Reflection on books about the history and dark legacies of India’s partition in 1947
Seventy three years after the partition of India, in circumstances that were as horrific as they were inevitable, the break-up of the country continues to generate debate on the causes that led to such a pass. The generation which saw the division take place, indeed suffered through the process, is long gone. But that generational attitude to Partition, typified by the children and then the grandchildren of that generation of the 1940s, has gone on.
More significantly, Partition continues to exercise minds not only among communities of historians and analysts in the three nations which once were united India but also in scholars who have, beyond South Asia, keenly dug into the hard circumstances that so overwhelmed the political classes in the run-up to the chaotic departure of the British colonial power in 1947. And then, of course, there are the subaltern tales, the psychological trauma of men and women waking up one morning to be told the country they and their ancestors had inhabited for ages was no more theirs.
Hindus and Sikhs made the sad journey from the areas constituting the new state of Pakistan to what remained as India, while Muslims, lured by the promise of a happier life in a new ambience, moved to a country built on the two-nation theory. It is the aggregate of human sufferings as well as resilience that emerges through such works as Reena Nanda’s From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story. It is a tale that might as well be told by others, for it depicts images of a Hindu family forced by growing communalism to make the move all the way from Baluchistan to Delhi. Unsettling too are the experiences of individuals and families in Mallika Ahluwalia’s Divided by Partition: United by Resilience: 21 Inspirational Stories From 1947. The work is a compendium of the trauma visited on a generation pushed into becoming refugees. Among them were Lal Krishna Advani, Hamida Habibullah, Madan Lal Khurana, Kuldip Nayar and Gulzar, people who were later to arrive at prominence in their own different ways.
It all raises the question of whether Partition could not have been prevented. Did Mountbatten rush things in his own interest, which was one of placing one more crown of glory on his head? But then, mistakes were committed on all sides. If the Muslim League sowed the seeds of division in 1940 through adopting a resolution calling for independent Muslim states to be established to the east and west of the country, it was also an idea that would be taken up in exasperation by the Hindu community. As Neeti Nair narrates the story of the Punjab Hindu leader Gokul Chand Narang in Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, many Hindus began to look upon the Muslim position with disgust but were nevertheless quite ready to be rid of the community. Twenty years after Partition, Narang would cheerfully tell his followers in Delhi of his readiness to accept Pakistan but never the idea of parity between Hindus and Muslims.
The bloodletting could perhaps have been prevented. But, then again, by the time the Great Calcutta Killings were unleashed in August 1946, control and even a modicum of decency resting on pragmatism seemed to have deserted much of the leadership. Jinnah’s call for a Direct Action Day --- it was intriguing that he did not make it clear at whom the action was directed --- and Suhrawardy’s diabolical role in provoking the riots are part of history. Nisid Hajari, in his acclaimed Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, refers to Nehru’s growing impatience over the worsening state of politics. “Division”, he made it clear, “is better than a union of unwilling parts.” As Hajari relates the story in all its historical ramifications, not even Jinnah was comfortable in the post-Partition situation. Hardly had a week gone by after Partition when five masked men, probably dispossessed Muslims as Hajari puts it, made their way into Government House in Karachi, the aim being to assassinate Pakistan’s founder. As the months wore on, Jinnah’s demeanour underwent changes. His health deteriorated and so did his moods. Hajari projects the picture: “Ministers and servants alike were terrified of crossing the Quaid. He dined with his shrewish sister Fatima, coldly and formally, while his aides scrounged for what scraps they could find in the kitchen.”
Partition pushed two million people – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – to death. It caused fourteen million people to leave their ancestral homes and head for the uncertainties that awaited them in their new countries, geographies imposed on them. Along the way, they killed one another; women of all communities were particular targets of bestial fury. They were abducted, raped and killed. The fury of Partition, as Yasmin Khan tells it in her The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, did not leave even prominent families untouched. The brother of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, the Congress politician, was stabbed to death. The daughter of Ghulam Mohammad, a future governor general of Pakistan, was kidnapped. Zakir Hussain, a future president of India, nearly lost his life at the hands of a Hindu mob at Ambala railway station. The American journalist Phillips Talbot could not fail noticing the exhaustion that had come over the politicians. Jinnah looked haggard, while Nehru was given to sudden outbursts of temper.
Barney White-Spunner, in Partition: The story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, goes for a month by month account of the final year of undivided India, of politics as it began to shape up in January and continuing all the way to December 1947. In July, as Sir Evan Jenkins reported to Mountbatten, 4,632 people died in the Punjab in communal clashes, while 2,573 were badly injured. In Lahore, 20,256 houses were destroyed in the last week of July. And all of this fury was ravaging India only weeks before Partition. Cyril Radcliffe, having done his job of slicing through Bengal and the Punjab, left India on 18 August. He would never return to the country. Meanwhile, on 15 August, a Muslim mob in Lahore torched a Sikh gurdwara, leading to its twenty two guards and worshippers being burnt alive. Muslim policemen nearby did not intervene. That very afternoon, in Amritsar in east Punjab, Sikhs paraded naked Muslim women through the streets before subjecting them to rape in public. Once the humiliation was complete, the women were set on fire.
Also read: Kitabistan: A forgotten tale of partition
A remarkable work on Partition is Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Rich in scholarship, the work explores the growing despair among India’s politicians as the division of the country appeared to be inevitable. Speaking to the American journalist Louis Fischer in the summer of 1946, an irritated Gandhi gave vent to his feelings on the state of politics. “I have no power. I have not changed Congress. I have a catalogue of grievances against it”, he told Fischer. His bitterness toward Jinnah came through loud and clear: “Jinnah is an evil genius. He believes he is a prophet.”
There were the quirky sides to Partition, as Dominique Lapierre explains in A Thousand Suns: Witness to History. And it related to a division of material goods once India and Pakistan emerged as free nations. In Lahore, an official divided the town band’s instruments thus: a trumpet to Pakistan, a pair of cymbals to India, a flute to Pakistan, a drum to India. Read on, of complete sets of Encyclopaedia Brittanica being divided between the two countries. Dictionaries were split up, with India getting the letters A to K and Pakistan the remaining alphabets. Muslims demanded that the Tajmahal be dismantled and its stones be transported to Pakistan. For their part, India’s Brahmins demanded the entire Indus River because the sacred Vedas had been composed on its banks twenty five centuries earlier.
Seventy three years on, the scars of Partition remain the inheritance of the children and grandchildren of the generation which suffered through the trauma. Partition dismembered a country. It ran a knife through heritage.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer. His books include From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.