The historian Yasmin Khan, who wrote a book about the Partition of India that Vinay Patel, the writer of ‘Demons of the Punjab’, has tweeted about having read as research, wrote that the Partition is “a history layered with absence and silences”.
Yes, her name is Yasmin Khan.
What does that mean? Does it mean anything? We must simply add this to the list of questions ‘Demons of the Punjab’ raises, or almost raises, and then remains silent about.
‘Demons of the Punjab’ is an episode haunted by silences. Pregnant, eloquent silences. I don’t know if this is deliberate, in the sense of being a conscious strategy on the part of the people who made it. Whether this matters is itself a question to consider.
The first pregnant, eloquent silence comes very near the start, when the elderly Umbreen remarks that she was “the first Muslim woman to work in a textile mill in South Yorkshire”. This follows her remark, itself news to Yaz, that she was the first woman married in Pakistan. Umbreen has been very silent for a long time.
Contrary to myth and apologia, India before the British came was a wealthy, thriving country. According to Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire, “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has demonstrated, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together”.
As he goes on to say:
Britain’s Industrial Revolution was built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries. Textiles were an emblematic case in point: the British systematically set about destroying India’s textile manufacturing and exports, substituting Indian textiles by British ones manufactured in England. Ironically, the British used Indian raw material and exported the finished products back to India and the rest of the world, the industrial equivalent of adding insult to injury.
The British destruction of textile competition from India led to the first great deindustrialization of the modern world.
It is tempting to quote Tharoor’s devastating description of the cynical and violent methods by which this was achieved at length… but it would be hard to know where to begin or stop. People who want the grisly details can read his book. (I highly recommend it. I have nitpicks with Tharoor, but overall his book is a brilliant and accessible introduction to the forgotten horrors of the British Empire in India, as well as a demolition of the more popular apologias.)
Britain’s industrial revolution was funded by the deindustrialisation of India, and textiles were a big part of how and why it worked. (As we know, the British textile business was also dependant upon cotton produced by slaves in the Americas.)
By the way, another industry at which the pre-colonial Indians excelled as steel production. The British hijacked that too, having destroyed the Indian industry. Sheffield became best known as a British centre of steel production, becoming known as ‘the steel city’. Lest we imagine that ‘the British’ benefited from this as an abstract category, it’s worth remembering how “extraordinarily injurious” the work of being a steel-grinder in the Sheffield cutlery industry was, as Engels put it in his 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Yorkshire, the heartland of the British Industrial Revolution, was dotted with ‘dark satanic mills’. British capitalists made fortunes ruthlessly exploiting workers in industries built on impoverishing and repressing Indians, and other colonised people. Textiles, like steel, was one of those industries.
Umbreen had to leave a land that had been impoverished, tyrannised, and then shattered into pieces as the vandals carelessly scuttled home. She was, as the episode will show us, there when it happened, and very aware of the carelessness of the scuttling vandals.
As Tharoor says:
By the time the British departed India, it[‘s share of the global economy] had dropped [from 23 per cent] to just over 3 per cent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.
As we’ve seen, part of this was the destruction of the Indian textile industry by the British. And Umbreen came to Britain to become a worker in Britain’s textile industry, itself historically built on top of the destruction of India’s. Sheffield itself, like many British industrial towns, is built partly on the exploitation of India.
Asian women in the British workforce have, of course, had to fight intersecting oppressions and prejudices. But they have frequently been at the forefront of important, inspiring, sometimes seminal outbreaks of working class resistance, from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet, often having to combat the prejudices of white and male workers, and unions, at the same time as facing off against the bosses and the state.
What is Umbreen’s story after she came to Britain? She loves Sheffield, as most people do love their homes where they’ve been happy. But she will have begun as a poor immigrant, subject to racial and gender prejudice. Her descendants have done relatively well for themselves. They live in a flat in a tower block, but seem to be in what were once more middle class professions, from Yaz’s career in the police to her Mum’s (admittedly insecure) job-hunting as a hotel manager. They enjoy the partial results of partial progress. Their lives are not like those of Asian workers when Umbreen came to Britain. But this progress is built on the sacrifices and resistance of people like Umbreen, and also – as we’ve seen – on the well of horror that is the industrial revolution and the empire.
There is silence about all this in the episode. Of course, I’m giving you my version. Vinay Patel’s version would probably be different. But we’re both looking at the same world. And seeing the same history. And his episode is silent about it. But, as I say, it is a pregnant and eloquent silence. We hear the silence, because it is so nearly broken. Before the silence there is a reference, an association, a remark. Or at least an intake of breath, and a parting of lips. The episode starts to say something, or almost says something, and then stops. That is silence. But it is continuous silence that makes the ears ring. It is the silence inside a conch shell. It is silence that makes itself heard.
This happens repeatedly in the episode.
There are poppies in the fields around the farm. This suggests – particularly, as it transpired, on the day of broadcast – the dead of the wars, a remembrance from which Indian soldiers are all too often excluded in Britain. But also: poppies in India became the basis of opium production, run by the British Empire. Opium was introduced into China by the British. It became a massive trade. Britain waged several brutal wars against the Chinese to prevent them putting a stop to opium imports. The opium trade to China made profits that were used to finance British rule in India.
The point is made – which will sadly be news to many British people watching – that many Indians fought for the allies in World War Two. Prem is said to have been in Singapore, the site of one of the worst Allied defeats of the war. And yet there is silence about the fact that he was fighting under the ultimate command of Mountbatten, the man currently overseeing the dismemberment of his country.
There is a strange moment when Umbreen’s mother uses the word “thugs” to refer to the men coming to steal her farm and kill her family. This seems a little too loaded and ironic to be just thoughtlessness, a side-effect of the admirable decision to write the guest characters without tin-eared ‘old fashioned’ or ‘exotic’ speech patterns (let alone fake accents), and to have them speak very much like people in Britain do now. The word “thug” refers to a group usually thought of as an evil Hindu cult. The actual history of the Thugs or Thuggee is contested. They were not just Hindus. There were Muslims in the group too. Some see them as religious, some as gangsters. In any case, they were effectively exterminated by the British.
Some of the silences are more oblique. One of the things I like about the new Doctor is her democratic instinct. It leads her to wait until she is appointed ‘in charge’, and to take votes on what the group will do next – which she does twice in ‘Demons of the Punjab’. But the second of those votes is one of those oblique silences. She takes a vote on whether they will stay or go. And yet the vote is between the interlopers, who do not consult the people into whose lives they have walked, and whose fates they are to some extent deciding. It is impossible not to hear discordant harmonies here.
There are other such strangely coherent and yet clashing moments.
“They’re under my protection,” says the white woman with the British accent, speaking of the people of the Earth, but in this instance specifically the people of the Punjab.
“People grow up,” says Yaz of Manish, “We all have to find our own way.” To which Prem responds “Some people need more guidance than others.” It is impossible not to hear in this an echo of the ideology of benevolent colonialism, of imperial domination as stewardship and pedagogy of the child races until such time as they are ready to cope with independence.
The story raises the spectre of today’s politics when Manish is said to have been radicalised by “Listening to the radio” and by “angry men with pamphlets”. Leaving aside what is currently happening in the Western capitalist democracies, this also raises the question of how Indians in 1947 came to the point of committing ethnic violence against each other in the cause of forging ethnostates. The reasons and causes are complex, even on a proximate level, but, as Yasmin Khan says
[m]uch evidence points not to the crazy and inexplicable actions of mad, uneducated peasants with sticks and stones, but to well-organised and well-motivated groups of young men, who went out – particularly in Punjab – to carry out ethnic cleansing. These men, often recently demobilised from the second world war, had been trained in gangs and militias, were in the pay of shopkeepers and landlords, and had often been well drilled and well equipped.
We are not talking about fascism, but about something analogous – at least in this part of the story of India. Violent racism, or at least chauvinism, smothering class unity by playing up ethnic divisions, organised or stoked into a mass movement by reactionary voices based in the middle classes and petty bourgeoisie. (Sadly this is still a feature of Indian politics.)
The silence about these complexities is only emphasized by the thing about which the episode is perhaps most repeatedly emphatic and explicit: the fact that the ethnic violence was seen as inexplicable and aberrant by many Indians. Hindus and Muslims (and the other ethnicities) had lived side by side for generations – not always in perfect peace, of course, but without inter-communal conflict on the scale of Partition. The city of Lahore was cosmopolitan and diverse, as were many parts of pre-Partition India. The different religions lived and worked intermingled.
Indeed, while events like Partition are often taken as proof of the innate, inevitable, and savage xenophobia or insularity of humans, or the impermeability of communities, in actual fact such violent separations can only happen because they are ruptures in societies that have long been more-or-less peacefully mixed. They happen when such societies tear themselves apart, usually under some form of external pressure. The pressure is all too often imperial. The British Empire is the root cause of the ethnic and religious divisions in Ireland, and that country’s own partition. The Israel/Palestine conflict was fundamentally caused by the British Empire and is perpetuated by the American. We tend to think of the shattering of Yugoslavia into mutually homicidal fragments as just a tragic and inexplicable explosion of ‘ancient ethnic enmities’, but it happened the way it did under the pressure of the predatory meddling and encroachment of Western capitalist imperialism.
“Ordinary people who’ve lived here all their lives,” says Prem, “whipped into a frenzy to be part of a mob. We’ve lived together for decades, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and now we’re being told our differences are more important than what unites us…”
Told by whom? Again, the episode begins to say something and then lapses into silence. Prem’s silence is angry and helpless and mystified. There is a sense in which the episode itself is putting that forward as the most appropriate response, the most human response. And the question remains raised. Again, for whatever reason, the silence is deafening.
The episode’s treatment of the ‘fixed point in time’ trope itself takes on the contours of another loud silence. Within the SF narrative, it partakes of the usual problems here – though the episode grounds and contextualises the Doctor’s powerlessness against ‘fixed points’ in history in Yaz’s future existence, something that feels a lot more human and progressive than just “Not one line!” But the fact is, in this context, it can’t help but raise (silently) the question of whether Partition itself was inevitable, or avoidable.
Again, the silence is as loud as the thunderousness and complexity of the question.
Of course, in terms of the broad sweep of history, Partition could’ve been averted. If the British had never stomped into India at all… if Churchill hadn’t undermined the Cabinet Mission Plan… if Congress and the Muslim League hadn’t suppressed working class resistance that crossed religious divisions… if Gandhi hadn’t introduced religion into politics so successfully… if Mountbatten hadn’t sped up the timetable for independence… if the British had paid more attention to the signs pointing to a gathering catastrophe… if Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the British civil servant brought in to draw lines on maps, had known more – or anything, really – about India… if the British hadn’t been in such a hurry to escape the mess they were making, and the expensive empire they couldn’t afford any more, and had done something to help migrants and protect people being swallowed up by organised violence… etc, etc, etc. But in the short term, without hindsight, what was simply impossible to know or to do? Take the answer to that for the power-brokers and multiply it by a thousand when applying it to poor farmers. Their helplessness was commensurate with their powerlessness. But then the Doctor and the Thijarians have power that poor farmers don’t. Don’t they become the analogue, on that farm, of the people who had the power to intervene but failed to, or chose not to?
And then, baked into the entire idea of the space ship, there is the idea of technological progress towards greater advancement. The technology of travel is basic to both SF and to imperialism. So when Prem (wonderfully) says of the space ship “It’s beautiful”, it is impossible not to hear a faint reiteration – already integral to SF, as I say – of the ideology which has the ‘primitive’ marvelling at the wonders of the ‘more advanced’ civilization. And the Doctor (wonderfully) replies “They can surprise you, demons,” that foreshadows the episode’s ‘twist’ but also seems to suggest an apologia for the people who arrive in ships. Indeed, the whole idea of the Thijarians as people who were ‘assassins’ – like the ‘Thuggee’? …or like the imperialists? – but who have changed, it is impossible not to hear a suggestion of a claimed redemption.
But another problem with the Thijarians is that they are constructed partly along lines of Orientalist tropes. Their costumes are inflected with Orientalist ideas of ‘the East’, as is their preoccupation with matters of sacredness and desecration. (In line with her apparent interest in ceremony, the 13th Doctor emulates their sacred hand gestures… which is nicer than saluting, which was 12’s favoured ritual gesticulation.) And yet aren’t aliens in SF so often constructed along such lines (as we’ve seen)? Is this a worrying continuation of that, or a subversion of it?
The Thijarians state that “Millions will die” in the forthcoming Partition. It has already been established that Partition is happening because the British are drawing a line across the map of India. Prem remarks to the Doctor that it is the British who have made a “mess” of his country, “carving it up in six weeks”. The Doctor brushes off the remark. It is only Jodie’s choice to deliver the line distractedly, and with a neutral tone when she speaks of knowing Mountbatten, that stops this moment cratering the episode. But it has been almost said that the British are going to kill millions. Almost. The different parts of the statement are there. They are just not joined up. Between them there is silence.
When told he might want to keep quiet about being British, Graham turns to Ryan and asks “Why?” No answer is forthcoming. Neither Ryan nor Graham know. Neither of them ask, despite repeatedly hearing angry remarks about the British, most especially Manish’s reference to getting “you lot out” during the ‘stag night’. Tellingly, Graham, who knows about Rosa Parks, to the point of knowing the name of the bus driver who had her arrested, seems not to know why his nationality might make him less than popular with Indians in the 1940s – or even the 1950s for that matter, which were not, after all, that long after the 1940s. In the 1950s, Indians and Pakistanis were still living with the immediate after-effects of Partition. There had already been a war between India and Pakistan by then, with more on the way.
This silence, this absence of knowledge or understanding, is, in its own way, even more devastating than words would be from these characters. There is nothing from them. No attempt to admit responsibility – collective, historic, or individual – or even to dodge it, or to engage with it in any way. There is just… silence. This is troubling. But looking at British cultural awareness of the history of empire, it’s also only too realistic. I don’t know how or why the script ended up doing it that way. I can imagine alternative moments. Ryan asking “Do I look like I had anything to do with running the empire?” Graham saying “I’m just a bus driver!” There is even a moment later when it really feels like it could have happened. Graham, obviously moved by Prem’s pain and hope and nobility, starts to say something. He opens his mouth. He says “I…” And then he just hugs him. What was he going to say? What could he have said? Could he have said something about what his countrymen did to Prem’s world? Could he have done what the British have never really done, and still don’t do, and just said “I’m sorry”. As inadequate as such words would be, they would at least be words. They would be something. Such a moment in the script is, at least, conceivable. Maybe such moments were considered and deemed too risky, or too confusing. Maybe they were left out in order to maintain focus, to not muddy the waters, to not distract from the narrative throughline. (There are always felt to be good reasons when people decide to not say things they really ought to say.) Maybe they were never even imagined. But whatever the behind-the-scenes story, on screen there is only the all-too-appropriate aporia. A space for words and then… no words.
But the words not spoken deafen us. But only if we know they’re not there. It is a difficult paradox. The absence of words expresses something more fully than words ever could, and yet this will only be noticed by those who notice the absence of the words… and without the words how will their absence be noticed?
Let’s return to the idea of the Thijarians as repentant, even redeemed, imperialists. Is this saved by the fact that the Thijarians seem to be trying to atone in a way the British never really have? After all, the form of their atonement is suggestive. It takes the form of seeing what has been left unseen, bearing witness to that which has been forgotten (which is why their faces are made of eyes). And hearing. Their batlike ears are for hearing what was unheard, picking out the tiny sounds in the silence. They are doing what has significantly not been done with regards the victims of Partition. Apparently – according to Yasmin Khan for instance – Partition is something the people of India and Pakistan themselves do not adequately know or recall or commemorate. It is worse here, not just in terms of the scale of the amnesia but also in terms of the moral meaning of the amnesia. Do they unwarrantedly absolve the British by implication? Or does the nature of the Thijarian redemption make them an indictment of ‘us’ rather than an inappropriate apologia? Or do the Thijarians indict us for our failure to do even what they do? Or is their own essential passivity a scandalous failure? Is it enough to remember? Is a symbolic gesture sufficient when the alternative is murder? I know I’d rather live than be commemorated. The Thijarian gesture must be evaluated, and it is hard to do. Their passivity is as scrambled as are all the hints about borders and boundaries raised by their transmat devices, and the Doctor’s appropriation of them.
For that matter, there is the Doctor’s failure to intervene, echoing the Thijarians, and another instance of what looks like a running theme of this season. The season has played with permutations of this, has contextualised it, has tried to make it mean different things… and yet it is still inaction and passivity. As Kit Power said to me, this season looks like an accidental satire of the limitations of milquetoast liberalism. The Doctor keeps getting ensnared in huge structural problems, hating them, fighting them, sticking a band-aid on them, and then being defeated by them, or at least failing to defeat them, because she lacks a next step… whereupon those responsible for them kinda just walk off. The best it seems possible to hope for is that things will sort themselves out in the long run, whereupon you can feel good about the fact that you noticed there was a problem. Then you can go to the present where things might not be perfect, but at least Rosa is now being lauded by a mass murdering imperialist war criminal who calls himself “America’s first black President” (despite being as pink faced as I am) while also scapegoating “superpredators” and ramping up a system of racialised mass incarceration. The little coda at the end of ‘Demons’, with Yaz and her nani, is a lot sweeter and less tone-deaf than the end of ‘Rosa’, because it’s about something that seems like actual progress: a good life, won through resilience. But it shares with ‘Rosa’ some of the same complacence about progress through inaction, through passivity…
…except that it too is haunted by loud silences.
Yaz and Umbreen don’t actually talk about what happened. They don’t talk about Prem. Umbreen doesn’t even seem to remember that Yaz was there. Has Umbreen herself forgotten?
Even so, we’ve run into the central problem of the episode… or rather the problem the episode raises. The problem of metaphor.
And we’ll look at that next time.