In August 1947, a country called India was divided into two dominion states and more than 500 princely states were asked to amalgamate with either of the two countries. The moment was a divergence in the history or subcontinent. Never before had territories been divided in such fashion and it was the first instance for most Indian people to encounter the idea of a ‘nation state’. Following the First World War, the concept of ‘Nationalism’ had fascinated intellectuals from Ireland to India. It was a giant leap of imagination from empires to nation states defined by a shared boundary, a common language or culture. Nisid Hajari aptly captured the confusion surrounding this change in his book ‘Midnight’s Furies’. He recounted the events on 3rd June 1947 in the following words: “Would there be one India or two? Although press leaks and the lengthy negotiations had drained some suspense from the question, Indians from Calicut to Chittagong still gathered around their radio sets on the evening of 3 June to hear the verdict. At the offices of All-India Radio, employees crammed balconies and leaned out of windows as the vice-regal motorcade rolled up outside. Nehru, Jinnah, and Baldev Singh followed Mountbatten into the building, harangued by a group of saffron-robed sadhus—Hindu ascetics—shouting anti-Pakistan slogans.”
All India Congress had passed a resolution demanding Independence of India in 1929 while All India Muslim League had demanded creation of sovereign states in Muslim-majority areas. By the end of Second World War, the British had lost resources and willpower to continue ruling far-off India. Partition was one of many ideas that were discussed after British withdrawal. The Cabinet Mission Plan envisaged a gradual release of power but the Indian leaders were not willing to give so much time to the British. It was not until the outbreak of violence in Kolkatta, Noakhali and later in Northern Punjab that forced the hand of British Administration. Many veterans of World Wars were horrified by the violence unleashed during peacetime in Indian towns and cities.
When it came to the actual event of partition, people in the streets were unable to grasp the cold reality that was going to take place. For most people in India, the concept of a ‘state’ was akin to the idea of a ‘princely state’ ruled by a particular family and having flexible borders. There had been no ‘nation states’ in the subcontinent before and the contrast between imagination and reality confounded the common man and women more than they could handle. A lot of refugees from India or Pakistan left their belongings in their ancestral homes because they thought they were relocating temporarily. For them, moving to India or Pakistan was like moving to pre-partition Hyderabad or Junagarh. In the first few years after partition, the borders were flexible and moving across was not a huge problem.
Faced by the influx of refugees in both countries, Pakistan’s Prime Minister signed a pact with India’s premier in April 1950, known as the Nehru-Liaqat Pact. It assured
Minorities in both countries of “freedom of movement” as well as “complete equality of citizenship” and “equal opportunity” to participate in public life, hold political office, and serve in their country’s civil and armed forces, and was to be enshrined in the constitutions that were being drafted by the two states. Till the year 1952, one required only a permit to cross the India-Pakistan border. The passport system was introduced between the two countries in 1952 at the Pakistan government’s insistence, to curtail the “flood” of UP Muslims into the proclaimed homeland. The new ‘India-Pakistan’ passports issued by both countries erected a new barrier in movement for the refugees. To quote Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali, author of the book ‘The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia’, “If defining the nations of divided South Asia was to achieve categorical closure, the emergence of passports served to distinguish citizens from aliens, nationals from foreigners, in the midst of an historical mess and a landscape of shifting identities.”
Passports were initially used as travel documents but with emergence of nation states and stringent border controls, they also became de-facto certificates of citizenship and makers of national identity. Before the arrival of India-Pakistan passports, British-Indian passports were used for International travel by Pakistanis and Indians. That passport was a vestige of the colonial past and was discarded in time. The new passports retained some of the permit’s properties such as the fact that visas were issued for only specific destinations and police reporting was mandatory. No Objection Certificates (NOCs) were also required before applying for visas, adding an additional hindrance to mobility.
During debates in the Constituent Assembly regarding the issue of passports and transfer of population, an interesting debate started. Some politicians and journalists started asking for ‘more land’ from India because of the refugee influx. This seemingly absurd claim was justified on the grounds that the Muslims who were coming were citizens of India, and therefore had a territorial right to India, which they should be able to transfer with them. Partition of India was a colossal event and it has taken more than one generation to understand the intricacies and implications of the process. We are, however, still living in the shadow of Partition.
The writer is a freelance columnist.