Interviews February 22, 2023

Decoding South Asia on the 75th Anniversary of Independence and Partition: An Interview with Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose

Earlier this year in August the three post-colonial states of South Asia—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the British Raj as well as the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947. Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman first published in 1985 remains one of the foundational texts on partition. The work was instrumental in revising previous historiographical trends that advocated that the 1947 partition was the logical end of religious communalism that had plagued the subcontinent. The work refocused much needed attention to the partition resulting from the failure to devise a suitable power sharing mechanism at a federal level.

The decolonization of the subcontinent in 1947 also heralded the end of the age of empires. The British Indian Army not only guarded Britain’s empire in much of Asia and Africa, but also provided critical defense to other European empires in the Indian Ocean arena. The loss of India deprived Britain of this critical instrument of coercion and governance. Sugata Bose in his A Hundred Horizons (2006) explored the structures of power in the Indian Ocean world in an age of global empire as well as the anticolonial solidarities that circulated in this interregional arena.

Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of South Asia and the Muslim World at Tufts University and Sugata Bose is the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University. The 75th anniversary provides a wonderful opportunity to not only revisit these two seminal works together, but also to have a larger conversation regarding the craft of history writing and the emerging trends of the discipline. On behalf of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, I thank them both for giving their valuable time for this interview.

—Tathagata Dutta


TATHAGATA DUTTA: Prof Jalal, in The Sole Spokesman you revised prevailing historiographical orthodoxy about partition and advocated that the failure to reach a power sharing mechanism at the federal level between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress and the quest for a unitary state structure ultimately led to the partition. Some works since have gone back to emphasize the role of religion in the creation of Pakistan and some would argue that the rise of Hindutva in India and Islamization of Pakistan corroborates that analysis. Would you agree? If not, how would you dissuade the drawing of parallels between contemporary politics from historical analysis?

AYESHA JALAL: No. I would not agree. That’s just bad history because it’s reading from the present into the past. That’s exactly the problem of presentism which seems to surround understanding of what happened in South Asia. As far as religion is concerned, what role religion played is the historical question. The use of religion as a loose category to describe just about everything is where the problem lies. So yes, religion as a political category vis-à-vis Muslims being a separate political category played a role. In my other book Self and Sovereignty, I made the distinction between religion as personal faith and religion as a demarcator of social difference. So indeed, I never denied that religion played a role. However, it played a role not as a matter of faith, but as a matter of political identity, and this demarcator of difference played a role. So those who are excited about “religion” are the people who want to justify a centralized state that ignores regional dynamism. So, it’s really to justify the undermining of federalism. This is a very old problem in South Asia. The partition was a result of the failure to work out a federal arrangement. Religion was there, but it was a twin dialectic between all India nationalism versus a religious communitarianism—and indeed between center and region. They both played a role. Trying to explain everything through the prism of religion is reductive and ignores many issues. Number one, how do you explain how a Muslim homeland came about that left so many Muslims outside the ambit. Is that a religious solution or a regional one? Again, how do you explain that India is about to become the largest Muslim country in 2050? Very interesting solution to religion and partition! So, I do think that these are just bad histories, as I said.  

TD: Prof Bose, how would you analyze the historical implications of South Asian decolonization for the rest of Asia and for Africa? Many would argue that Empire not only provided room for anticolonial solidarities across the Indian Ocean world but was also an arena for a sub-imperialist role played by Indians in many parts of Asia and Africa. A few years back the Gandhi Must Fall Campaign in parts of Africa, particularly Ghana, reopened the conversation on the issue. How do you see this?

SUGATA BOSE: If I may, I will first go back to your first question to Ayesha briefly before directly answering the large question that you have posed to me. If one thinks about the partition of 1947, this is a major historical event and continuing process of 20th century South Asia that has been approached in many ways. Ayesha of course wrote about it in The Sole Spokesman which came out in 1985 but she has offered many other perspectives in subsequent books such as Self and Sovereignty, Partisans of Allah, and The Pity of Partition. And I might mention even that in my first work, which was done in Cambridge, England at about the same time that The Sole Spokesman was being written in the same place, I addressed the global context of the worldwide depression and its bond-snapping impact on relations between a predominantly Muslim debtor class and a mostly Hindu landlord-moneylender and trader-moneylender class. So, there are many different perspectives that can be brought to bear on the question of partition and has been done ever since the 1980s onwards.

Now my early work had also suggested that agrarian regions within India were connected to the larger Indian Ocean interregional arena and indeed operated within a global context. So, to answer your question about the meaning of South Asian freedom for rest of Asia and Africa, I would first of all like to say that in many ways the independence of India and Pakistan, and also Burma and Sri Lanka, paved the way for the freedom of the other colonies in Southeast Asia and also later in Africa—even though the European colonial powers were temporarily able to reassert their colonial dominance in Africa in particular and the British tried to do so in Malaya. But once the British Indian Army could no longer be used as an instrument of imperial control, it would prove hard for European colonial powers to continue to hold onto their Asian and African colonies. However, you are absolutely right to point out what you are describing as sub-imperialist role of Indians—that I think is the most corrosive aspect of our colonial inheritance. It wasn’t just Indian soldiers, but also Indian capitalists who often were used as the local quell drivers of oppression. Even at the moment of independence, the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 in Delhi in March and April of that year, there were Indonesian delegates and Vietnamese delegates who were extremely upset that the British Indian Army had been deployed to help the French and the Dutch to reassert colonial control. Jawaharlal Nehru had a hard time explaining what had happened and tried to say that now we have decided to take a different policy and approach to the rest of Southeast Asia. So, we have to see the British Empire in particular not just in the context of the landmass of the subcontinent but the larger framework of the Indian Ocean interregional arena. While there were Indians who played a role in buttressing imperial control, there were also anti-colonial solidarities that were forged across the colonized world of Asia and Africa. As historians we need to focus on both and there are some very good new works coming out showing how larger anti-colonial affinities came together.             

TD: Prof. Jalal, do you feel that all the three postcolonial countries—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have failed to effectively come up with equitable center-province relations, and why? Would you say if we look at the Middle East, most of the postcolonial states there too suffer a similar problem of unitarist state models?

AJ: I do think there’s something to be said about the form of the modern nation state constructed under the rubric of the colonial empire. There were various debates about the nature of an independent India, and I see partition and the Muslim League’s politics through that lens. Clearly those debates were cast aside at the moment of decolonization and of the temptations of perpetuating a unitary state structure in India we are all very aware. However, if we look at Constituent Assembly debates of India in the early years, there were vigorous opponents to a centralized authoritarian India, but they were defeated. We mustn’t forget it is not a new debate but a constant process of wanting to perpetuate a unitary center, which is deemed to be stronger, and in the name of majoritarianism as we see today. There are some similarities with other countries in West Asia but I do think the form of the colonial state in India has to be accounted for, especially its growth during the Second World War. The partition and the speed with which India was partitioned and its provinces were dismantled made it almost pragmatic in the first instance to try to perpetuate what already existed. But I do think that time has long since passed and that some sort of renewed look at relations between center and region is necessary. However, this is being undermined by precisely those people whom you cited at the outset who hold that this is a wonderfully determined relationship between religion and nation and this is all settled. Then we don’t need to open the debate. They have been doing this for years in Pakistan and want to focus on a centralized Islamic state whatever that means. You know there is no agreement on what religion means. There are innumerable views of what Islam is meant to be in Pakistan. Similarly, those who are talking about Hindutva, represent just one dimension of opinion about what Hinduism’s role should be in India. Hinduism and Hindutva cannot be equated. I think a mixture of things have led to postcolonial state structures and there are many similarities. For instance, when we look at the question of state neutrality: the state has always propounded since the British that they will be neutral in matters concerning religion and will not support one community over the other. In the post-colonial context, it has been shown amongst others by Iza Hussin’s book [The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority and the Making of the Muslim State. University of Chicago Press, 2016] that elites have brought in religion and have made the state utilize certain interpretations of religion which are of course unacceptable to others and thereby made religion a much more contested domain in the post-colonial state. So, I would argue those are important to consider, but in terms of your overall question as to the temptations of perpetuating the colonial state in the post-colonial situation, there are some very strong commonalities across the post-colonial world regarding relations between regions and center.               

TD: Prof Bose, in terms of placing your work, A Hundred Horizons, you developed the Indian Ocean as an “interregional arena.” It is a space between the local and the global. Do you feel it is time to break the model of area studies of South Asia and place historical research in broader frameworks? On the other hand, some would argue that the global approach is an atavistic trend of resurrecting the old genre of imperial history. How would you respond? Is there a difference between writing a ‘global history’ and ‘world history’?

SB: Well, I think we have already creatively trespassed the rigid boundaries of area studies over at least the last two decades. So have histories that have questioned the nation state as the main framework of analysis. Histories that have been bounded by post-Second World War area studies have been superseded by many more interesting approaches of writing history. There was of course for a time the excitement of writing subaltern studies, but that particularly historical approach unraveled into internal fragments. What I have tried to do in A Hundred Horizons is to look beyond the borders of India, the area studies borders of South Asia, and explore the connections. My main argument was that we must recognize the relevance and the resilience of an interregional space in modern times. There had already been some fine Indian Ocean histories in the pre-modern period. Notably those by KN Chaudhuri and Ashin Das Gupta. I felt that an interregional arena could in fact serve as a venue for understanding modern history. Now, I saw my own Indian Ocean history as both contributing to global history but also as a cautionary tale against its excesses. There, in fact, can be global histories that imperceptibly slide into old fashioned imperial histories. Also, global histories can have a certain vague quality about them. Indeed, human relationships are strung together much more closely perhaps at an interregional level than at the global level. That is why I tried to put forward the argument that this interregional level of analysis is an important one–somewhere between the level of the nation state and the globe. The terminological differences between global history and world history are not that interesting for me. I think we all must be aware of a larger global set of interconnections, but we can choose to pitch our historical analysis at other levels and one of those levels is in fact that of the interregional arena where there are links and connections to be analyzed. These arenas were considered to be world regions in the past.        

TD: Prof Jalal, in the same vein I would ask you that over the several last decades there has been a plethora of works on the partition of South Asia. Would you say it is time for developing a comparative approach and talk about the many partitions–Palestine and Cyprus being the other prominent ones.

AJ: I don’t think that’s a novel approach. In terms of the thinking and teaching of partition there have been comparative thoughts expressed, yes, but I do think South Asia’s Partition is paradigmatic and it should be seen in comparative perspective. There are so many dimensions to partition. One of course is the human tragedy that occurred. I think the historiography on partition since my own work has certainly done a very good job in elaborating the human dimension. That again is the study of the consequences of partition rather than the causes. I think that to elaborate further we should study the question of the use of partition as a form of conflict management. I always believe that as a form of conflict resolution, partition fails to bring about complete resolution. I think that should be studied in a comparative perspective whether with Ireland or Palestine. So, I think that can be done very effectively and to examine the causes of partition and why such solutions are resorted to. At the same time, we need to assess to what extent partition has been a successful form of resolution of conflicts. I think there is a contradiction here, while partition may seem to be a form of conflict resolution, in fact historically it has made some of the conflicts almost irresolvable. That’s what I urge people to look at more deeply. While there has been a lot written about the consequences of partition it does not really add to why the partition was used and the causes of partition. I think that needs further explication. 

TD: Not only South Asia but much of Asia and Africa reels under authoritarianism. Do you feel that this shall remain an essential feature of postcolonial societies? Why is it that democracy remains so feeble in much of the postcolonial world? 

SB: I really don’t think that that kind of a cultural essentialist argument has any merit. If in fact postcolonial societies and polities have tended towards authoritarianism despite having in some instances a democratic garb, I believe it is the task of historians to uncover or unravel the historically specific processes that have led to that outcome. I think in answer to a previous question, Ayesha suggested that you know if you excavate anti-colonial political thought even of the early twentieth century you will find there were many alternative visions of the nation and many different views of what kind of a state of union might replace the colonial state. I think there are some very historically contingent factors at the moment of political decolonization, especially in the subcontinent in 1947, that led to the embracing of unitary concepts of sovereignty, centralized structures of state that were very different from what we have called in some of our work the ‘layered and shared’ sovereignty of not only pre-colonial South Asia and other parts of the colonized world, though these ideas were quite vibrant in anti-colonial thought until almost the end of the process of colonial rule. I would also add that authoritarianism today is not just the feature of post-colonial societies and polities. In the United States we have a powerful trend towards authoritarianism despite having “democratic elections.” In the United Kingdom—the erstwhile metropolis—there is a far-right government in place which I would say in fact is authoritarianism. It’s not just in Italy that there has been the election of a far-right government, the UK for a while under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have had an authoritarian government, a far-right government which in my mind tends towards certain kinds of authoritarianism. So, this is a global phenomenon and should not be seen as something that the post-colonial worlds of Asia and Africa must contend with. I agree that there needs to be more study and perhaps more engaged citizenship in order to try to assert the values of genuine and substantive democracy in places like South Asia and elsewhere. But, I don’t think we can separate out post-colonial societies and polities as having deeply rooted cultural tendency towards authoritarianism.


I really don’t think that a cultural essentialist argument has any merit. If in fact postcolonial societies and polities have tended towards authoritarianism despite having in some instances a democratic garb, I believe it is the task of historians to uncover or unravel the historically specific processes that have led to that outcome. – Sugata Bose

Yet, I do think, Sugata, there are certain post-colonial legal systems that were developed in the colonial period which are unique. – Ayesha Jalal


AJ: Yet I do think, Sugata, there are certain post-colonial legal systems that were developed in the colonial period which are unique. For instance, when you look at Britain’s own policing structures or even America’s, I think there are some very subtle differences that make the post-colonial countries somewhat more oppressive. What I want to say to you is that in the trends of authoritarianism we see today, I have always seen this as an ongoing struggle between authoritarianism and democratic aspirations. I don’t think it’s one or the other. We are in a particular moment where right-wing authoritarianism seems to be on the up, but the resistance is there as well. This dynamic will continue. It’s an ongoing process by no means resolved. I don’t think we can say the final word on authoritarian tendencies in the post-colonial world because I believe they are being resisted across the board with different degrees of effectiveness.

SB: I tend to agree with Ayesha that there are many emergency provisions that tended towards authoritarianism that were written into colonial system’s so-called “rule of law.” Those have been inherited and even if you think about the law of sedition, it has finally been done away with in the metropolis, the United Kingdom, but India is still to abolish it from the statute books.       

TD: My last questions to you both are: what exciting new trends do you see in the craft of history writing for both South Asia and global history, and what historical questions intrigue you now?

AJ: I think your own work is interregional and creative. That allows you to transcend the boundaries of the nation state and look upon broader strands and dynamics that were ongoing and see how they were ruptured. I think the transnational turn is creative, some more effectively done than others. Generally speaking, I think there is a move away from the narrow nation state-focused histories to look at things more broadly and making those inter-connections. I think that is very creative. I think some very interesting work is being done looking at concepts of history which remove colonial western influence. People now are looking at more exciting ways of doing history. For one thing, the rupture that was created between history and poetry writing and the fact that vernacular histories were in poetry is being addressed. In my own work, the turn towards Dastangoi and history, and those sorts of distinctions that were made to dismiss what was part of Dastangoi or folk tale as not historical, those are being put together now very creatively. One of the problems I find is how to make people read history and return to storytelling in this vein, in order to help us come back together. The more we decolonize our idea of historiography the better it will be to increase our accessibility in our own contexts.

SB: I am very encouraged by creative work being done by younger generations of historians. If we look at what has been produced in the twenty first century in the field of South Asian history, we find many works looking afresh toward the formation of regional identities, and these works have in fact expanded our concept of the archive. They have not been limited to official documents in government repositories, but have included the kind of sources that Ayesha was alluding to. I think in terms of both method and thematic substance, that has been the area of some fascinating new work. Whether you think of Kashmir or Punjab or Maharashtra or Bengal. I think some really superb work has been done. Secondly, of course, there has been new work placing the various regions of South Asia in a larger Indian Ocean interregional context. I had written A Hundred Horizons hoping to inspire many other histories of the Indian Ocean in the modern period in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, which has clearly happened. There has also been very insightful engagement with the larger processes of global history. I think finally there is a lot of new work in the realm of political and economic ideas in larger interregional and global contexts. To go back to a question that you asked at the outset about the supposed rise of religion once again, you cannot explain religious majoritarianism without thinking in terms of the challenges posed by religious aspirations. It has been a dialectical process, and that is being studied. You asked what are we excited about today, Ayesha should perhaps say a word or two about the new work she is doing about Muslim enlightenment. I have just finished a manuscript titled Asia After Europe. As you known in an earlier incarnation, I was something of an economic historian and therefore there is a narrative of a decline and rise Asia. There has seen a dramatic reversal in the economic fortunes of these two entities—Europe and Asia—between the early nineteenth century and early twenty first century. However, that is not the main story that I tell in this book. I have much more interested in showing how there were conversations across borders among Asian intellectuals and subalterns alike in imparting a creative spark to the idea of Asia that was very different from the cartographic depictions of the continent by European geographers. At the moment that is the kind of work I have just completed, and now I have to think of new ways forward.

TD: Prof Jalal, would you want to close by talking about your latest manuscript?

AJ: Well, the only thing I will say right now is that I attempt to underline epistemic rupture that came with colonialism which created not just the colonial and non-colonial subjugation but also created these East-West distinctions where Western knowledge is coming to the East or vice-versa. I think we need to go beyond this epistemic rupture to understand what is going on. So, what I am doing in this work is to breach the East-West divide and try to understand engagement of Muslim intellectuals with ideas beyond the understanding that knowledge and modernity was gifted by the West. I am looking at Urdu vernacular materials where people are engaging on their own terms. So rather than accepting historical interventions that classify people as liberal and illiberal, western and traditional/conservative, I am looking at how people saw themselves. I think that is long overdue—engagement with texts written by people that they are constantly writing and describing. In that context I find the new work very liberating, and I am looking at Muslim intellectuals, both men and women, who have talked about themselves and various ideas that were/are deemed to be inaccessible or impossible for Muslims. So, in some ways it’s also an attempt to move away from dour theology as the only face of Islam to look at. There are other ways of thinking and being Muslim.                 


Tufts University and Harvard University jointly under the joint leadership of Prof. Jalal and Prof. Bose are marking the 75th Anniversary with a two-part seminar and cultural event series entitled Empire, Nation, Federation: South Asia’s Freedom in Global Perspective in October 2022 and April 2023.

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