The Two Nations and The Shadow Lines

The states of rootlessness and being rooted are the two options to choose from when it comes to one’s existence at macro level. One is not totally free to choose in most of the cases, but the hard determinism that absolutely denies free will as totally powerless against social programming finds its refutation in the pattern of exceptions and in the absence of any set pattern of the development of one’s relation to one’s roots. As Anderson very rightly pointed out, the sense of belonging to a nation, nay, even the idea of a nation are constructed. Their not being natural or innate is very clearly proven by the infection of the two nations theory that set into the system of the two newly constructed nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. Neither is superior in any way. Any claim to superiority is based upon the hidden assumption of the now established modern tradition of secularism’s being better than the state’s preferring any specific religion over others.

India is a secular democracy and Pakistan is a Muslim one – on paper. Any state can declare itself secular, but nations are their people and no state has the power to make people internalize secularism and make it their faith over and above their religion of birth. India and Pakistan arise from the same stock, and the way religion is observed by a common man doesn’t differ much just because someone decided to draw an arbitrary line separating them. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (henceforth The Shadow Lines) proves the same through its narrator’s and comments and through the words and actions of its main characters viz. Tridib and Tha’mma. The novel, just like the history of the two nations, proves the two nations theory totally wrong. In fact, theories work only as long as they are able to keep up with practice. They ought to be discarded when they fail doing so. The nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries saw the establishment of racial discrimination. People believed in the race theory and acted on the basis of their beliefs. What happened then may help understanding the common mechanism of the rejection of theories that are prescriptive and prohibitive. The Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were used against racial discrimination by those being discriminated against. Public opinion was moulded against racial superiority or inferiority and, finally, the theory was discarded. It may appear so simple on paper but it took centuries of struggle and sacrifices by people, both celebrated and unknown. The struggle is by no means over yet, but it has achieved considerable success. The same is not the case with national/religious essentialization and polarization. India-Pakistan, Islam-Hinduism, Friend-Enemy… these categories are fed and programmed in the minds for such a long time span that they finally create the illusion of being eternal and natural. Jethamoshai in TSL rightly challenges the assurance of the polarities that the arbitrary and ephemeral (if time is taken in its entirety) shadow lines of national frontiers create.

How do people claim that a “natural/inborn” incompatibility exists between Hindus and Muslims? How, even if that incompatibility does exist, also means that it’ll result into a separation that will encroach all over the public sphere, beginning from the extremely private one? Whether one worships Ishwar or Allah or one’s an atheist, how does it affect one’s productivity, performance, job satisfaction, leadership qualities etc. – all the little practical things that account for the most sizeable part of a person’s life? Observing certain religious customs and rites does not mean that a person is fundamentally incompatible with another. The two nations theory was fundamentally flawed in being non-progressive and oriented towards past with blindness towards present and future. Today’s future oriented, gainfully employed and satisfied citizens of a democracy wouldn’t yield their life, reason and free will to any such theory. Conservatives are declining in proportion to total population as youth today is more career oriented and (thankfully) materialistic. Material success and spiritual fulfilment with a progressive view of the world is what they want. Media has created s definite environment that lets the belief mentioned in the previous line flourish in minds.

Yet, it was media that had planted the damaging idea of polar division in the minds of the masses in the first place. The whole charade of the pan-continental religious solidarity could be created and maintained owing to the fact that people could know the existence of any such idea through its dissemination. The history of occurrence of communal violence has been sporadic, located in pockets that are geo-temporally separated in the past. With the development of the means of transport and communication, news and ideas travelled and spread over large areas very fast. Thus it became possible to indoctrinate the impressionable masses and to mobilize them by calling for Direct Action or Black Days that cause the violence that’s shown in TSL. Rumours too could spread at an alarmingly fast pace as technology made it easier. Communal riots, in their most terrible and lethal form, affecting a very large area became possible only when they could be so orchestrated. They follow a pattern. Places have histories of riot patterns that’s repeated in many ways as time goes by. The violence that 1964 saw, and that’s portrayed in TSL has a point of inception and growth, similar to a random instance in Varanasi from 1977 when the religious processions of one community passing from a densely populated locality of the other community had been the point from which riots are reported to have begun – be it the Muharram tazias or Durga/Kali idols.

Moreover, it has also been reported that the police (or, at least the PAC) had played crucial role in either actively assisting the rioters of their own religion actively/passively or carrying out the whole thing themselves. Their absence is the common factor between Robi’s and the little narrator’s trysts with communal violence in TSL. So, the question that needs to be answered is: “How is even the police indoctrinated?” If that is naïve then another question may be asked: “How does one expect any force’s not being indoctrinated when it is composed of social beings?” The indoctrination and initiation into religious allegiances, and later into bigotry, begins in the childhood. As the members of the police force also belong to a religious community, if they aren’t inoculated against religious indoctrination through its secular counterparts. Although both secularism and religions are man made and demand faith from their followers, secularism is freedom crystallized in comparison to the amorphous anarchy of religion. Is that so?

Now, freedom’s desirability is a post Enlightenment value, and it’s socially constructed too. Therefore, no choice between secularism and religions can be made as both are inherently equally good or bad. There are opinions against religions giving justifications in their being inherently violent, which is true in case of the Abrahamic religions with their faith in the old teastament. Religion was used to justify the Crusades and many wars. So, religion is bad. All the modern wars, including the two World Wars, were fought for non-religious reasons by secular armies. So, secularism is equally bad. But then, wars aren’t started by the people who are killed in them. Their real origin lies in the heads of those in power, and their real reason is the nature of power itself. The same can be said of violence in its many modern manifestations – communal riots being one of them. They are linked to religion but they do not purely originate from it. Their roots lie in the socio-economic soil of the given time and place. People who indulge in violence during the riots do not do so because of their strong faith in their religion. They do so because of a mass paranoia leading to their involvement in mass violence in the majority of cases. The planning and leading masterminds do not fall under the category mentioned just now.

Theirs may be another kind of psycho/socio-pathology. They plan arson, looting and bloodshed in cold blood and their motivation combines economic, political and social factors. This is clearly reflected in TSL through the Mu-i-Mubarak theft and its use by the politicians who wanted personal political benefits out of it. The incident occurred in Kashmir where there were no cases of communal violence . Instead, all the communities protested against the government together. There was a reaction in West Pakistan and Black Day was declared in both its parts. Khulna in East Pakistan was the first place where violence erupted. Soon, the chain reaction covered the whole of Bengal: West and its mirror image, the erstwhile East one. Time and again a stray incident’s being used as the nucleus of call to action that’s translated into violent and planned action has been seen being repeated. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and now, Christians – all have been victims of communal hatred and violence in the Indian subcontinent. No community is an island and no event or country is isolated. The shadow lines of the frontiers ironically linked Pakistan, Bangladesh and India even more strongly, in a very intimate kind of love-hate relationship.

With the making of Pakistan the Muslims … threw off the yoke of double chain of slavery, viz., British imperialism and Hindu dominance in the South Asian sub-continent ” (Mirza 2). What is the chain of slavery being mentioned here? The one of British imperialism is obvious and easy to understand. The other one of Hindu dominance needs a thorough analysis and justification before its claim is accepted as established. Islam had entered India shortly after its birth in the deserts of Arabia. Its full impact was felt only when those following Islam presented a clear danger to the predominantly non-Islamic India. I’ve abstained from using the word Hindu here because it’ll take some definition before the term is applied retroactively. Obviously, at least some of the people designated as Hindus today did not know themselves to be so, some five centuries ago. The genealogy of the very word Hindu derives from a foreign imposition, that too, a corruption of the word Sindhu (Indus) designating geographically those who inhabited the lands beyond the indus river, as seen from th Arabian peninsula. It had nothing to do with their religion. The heterogeneity of the peoples who inhabited the land known at that time as India defied any attempt at a simplistic and monolithic categorization. A land that gave birth to thousands of sects following the devotion of thirty-three crore gods and goddesses and infinite number of local deities and traditions, could never be given a name that denied it the variety. The British were the first to insist upon this kind of clasification on a large and systematized scale. Before them, the Mughals and the Marathas did recognize the categories of Muslims and non-Muslims, for the payment of additional taxes viz.the zaziya, but they did not put all the non-Muslims under the umbrella term of the Hindus. Neither did the British do it. They only categorized the colonized people on the basis of caste, creed, tribe etc.

It was the Hindu nationalists themselves who had created and applied the term retroactively for self-referentiality. The rise of Hindu nationalism, that Nehru saw as communalism, owed a lot to the European idea of nationalism and its bases – religion, culture, language and a shared past, and the most central of all – a constant circulation of an idea (viz. Hinduism) to make it permanent in the minds of both Hindus and Muslims. Ironically, around the same time emerged the coherent ideas of Sikkhism and of the solidarity of the untouchables too, that undermined the territoriality of a monolithic Hinduism. Essentialization was essential for those who propounded that solidarity amongst the co-religionists was essential for standing strongly against their opponents. They assumed homogeneity and tried to erase all kind of differences, at least when it came to the acceptance of the existence of those fissures in public. The upper caste/class Hindus dominated the discourse of Hinduism as the subaltern could/did not speak – probably because he did not even enter the arena of the discourse as he existed on a completely different plane and the fundamental question for him was not of an India, Hinduism or freedom. The question was of his survival. He didn’t have the luxury to sit back and think of the big issues like nation and religion when they only belonged to his internal/external colonizers – the white and brown masters-enemies. Te same is true about the later designated scheduled tribes of India. Thus enters the fissure of questioning in the structure of nationalism. Doubt over the validity of the idea of nation, be it from an unnamed subaltern or Jethamoshai of TSL, is useful in exposing the fallacy of assuming a homogenized and equal spread of the acceptance of the idea.


Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Mirza, Sarfaraz Hussain. Hindu-Muslim Confrontation: A Case Study of Pakistan 712-1947. Lahore: Nazaria-i-Pakistan Trust, 2009.


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