Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space

Dec 2015

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                                                                                                                                                       Partition, as the underside of independence, remains a festering wound in the collective psyche of South Asia.
—Bhaskar Sarkar1
Visual representations of Partition—despite the rich archive of photographs that must exist in many newspapers and magazines—remain limited, and while a half-century of Indian independence has called for all manner of celebratory events, little has been done to mark this important event in the history of India.
—Urvashi Butalia2
Sometimes when Mr. Kapur spoke about 1947 and Partition, Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated. But Yezad’s silent criticism was always followed by remorse. He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust, writing and remembering and having nightmares about the concentration camps and gas chambers and ovens, about the evil committed by ordinary people, by friends and neighbours, the evil that, decades later, was still incomprehensible. What choice was there, except to speak about it, again and again, and yet again?
—Rohinton Mistry3
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The Partition, the Holocaust, and Representation

Over a few weeks in 1947, an estimated 10 to 15 million people were displaced and up to one million killed, as British India split into two sovereign nation-states: a Hindu dominated but constitutionally secular India, and a Muslim Pakistan. The scale of Partition’s bloodshed reflected the roles played; first, by British colonial leaders as they sought a quick withdrawal—it is impossible to improve on Lord Louis Mountbatten’s own assessment of his part in overseeing the bloody division: “I fucked it up”4 —and second, by the personal ambitions of Indian leaders looking to capitalize on the hastily negotiated settlement. 

Not that such a settlement remained settled for long. It was followed 24 years later by the Indian-supported secession of East Pakistan and the creation of the independent nation-state of Bangladesh. The birth pangs of Bangladesh were similarly brutal, with estimates of the human costs ranging up to three million killed and between 8 to 10 million displaced.


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Given the scale of human suffering, it is not surprising that Partition has been referred to in local popular literature and the media as a “holocaust.” And as Bhaskar Sarkar suggests, the economic and geopolitical importance of the region, and the sheer number of scholars working on South Asia may yet make the Partition another “paradigmatic case for thinking globally about collective traumas.”5 But unlike the holocaust of European Jews during the Nazi regime, India’s partition has not yet spawned a visual culture of commemoration. As Urvashi Butalia has noted above, until recently there was little to mark Partition in the sphere of the visual arts.

Since Partition’s 50th anniversary a decade ago, however, a rich seam of artistic production engaging the topic has emerged. Works such as Nalini Malani’s Remembering Toba Tek Singh, and Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside, and the Mappings exhibition (1997) by New Delhi’s Eicher Gallery, showing the work of artists from India and Pakistan together, were propelled out of a sense of critical and communal interaction across borders—a sentiment released or at least catalyzed by the violence following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India (1992), and a decade on, the Gujarat pogroms (2002). Indeed, Ayodhya and the communal fissures that erupted in India during the rise of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed a generation of artists to look at the wounds of Partition afresh. Indeed, of the 20 artists of South Asian origin whose works are in Lines of Control, only two were born before Partition. So the artistic engagement with the traumas of Partition can be seen more as a Gandhian desire to “be the change you want to see in the world” than as solely an engagement with history.

Anita Dube, a historian and critic, felt compelled to initiate a critically and socially engaged artistic practice post-Ayodhya. Amar Kanwar’s celebrated trilogy of films: A Season Outside (1997), A Night of Prophecy (2002), To Remember (2003), shown in this exhibition, is roughly contemporaneous with India’s rule by the BJP (1998-2004), which promulgated overt nationalist rhetoric and muscular free-market policies. Kanwar’s immersive, complex, fragmentary films can be read as an attempt at unpacking the human cost of the infamous “India Shining” slogan the BJP adopted to project India’s economic optimism.

"I tried very hard to cut the sky in half, one for my lover and one for me, but the sky kept moving and clouds from his territory came into mine. i tried pushing it away, with both my hands, harder and harder but the sky kept moving and clouds from my territory went into his. i brought a sofa and placed it in the middle, but the clouds kept floating over it. i built a wall in the middle, but the sky started to flow through it. i dug a trench, and then it rained and the sky made clouds over the trench. i tried very hard to cut the sky in half." | Artist: Shilpa Gupta

“I tried very hard to cut the sky in half, one for my lover and one for me, but the sky kept moving and clouds from his territory came into mine.” | Artist: Shilpa Gupta

Another important marker in this trajectory of artistic response and intervention was AarPaar,6 a series of cross-border projects initiated in 1998 by artists Shilpa Gupta (India) and Huma Mulji (Pakistan) in the aftermath of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. The projects spanned four years and different media: from a first realization in 2000 where art objects crossed the border and were shown in everyday spaces (roadside restaurants, and paan shops) on the streets of Karachi and Mumbai; to a second one in 2002 where artists produced single-color posters exchanged as emails, printed locally, and inserted into the public domain—flyposted or distributed as handouts; and then a final version in the form of short videos in 2004.

More recently, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan launched an oral history project to record Partition stories, and in 2011 collaborated with VASL, the Karachi-based artists’ collective, to host a joint residency for artists from Pakistan and Bangladesh to consider the memories of 1971. In the same year we witnessed India’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale featuring four artists who, in the words of curator Ranjit Hoskote, “stretch the idea of India” and “critique the idea of the nation-state as something unitary or territorial.”7

Overlooking art market favorites, Hoskote showcased four artists who are charting more independent routes, including the quiet minimalist aesthetic of Zarina Hashmi, whose explorations of spatial boundaries and the Urdu language have marked a life-long principled commitment to the cultural specificity of being an Indian Muslim; and the Assam-based Desire Machine Collective, who operate an alternative art space on board a ferry that they are seeking to transform into “an archive and carrier of folk and oral traditions, poetry, people’s experiences, and new forms that emerge with a multidisciplinary approach to cultural production.”8

Partition is how the nation-states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were formed. It was thus, by definition, a productive act: generating new lines and maps; creating borders and regimes of control; fashioning new identities, reconfiguring memories and rewriting histories. The activist, scholar, and theorist Eqbal Ahmad saw artists as “repositories no less than creators of collective memories and emotions.”9 Within Benedict Anderson’s formulation of nations as “imagined communities,” artists play a crucial role in creating a cultural bond for members of the “community” or citizens of the “nation.” The work of artists mentioned above is exemplary in this mode of working—what Irit Rogoff (in this volume) calls an undisciplined approach that works on memory, cartography, language, history, trauma and security to unpack what happens when nations are created through the fracture of partition.

Lines of Control – The Story So Far

The genesis of this exhibition was at a symposium—organized at London’s Royal Geographical Society in December 2005— examining the encounter of visual artists and filmmakers with the subject of India’s 1947 Partition. Under the gentle but incisive prodding of the chair, curator, and cultural theorist, Sarat Maharaj, a round-table of 20 artists, curators, filmmakers, scholars, and cartographers, abandoned the idea of a big exhibition coinciding with the 60th anniversary of India’s Partition in August 2007, in favor of a constellation of events that would build on each other and spark different enquiries, with no specific end in sight.

Lines of Control is an exhibition-led enquiry that Green Cardamom developed subsequent to this symposium, its shape and form guided by the Gujarati proverb: “If you are going to eat an elephant, do it in small bites.” Over the past six years the project has spawned writings, artists’ talks, and film screenings; a research fellowship; a three-part exhibition spread across London, Dubai, and Karachi with partner galleries; a program of experimental film in Karachi; an exhibition at Cartwright Hall in Bradford, UK; a symposium at London’s Whitechapel Gallery; artist projects hosted at Green Cardamom’s London space; a specially commissioned project curated for the British Council at their London Head Office; and, participation in public programs from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Barcelona.

The most important legacy of these different approaches to exploring the partition of India has been the abandonment of fixed ideas of what the project needed to achieve and the form it needed to take. Letting go of these preconceptions has allowed the project to widen its scope: from being a commemorative gesture to becoming one link in an open-ended enquiry; from gaining historical perspective to understanding the contemporary moment through the lens of historic upheavals; from being about the Partition per se to addressing partitions in general; from a desire to identify and display works of art as memorial to considering them as critical texts; allowing us to consider the potential that such explorations offer for knowledge production about self and society.


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One corollary of following such an approach has been that while focusing on our small bites, we now find ourselves eating a much larger elephant. The exhibition at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum extends the geographic scope of our project beyond the South Asian subcontinent for the first time, comprising over 45 works by more than 30 artists from South Korea to the US via Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Sudan, Palestine, Israel, the Netherlands, and Ireland, alongside our starting point of works from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Encompassing this broader context enriches the project by creating opportunities for comparisons across contexts and begins an investigation of comparative approaches to the visualization of partition.

My own ambition for Lines of Control was not to curate a large exhibition that moves objects around the world, but rather to create a platform for exhibition-led enquiry, where each incarnation does new work. In that context, the invitation from Ellen Avril, chief curator of Cornell’s Johnson Museum, to bring the project to Ithaca was an outstanding opportunity to work with one of America’s leading centers of learning, to eat a bigger elephant. And it has been a privilege to work with her and Iftikhar Dadi (a scholar and artist whose work has been foundational to my earliest engagement with the visuality of Partition), with the assistance of Nada Raza (who has worked on the project since 2007-8) to realize this exhibition.

Indeed the project in its present form would not have been possible without the commitment and engaged support of not only the staff at the Johnson Museum but the wider Cornell community: most directly from Jolene Rickard, whose newly commissioned work anchors the exhibition into the specificity of its present location by exploring the question of sovereignty and territory in the context of the Cayuga Nation; from the curatorial contributions by Salah Hassan and Reem Fadda; the film program hosted by Cornell Cinema; and perhaps even more fundamentally the staff and students of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, who have helped literally construct this show.

Lines of Control at Cornell is a chance for the “undisciplined” work of contemporary artists to enter into a diverse set of conversations with practitioners in different fields to find new meaning. That there are faculty members from the departments of Art, Art History, English, Comparative Literature, Film, History, Music, and Natural Resources using the exhibition as a teaching resource is thrilling. And I am keen to see what such interaction produces.

Planned future incarnations of the project will continue to advance the parallel tracks of broadening out its geographical coverage on one hand and digging deeper in specific areas of exploration on the other. In 2013-14 we plan to collaborate with Duke University’s Nasher Museum and its multidisciplinary Borderwork(s) Lab to work with ideas of cartography in the context of South Asia.

What follows below are some of the core ideas explored in the exhibition at the Johnson Museum—around difference and division, borders and security, and memory and forgetting. They function, at least in part, as themes that provide some structure to thinking about an exhibition of this size, but they are meant as points of reference rather than as “sections” of the show— for the works of art seep through the porous divisions between these concepts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          One could argue that Europe has been so harmonious since World War II not because of the failure of ethnic nationalism but because of its success, which removed some of the greatest sources of potential conflict both within and between countries.
—Jerry Z. Muller10
History has not anaesthetized the original crisis of Partition. . . . Partition is the moment of the Indian nation’s origin through violent rupture with itself. It both defines and constantly suspects India’s identity, dividing it between the responsibility to tolerate differences and the dream of a territory where all are compelled to worship in unison. The deep, valuable diversities of India have kept alive the fear and ambition of future crises of division. It will remain so until Indians begin to come to terms with Partition’s political and historical significance.
—Sunil Khilnani11
The difference between a “nation” and an “ethnic group” is analogous to that between a “language” and a “dialect.” It is a question of convention. A language is a dialect that has succeeded politically, and a nation is an ethnic group that has done the same thing.
—Rada Ivekovic12

Difference, Division and Nation

As the American historian Jerry Muller recounts, the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish holocaust under the Nazi regime in Germany was rightly shunned, and yet the moving of populations based on ethnicity remained part of how postwar Europe worked. In an attempt at post-war stability, the three powers (the US, UK, and Russia) insisted on the expulsion of all ethnic Germans from non-German countries. By 1947, more than seven million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia—the largest forced population move in European history.13

In Muller’s way of thinking, partition is the “most humane lasting solution to such intense communal conflicts.”14 And he argues that while partitions have a cost attached to them in terms of creating refugees, they avoid the long-term instability and cost of maintaining rival groups under one polity—whether it’s by force (think of the Kurds in Turkey or the Basques in Spain) or by political negotiations (the Scots in Great Britain and the Catalans in Spain).

The impact of ethno-nationalism is not restricted to Europe. And in the decolonization efforts after World War II, it has been directly exported to swathes of Asia and Africa. Perhaps the most lasting repercussions so far have been in the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and later East Pakistan’s secession/liberation to Bangladesh. And it reverberates in the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in the former British mandate of Palestine. There are key parallels between these two historic instances. Both were efforts by the British to extract themselves from colonial entanglements and in each instance gave birth to the world’s first set of nation-states created on the basis of religion rather than ethnicity. The creation of Israel in 1948 can also be seen as a continuation of the project of removing Jews from Europe. And since its creation, more than 750,000 Arabs left or were forced to flee from Israel, and more than 500,000 Jews from Arab countries moved to Israel.15

Pakistan, created in 1947, was the home of a majority of the Subcontinent’s Muslims. But in the end, a common faith was not enough to hold firm the ties of a nation-state split by the wide expanse of India, and it eventually dissolved into Urdu dominated Pakistan and Bengali-speaking Bangladesh. But Urdu itself is a language spoken by a minority of Pakistan’s population, mostly in urban centers, and is the mother tongue of only those Pakistanis who came from India. Indeed, the migrants or mohajirs are euphemistically referred to as being “Urdu-speaking.”

But how do people who have lived side by side for centuries become mortal enemies? As Eqbal Ahmad points out in his essay “Partitioned Lands, Divided Sentiments,” the Muslim League polled only four percent of the Muslim votes in the Indian elections of 1937, and yet within three years, it formulated the demand for Pakistan and then achieved it by 1947.16 This dramatic turnaround in political fortune suggests to Ahmad the failure of the “majority leaders to comprehend the anxieties and insecurities of a minority people” and its translation into the demand for separate statehood.

In my reading the Partition of India was an attempt to bring about not only the establishment of a Muslim nation-state but also the minorization of “the Muslims,” and through it the nationalization of Indian culture and polity, by means of a massive rearrangement of populations, identities, desires, and memories that sought to turn roughly two-thirds of the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent into non-Indians.

-Aamir Mufti17

In his book Enlightenment in the Colony,18 Aamir Mufti opens up the history of the “Jewish Question” to a broader discussion of the exclusion of religious and cultural minorities, and in particular to the issue, indeed the crisis, of Muslim identity in modern India. Mufti sees the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India as a colonial variation of what he calls “the exemplary crisis of minority”—taking as his starting point the conceptual framework put forth by Gilles Deleuze and F.lix Guattari in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, where they define minor literature as being “that which a minority constructs within a major language.”19


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Through historically situated close readings of literary and political texts in German, English, and Urdu, Mufti produces a comparative reading of the “minority-ness” of Jews in Europe and Muslims in India, articulating the link between the two through the modernist project of the nation state, which was part of the solution for both sets of “problems:” the Jews in Europe and Muslims in India.

The modernist formulation of nationalism and the nation-state (for example in Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”) privileges its “unifying project,” that is, its desire to produce the one out of the many. Mufti, however, sees the converse of that tendency in nationalism’s ability to disrupt social relations by setting up a process of inclusion and exclusion. Hence, he argues that the process of “nationalization” of peoples and cultural practices results in a parallel “minoritization,” where the minority “is always potentially exile, and exile is an actualization of the threat inherent to the condition of minority.”20

Mufti calls for the adoption of secular, minority, and exilic perspectives in criticism and intellectual life as a means to critique the very forms of marginalisation that give rise to the uniquely powerful minority voice in world literatures. This formulation is directly applicable for new hyphenated forms of identity—the Indian-Muslim or the Israeli-Arab—that are unstable and vulnerable to ethno-national violence.

                                                                                                  The surge in violence that began shortly before the Radcliffe award was announced can be traced in part to rumors and uncertainty over where the Line would fall . . . The lack of a methodologically sound boundary-making process must be counted prominently among the failures of the South Asian division.
—Lucy Chester21
Like the traditionally undivided Indian family which separates when brothers and cousins quarrel and build walls along the family courtyard, Indians and Pakistanis make awkward, complementary enemies.
—Eqbal Ahmad22

 Border, Security and Control

These two quotes give us two different registers of referencing the business of cartography: Lucy Chester sees it as lying within the domain of bureaucratic efficiency, Eqbal Ahmad brings us back into the fold of where much of South Asian life takes place: the family. But this bureaucratic/familial business of drawing lines is foundational to the idea of the nation. Benedict Anderson’s articulation of the nation as an “imagined community” is fertile terrain for us to ground this consideration. For Anderson, the nation is “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,”23 concepts that he defines as such:

1. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

2. The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind.

3. It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinelyordained, hierarchical, dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

4. Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

For Anderson, crucial to the functioning of the nation is the principle of limitation. But this is also a method for exclusion, which allows the nation to define its borders and declare those within it as belonging to it. Those excluded from the nation become, at first cut, strangers (a notion that Raqs Media Collective has expanded on in their work for the exhibition). And if these excluded people are not accepted by another nation, or are a politically unsuccessful ethnic group, in Rada Ivekovic’s formulation, they become the stateless.

The social scientist Richard Sennett analysed the history of segregation and “ghettoization” by tracing its evolution from the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in 1516 (where it was used to physically contain the Venetians’ “anxieties of difference”).24 He describes the way in which the Venetian ghetto, created in stages over the course of a century, was surrounded by walls and moats, and was accessible only by a limited number of bridges and gateways that were sealed at night, even to the extent that other external exits and outward-facing balconies were sealed up. The Jews were walled up at night. This is often the fate of the stateless, or politically unsuccessful ethnic groups; and remarkably little seems to have changed in the five centuries that have passed since the Venetian ghetto. The condition of Palestinians living in the West Bank offers an uncanny parallel to the Jewish ghetto of 16th century Venice. All that seems to have changed is the means of surveillance (drones and CCTV rather than the watchtower) and the mechanisms of control (passports, visas).


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The other parallel offered is, of course, that of the Indigenous or Native American peoples of North America. In his landmark essay, “Pioneering in the Nuclear Age” Eqbal Ahmad sets out his devastating interpretation of Zionism as an extreme form of “settler colonialism.” It is “one that seeks to exclude and eliminate the native inhabitants rather than to occupy and exploit them.”25 By comparing Israel’s creation with the European settlement of the Americas and the violent elimination of the native population, Ahmad emphasizes its basis in the myths of “an empty land, of swamps reclaimed and deserts blooming.” He highlights how Israel’s exclusionary policies and security paranoia led to its embracing a “dialectic of anxiety, violence and expansion.” The similarity of the situation in Gaza and that of the Indigenous peoples of North America offers uncomfortable parallels.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   If there is no suitable past it can be invented.
—Eric Hobsbawm26
There never were any mosques in Zvornik.
—Branko Grujic, Serbian mayor of Zvornik27
In many countries in the world today there are memorials to moments of conflict and upheaval . . . scholars have painstakingly built up meticulous archives of people’s testimonies, of photographs, letters, documents, memoirs, books in which such historical moments are represented. Very little of this exists for Partition.
—Urvashi Butalia28

Memory, History, and Commemoration

There is not one public memorial in India or Pakistan to commemorate the more than one million dead and more than 15 million displaced by India’s Partition. If memorials are the mechanism through which, in the words of Kristin Ann Hass, “people make promises to the future about the past,”29 then this suggests a troubling lack of commitment from those who lived through it and the generations that have followed.

Given that the Partition and the Holocaust happened in the same decade, and noting the presence of Holocaust memorials and museums in locations from Germany to Israel and from America to Australia, it is puzzling that no such initiative has taken place anywhere to commemorate Partition. And one can take no refuge in cultural differences given that ritualistic practices of commemorating the dead exist in both Hindu and Muslim cultures of the subcontinent. This lack signals a discomfort in rendering these memories in concrete form.

“Fight for the Line” | Artist: Jolene Rickard

Murtaza Vali, in the introduction to his project of inviting artists to submit proposals for possible memorials to Partition (in this volume), argues that commemoration becomes problematic when there is no clear distinction between perpetrator and victim, where atrocities were committed by both sides (as they clearly were in 1947 and 1971). He identifies a second complication in contemplating such a memorial in that the “violence was not delimited, temporally or geographically.” One can debate the finer points of whether such qualifications hold: If commemoration is about collective mourning for loss, it should be possible for both sides to mourn their loss without the need to apportion blame. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is vivid proof of such possibilities. But Vali’s idea of artists helping us to articulate (and perhaps navigate) what Sukeshi Kamra calls “the erasures, silences, and gaps that were required for the triumphalist narrative of nation to be written,”30 seems a powerful one—in particular as it allows for the memory to be replayed, re-performed, and hence retained (as articulated by Rohinton Mistry, above). For as Vali points out, such loss and trauma is not bound by time. And as the violence and counter-violence of Ayodhya, Gujarat, the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and countless incidents have shown repeatedly, the Partition’s efficacy in transforming friends into strangers remains undimmed even after six decades.


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History, of course, is no refuge, as it can be rewritten to suit political goals: General Zia ul-Haq turned history “green,” with Jinnah, the Anglophile secularist painted in Islamist hues; while the BJP championed “saffron,” for example, with the Taj Mahal being “revealed” to be originally a Hindu temple. Nor is this a quixotic South Asian problem. Alternative readings of history continue to cause political ripples, be it diplomatic spats between Turkey and any nation that chooses to link Armenia with the word “genocide,” or the debate on what to call people who lived in what is now Israel (if not termed “Palestinian”). And as the writing of history becomes more widespread through the availability of Internet publishing and distribution, the ability of tendentious voices to articulate their claims more broadly will only increase. History, far from being bunk, looks poised to continue to hold its grip on our collective sense of self.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 As Franz Fanon argued, decolonization, like colonization, is a violent process. South Asian leaders — Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan — strained to avert it and nearly succeeded. Yet at the very end, in the hour of independence, violence did break out— massively and in an inverted manner, ruining friendships, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote, and our “centuries” of loyalties. These remain nevertheless, embedded in our collective memory. Our sentiments divide when the realities of the past and present collide. Hence the need for other “texts of love” and new “translations of hope.”
—Eqbal Ahmad31

Crossing Those Lines of Control

In his new book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, the social scientist Richard Sennett proposes that living with people who differ—racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically—is the most urgent challenge facing civil society today. Perhaps artists are uniquely placed to navigate new paths for us to live with our partitioned, fragmented selves.

South Ossetia, Kosovo, and Sudan are the most recent of a ready stream of live case studies stretching from the heart of “Old Europe” (think Belgium) to the Middle East (Israel and Palestine; Turkey, Iraq, and the “Kurdish question;” and those other “questions” previously, or still, kept in check by dictatorial tyranny) and from South Asia (the Tamils of Sri Lanka and India; the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan; Kashmir; and India’s impoverished North-East) to Africa (the long-term campsite of the Western Sahara; the tribally charged turmoil of Zimbabwe; the ethnoreligious conflicts of Nigeria) and to East Asia (the evolution of Greater China; the Koreas). The afterlife of colonization, the untangling of Cold War alliances, and the continued thawing out of nation states formed in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of three European empires in the 20th century will continue to play out through partitions and drawing of new lines in the 21st century.

It is not just maps that will feel the strain. Through the competing narratives of nationhood, histories excavated and rewritten, and memories re-configured, notions of self will remain a heavily contested terrain for large sections of the world’s population. For it is not just the colonized for whom these issues matter, but also the colonizer. What it means to be British or French are questions that are addressed as much to the Muslim pockets of Bradford and the banlieues of Paris as they are to the Houses of Parliament and the Elyse Palace.

Cultural practice, in general, and visual culture, in particular, offers us ways of thinking and exploring these issues in the “safe” environments of cultural spaces. Artistic institutions and practices can play a leading and constructive role in producing new knowledge about our predicaments. Critiques of our current impasses and new imaginations for coexistence are unleashed by the creative and undisciplined energy of visual artists—where the unsayable can be shown, the unthinkable can find voice, and the forgotten can find shape as images. Over and above the commemorative or cathartic effect of such processes and practices, is the evidence they provide of an innate and indomitable desire for these lines of control to be crossed.

This article originally appeared in Dadi, Iftikhar and Hammad Nasar 2012: Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, Green Cardamom, London. We would like to thank Hammad Nasar and Iftikhar Dadi for their permission to reproduce it on Tanqeed.

Hammad Nasar is a curator and co-founder of the London-based arts organization Green Cardamom. He has lectured at, curated exhibitions for, and contributed to public programs at museums and universities around the world, including the British Museum, Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, UCLA, and Yale University. Recent projects he has curated/co-curated include: Drawn from Life (2011) at Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal, UK; Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and  Bangladesh (2010) at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Safavids Revisited (2009) at the British Museum, London; Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art from Pakistan at the Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA (2010) and Manchester Art Gallery, UK (2006); and Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration (2005) at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT, and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (2006).


  1. Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (Duke University Press, 2009), 1. []
  2. Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1998), 361-362. []
  3. Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters (New York: Vintage, 2003), 130. []
  4. As related to BBC’s John Osman in 1965 and recalled in The Spectator (London), September 2004. []
  5. Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation, 306, note 32. []
  6. A vernacular expression I would loosely translate as near/far or this side/the other side—most commonly used to evoke crossing. You can find out more about “AarPaar” on the website []
  7. Quoted in Magot Cohen, “India Heads to the Venice Biennale” ( last accessed Jan 5, 2012. []
  8. []
  9. Eqbal Ahmad, “Partitioned Lands, Divided Sentiments” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, eds. Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 410. []
  10. Jerry Muller, “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism,” in Foreign Affairs, Volume 87, No. 2 (March/April, 2008): 31. []
  11. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997), 202. []
  12. Rada Ivekovic in “From the Nation to Partition; Through Partition to the Nation” in Divided Countries, Separated Cities: The Modern Legacy of Partition eds. Ghislaine Glass Deschaumes and Rada Ivekovic (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 150-174 []
  13. Jerry Muller, “Us and Them,” 27-28. []
  14. Ibid, 34. []
  15. Ibid, 29. []
  16. Eqbal Ahmad, “Partitioned Lands. Divided Sentiments,” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad eds. Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo and Yogesh Chandrani (Karachi, Oxford University Press Pakistan, 2006), 403-411. []
  17. Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 244. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Gilles Deleuze and F.lix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). []
  20. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 13. []
  21. Lucy Chester, “The 1947 Partition: Drawing the Indo-Pakistani Boundary” in American Diplomacy, #text20, 15 February, 2002 []
  22. Eqbal Ahmad, “Partitioned Lands. Divided Sentiments,” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, 408. []
  23. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 5-7. []
  24. Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 212-51. []
  25. Eqbal Ahmad, “Pioneering in the Nuclear Age: An Essay on Israel and the Palestinians” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, 303. []
  26. Eric Hobsbawm, “The New Threat to History,” New York Times Review of Books, 16 December 1993. []
  27. Quoted by Robert Bevan in The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 7. []
  28. Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, 361-362. []
  29. Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 38. []
  30. Sukeshi Kamra, “A ‘Messy’ History and its Many ‘Messy’ Texts: An Essay on Partition (India, 1947) and its Narratives,” in Literature Compass 3, No. 5 (2006): 1165. []
  31. Eqbal Ahmad, “Partitioned Lands. Divided Sentiments,” in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, 411. []

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