed, as mentioned above, in the counter-hegemonic history evident in the Khalistani Movement, Operation Blue Star, the brutal anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the reconfiguration of a Punjab in popular imagination of the 90s, through music, films etc., a global equating of India with things punjabi – all perhaps symbolising the uncomfortable relationship that the anti-caste history, linking far back to Nanak’s idea, continues to have with ideas of empire and imperialism.

To be continued.



Akshay Pathak is a researcher and writer. He can be reached at 

 Images courtesy: Google

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