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Communication of Violence, Religious Culture and Nationalism in "A Bend in the Ganges"

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Manohar Malgonkar is best known as a writer of romance and adventure in such novels as Distant Drum (1960), Combat of Shadows (1962), The Princes (1970). However, his novel, A Bend in the Ganges (1964), is not only a well-crafted novel, but also an important work of fiction. In this complex and powerful novel, Malgonkar, himself a hunter and army colonel, considers aggression and violence in regard to Gandhi’s doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence. The novel traces the destruction of two families and by extension of the two communities during the independence struggle and partition. Violence is central in the life of each central character and in the life of the nation.

The novel hovers around and concerns the change in perception of its central protagonists, namely Debi Dayal and Shafi Usman, amid the confusion and catastrophe before, during, and after the partition. Written in line with the ideology of Hindutva, it departs from the secular nationalism and adopts a religious view on nationalism. Although a continuity of nationalist rhetoric, the novel nevertheless attempts a critique of Gandhian doctrine of absolute non-violence and openly calls for the overall militarization of Hindu community and by extension of India. The novel moreover takes part in the politics of stigmatization where an individual or community that might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse is readily othered and demonized thereby breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us. In light of the deep bond that emerged between Hindus and Muslims in their common struggle for independence, the murderous bitterness during and after partition can be attributed to the stigmatization of differences. The communities that were mutually acceptable some time ago despite some differences suddenly become completely unacceptable due to the tribal stigma of race, religion and nation.

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Following the call from Gandhi to boycott foreign goods, one of the central protagonists, Gian Talwar, in a fit of revolutionary idealism sets ablaze his English blazer so as to purify himself of foreignness. Although hesitant to dispose himself of so precious a commodity, the initial hesitation is overcome by the sheer pressure of the crowd that is hailing him: “He felt a sudden desire to turn back, but it was already too late”. Whatever his initial anxiety, he is very soon relieved; the fragile resolve quickly gets strengthened by the act of an attractive woman who herself hurls her fur coat into the fire. An almost mocking tone ever present in the narrative acts as a sharp rebuke to the Gandhian school of non-violence, the so-called path of the braves. This mockery of non-violence in its turn serves to highlight the revolutionary activities being waged on by the likes of Debi Dayal, Shafi Usman, and Basu, a conglomerate of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslims. They are also freedom fighters but unlike Gian they belong to a terrorist group which firmly believes that non-violence is the philosophy of the sheep and that Gandhi’snon-violence will emasculate the entire nation. This violent struggle is led by Hafiz Khan. But for Debi Dayal and other members of the Hanuman Club, Shafi Usman is their leader. The members of this group are young boys, both Hindus and Muslims. They are dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in India and to Hindu-Muslim unity. The group has carried out its activities undetected and has an impressive record of achievements. Shafi Usman is the most wanted man of the group and so he goes disguised as a Sikh. Debi is more or less the deputy leader of this group, next only to Shafi.

Debi and Shafi’s initiations into this group have however stemmed not from a strictly political belief as such but due to the injustices of the British. Debi’s initiation begins with his hatred for the British prompted by an attempted rape of his mother by a white soldier which also symbolizes the rape of the motherland by a foreigner. Within six years of this incident a “weedy, pampered, overdressed, a typical rich man’s son” grows to a first-rate judoist and a fearless terrorist. The child who pitifully depended on his sister, who was afraid of shadows in the dark, who did not have the courage to break up a white-ant hill, who had made a scene when Mr. Muller was going to drown a puppy, participates in burning a military plane, the sight of which brought him “the joy of secret fulfillment”. Similarly, Shafi Usman too has a personal cause for his hatred of the British. The shooting of his father, who was only an innocent spectator during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the insults suffered by him and his mother in crawling on their bellies while returning from his father’s funeral, have embittered him against the rulers.

The desire for a united front is so strong that the group denounces religious affiliations and partakes of beef and pork strictly prohibited by their religions. However, the intimate bond among these religious communities is foregrounded simply to highlight the impending fall apart. The group for a long time has been working together taking up considerable risks and sabotaging the infrastructures so as to weaken the British war efforts. The cell comprising all religious groups has no faith whatsoever in Gandhian non-violent methods and is bent on driving British out of India through force. Shafi, an ardent revolutionary strongly rebukes Gian, a follower of Gandhi, and challenges him to find a single instance in history, of just one country which has been able to free itself without resorting to war. Singh alleges that “Gandhi is the enemy of India’s national aspirations”. Gian however has no doubt whatsoever in Gandhian doctrine, “the philosophy of sheep, a creed for cowards” as alleged by Singh. Gian would simply not budge an inch in his faith: Ahimsha is the noblest of creeds. There can be nothing more sacred. No man has the right to raise his hand against another, whatever the provocation. I shall never do it. It takes greater courage; non-violence is not for the weak.

In spite of this unequivocal reaffirmation, Gian’s creed of non-violence is found to be wanting and turns out to be superficial when it meets a major test in the chapter titled “Home-Coming” which is both literal and metaphorical. In a curious turn of events, this strong believer is shaken to his bone by what the events that follow. A family rivalry turns bloody when Gian’s brother Hari is killed by his own relative Vishnu-Datt. In a complete adherence to his own faith, he has simply become a passive witness to his brother’s death which could have been averted had he taken some courage in physically saving his elder brother. But still, his faith is intact since the law of the land was there to punish this heinous act. But justice takes a long course and at last his faith crumbles with no justice at the hand of law. He forsakes his Gandhian self and avenges his brother’s death and ends up in the cellular jail in the Andamans. The narrative preceding these events evokes the deadly image of Shiva, to depict the ambivalent character of life as personified in many Hindu gods and more importantly to show the religious justification of violence. Gian discerns a paradox in the image of Shiva. The opposite qualities of the face and the pose troubled him: the face was calm, serene, lost in the enjoyment of the dance; the pose, caught up in the throes of anger, frozen in a particularly violent gestures of the death-dance.

Like the goddess Mahadevi, who besides being the loving mother is also Kali, the goddess of terror and death. Shiva is both the god of creation and annihilation. When sent to Andaman to serve his sentence, Gian helps the British officers and even manages to become an informer, which for revolutionary activists is symbolic of the complicity of non-violent movement in prolonging the occupation of India. Gian’s lowliness and kowtowing is in sharp contrast to the proud self of Debi Dayal who never falters before the hostility of the British. He is also serving prison sentence for attacking a British military plane. In fact, Debi has been made to suffer unwittingly by Gian when he helps in recapture of Debi while he was trying to escape. This event helps to rescue Gian from his apparent liking of the British and by extension is directly aimed at those non-violent activists who are “begging” for independence rather than “fighting” for it. But the most significant of all events in the novel is the raid on Ram-Rahim Club that acts as a first in the chain of events of Muslim betrayal of national aspirations and their fierce communalism. As a group of nationalists, the ring operates quite detached from whatever is going inside the country in the name of religion. They even partake of beef and pork thereby dismissing their religious identities. However, the bond that has united them now is about to give in owing to the continual strife between the two communities. A host of historical events take its toll on Shafi, the ring leader, who looked at Debi-Dayal and once again felt that quick unreasoning pang of jealousy. He [Debi] reminded him of a more youthful Nehru; the theatrical good looks, the background of wealth and learning; the refinement of manner, the awareness of built-in-leadership.

The allusions are undoubtedly to the history of invasion of India by the Mughals and the subsequent rise of Muslims in wealth and power vis-à-vis the Hindus. The jealousy is stirred by the fact that the former ruling class was no more in charge of the country; and was now reduced to the former condition of the Hindus. The writer having granted some praise and acclaim to the fight put up by the Muslims along with the Hindus against the common enemy as in the popular armed revolt of 1857 and subsequent, now makes a familiar move typical of Indian nationalists. Being reduced in power and number, the Muslims must now yield to their age-old tactics of secession. The hang-up of past superiority would not allow them to accept a second grade position, and in the democratic country, the sheer number of Hindus would not let them rise into the corridors of power. So the only viable alternative available to the inherently separatist Muslims is to demand another country of their own.

Yet again, the incident involving the betrayal of Debi Dayal and others by Shafi, delves into the age-old nationalist rhetoric about Muslim betrayal of India. The dialogue between Hafiz Khan and Shafi serves to highlight what has been thought of as the nature of Islam by other main religions. As a revolutionary, Shafi cannot bear the fact that he would stand against what he has until now been standing for, the concept of nationalism and Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. But still Shafi is ill at ease with the arguments put forward by Hafiz: “The enemies of the moment are not the British; they are the Hindus”. But in yet another maneuver reminiscent of politics of blame, effort is made to point the finger squarely at the Muslims for stirring up hatred and violence in their campaign for Pakistan, the genesis of it being the Direct-Action Day initiated by the Muslim League. Shafi, as a symbol of all nationalist Muslims, cannot be relied upon even if they do not vaunt their preference for Pakistan. At heart, they are all the same – betrayers. Having received information of imminent raid at the Hanuman Club, from another Muslim Hafiz, Shafi warns as many as he could and he should. And in the final crumbling of whatever faith there was, Shafi wakes to the fact that all he had warned were Moslems, not a single Hindu: “It was the sort of coincidence that worried him for a long time, but even to himself, he refused to admit that it had anything to do with the visit of Hafiz”. The pseudo-political ideals of patriotism simply cannot stand up against the rousing flame of communalism. For an avowed nationalist, Malgonkar, this act shows the inherently communal nature of Muslims where nationalism is supposed to be subservient to religion. Since territorial occupation alone cannot guarantee national loyalty. Communities which are unable to accept India as the source of their religion cannot make the Indian nation. Their religious commitments lie outside of their birth and make their political commitment to Indian nationhood inherently dubious.

Muslims who view their religious commitments far more important than their national commitments hence stand at a crossroad since they cannot deny that religion comes before nation in Islam and as a land of their birth find it very hard to disclaim their loyalty toward their motherland. But all these statements are made not so bluntly since it would have legitimized the secession of Pakistan as there can be no reason to remain united with the people who consider you a perverse by your very religion of Islam. In fact, the ideology of Hindutva itself can be said to have tacitly approved the division of the country along communal lines since it saw India as a country with two nations. Along with the cultural chasm, Muslim scholars like Mumtaz Hasan see “the lack of any prospects of economic well-being among the Muslims in the face of the Hindu monopoly of the economy as major contributory factors in the demand for partition”. The novel however makes a careful attempt, although feebly, to strike a balance between two the communities – all was right with India except the demand for Pakistan.

As the course of events move on, Debi returns after six years in Andaman and things have become quite different on the ground. Hindu and Muslims are at each other’s throat. Yet Debi as a nationalist is visibly agitated: “What a pass we have come to, fighting ourselves… It is almost as though… the British have succeeded in what they set out to do. Set the Hindus and Muslims at each other’s throats”. But this seemingly secular nationalism is neutralized by a careful maneuver through Basu whose wife has been thoroughly disfigured by an acid bulb thrown at by, presumably the Muslim, who as Basu puts it had the “urge to seduce her”. The act of throwing acid here serves as a microcosm of what would be the eventual dismemberment of the country. The question of violence also becomes central here. Basu puts a rhetorical question “Would you remain non-violent if someone threw acid at the girl you loved? – Would Gandhi?”. The question of violence has become crucial to the existence itself. As the Muslims have taken violence as a means of achieving their aim, Hindus should also do the same only if to keep the country and the community (Hindu) intact. Violence now becomes a legitimate and even necessary means in face of growing Muslim hostility. For the Muslims, violence is a choice of preference whereas for the Hindus it is a compulsion so as to secure their larger interests – the need to keep the country united.

Moreover the right-wing Hindu views are justified not only through Hindus, but through Muslims also. The threat posed by the Muslims is present and real for the community which has been made a “nation of sheep.” Basu firmly believes Gandhi has effectively wiped out the sense of courage and resistance from the Hindus:

For every Hindu that had to die, five will die because of the way the doctrine of non-violence has caught on. And what will Gandhi do? He will go on a fast, a fast perhaps unto death. But will he ever admit failure? No. What is the future for a country nurtured on non-violence in a world of mounting violence? How are we to survive? Can a non-violent nation have a violent army? This apparent criticism of Gandhi directly emanates from what has now been labeled as Hindutva ideology that wants a strong army and a militant population ready to face every eventuality. Equating his own inability to protect his wife with the inability of his countrymen, Basu mocks at the concept of absolute non-violence which has left the country utterly helpless when the country itself has been ravaged by violence and its boundaries violated to create a nation for a religious community.

Malgonkar moreover justifies the right-wing Hindutva argument for the militarization of the country and people, not only through Hindus but also through Muslims. Shafi who had earlier if unconsciously betrayed the Hindus has now no doubt whatsoever about his deeds. In fact, he views it as a just act of revenge for the police atrocities in Bombay against Muslims. As if to give more credence to the right-wing Hindutva argument, Malgonkar sets Shafi squarely against the Hindus. Ruminating on the thought of impending civil war for the creation of Pakistan, Shafi remarks: But the Hindus were pacifists at heart, their leaders fond of extolling secularism were soft and shrank from bloodshed. They would not be match for the Muslims. Secularism also is here made to look like the idea of Hindus who were “fond of extolling it” though Muslims had no faith whatsoever in that secularism. The inherent decency of Hindus is such that even after coming to know about the betrayal, Debi is in no mood to settle the score. In fact, much to our surprise, he is very much conciliatory. Amidst all the violence, Debi, an advocate of violence, now even wonders whether Gandhi was right: “It [the violence] almost makes one think that non-violence is perhaps the only answer”. However, his momentary belief too is short lived when his attempts at reconciliation are thwarted by Shafi when he informs police about Debi’s whereabouts. The inherent meanness of Muslims is now at work. He wants to teach Shafi a lesson by buying his girlfriend not for his own purpose but just for hurting Shafi’s pride. Shafi obviously cannot bear the insult and tries to disfigure the girl by throwing an acid bulb at her face. But Debi saves her by his heroic deeds. Although he has no plan or intention of keeping Mumtaz and even tells her to leave, the care of Mumtaz wins him over and they are finally married. Mumtaz curiously symbolizes those “good” Muslims who can still win over or have their place in India if they serve the “nation” well and prove their loyalty.

Hindus have no evil designs and what has endangered their peaceful coexistence is the idea of partition, the dismemberment of the country. Whatever the political intentions, the chapter “To Fold a Leaf” is squarely aimed at outlining the moral corruption of Muslims, their sensuality, and utter disrespect for women that overtly manifested itself during the wholesale rape of Hindu women. The idea of considerate and kind Hindu man is set against the background of inherently barbarous and lecherous Muslim men. However the inability of Shafi to buy his girlfriend gives credence to the Muslim accusation that the Muslims had become poor and marginalized since Shafi, like his Muslim brothers, has apparently no easy money to throw at women. Here the attempt at cultural smearing becomes a significant site for the analysis of disparity of economic and social powers between the two communities.

As the events move on and partition becomes a reality, the naked dance of violence comes into play. Tekchand, the father of Debi, who until yesterday was quite at ease, now feels the heat of the violence. Being a prosperous and powerful man, he is an obvious target for the Muslims. This powerful man is made to plead like a servant before a minor police officer highlighting the change in power structure instigated by communalism. As the climax approaches, Malgonkar makes a final preparation for distinguishing the two communities. Shafi, who has been utterly humiliated by Debi, sees a soft target to settle his score. Shafi’s eyes however are firmly set on Sundari so as to defile Debi’s family and by extension Hindu chastity and dignity. In an ensuing feud, Debi’s mother is killed without being defiled. All the three escape on a car. Tekchand is left on the way, and Gian and Sundari presumably make an escape to Hindu majority province and live happily ever after. But the rub lies with Debi’s ordeal. Debi now married to Mumtaz boards a train to come to his native land. His act in itself is an audacious one since belonging to another community was a ready death certificate. Despite his disguise, he is found out and killed despite his wife’s plea to spare him. These events serve to highlight the cruelty of communal violence during partition.

The violence of partition affected Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities very deeply that would continue to live in the memory of people for a long time to come. All three communities were more or less equally responsible for the atrocities and many wondered what had motivated them for such atrocities against the communities with whom they were not long ago sharing their everyday joys and grievances. Although the figures of death run in million, it was astonishing that the death figures were distributed more or less equally among all three communities which is to say that all communities were powerful enough to oppose attacks on them where they were in sizeable numbers. Although Muslims in India were far less numerically compared to the Hindus, they were able to defend themselves and were defended by the state which they had been accusing as being against their best interests.

Despite the bigotry and disparaging attitude of the state and the majority community as alleged by Gyanendra Pandey and Muslim scholars like Prof. Mushrilal Hasan, the Muslims of India can be said to have fared far better compared to the minorities in the neighbouring Muslim states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Moreover Pandey a Marxist poststructuralist cites different problems given the hostility between India and Pakistan in his inability to obtain a visa for studying the treatment of minority. But it does not behoove a critic of his stature to overlook yet another state where Hindus continue to live as a second class citizen. And it is here where Malgonkar through his novel A Bend in the Ganges asks whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the Muslim community’s view on minority communities like Hindus. His view on the basically intolerant nature of Islam cannot be said to be unfounded since minority communities in Muslim majority states have never enjoyed same degree of security and freedom as enjoyed by Muslims where they are in minority. This fact as presented in A Bend in the Ganges is moreover reflected in the novel by a Muslim intellectual writer, Taslima Nasrin, in her novel Lajja. Pandey’s and Hasan’s critique of Indian nationalism as surrounding around mainstream religion is valid to the extent that they have brilliantly depicted the predicament and insecurity of minority community. But their huge drawback lies in their refusal to see the fate of the other minority community of the subcontinent.

India as a secular state does not discriminate its population on the basis of religion since its constitution bars politics on the basis of religion. But though Islamic states have also constitutional provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, or language, they cannot be said to have guaranteed full rights to the minority since their very constitutions have proclaimed Islam as the basis of their constitution. Taslima Nasrin, a prominent critic of fundamentalism of any sort, provides a harrowing account of torture inflicted on the minority Hindu community in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992. Herself a devout Muslim, she was served with a fatwa for writing against Islam by the fundamentalists and hence her views on the treatment of minorities by the states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh can be seen as a balanced account of the injustices perpetrated on minority communities.

Unlike, Gyanendra Pandey who sees Indian state as being increasingly partisan toward majority religion, Nasrin considers India as a secular nation where Muslims are on the top political positions and many cultural icons come from Muslim communities. In the novel, Lajja, Nasrin compares the situations in India with that of Bangladesh. The words of two central characters, Sudhamoy and Suranjan who are both leftists and loathe sectarianism, reflect the writer’s perception of the difference that lies in the clashes between two communities. The father tries to soothe his son’s attempt at migrating to India in the face of all-out attack against Hindus where his daughter herself has been abducted by the extremists. As a nationalist, he holds his loyalty and love of the country beyond any religious or cultural affiliations and considers those assaults, rather naively, as an aberration: “Riots break out in all countries. Aren’t there riots in India? Aren’t people dying there?” The answer by his son reflects Nasrin’s attitude more clearly. If it were riots I’d understand, Baba. These aren’t riots. It is simply a case of Muslims killing Hindus. However much we call ourselves atheists, however much we call ourselves humanists, those people out there will call us Hindus. Sooner or later all of us will be shoved under a bridge to die. Unlike India where Muslims though being in minority could retaliate and sometimes even perpetrate those crimes, the minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan rarely dare to voice their discontent given the prejudice of the state towards religion other than Islam.

Moreover, the most disturbing of all is the concerted attempt by the respective Islamic governments to disenfranchise and alienate the minorities. For the purpose, Nasrin points out Bangladesh, a country that got its independence at the cost of three million lives, refused to identify itself on the basis of religion with Pakistan, and declared nationalism and secularism as its guiding principles, mysteriously altered its constitution thereby claiming Islam as its fundamental guiding principle much to the chagrin of the minorities like Hindus who had suffered and sacrificed no less for the struggle than the Muslims. “On 22 December 1982, Ershad declared that Islam and the principles of the Qur’an would be the basis for reframing the constitution”. The disparity in the treatment of the minority communities in different countries of the subcontinent can also be demonstrated on the basis of the ratio of population. It’s a matter of common consent and knowledge that security and chances of employment contribute directly to either the increment or depletion of people. Although a work of fiction, Nasrin backs up her argument against extremism by statistics as well. The facts below alone demonstrate the miserable situation of minority religion in Bangladesh. In the last two decades more than half-a-million people belonging to minority communities have been forced to leave the country. In 1941, the Muslims were 70.3 per cent of the population, while the Hindus were 28.3 per cent. In 1951, the Muslims were 76.9 per cent and the Hindus were 22.0 per cent. In 1961, the Muslims constituted 80.4 per cent, Hindus 18.5 per cent. In 1974, there were 85.4 per cent Muslims and 12.1 per cent Hindus. In 1991, the Muslims were 87.4 per cent, and the Hindus approximately 12.6 per cent.

Given the more or less same level of literacy and social awareness in both communities, the continual eroding of the Hindu population can only be attributed to the lack of security and the persecution on the basis of religion. The insecurity felt by Hindus had in fact began soon after independence. When the war began, some ten million people had taken refuge in India of which eighty per cent were Hindus. And when they returned, most of them found their land and property had been confiscated. Many returned again to India, some stayed hoping that an independent country would give them social security. But their hopes were completely frustrated when the government only changed the names of the enemy property and refrained from delivering justice to the minorities.

Hence the general discussion of two works of fictions make clear that there is something wrong in the way religion is used for the purpose of gaining power in politics. Religion in the subcontinent still plays a vital role in the political spheres yet it has been generally found to be true that the states that take religious doctrine as their guiding principles cannot be impartial to other religious communities as demonstrated by Nasrin’s Lajja. Although subjected to some prejudices regarding their loyalty towards the state, the Muslim community in India fares far better than the minority communities in the Islamic states. The relatively disadvantageous condition of minorities in Islamic states can be attributed among social and political factors to the teachings of the Qur’an which sees Islam as the only truth and believers in other religions as infidels.

Though rejected by moderate elements in Islam, the idea of Jihad, still exerts considerable influence among the fundamentalists who in turn use it to grab political power and dominance over other religion. It has an underlying idea that since Islam is a universal religion, force may be used to expand its borders and which ceases only when the unbelievers agree to accept the political authority of Islam. Hence Islam cannot be taken only as a religion in the traditional sense of the word since its stated objectives make explicit that its goals are more of political nature rather than strictly religious. However this is not to say that other world religions like Christianity have no political objectives since it had already waged a bloody war “the Crusade” against Islam in the Middle ages. The question however is about the methods used in achieving those goals and the degree of involvement of religion in politics in the modern world.

It can be concluded that religion in itself is not a scourge. Every people and communities have united themselves differently at different times may it be on the basis of religion, language, ethnicity, or nationalism. But in most cases religion has been the most salient feature of all. So the problem lies not in religion itself but in the effort by fanatic politicians and religious zealots in turning it as the basis of “hate politics” and perpetuating their hold on power. And also, it points to the fact that liberal democracy of the kind professed by the west has perhaps failed to deliver on its promises. Its blind sanctioning of ruthless and untrammeled capitalism has further antagonized the large masses of people who see it as a way for furthering the interest of some handful of wealthy and powerful people and nations. Modern political philosophies may have outlived their usefulness in the sense that they have not lived up to the expectation of material comfort and security. Unless a thorough revision is made of the shortcomings of the secular liberal democracy, religious extremism will continue to take the political space left vacant by the failure of secular politics. Politicians, policy makers, and above all the people who love their religion should stay vigilant regarding the rise in religious extremism of the kind that seeks to establish itself as the final truth and deny the existence of other religions. But religion that seeks to unite people and provide them with the meaning in life must be promoted to counter the selfish materialistic tendencies of capitalism and consumerism. Gandhi, despite some shortcomings, always fought for a just and non-violent society and was concerned with uplifting the humanity from its pathetic state. So, a frank and honest discussion of underlying problems – violence, rape, and murder, the question of uneasy existence of Muslims, and cultural prejudices – can only lead towards realizing the dream of “peaceful coexistence” and “unity in diversity.” The extreme dependence on other for ideas is never going to solve the problem since the problems faced by India are more or less unique to the troubled history of the subcontinent.

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