The Elephant & Partition

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), News, Volume 10

Muslim girl heads towards Pakistan—according to Gyan Pandey, ‘the enormous violence which marked the creation of Pakistan in 1947 had too often been treated as in some unfathomable manner ‘outside history’. (Keystone Press)

Muslim girl heads towards Pakistan—according to Gyan Pandey, ‘the enormous violence which marked the creation of Pakistan in 1947 had too often been treated as in some unfathomable manner ‘outside history’. (Keystone Press)

What do Ireland, India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine have in common? All have experience of British rule and partition and all, in the words of Gyan Pandey (Johns Hopkins) ‘have contested pasts and contested presents’. These connections and parallels were to the fore between 6 and 9 December 2001, when The Keough Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame hosted a major international conference, Partition and Memory: Ireland, India, Palestine. The conference attracted leading scholars—anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, historians and literary and cultural critics—from South Asia, the Middle East, Britain, Ireland and America. Keynote speakers included: Pandey, co-founder of the Subaltern Studies group and author of Remembering Partition; Israel’s most prominent ‘New Historian’, Benny Morris, the author of 1948: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem; and Rashid Khalidi, author of The Origins of Arab Nationalism, who delivered a fascinating lecture on Palestine under the British mandate.
The opening address was given by Seamus Deane (Keough Institute) and, as a native of Derry, no stranger to partition and its legacies. In a characteristically robust performance Deane placed the experience of twentieth-century partitions in the context of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and explored the ways in which resistance is stigmatised and marginalised as irrational, the ways in which the victims of partition—the refugees and the left-behind—somehow become the ‘problem’. Pandey later echoed Deane’s remarks suggesting that the enormous violence which marked the creation of Pakistan in 1947 had too often been treated as in some unfathomable manner ‘outside’ history; that the huge inter-communal bloodshed ‘accompanied’ partition rather than having being caused by it. Indeed one of the most rewarding aspects of the conference consisted in the illuminations provided by such novel and genuine inter-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary and comparative perspectives. The debate, though sometimes intense, was always enlightening and continued long after the conferees had left the lecture theatre, across the dinner tables and in the bar.
One theme that emerged strongly is that the imposition of partition as a means of solving the problems of deeply divided societies—or, in Margaret O’Callaghan’s (Queen’s) words, the argument ‘that good fences make good neigbhours’—rarely worked. As Brendan O’Leary (London School of Economics) reminded his audience, even the founding father of modern Irish unionism, Lord Carson, neither sought nor welcomed the Irish border and that ultimately he regarded partition as a political failure. The other main theme around which dialogue focussed is the importance of history and collective memory. The new ‘Civic Unionism’ could only work, observed Joe Cleary (Maynooth), by ignoring or whitewashing the past. Unionists of that school have real difficulty in explaining why such an essentially high-minded political movement, with its emphasis on civil liberty and citizenship for all, irrespective of nationality or religion, has always been viewed with such antipathy by northern nationalists.
From an Irish perspective this conference proved a liberating (and, confronted by the scale of events in 1947-48 India/Pakistan, a humbling) experience as the exchange between David Lloyd (Scripps) and Rashid Khalidi underlined. Lloyd welcomed the opportunity which the occasion provided for propelling Irish Studies out of narrow parochial concerns and endorsed Khalidi’s call to move beyond traditional intellectual ghettos. In that sense there can be no doubt that the published version of these proceedings will be a milestone in Irish Studies.

Christopher Fox is Director of the Keough Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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