Delhi Reborn. Partition and Nation Building in India's Capital

Geva, Rotem
South Asia in Motion
Anzahl Seiten
368 S.
$ 30.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Aprajita Sarcar, Laureate Centre for History and Population, University of New South Wales

The streets of Delhi have been part of many renditions of the partition. However, before “Delhi Reborn”, there was no organized account of how crucial the city was, to the future of both nation states and their political trajectories. Rotem Geva shows, through rigorous research and in painful detail how the city was integral to the early calls for partition, the formation of Pakistan and the reconstitution of refugees that followed the terrible violence. This book is a demanding read. We have, by now, a massive field of historiography on the partition and its ongoing influence on the political cartographies of the subcontinent. However, this book creates a way for Delhi to speak through the archives and examine how the city shaped religious identities.

The book brings two clusters of historiographies in conversation: that on partition and that on colonial Delhi. Historiography on urbanity in South Asia has been consistently deep and layered when examining national events through the city as its site of analysis. Indeed, many of the first generation of urban historiography have been about the colonial cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras.1 Scholars have produced complicated analyses of how class, caste and religion organized disease, housing and other worries about urban governance.2 There is an awareness that this historiography is centered on major cities and there has been a push for histories of peri-urban sites, small towns and non-capital cities.3 Additionally, there is veritable criticism of urban histories written on and from India as being too Delhi-centric.4 “Delhi Reborn” can easily be taken as another example of centering Delhi and treating it as a site to showcase national politics. However, such a criticism would be superficial and limited in its reading of this text.

In recent years, there has been a cluster of literature which has emerged out of archival repositories in Delhi that has produced histories through methodological peculiarities that are unique to the city.5 These books display how a city can organically produce a method for its own analysis if scholars allow the space for complicated explanations that do not sit comfortably within any one theoretical framework. These recent works do not subscribe to any underlining principle except to follow the intricacies of what happened in the everyday occurrences on the streets. While governmentality was a popular entry point to understand the same, we see a distinct shift in the way these authors, including Rotem Geva, eschew this tendency to overwhelm their explanations with it. In fact, we see an interesting intermingling of class analysis with surveillance and state authority that arises out of the way Delhi structures the violence of displacement and collapse of civic authority. Given this use of Delhi as a mode of doing history differently, this book is setting itself a task that is at a slight variance from other books on 1947.

The first half of book locates the early conversations of the Muslim League in Delhi regarding the creation of Pakistan, within a global context of soft borders and rising anxieties around one’s religious identity in the nation state emerging out of British India. The first chapter shows how the dissolution of the British empire, imminent from the late 1930s, did not necessitate the partition. However, the political vision of Pakistan sprung from dynamics around religion in which this empire mimicked the dissolution of other major multiethnic empires like the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian. Demands for Pakistan were products of a historical moment following the First World War, wherein ideas of territorial self-determination were nebulous in their borders and their aspirations for sameness. From about the end of the Second World War to mid-1940s, the idea of Pakistan was a set of values and aspirations that were organic enough to think of Delhi as its political capital. The second chapter shows how the idea becomes more rigid in the late 1940s given the rising prominence of Hindu fundamentalist rhetoric in and adjacent to the Indian National Congress. The book also shows how the early proponents of Pakistan had absolutely no idea of the cataclysmic scale of violence that was to unfold in the months after Independence.

The second half describes the graduated violence of displacing Muslim local populations from their homes in Delhi (especially tenants) to house refugees from Punjab. The political rhetoric, which legitimized these events, were sharpened on the poor Muslims who were already targets of violent Hindu mobs. The third chapter focuses on how class refracted the brutality and forced displacement that ensued after a fresh spat of riots. Threats of physical manhandling and outright death loomed large over large illegal financial transactions. Some elite members could barter their way out of brutal dispossession at the cost of other poorer members of the community. The chapter on the Urdu press is particularly painful in the way patriotic lines were being drawn in a language that was common ground between the refugees and the Muslims in Delhi. The last chapter is especially prescient in the way it frames the carceral state and its use of preventive detention in the period of 1947–50. It could be read as a primer for understanding the structured but arbitrary violence of the Emergency era. In this sense, Nazima Parveen’s recent volume on Delhi Muslims could be read as complementary to “Delhi Reborn”.6

An additional point that is pertinent is how the author’s positionality matters in this intellectual project. The author being a Jewish historian brings in a unique perspective. As a reader, one is already negotiating histories of mitigated violence in and through which post-partition memories work. Linking this subjectivity to the author’s awareness of Israel’s emergence as a nation-state folds in another layer of analysis which was hitherto missing in South Asian historiography. The book is written with an understanding of the tragedy of Delhi Muslims that a translocal perspective like Geva’s can especially contribute to the field.

Finally, a comment about tonality. There is a certain melancholy that flows through the book. There is no escaping the violence of the partition and how it has restructured the city. The book begins with the way a writer tied the tragedies of 1947 to the violence unleashed on Old Delhi and its Muslim families in 1857; and ends with the riots in North-East Delhi on Muslim homes post the agitations around the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2020. The affective structure of the book interweaves disparate or distant events (like the violence of 1857, the partition, or the years of the Emergency) through memories and reportage to situate the memories in a longer lineage of violence. The beauty of this long-term view lies in the fact that instead of framing it as a teleological account of the atrocities that the Muslim community has had to endure in Delhi, it shows how despite the rampant and recurring efforts to displace and hurt families, resistance to these efforts never desist, and take up new forms.

1 For an overview of this historiography, see Janaki Nair, Beyond nationalism: modernity, governance and new urban history of India, in: Urban History 36,1 (2009), pp. 327–341. For an overview of the historiography on partition and its impact, see Neeti Nair, Hurt sentiments. Secularism and belonging in South Asia, Cambridge M.A. 2023.
2 Sheetal Chhabria, Making of the modern slum. The power of capital, Seattle 2019; Partho Datta, Planning the city. Urbanisation and reform in Calcutta, 1800–1940, New Delhi 2012; Awadhendra Sharan, In the city, out of place. Nuisance, pollution and dwelling in Delhi, Delhi 2014.
3 Douglas E. Haynes / Nikhil Rao, Beyond the colonial city: Re-evaluating the urban history of India, ca. 1920–1970, in: South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 36,3 (2013), pp. 317–335.
4 Nipesh Palat Narayanan, The Delhi bias: knowledge hegemony of India’s slum governance, in: Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 41,1 (2020), pp. 105–119.
5 Raghav Kishore, The (Un)Governable city. Productive failure in the making of colonial Delhi, 1858–1911, Hyderabad 2020; Anish Vanaik, Possessing the city. Property and politics in Delhi, 1911–1947, Oxford 2020; Sanjeev Routray, The right to be counted. The urban poor and the politics of resettlement in Delhi, Stanford 2022; Sushmita Pati, Properties of rent. Community, capital and politics in globalising Delhi, Cambridge 2022; Nazima Parveen, Contested Homelands. Politics of Space and Identity, New Delhi 2021; Tarangini Sriraman, In pursuit of power. A history of identification documents in India, Oxford 2019.
6 Parveen, Contested Homelands.

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