Identity Formation, Polarization and The Shadow Lines


Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL) is a very strong and clear critique of the shadow lines that divide humanity – geographically and at heart. It does so very subtly and artfully. India’s partition was the beginning of the chain of deterministically linked events whose sphere of influence had a radius of more than just a few decades or a few thousand miles. There are many ways in which the arbitrariness of the creation of frontiers that contain the modern nation states is laid bare in the novel. Moreover, the underlying principle of the two nations theory that resulted into the partition of India is challenged.

The rise and development of communalism at any place, along with the role it plays in an individual’s self-recognition and respect is a very complex phenomenon. TSLshows how the partition of Bengal drove Hindus away from East Bengal and Muslims from even up to Bihar just because of a cruel joke of their fate. Jethamoshai and the Muslim mechanic’s father resisted all attempts at identity revision through indoctrination in the name of communalism and stayed exactly where they had spent the largest part of their lives. But then, they were very strongly indoctrinated in their own way and their old identity acted as an antidote to the invading variety.

Hindus and Muslims as two distinct and different categories, nay totally antagonistic entities, were “created” in the modern times. In the past, the identities of people came naturally through their immediate geographical and human environment, and not through the imagined categories of nationality or religion. People had roots in the soil of their places, that they had been inhabiting for generations. For them, those who belonged to the “us” category were generally those with whom they shared their present and past – the people around whom they had grown up. Then the ties were more local in nature and also more immediate and tangible. As Anderson puts it, nations – the imagined communities – were artificially created in the modern times.

From Al Biruni to Jinnah, it has been asserted that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct, even antipodal, identities. The line of thought existed from the beginning of their communal contiguity and bore fruits in the form of partition. The very process of an individual’s identity formation was coloured from the base. Through an unprecedented demagogic effort of colossal proportions religion and aggressive defense of the same were linked to the very identity of an individual as a highly desirable trait. The narrator of TSL obliquely points towards the importance of an elemental kind of power to unleash the inner violent animal as a kind of boon. He admires Robi because he is the unacknowledged king of the campus, also because “ while they had to find their way through a fog of ordinary confusions … he … was wiling to defend those inconvenient, often ridiculous, scruples which they could only too easily be persuaded to forget. That was why they, and I, both admired and feared him” (TSL 51).

Robi’s strong defense of his position without any hesitation, when compared to the weakness of will and resolve of those who admired his will, reveals a curious and nearly universal social phenomenon. Human beings have an instinct, like that of many other mammals, by which they recognize alpha males and then follow his lead. It is evolutionarily programmed and increases the chances of the survival of the species. The alpha male has some acknowledged superiority over others – something that makes others fear and respect him and look at him as a natural leader in times of need. In normal times social transactions that involve the acceptance of leader in times of need. In normal times, social transactions that involve the acceptance of leader-follower position take place within boundaries created by rational thought and the characteristics needed to be chosen as a leader fall in the realm of what is seen as cultivated behavior.

Therefore, social/intellectual skills learnt in the process of growing up in the society decide one’s position as a leader. In the times governed by irrationality or in the circles whose main logic is arbitrariness, the social/intellectual skills are substituted with the very fundamental kind of physical power and one’s capacity and willingness to use that power. In other words, the capacity for violent action determines one’s acceptance as an alpha male in the group. Their power is directly proportional to the actual damage they are believed to be capable of doing to the system and their level of ferociousness is inversely proportional to their rational control over their own self. In fact, they flaunt their irrationality and accentuate the traits of ferociousness through which they define themselves, differentiate their identity from that of others and assert their superiority and direct hegemony.

Their position is never permanent as there’s always a possibility of the rise of someone else to their position or of the group’s rejecting their claims to superiority. Yet, for the span in which they command, their position is unassailable. In a given social dynamics, such persons also happen to be those who get the backing and support of the political and economic edifice of the society,as the elite needs to keep them under their indirect control most of the times and under direct control in times of crisis when they actually need to unleash the power of violence upon the society. The history of riots in post-partition India indicates that such elements and their nexus with the elite play important role in either starting communal riots or blowing them out of proportion.

Communal riots are planned in the Indian subcontinent. It’s a very dangerous and sweeping kind of a generalization, and I am fully aware of the possible existence of many very strong exceptions. Yet, until I assert: communal riots are planned events. Aligarh, Varanasi, Delhi, Garhmukteshwar, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, the Punjab – in “n” number of cases, it has been proven beyond any doubt – riots are planned and executed with a precision and focus that surgeons show in an operation theatre. The exact mechanism of the process leading to the massacre of tens, hundreds, thousands … millions of people may vary, but there always is a mechanism. Without a perfected mechanism it becomes impossible to damage the society at such a large scale. The planner of riots get success because the pattern is decentralized and self-propagating. Train to Pakistan is always mirrored in train to India, both full of corpses. Narrations of arson and killing of Hindus find echo in those perpetrated upon Muslims. Performed in cold blood, not at all for religion or revenge, such mirrorings are nothing but planned.

The abnormality of the violence of the normal people lies precisely in its being there, more so, in case of the forms of large scale violence. Communal violence may be seen as polarization based on religion but it is never simply so. Politics and economics are almost always involved with religion. An incident of the theft of the Prophet’s relics was first politicized and then transported to the other side of the subcontinent to finally being used for the economic gains of the powerful: all in the name of religion. In TSL the motorcycle mechanic wants Ukil Babu out of the equation, so that he can have the whole house under his control. The common people and thoroughfare suddenly turn hostile. Robi finds “trouble” for which he had been on a look out since morning. The heightened emotional state of the rioting mob was planned as they had been waiting for the car they had planned to ambush. A similar state is visible in case of those who’s attacked the narrator’s school bus in Calcutta. In the simplistic way of thinking, acts of atrocity are attributed to communities as such, without any kind of discrimination regarding those who were involved and responsible for it and those the majority that was not. A common Hindu or Muslim does not suddenly turns violent, at least, not commonly. There are key persons who plan riots with the people linked to them to execute the plan. Thus, riots follow a pattern and their success depends on either the failure of the government machinery or its passive/ active involvement in them.

The failure of the administrative machinery originates from the very nature of the system. The Indian police force and administrative system aren’t grass-root type. Their basic function is to act on the basis of the information received after the event has taken place. Although informants are there and they do provide prior warning and indications, preemptive action has never been the forte of the Indian system of administration. Moreover, the active involvement of some arms of the forces has been proven in many cases. In the novel too, the rioters are shown to converge at the point of action in a silent and methodical manner, and the police is never shown intervening in any way. This definitely puts a big question mark in front of the very idea of humanness in its essence as being a definite and positive, or even an existent, thing.

Liberal humanism sees the essence of human nature: something universally and definitely present in human beings without any exceptions. If it is true, divisions on any basis must be fundamentally unjustified. The two nations theory would fall flat. Many years before postmodernism started challenging essentializing grand narratives, there was a large body of thinkers doing the thing in a similar manner, drawing arsenal from history and philosophy alike, along with from theology. Muslims and Hindus were portrayed by some as culturally mutually exclusive categories. They had lived for over a millennium sharing the same geographical space. Those who wanted to prove the universality of something like human nature wrong emphasized how their religious practices, social institutions and customs and historical orientation were distinctly different. The human subject was substituted with the Muslim/Hindu/Sikh subject. Thus they created a fragmented metanarrative (and not many mini narratives) with each fragment essentialized and presumed to be unquestionably homogeneous. Against the monolithic and the fragmented metanarratives stood the mini narratives of regional affiliations – each claiming its independent validity. “Everyone lives in a story… because stories are all there are to live in, it was just the question of which one you choose” (TSL 118).

A story is not always fictitious. Nevertheless, it bears the cross of fictitiousness. Otherwise, there’d be no need to add a qualifier before it as in “the true story of his life”. The truth quotient (TQ) of a story notwithstanding, narratives, that too, episodic ones, are what we remember of our own life and that of the other people’s. The mind looks at the drama enacted on the stage of the world and stores images and impressions to make sense of the whole thing after arranging it in some sort of pattern for later recollection. The pattern is of narratives. These narratives keep maturing with time and addition or deletion of details keeps being done. Stories are very real and they perform the function of storing data for quick retrieval. Moreover, the events, things and people receive colouring and get filtered with the passage of time. A coherent version of “truth” is formed in the process. It has its own TQ and is independent of what had really or originally happened. Past lives in stories only. So does future, and the present time is so fleeting that its slippage into the past is just a matter of moments. Thus, it is stories we live in, either our own or that of other people.

Finally, the metanarratives proved more powerful and Pakistan was created as a Muslim state and India emerged as a secular body. Both engulfed all mini narratives. Sixty-five years after independence/partition, both unitary and two nations theories stand belied and belittled by the harsh realities of internal colonization of the subaltern by the elite. The ideal of a multicultural spectrum has been challenged by one colour fighting the others in order to engulf the whole range and to convert the spectrum into a monochrome. It calls for a validity and veracity check of a multi-nation theory that’d replace the inadequate two nations theory and annihilate all universalizing claims of liberal humanism. The time has come, not to see whether the two nations theory was right or wrong, but to analyse whether it had courage enough to call for a full disintegration of all megaliths in favour of region/caste/class/tribe/language based group.



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

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




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