Interview: Hurt Sentiment

Courtesy: University of Virginia, Corcoran Department of History

Sapan News In a comprehensive interview recently published in Open Magazine, historian Neeti Nair talks about her new book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press, 2023), in which she necessarily complicates the role of religion and secularism in the lead up to and aftermath of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.

professor of South Asian history at the University of Virginia and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, Nair draws on Constituent Assembly debates, papers from the Gandhi murder trial and the Sahmat archive, public discourse, and a selection of banned literature, case laws, and oral histories, to reconstruct an archive that interrogates longstanding presumptions about the religious identity of Southasian nations. She also charts how existing political issues can find their roots in the debates around Partition.

Nair shares key takeaways in the interview, for example, that the religious identity and the role of secularism in Southasian nations are not fixed and often depend on political directives and agendas. She cites Tan Tai Yong and Gyanesh Kudaisya’s The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, which describes how before being sworn in as India’s first prime minister of India, the famously secular Jawaharlal Nehru partook in publicised Hindu rituals, under pressure from associates who argued that this was the traditional method of assuming power.

In contrast, independence celebrations in Pakistan, considered to be an Islamic state, were markedly devoid of religious custom. Nair quotes TIME magazine, noting at the time that “although Pakistan is frankly a Moslem state (the most populous in the world), and set up to satisfy Moslem demands, there was none of the atmosphere of religious dedication that marked Delhi ceremonies.”

Despite these fluxes, Nair sees parallels between the current political climate in Southasia and politics during the time of Partition.

“There were extremists of all religious communities sloganeering and mobilising at the time,” she tells the interviewer, Ullekh NP. “Words can be hurtful, polarising speech from popular leaders have consequences, and obviously this is as true for our present moment as it was for mid-20th century India.”

These parallels are the direct result of political events in the latter half of the 20th century, holds Nair.

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