Observations on the anniversary of the Partition of India

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of the forthcoming Graphic Migrationswrites about global media representations of migration on the 73rd anniversary of the Partition of India.

What do the Google commercial “Reunion,” the Bollywood film Raazi (Agree), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s award-winning novel What The Body Remembers  and the oral history project 1947 Partition Archive all have in common? They all do transnational memory work and remember the mass migrations of the 1947 Partition of India.

This past weekend marked the 73rd anniversary of the decolonization and division of India, and the end of British colonialism. It also marked the creation of two independent nations: Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, and India became a new secular democratic nation on August 15, 1947. The partitioning of India in 1947 generated the world’s largest mass migration in under nine months: between 12 and 16 million people migrated across the newly etched borders.

Graphic MigrationsIn my forthcoming book Graphic Migrations, I describe the legacies of this pivotal moment in British and South Asian history, with a focus on migrant and refugee experiences. As such, this book uncovers the effects of this Partition on both India and the South Asian diaspora in North America. I am especially interested in how different media represent the precarity of migrants’ and refugees’ lives, as well as their descendants. I map how this precarity is memorialized across media, in ways that create empathy and solidarity for the shared humanity of migrants and citizens.

For example, I analyze South Asian American fiction by writers including Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bapsi Sidhwa as well as Hindi art films like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; Bollywood cinema, as well as the new genre I call “border-crossing” advertising. In addition, I discuss graphic narratives from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, the Digital Humanities oral history project 1947 Partition Archive as well as photography by Margaret Bourke-White and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. This book’s archive is thus eclectic and cross-media, capturing how the Partition migrations are inscribed or erased in public culture in India and its diaspora.

Graphic Migrations is poised at the intersection of Asian American Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It draws upon and extends new directions in Asian American Studies, especially Critical Refugee Studies.  These new directions take a transnational lens to understand how twentieth century conflicts and displacement in Asia have shaped Asian American history. My book’s feminist orientation means that gender is a central part of the story I tell. Talal Asad’s influential theory of the secular in Formations of the Secular is also central here, given that the Partition focalized religious difference. Central to this book’s story is the inspiration of the noted political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of statelessness, which, as she argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was the defining feature and product of the twentieth century.

My book considers several issues that emerge out of the 1947 Partition and its transnational impact. It explores the complexities of statelessness in India as well as South Asia, and asks: Why has this momentous displacement not been widely memorialized, until recently? How did refugees’ stories, labor, and losses shape ideas about religion, secularism, and belonging in public culture? How were female refugees’ experiences different, and with what consequences? What alternative modes of imagining community and planetary cohabitation, including ‘the secular,’ do stories about statelessness offer us today?

Graphic Migrations is timely and relevant now. More people than even before are migrating or displaced because of war, conflict, poverty, environmental devastation, and other reasons. By one estimate, there are 10 million stateless people, and there are 272 million migrants in the world today. This raises urgent issues about human rights and social justice for nations around the world, who must work together to end statelessness.

My book is a profound reminder of the contemporary stakes of studying the experiences and impact of decolonization and nation-formation in 1947 South Asia, in a transnational feminist mode.

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

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