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How Ethnic Conflict Shaped The Capital Of India

In ‘Delhi Reborn,’ Hebrew University’s Rotem Geva supplies a concise, perceptive history of how ethnic conflict shaped India’s most vital cities.


You wouldn’t know it from visiting contemporary Delhi, but not all that long ago, the city was a seething cauldron of interconfessional conflict.

Indeed, during a short trip to the magnificent city a few years ago, we toured the Qutub Minar, Lotus Temple, and Akshardham Mandir in a single day, followed shortly thereafter by Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, thus covering majestic religious sites of extraordinary importance to, respectively, the Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, and Sikh faiths, all within a short distance of one another. Peace and coexistence appeared to reign supreme among so-called dilliwalas.

But it wasn’t always thus. In “Delhi Reborn: Partition and Nation Building in India’s Capital,” Hebrew University’s Rotem Geva supplies a concise, perceptive history of “how the twin events of partition and independence remade Delhi.” It’s a city that has always straddled the fault line of Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh civilizations that shuddered horrifically as religious violence convulsed its mosques, temples, and bazaars both before and after the cataclysmic events of 1947.

Geva critically reexamines the regnant accounts of the origins of Delhi’s denominational strife, ultimately identifying various confounding factors that hadn’t previously been fully considered. He sets out to trace “how two nation-states — India and Pakistan — became increasingly territorialized in the imagination and practice of Delhi’s residents, how violence and displacement were central to this process, and how tensions over belonging and citizenship lingered in the city and the nation.”

“Delhi Reborn” also plumbs the depths of the aftermath of independence, aiming to chronicle “the post-1947 struggle, between the urge to democratize political life in the new republic and the authoritarian legacy of colonial rule, augmented by the imperative to maintain law and order in the face of the partition crisis.”

A key driver of the 1947 violence can be found in the mismatch between communal expectations and hard reality, especially when it came to establishing the Muslim territory that would one day become Pakistan.

The Lahore Resolution, enacted by the All India Muslim League in 1940, demanded that:

geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be so constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary, that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute Independent States in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.

However, the resolution nowhere used the terms “partition” or even “Pakistan,” nor did it delineate specific territorial boundaries or explicate the nature of autonomous “states” within a common country. As Geva puts it, the various proposals “convey a fluid, flexible, and open-ended political-territorial imagination rather than a rigid model of a nation-state with full sovereignty” or any kind of “precise overlap between religious-ethnic composition and territory.”

Indeed, geographic continuity for a would-be Muslim entity was all but impossible, given the vast distance between the mostly-Muslim lands in the west and those in Bengal (this gap would later become embodied by West and East Pakistan, which, following a brutal 1971 war, ultimately sundered into Pakistan and Bangladesh).

But one thing did seem certain: Delhi, because of its “perceived Muslimness and strong identification with Muslim political dynasties and the historical domination of well-born Muslims as a ruling elite,” would become part of a future Muslim territory.

And it was this expectation that helped trigger the brutal intercommunal violence of partition, where tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs perished. It became clear, following the British announcement in June 1947 that the Raj would soon come to an early end and that a sovereign Muslim Pakistan would be established in the eastern and western portions of the country, that Delhi would remain inside India, triggering both Muslim frustration and Hindu triumphalism.

In September 1947, the Muslim leader Maulana Azad, who served alongside Jawaharlal Nehru in the leadership of the pre-independence Congress Party and would become sovereign India’s first education minister, castigated his co-religionists for their passivity: “When the bitter politics of the past seven years … were still in their infancy, I shook you on the road to peril, but you not only ignored my call, you renewed all the traditions of forgetfulness and denial.”

Then, too, Hindu and Sikh officials in the armed services and civilian police combined forces to target Muslims and spirit them out of many of Delhi’s neighborhoods, often violently. Geva reckons it would be accurate to label these efforts “ethnic cleansing”; he asserts that, ultimately, “Delhi’s Muslims turned into refugees in their own city.”

Following partition, which saw arguably the largest transfer of populations in human history, the Muslim minority in Delhi continued to suffer, notwithstanding the formal agreement between India and Pakistan to guarantee “complete equality of citizenship, irrespective of religion, a full sense of security in respect of life, culture, property and personal honor, freedom of movement within each country and freedom of occupation, speech and worship.”

Nehru and fellow Hindu leader Sardar Patel clashed over whether and how to weave Delhi’s Muslims into the city’s fabric, and significant deprivation and discrimination ensued as Hindu refugees newly arrived from the Punjab region, now part of Pakistan, and sought to displace longtime Muslim dilliwalas.

“Dispossession of property,” Geva posits, “was thus bound up with dispossession of citizenship, underwritten by the logic of jus sanguinis rather than jus soli — the Muslim component of people’s identities came to override their birth and long-term residence in Delhi.” (Jus sanguinis is the idea that citizenship is determined by one’s parents, whereas jus soli is the notion that citizenship is acquired according to the territory where you were born.)

India’s new leaders also found themselves trapped between the Scylla of individual equality and the Charybdis of ensuring communal identity and rights. Ghettoizing Delhi’s Muslims would maintain their denominational integrity and ensure their safety, but it would also undermine the city’s unity.

Geva also traces continuities between the imperial and post-independence surveillance regimes, as the criminal investigation Department of the fledgling Indian state maintained many of the Raj’s monitoring practices to track communists, dissidents, labor organizers, and religious extremists, with a particular focus on Muslim groups. “India’s political leaders,” observed legal scholar David Bayley in 1962, “have gradually come to the realization that for them emergency is a way of life.”

These mid-century developments ramify in contemporary Delhi. “Recent events,” Geva contends, “show that India continues to negotiate between authoritarian instincts and democratic aspirations, and that Delhi continues to be a major theater for this confrontation.” Peaceful and stable as today’s dilliwalas appear, that calmness rests atop a tumultuous history still being written. What’s new in Delhi is also old, as Geva’s important study makes clear.

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