Exit Wounds: The legacy of Indian partition
by Pankaj Mishra: The New Yorker, August 13, 2007 issue
Sixty years ago, on the evening of August 14, 1947, a few hours before Britain’s Indian Empire was formally divided into the nation-states of India and Pakistan, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, sat down in the viceregal mansion in New Delhi to watch the latest Bob Hope movie, “My Favorite Brunette.” Large parts of the subcontinent were descending into chaos, as the implications of partitioning the Indian Empire along religious lines became clear to the millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs caught on the wrong side of the border. In the next few months, some twelve million people would be uprooted and as many as a million murdered. But on that night in mid-August the bloodbath—and the fuller consequences of hasty imperial retreat—still lay in the future, and the Mountbattens probably felt they had earned their evening’s entertainment.
Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had arrived in New Delhi in March, 1947, charged with an almost impossible task. Irrevocably enfeebled by the Second World War, the British belatedly realized that they had to leave the subcontinent, which had spiralled out of their control through the nineteen-forties. But plans for brisk disengagement ignored messy realities on the ground. Mountbatten had a clear remit to transfer power to the Indians within fifteen months. Leaving India to God, or anarchy, as Mohandas Gandhi, the foremost Indian leader, exhorted, wasn’t a political option, however tempting. Mountbatten had to work hard to figure out how and to whom power was to be transferred.
The dominant political party, the Congress Party, took inspiration from Gandhi in claiming to be a secular organization, representing all four hundred million Indians. But many Muslim politicians saw it as a party of upper-caste Hindus and demanded a separate homeland for their hundred million co-religionists, who were intermingled with non-Muslim populations across the subcontinent’s villages, towns, and cities. Eventually, as in Palestine, the British saw partition along religious lines as the quickest way to the exit.
But sectarian riots in Punjab and Bengal dimmed hopes for a quick and dignified British withdrawal, and boded ill for India’s assumption of power. Not surprisingly, there were some notable absences at the Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi on August 15th. Gandhi, denouncing freedom from imperial rule as a “wooden loaf,” had remained in Calcutta, trying, with the force of his moral authority, to stop Hindus and Muslims from killing each other. His great rival Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had fought bitterly for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, was in Karachi, trying to hold together the precarious nation-state of Pakistan.
Nevertheless, the significance of the occasion was not lost on many. While the Mountbattens were sitting down to their Bob Hope movie, India’s constituent assembly was convening in New Delhi. The moment demanded grandiloquence, and Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s closest disciple and soon to be India’s first Prime Minister, provided it. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” he said. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
Posterity has enshrined this speech, as Nehru clearly intended. But today his quaint phrase “tryst with destiny” resonates ominously, so enduring have been the political and psychological scars of partition. The souls of the two new nation-states immediately found utterance in brutal enmity. In Punjab, armed vigilante groups, organized along religious lines and incited by local politicians, murdered countless people, abducting and raping thousands of women. Soon, India and Pakistan were fighting a war—the first of three—over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Gandhi, reduced to despair by the seemingly endless cycle of retaliatory mass murders and displacement, was shot dead in January, 1948, by a Hindu extremist who believed that the father of the Indian nation was too soft on Muslims. Jinnah, racked with tuberculosis and overwork, died a few months later, his dream of a secular Pakistan apparently buried with him.
Many of the seeds of postcolonial disorder in South Asia were sown much earlier, in two centuries of direct and indirect British rule, but, as book after book has demonstrated, nothing in the complex tragedy of partition was inevitable. In “Indian Summer” (Henry Holt; $30), Alex von Tunzelmann pays particular attention to how negotiations were shaped by an interplay of personalities. Von Tunzelmann goes on a bit too much about the Mountbattens’ open marriage and their connections to various British royals, toffs, and fops, but her account, unlike those of some of her fellow British historians, isn’t filtered by nostalgia. She summarizes bluntly the economic record of the British overlords, who, though never as rapacious and destructive as the Belgians in the Congo, damaged agriculture and retarded industrial growth in India through a blind faith in the “invisible hand” that supposedly regulated markets. Von Tunzelmann echoes Edmund Burke’s denunciation of the East India Company when she terms the empire’s corporate forerunner a “beast” whose “only object was money”; and she reminds readers that, in 1877, the year that Queen Victoria officially became Empress of India, a famine in the south killed five million people even as the Queen’s viceroy remained adamant that famine relief was a misguided policy.
Politically, too, British rule in India was deeply conservative, limiting Indian access to higher education, industry, and the civil service. Writing in the New York Tribune in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx predicted that British colonials would prove to be the “unconscious tool” of a “social revolution” in a subcontinent stagnating under “Oriental despotism.” As it turned out, the British, while restricting an educated middle class, empowered a multitude of petty Oriental despots. (In 1947, there were five hundred and sixty-five of these feudatories, often called maharajas, running states as large as Belgium and as small as Central Park.)
Though blessed with many able administrators, the British found India just too large and diverse to handle. Many of their decisions stoked Hindu-Muslim tensions, imposing sharp new religious-political identities on Indians. As the recent experience of Iraq proves, elections in a country where the rights and responsibilities of secular and democratic citizenship are largely unknown do little more than crudely assert the majority’s right to rule. British-supervised elections in 1937 and 1946, which the Hindu-dominated Congress won easily, only hardened Muslim identity, and made partition inevitable.
This was a deeper tragedy than is commonly realized—and not only because India today has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan. In a land where cultures, traditions, and beliefs cut across religious communities, few people had defined themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith. The Pashto-speaking Muslim in the North-West Frontier province (later the nursery of the Taliban and Al Qaeda) had little in common with the Bangla-speaking Muslim in the eastern province of Bengal. (Even today, a Sunni Muslim from Lahore has less in common with a Sunni Muslim from Dhaka than he has with a Hindu Brahmin from New Delhi, who, in turn, may find alien the language, food, and dress of a low-caste Hindu from Chennai.) The British policy of defining communities based on religious identity radically altered Indian self-perceptions, as von Tunzelmann points out: “Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”
Ineptitude and negligence directed British policies in India more than any cynical desire to divide and rule, but the British were not above exploiting rivalries. As late as 1940, Winston Churchill hoped that Hindu-Muslim antagonism would remain “a bulwark of British rule in India.” Certainly Churchill, who did not want his views on India to be “disturbed by any bloody Indians,” was disinclined to recognize the upsurge of nationalism in India. Imperial authority in India rested on the claim that the British, as representatives of a superior civilization, were essentially benign custodians of a fractious country. But as an Indian middle-class élite trained in Western institutions became politicized—more aware of the nature and scale of Indian political and economic subjugation to Britain—self-serving British rhetoric about benevolent masters and volatile natives was bound to be challenged. And no one undermined British assumptions of moral and legal custodianship better than Gandhi, who was adept both at galvanizing the Indian masses and at alerting the British to the gap between their high claims and the reality of their rule. With a series of imaginative, often carefully choreographed campaigns of civil disobedience throughout the nineteen-twenties, Gandhi shook the confidence of the British, becoming, by 1931, as India’s viceroy Lord Willingdon put it in a letter to King George V, a “terribly difficult little person.” Once such middle-class nationalists as Gandhi and Nehru acquired a popular following, independence was only a matter of time. If anything, Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence probably reduced the threat that a nationwide uprising would force an early and bloody exit for the British.
Through the nineteen-thirties, Gandhi had a few perceptive and sympathetic British interlocutors, such as the viceroy Lord Irwin, who when asked if he thought Gandhi was tiresome retorted, “Some people thought Our Lord very tiresome.” For the most part, though, Gandhi dealt with such hidebound members of Britain’s landowning class as Lord Linlithgow, who, as viceroy of India in the crucial period from 1936 to 1943, liked to be accompanied into dinner every evening by a band playing “The Roast Beef of Old England”—a tactless choice of preprandial music in the land of the holy cow. In 1939, without consulting any Indian leaders, Linlithgow declared war on Germany on behalf of India, committing two and a half million Indian soldiers to the Allied cause. Convinced that independence for India was many decades away, he found an equally obdurate ally in London once Churchill came to power, in 1940.
In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Churchill had been loudest among the reactionaries who were determined not to lose India, “the jewel in the crown,” and, as Prime Minister during the Second World War, he tried every tactic to thwart Indian independence. “I hate Indians,” he declared. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” He had a special animus for Gandhi, describing him as a “rascal” and a “half-naked” “fakir.” (In a letter to Churchill, Gandhi took the latter as a compliment, claiming that he was striving for even greater renunciation.) According to his own Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, Churchill knew “as much of the Indian problem as George III did of the American colonies.”
In 1942, as the Japanese Army advanced on India, the Congress Party was willing to offer war support in return for immediate self-government. But Churchill was in no mood to negotiate. Frustrated by his stonewalling tactics, the Congress Party launched a vigorous “Quit India” campaign in August of 1942. The British suppressed it ruthlessly, imprisoning tens of thousands, including Gandhi and Nehru. Meanwhile, Churchill’s indispensable quartermaster Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware of the contradiction in claiming to fight for freedom and democracy while keeping India under foreign occupation. In letters and telegrams, he continually urged Churchill to move India toward self-government, only to receive replies that waffled and prevaricated. Muslims, Churchill once claimed, made up seventy-five per cent of the Indian Army (the actual figure was close to thirty-five), and none of them wanted to be ruled by the “Hindu priesthood.”
Von Tunzelmann judges that Churchill, hoping to forestall independence by opportunistically supporting Muslim separatism, instead became “instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state.” This is a bit unfair—not to Churchill but to Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Though always keen to incite Muslim disaffection in his last years, the Anglicized, whiskey-drinking Jinnah was far from being an Islamic theocrat; he wanted a secular Pakistan, in which Muslims, Hindus, and Christians were equal before the law. (In fact, political Islam found only intermittent support within Pakistan until the nineteen-eighties, when the country’s military dictator, working with the Saudis and the C.I.A., turned the North-West Frontier province into the base of a global jihad against the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.)
What Leopold Amery denounced as Churchill’s “Hitler-like attitude” to India manifested itself most starkly during a famine, caused by a combination of war and mismanagement, that claimed between one and two million lives in Bengal in 1943. Urgently beseeched by Amery and the Indian viceroy to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.
“It is strange,” George Orwell wrote in his diary in August, 1942, “but quite truly the way the British government is now behaving in India upsets me more than a military defeat.” Orwell, who produced many BBC broadcasts from London to India during the war, feared that “if these repressive measures in India are seemingly successful, the effects in this country will be very bad. All seems set for a big comeback by the reactionaries.” But in the British elections at the end of the war, the reactionaries unexpectedly lost to the Labour Party, and a new era in British politics began.
As von Tunzelmann writes, “By 1946, the subcontinent was a mess, with British civil and military officers desperate to leave, and a growing hostility to their presence among Indians.” In an authoritative recent two-volume account of the end of the British Empire in Asia—“Forgotten Armies” and “Forgotten Wars”—the Cambridge University historians Tim Harper and Christopher Bayly describe how quickly the Japanese had humiliated the British in Malaya and Burma, threatening their hold over India. With their mystique of power gone, Asia’s British masters depended on what Bayly and Harper term the “temporary sufferance of Asians.” Although Churchill had rejected the Congress Party’s offer of military support in exchange for independence, Bayley and Harper write that, ultimately, “it was Indian soldiers, civilian laborers and businessmen who made possible the victory of 1945. Their price was the rapid independence of India.”
The British could not now rely on brute force without imperilling their own sense of legitimacy. Besides, however much they “preferred the illusion of imperial might to the admission of imperial failure,” as von Tunzelmann puts it, the country, deep in wartime debt, simply couldn’t afford to hold on to its increasingly unstable empire. Imperial disengagement appeared not just inevitable but urgent.
But Churchill’s divisive policies had already produced a disastrous effect on the Indian political scene. Congress Party leaders had refused to share power with Jinnah, confident that they did not need Muslim support in order to win a majority vote in elections. These attitudes stoked Muslim fears that the secular nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru was a cover for Hindu dominance. While the Congress leaders were in prison, Jinnah, with Churchill’s encouragement, steadily consolidated Muslim opinion behind him. By 1946, this secularist politician had managed to present himself as the best defender of Muslim interests in a Hindu-dominated India. Religion was never so deeply and enduringly politicized in India as it was in the last years of imperial rule.
At first, Nehru and other Congress Party leaders dismissed the idea of Pakistan as a joke. Jinnah demonstrated his newfound power by ordering mass strikes across India, many of which degenerated into Hindu-Muslim riots. In just three days in August, 1946, four thousand residents of Calcutta died. Retaliatory killings around the country further envenomed political attitudes. A heartbroken Gandhi found fewer and fewer takers for nonviolence, even among his Congress Party, many of whose leaders spoke openly of civil war.
When the improbably handsome Mountbatten arrived, in March of 1947, with his rich and beautiful wife, he did not initially seem up to the task of supervising British withdrawal and giving a viable postcolonial shape to the subcontinent. Not everyone had been impressed by his elevation, in 1943, to the post of the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in South-East Asia. His American deputy, General Joseph Stilwell, concluded, “The Glamour Boy is just that. Enormous staff, endless walla-walla, but damned little fighting.” It was probably just as well that Mountbatten did little fighting. Early in the war, he had sailed the destroyer H.M.S. Kelly into a minefield before ramming it into another British ship. After exposing his ship to German torpedo fire (“That’s going to kill an awful lot of chaps,” he recalled thinking as he saw the metal streaking toward him), Mountbatten finally saw it sunk by German dive-bombers off the coast of Crete.
Known in the British Admiralty as the Master of Disaster, Mountbatten nonetheless displayed astonishing political maturity as the war ended in the Asian countries under his command. He realized that prolonged Japanese occupation of Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, and Indochina had unleashed nationalistic aspirations that exhausted European empires would not be able to suppress. He advised the French that war with the Viet Minh, who had declared an independent Vietnam soon after the Japanese surrender, was pointless, and he even supported an ambitious plan by the British Labour politician Tom Driberg to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh. He had little sympathy for the efforts of the Dutch to reassert their authority in Indonesia, and in Burma he infuriated the old imperialist guard by promoting the nationalist radical Aung San (the father of the long-imprisoned activist Aung San Suu Kyi).
The awesome task Mountbatten faced in India may have appealed to his ego. Though he knew little of the intricacies of Indian politics, he deployed a great deal of personal charm; and he had an effective ally in his estranged wife, Edwina. Together, this “power couple” went to work on Indian leaders. Gandhi succumbed, as did the Anglophilic Nehru, who grew particularly close to Edwina. Jinnah, however, remained difficult to please.
New problems arose every day. British concessions to Muslim separatism emboldened other religious and ethnic minorities. The fiercely tribalist Pashtuns of the North-West Frontier province, wary of Jinnah, asked for Pathanistan; the Naga tribes in the northeastern hills, who had been armed by the British to fight the Japanese, demanded Nagastan; the Sikhs proposed Sikhistan; the Baluchis went ahead and declared an independent Baluchistan. Mountbatten defused most of these would-be secessionists with a mixture of sweet-talking and bluster. His aristocratic connections came in particularly handy as he placated maharajas who were abruptly forced to choose between India and Pakistan. The trickiest of them, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, who presided over a Muslim-majority population, was later to accede to India in circumstances that remain controversial and have preserved Pakistan’s claims on the state.
Eventually, after wrangling and recriminations, Mountbatten got Indian leaders to agree to partition. Then, abruptly, in early June, he announced August 15, 1947, as the date for the transfer of power, bringing forward the British government’s original schedule by nine months. The reason for this rush is not known. Mountbatten may have wanted to inject some urgency into the tortuous negotiations about who would get what—even ink pots were to be divided between the new nation-states. He may also have simply wanted to cut and run. In any case, his decision is partly to blame for the disasters that followed.
Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister, was flown to Delhi and given forty days to define precisely the strange political geography of an India flanked by an eastern and a western wing called Pakistan. He did not visit the villages, communities, rivers, or forests divided by the lines he drew on paper. Ill-informed about the relation between agricultural hinterlands and industrial centers, he made a mistake of enormous economic consequence when, dividing Bengal on religious lines, he deprived the Muslim majority in the eastern region of its major city, Calcutta, condemning East Pakistan—and, later, Bangladesh—to decades of rural backwardness.
It was in Punjab that Radcliffe’s mapmaking sparked the biggest conflagration. As Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs on either side of the new border suddenly found themselves reduced to a religious minority, the tensions of the preceding months exploded into the violence of ethnic cleansing. It seems extraordinary today that so few among the cabal of Indian leaders whom Mountbatten consulted anticipated that the drawing of borders and the crystallizing of national identities along religious lines would plunge millions into bewilderment, panic, and murderous rage. If the British were eager to divide and quit, their successors wanted to savor power. No one had prepared for a massive transfer of population. Even as armed militias roamed the countryside, looking for people to kidnap, rape, and kill, houses to loot, and trains to derail and burn, the only force capable of restoring order, the British Indian Army, was itself being divided along religious lines—Muslim soldiers to Pakistan, Hindus to India. Soon, many of the communalized soldiers would join their co-religionists in killing sprees, giving the violence of partition its genocidal cast. Radcliffe never returned to India. Just before his death, in 1977, he told a journalist, “I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand—both sides.”
Trains carrying nothing but corpses through a desolate countryside became the totemic image of the savagery of partition. British soldiers confined to their barracks, ordered by Mountbatten to save only British lives, may prove to be the most enduring image of imperial retreat. With this act of moral dereliction, the British Empire finally disowned its noble sense of mission. As Paul Scott put it in “The Raj Quartet,” the epic of imperial exhaustion and disillusion, India in 1947 was where the empire’s high idea of itself collapsed and “the British came to the end of themselves as they were.”
The British Empire passed quickly and with less humiliation than its French and Dutch counterparts, but decades later the vicious politics of partition still seems to define India and Pakistan. The millions of Muslims who chose to stay in India never ceased to be hostages to Hindu extremists. As recently as 2002, Hindu nationalists massacred more than two thousand Muslims in the state of Gujarat. The dispute over Kashmir, the biggest unfinished business of partition, committed countries with mostly poor and illiterate populations to a nuclear arms race and nourished extremists in both countries: Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, Hindu nationalists in India. It also damaged India’s fragile democracy—Indian soldiers and policemen in Kashmir routinely execute and torture Pakistan-backed Muslim insurgents—and helped cement the military’s extra-constitutional influence over Pakistan’s inherently weaker state. Tens of thousands have died in Kashmir in the past decade and a half, and since 1947 sectarian conflicts in India and Pakistan have killed thousands more.
Many ethnic minorities chafed at the postcolonial nationalism of India and Pakistan, and some rebelled. At least one group—Bengali Muslims—succeeded in establishing their own nation-state (Bangladesh), though only after suffering another round of ethnic cleansing, this time by fellow-Muslims. Other minorities demanding political autonomy—Nagas, Sikhs, Kashmiris, Baluchis—were quelled, often with greater brutality than the British had ever used against their subjects.
Meeting Mountbatten a few months after partition, Churchill assailed him for helping Britain’s “enemies,” “Hindustan,” against “Britain’s friends,” the Muslims. Little did Churchill know that his expedient boosting of political Islam would eventually unleash a global jihad engulfing even distant New York and London. The rival nationalisms and politicized religions the British Empire brought into being now clash in an enlarged geopolitical arena; and the human costs of imperial overreaching seem unlikely to attain a final tally for many more decades.