Reflections on the Partitions of India and Palestine after 70 years


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Reflections on the Partitions of India and Palestine after 70 years

29 Aug 2018

On the 15th of August, the Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) held a joint workshop to discuss the dynamics of ‘partition’ between India and Palestine after seventy years. Held in Singapore – the tropical nexus of Asia – the collaboration saw the participation of over 120 individuals, including academics, students, ambassadors and members of the public. The workshop was held at the Asia-Europe Foundation and was host to a diversity of speakers and chairs – professors from India, the UK, the US, Pakistan and Bangladesh – who converged to draw parallels between their respective political histories.

Click here to view photos and here to view the full video of the conference. 


(Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman, Middle East Institute)

Opening the workshop, MEI Chairman Bilahari Kausikan called for trans-boundary frameworks beyond traditional conceptions of geography – especially in light of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Immediately after, the Director of ISAS, C Raja Mohan, echoed these sentiments by highlighting the deep interconnections between the Middle East and South Asia – many of which have yet to be explored in full that shaped the histories of both regions.

(Victor Kattan, Senior Research Fellow, Middle East Institute)

Kick-starting the first segment of the workshop, Senior Research Fellow of MEI Victor Kattan, gave his introductory lecture in which he unpacked the meaning of partition – calling it an expression of imperial power, often with the invocation of law in its practice. Its imperialist nature, he maintained, sets partition apart from other forms of territorial re-organisation such as federalism and secession. He warned however, that while locating partition within Palestine and South Asia may be useful in understanding the causes and consequences of partitions, interrogating the act of partition required a broader historical and geographical perspective.

(Ayesha Jalal, Tufts University, United States)

Building on Kattan, the workshop moved onto the panel sessions which sought to make better sense of partitions, by tracing their histories, first in British India, and then in Mandate Palestine. Professor Ian Talbot of Southampton University argued that partition in British India was “a pragmatic response” that was mediated between anti-colonial pressures and British informal influence in the region. Professor Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University reassessed the role and legacy of Jinnah in the partition of British India, calling for frameworks that extend beyond traditional narratives which centre on religious identity.

(Penny Sinanoglou, Wake Forest University, United States)

(Laura Robson, Portland State University, United States)

Drawing on the Peel Commission as a point of reference in the second panel, Professor Penny Sinanoglou of Wake Forest University mapped inter-regional connections of territories under British rule, arguing that the proposals of the 1937 Peel commission in Palestine shaped conceptions of British partition plans in the post-war period. Professor Laura Robson of Portland State University focused on the divided UN commission that recommended partition in 1947 as a focal point of the post-war diplomacy that shaped ideas of sovereignty, external governance and the role of the United Nations in state-building strategies, such as partition.

(Gyanesh Kudaisya and Ayesha Jalal during the Q & A Session)

The third panel attempted to identify historical connections of partition between Palestine and South Asia – investigating conceptual similarities between the two regions, as well as both formal and informal correspondence within the colonial administrations and their influence on the international order. Professor Amrita Shodhan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong sought to connect India and Palestine by tracing whispers, rumours and footnotes within the British administration in both places. On the other hand, Professor P R Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University highlighted inconsistencies within Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis Palestine – a result of Nehru’s misreading of the region against his own political backdrop.

(Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, Georgetown University, United States)

The fourth panel reassessed the consequences of partition by investigating new avenues for research with Professor Iqbal Singh Sevea of the University of North Carolina drawing on folklore in Pakistani Punjab as reference points of studying post-partition realities. Drawing on archival evidence found within Islamist circles, Professor Mohamed Ali Adraoui of Georgetown University expounded on the reactions of various Islamists to the UN partition plan as well as the creation of Israel – dispelling conceptions of non-state actors as passive entities of the colonial project.

(Photo of Workshop Participants)

As the workshop reached its conclusion, it unearthed previously unanswered questions on the geopolitics of Palestine and South Asia and brought new questions to the fore.