Midnight’s Furies book review: Legacy of partition – The birth of a frontline state

Published: November 1, 2015 12:10 AM

The legacy of partition is not just the creation of Pakistan amid unprecedented violence, which continues till this day, but also the birth of an Anglo-American frontline state that Pakistan is

Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition
Nisid Hajari
Penguin
Pp 328
Rs 599

UNFORTUNATELY, UNPLEASANT words like ‘distrust’, ‘hatred’ and ‘intolerance’ have forced their way back into newspaper headlines. And because of the incorrigible ways of politicians, these have managed to stay in the headlines longer than they should. Their message is distracting for a nation wanting to emerge as a major power of the 21st century.

Looks like memories of bitter phenomena in history don’t fade away easily. Less than 70-odd years ago, the subcontinent was wrought by hatred, inter-community distrust and intolerance. These are again showing their ugly face, while politicians are busy with electoral pursuits, unmindful of the dangerous consequences on societal peace.
Nisid Hajari has come out with this volume about the unprecedented communal violence that tore the country apart just at a time when, after years of struggle, it was about to win freedom from the British Raj. This could have been the ‘best of the times’ for India, when it was poised for experiencing its ‘tryst with destiny’. But the worst of passions that can wreck a nation were let loose, causing killings of countless people, rape, arson, loot, and the world’s largest migration of people in history from India to what came to become Pakistan and from Pakistan to what was left of India.

The unprecedented violence split the subcontinent into two—not just geographically, but also emotionally—sowing more seeds of conflict between the two nations that would later fight three wars and all that goes with the wars.

Hajari has chosen to write on the partition of the country and the deadly legacy it has left behind. India and Pakistan are still caught in acrimony, border tensions and killings, also equipping themselves for more wars. Peace between the two neighbours is still distant.

It is a grisly story Hajari has woven together after a lot of research from archival sources, interviews and meetings with some of the surviving witnesses. The account, not happy bedside reading, is well-knit like a Newsweek write-up, showing how the leaders engaged in making historical choices often try to secure their aims at times, camouflaging personal egos and prejudices. The problem with Hajari’s narrative essentially is his attempt to portray the run-up to the partition as a contest between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah and their inability to work together.

The writer ignores that 100 years of freedom struggle lay behind when independence came, although at the cost of the partition.

Jinnah in his early days himself was a part of the Congress. How Jinnah got alienated from Nehru and the Congress and left India for London in frustration and how he came back to jump into the struggle for Pakistan is not fully explained. Did the British persuade him to take up the cause of the Muslims to fight Gandhi’s Congress, which was gaining momentum?

The writer has tried to avoid looking into the British policy of ruling India by a well-thought-out policy of divide-and-rule and attempts to encourage Jinnah and the Muslims League to think of a Muslim homeland. The idea was to delay India’s freedom as much as the British could.

The British were angry with Gandhi and the Congress for not supporting them in the Second World War and happy with Jinnah for supporting the war effort. Jinnah was given to believe that he would get what he wanted as reward for his support.

After the war, Britain was simply broke. American financial help was limited and London’s debts were high. The empire could not be sustained any longer—certainly not against the rising discontent in India. The time to leave India had come. Clement Atlee’s government, which came to power after Winston Churchill’s defeat in polls soon after the war, could not run the country on an empty kitty.

The Labour prime minister made the big announcement in the House of Commons to wind up the 200 years of British Raj in 1948. Why was Louis Mountbatten, the new viceroy, in a greater hurry? The writer has not investigated what were the viceroy’s calculations for advancing the deadline to August 15, 1947. Why Mountbatten did not anticipate mass communal killings that would take place in the subcontinent, as well as the migration of population, both in Punjab and Bengal? Why did he not take preventive steps? Was he looking for a big political role for himself, for which he rushed through the proceedings in India and did a shoddy job?

The writer notes that the British governor in Calcutta mobilised 45,000 troops only after HS Suhrawrdy’s men had almost completed the killings, the arson and loot, after the Direct Action Day. Later, around August 15, 1947, both sides of Punjab saw the worst of the killings—in west Punjab of Hindus and Sikhs by Muslims, and in east Punjab of Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs. The reflexes of the British governor of Punjab were rather slower than the grim happenings demanded. The riots were a stigma as much on the British, as also on Jinnah’s refusal to work with the Congress in the interim government.

It is possible the unprecedented riots—called ‘furies’ by the writer—in Bengal and Punjab helped the British sell the idea of partition to both the Congress and Jinnah’s Muslim League.

In the tortuous negotiations that followed, neither party got all it wanted. The Congress wanted undiluted independence till it gave in to the idea of partition. Jinnah, on the other hand, wanted a bigger slice of India, and the result was the manipulative moves he made on Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagarh in wake of the partition.
He began in Kashmir, by starting an immediate war by pushing in tribals from Swat across the border. These were led by Pakistani regular officers. It seems non-state actors and the idea of a proxy war were used by Pakistan from the beginning.

Hajari should have explored more why the British particularly wanted to leave behind a weaker India and carve out a Pakistan that they would need for geo-political purposes, given post-war British fear of the Soviet Union. From Hajari’s account, it is clear that London was sure that Pakistan would readily be on the side of the western powers and India will have its independent foreign policy. Jinnah was in touch with Churchill even when he was on the opposition benches, finding that the Labour might favour the Congress in partition talks.

Churchill hated the very idea of Britain relinquishing power in India, but he did share his geo-politics with Jinnah, who was willing to be an ally.

The idea of Pakistan’s emergence as an Anglo-American frontline state apparently germinated along with the birth of Pakistan. Among other things, this is another legacy of the partition of the subcontinent.

By HK Dua

The writer is Adviser, Observer Research Foundation; Member of Parliament; former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express and an ambassador

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