The introduction situates the book against the background of Delhi's history as the seat of power for hundreds of years and a Muslim city par excellence, and its decline under the pressures of colonial modernity. It then frames the history of Delhi synchronically, against the background of India's partition and the global history of the dissolution of multicultural empires in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Delhi offers a special vantage point on the intersection of partition with nation building and state formation because, as the capital, it was governed directly by the central government and served as the arena where the architects of independent India most squarely negotiated the period's two fundamental tensions: between a secular democracy and a religion-based partition, and between civil liberties and authoritarian impulses.
Chapter 1 explores the transformation of Delhi's political culture under the pressures of World War II, which precipitated a crisis of the colonial state. The result was a millenarian historicity, landing the politics of self-determination in the streets and in the public sphere of the capital with full force. An increasingly assertive and volatile political mobilization precipitated both the outbreak of the anticolonial Quit India disturbances and the utopian politics of Pakistan. The political imagination and orientation during the war years was malleable. Pakistan entailed different possible arrangements that did not necessarily mean a clear-cut separation, much less Muslim migration from Delhi. Initially, both anticolonial and pro-Pakistan politics operated in tandem in defining Muslim mass politics, but from mid-1946 onward, it would congeal more firmly around Pakistan.
Chapter 2 is centered on the partition violence that erupted in Delhi in September 1947. It traces how the relatively limited form of "traditional" intercommunal riots in the city transformed into deadly violence whose scale and brutality fit the definition of ethnic cleansing. The chapter tracks this process through a careful reconstruction of events from 1946 onward, showing how the increasing territorialization of Pakistan was central to it, along with subtle but steady changes in the balance of power, both in the realm of high politics and at the lower levels of political mobilization. The chapter bridges a major gap in the historiography of partition violence—between the allegedly rational and calculated decision making of politicians and the emotions and inexplicable violence of society.
Chapter 3 analyzes the conflicts over Muslim property in Delhi as an index of the great uncertainties over Muslim belonging in the postpartition years. It minutely traces the encroachment on, and shrinking of, "Muslim zones," outlining the spatial expression of Muslim minoritization. It finds that, contrary to the prevalent assumption that Muslim zones were outside the jurisdiction of the Custodian of Evacuee Property, the Custodian's intervention took place precisely in these areas. The analysis reveals Delhi to be a deeply political space in which profound ideological divisions and power struggles at the uppermost levels of national government fed, and were fed by, conflicts among bureaucrats, local political leaders, social workers, neighborhood bosses, and policing forces. By foregrounding the role of socioeconomic difference in Muslim dispossession, the chapter unpacks the categories of Muslims and refugees and investigates the intersection of religious community with class.
Chapter 4 demonstrates how the demographic transformation of Delhi was mirrored and negotiated in its press world. Many Muslim proprietors, editors, and journalists hastily left for Karachi after their offices were attacked in late 1947, and their place was taken by publications of Hindu and Sikh refugees from the Punjab. While the minoritization of India's Muslims is often associated with the marginalization of Urdu, this chapter reveals the decade after independence as a twilight during which Urdu was the main journalistic medium forging the two rival publics in the city—Muslims and refugees–and their competing claims to the city. The extensive and intense editorial exchanges between Muslim and refugee editors, which centered on secularism and minority rights, created an extremely aggressive yet shared vernacular public sphere, anchored at a time when Urdu served as a lingua franca, thereby pointing to the gradual and deferred nature of partition.
Chapter 5 centers on the tension between the democratization of political life and the authoritarian legacy left by colonial rule. With Delhi's politics now nationalized, the city became an emblem of the nation, a hub of national institutions, and a magnet for all organizations and politicians seeking national recognition. Thus, as the anticolonial agitators of yesterday became the postcolonial rulers of today, they faced the mayhem of partition and the challenge of mass protests, both peaceful and violent, by disgruntled refugees, Hindu nationalist organizations, Sikh Akalis, and communist and socialist workers. The chapter demonstrates that the persistent colonial restrictions and structures of surveillance, on the one hand, and an assertive clamor for civil liberties, on the other, acted as twin forces that fashioned a complex set of beliefs and practices around democracy and citizenship, in Delhi and India more broadly.
The epilogue describes the recent protests and violence surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act and the farm laws, which shook Delhi, demonstrating how the city continues to function as a theater of national politics staging the fundamental tensions that have beset India's democracy since the intertwining of independence and partition—between secularism and a religion-based partition, and between civil liberties and the authoritarian colonial legacy. Reflecting on these developments, the epilogue considers the interplay between deep structures and human agency and contingency in shaping the history narrated in his book.