“Divide et Impera” or Prologue to Decolonization? New Perspectives on 20th-Century Partition Politics

AHA Session 221
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Philippa Levine, University of Texas at Austin
The Audience

Session Abstract

Though recent years have witnessed a revival of public and scholarly interest in the history of partition politics, our understanding of its relation to interwar internationalism, global processes of decolonization and postwar nation-state formation is still lacking. Should twentieth century partitions be regarded as a new formulation of the old imperial divide et impera (divide and rule) technique, adapted to fit the conditions and diplomatic climate of interwar and post-WWII international diplomacy? Or, alternatively, should we regard the division of territorial units along religious, sectarian, and ethno-national lines as a proviso for independence and a crucial, unavoidable step towards decolonization? Was partition a “traveling theory”, first exercised in Ireland (1922), then in Palestine (1937/47) and, lastly, in the Indian subcontinent (1947), and therefore should it be re-assessed using a trans-local and transnational perspective? And, finally, how and to what extent did local actors participate in the process of turning partition from a theory into a practice on the ground, and did they understand partition to be an unavoidable step for the acquisition of sovereignty or as a mechanism of control and containment of ethno-national or sectarian conflict?

The aim of this panel is to address these questions by looking at the three “paradigmatic” cases of partition during the twentieth century and the relation between partition and colonial rule on the one hand, and the formation of new states. The two first speakers trace the genealogy of partition by examining British colonial policy proposals and governance techniques and by reconstructing the theoretical and historicist reasoning that stood behind it. In particular, Sinanglou argues that the underlying assumption that the British Empire would continue to function as the supreme sovereign in those regions, rather than prophecies of doom envisioning an approaching imperial breakdown, stood at the backdrop for such proposals. Looking at the role of intellectuals in the story, Dubnov argues that partition emerged, paradoxically, from the theoretical circles whose members were toying with new imperial federalist conceptions. Switching gears from metropole to the colony, our third and fourth speakers address these questions from South Asia and the Middle East respectively. They use the history of partition as the context in which canonical texts such as Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Pakistan and the bi-natioalist proposals of Brit Shalom association in Palestine should be situated. Zamindar turns our attention to the ways in which translations and mistranslations of political ideas and texts feature in the “global” history of partition, and asks how we should negotiate between the particular and the universal when re-writing the history of nationalism and anti-colonial revolt in a transnational mode. Lastly, Gordon shows the way in which alternative schemes to partition were based not only on “intra-imperial” comparisons within the Anglo-sphere, but also on lessons learned from West and Central European polities such as the Habsburgs, the Swiss, and more.

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