A scene from the film
A Thin Wall: Nationalism and the Partition of India
The documentary film “A Thin Wall,” a personal take on the partition of India shot on both sides of the Pakistan-India border, took me 7 years to complete. I directed and produced another film during that time and worked on several other projects but the idea of partition stayed with me and seeped into my readings on history and contemporary politics. It became apparent to me that even though nationalism could be a used as a rallying cry for freedom and self-rule, especially in a colonial context, it could also reduce complex struggles for equity and justice to the black and white language of separation and national borders. The nation state itself, as explained by Rabindranath Tagore, is not a timeless, universal template that works for every region of the world. Rather, it is a siloed, Western approach particularly suited to capitalism and a poor fit for India. Tagore understood that military ideologies must accompany nation states and he advocated universalism rather than nationalism. From “Nationalism” by Rabindranath Tagore (1918):
India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity
In his essay entitled “Of Balkans and Bantustans: Ethnic Cleansing and the Crisis in National Legitimation,” Rob Nixon discusses the importance of homogeneity, the very justification for the creation and existence of nation states:
Aspirant nation-states thus find themselves in a catch-22: despite the rarity of ethnically homogeneous states, prospective states find themselves held to an archaic and potentially destabilizing vision of what constitutes a nation. Yet in seeking to reinvent themselves as singular and homogeneous, they cannot legitimately resort to the conquests and “cleansings” that countries like France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, and Spain once used to secure the internationally sanctified statehood they now enjoy.
That canny nineteenth-century philosopher of nationalism, Ernest Renan, recognized this temptation: “Unity,” he remarked, “is always effected by means of brutality.” While this may not be wholly true of “unity,” it certainly holds for homogeneity. In the current world climate, the rewards for the pursuit of homogeneity remain explosively high. Far from resolving minority-majority tensions, the pursuit of homogeneity is liable to provoke ever smaller microethnic claims in a spiral of action and reaction, destroying in the process precious legacies of intercommunal forbearance.
Such analysis reinforced my distrust of nationalism. It helped me make sense of the road that Pakistan and India have taken post-partition. Both countries had to reimagine themselves as homogenous nations, each with a singular identity (purely Muslim or Hindu) even when this national imaginary did not square with the realities on the ground. The problematic treatment of minorities in both India and Pakistan is a by-product of building this facade of uniformity by waging war on what is religiously or ethnically incongruent.
There have always been uncomfortable links between nationalism and fascism. Under Mussolini nationalism was a way to buttress unqualified obedience to the state, while in Nazi Germany nationalism expressed itself through the narrative of a unified master race that could not afford to be “contaminated” by difference. Traditionally nationalism does not have to embody the expansionist tendencies of fascism, but military aggression can be co-opted by nationalists, especially when it’s dressed up as necessary protection for the existence and wellbeing of the state. As is obvious today, national security is invoked frequently by countries that seek to invade and occupy in order to achieve economic and geopolitical goals. This is usually done in tandem with a domestic war on religious and ethnic minorities, launched under the pretext of national stability.
Although we have come to view the nation-state as a modern phenomenon with the potential to unify nations, facilitate self-government, and organize as well as produce the betterment of communities, it is helpful to analyze the very nature of this concept in order to understand its mechanisms and the excesses that it has been, and will continue to be, susceptible to. The intimate stories recounted in “A Thin Wall” illustrate how quickly lines can be drawn across a shared territory and how nation states, once they have been delineated, only concretize that process of separation and the development of contentious national agendas.
(The writer is a Pakistani American filmmaker and artist based in Rochester, New York. She was born in Lahore and has lived and been educated in Belgium, Pakistan and the United States. Mara’s documentaries include The Muslims I Know, Pakistan One on One. Both these films have been broadcasted on PBS and had been screened in the US and abroad. Her latest film A Thin Wall focuses on the Partition of India in 1947, borders and nationalism)