The unruly end of empire
Jul 19th 2007: The Economist
An epic tragedy brought about by hubris, confused thinking and lack of planning
The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan.
By Yasmin Khan.
Yale University Press; 288 pages; £19.99. To be published in America by Yale in September
SIXTY years ago this August one of the greatest and most violent upheavals of the 20th century took place on the Indian subcontinent. It was an event whose consequences were entirely unexpected and whose meaning was never fully spelled out or understood either by the politicians who took the decision or the millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who were to become its victims. In 1947, faced with irreconcilable differences over the demand for a separate state for India's Muslims, Britain decided, with the consent of a majority of India's political leaders, to partition the country and give each bit its independence. Tragedy followed.
The break-up of Britain's Indian empire involved the movement of some 12m people, uprooted, ordered out, or fleeing their homes and seeking safety. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, thousands of children disappeared, thousands of women were raped or abducted, forced conversions were commonplace. The violence polarised communities on the subcontinent as never before. The pogroms and killings were organised by gangs, vigilantes and militias across northern, western and eastern India. They were often backed by local leaders, politicians from Congress and the Muslim League, maharajahs and princes, and helped by willing or frightened civil servants.
Yasmin Khan, a British historian, has written a riveting book on this terrible story. It is unusual for two reasons. It is composed with flair, quite unlike the dense, academic plodding that modern Indian history usually delivers. Second, it turns the spotlight away from the self-posturing in the British viceroy's palace and the well-documented political wrangling between Congress and the Muslim League leaders. Instead, it focuses on a broader canvas that leads the reader through the confusion, the uncertainties, the fear and eventually the horror faced by those who were soon to become citizens of the two new states, India and Pakistan.
Today the upheaval on both sides of the partition line would be described as ethnic cleansing on a gigantic scale. It left two traumatised, injured nations—suspicious and fearful of one another even to this day—where once there had been one country of loosely interwoven peoples. Pakistan's present military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, himself a child of partition, calls India “the arch-enemy”. Such thinking has become instilled on both sides—an outcome unthinkable to all those involved in the independence movement.
The decision to divide India on religious lines was taken with regret but little foreboding and carried out with outrageous haste and unconcern by the British government and its viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten. Asked by a journalist if he foresaw any mass transfer of population, Mountbatten said, “Personally I don't see it...Some measure of transfer will come about in a natural way...perhaps governments will transfer populations.”
No preparation or consideration was given to the central issues of citizenship, security and property rights in the division of the country. On the other hand, India's civil servants, the babus of empire, were busy itemising every fixture in their offices down to ink pots and paperweights that were to be divided between Pakistan and the new India. Lack of planning, hubris, confused thinking and a complete void as to the consequences were the fatal flaws in the partition plan, writes Ms Khan.
The announcement that India was to be partitioned and independence would follow not less than a year later was made in the House of Commons on June 3rd 1947. By August 15th the British were gone. They accepted no responsibility for the carnage that was taking place and they refused to allow the British troops still in India to keep order or protect people.
The movement of people and the privations they suffered were extraordinary. Muslims made their way west to Pakistan; Sikhs and Hindus moved east to India in “foot convoys” that involved 30,000-40,000 people, wagons, carts and animals spread out over 45 miles (70km). In one month 849,000 refugees entered India by foot. Trains that were impossibly overloaded, and dangerously targeted by the killers, ran across Punjab from Rawalpindi and Lahore to Amritsar and Delhi and back again as soon as they had refuelled and watered. Many families left for reasons of safety, taking only a few belongings because they expected to return. Not everyone imagined the journey across the partition line would be final.
When Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous speech on August 15th declaring that at the midnight hour, when the world slept, India would awake to life and freedom, massacres were taking place almost daily on both sides of the line. Nehru later wondered if his fellow countrymen knew how close India had come to imploding. The violence was simply uncontrollable.
Despite the pledges of equality for all communities in the new India and Pakistan, the driving force behind the violence was to eliminate or devour the other community, writes Ms Khan. It took the shock of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination on January 30th 1948—by a Hindu extremist opposed to Gandhi's conciliatory policy towards Muslims and his peace overtures to Pakistan—to stem the violence and bring India, especially, to its senses.
The illusions of partition are not overlooked by Ms Khan, including the premise that a common religion is strong enough glue to hold different and suppressed ethnic groups together in a nation state: Bangladesh, once East Pakistan, is the prime example of how wrong that premise can be. Above all, she nails the propaganda lie that the transfer of power in India was an example of peaceful decolonisation that the rest of the world could follow. The unruly end of empire in South Asia was “a shock of epic proportions”, she writes. It was ill-conceived, unplanned and only just escaped from spiralling into an even more devastating civil war.