Were India and Pakistan Doomed at Birth?
Creating separate Pakistani and Indian states with the Partition of 1947, Great Britian sowed the discord and conflict that continue to flourish well over half a century later.
Lucidly written and cogently argued by Nisid Hajari, a veteran journalist specializing in Asian affairs, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition will certainly give American readers a better understanding of the eruption of sectarian violence that accompanied the 1947 birth of modern India and Pakistan, as well as its ongoing consequences for global stability. This deeply researched and relatively evenhanded book also offers uncomfortable lessons relevant to our domestic politics about the dangers of rejecting compromise, demonizing your opponents, and stirring up toxic emotions to achieve your political goals.
After centuries of colonial rule by Great Britain, the Asian subcontinent was divided into the independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan by the British Parliament, which passed the Indian Independence Act less than a month before its effective date of August 15, 1947. The English would not even publish a map with the two new countries’ precise borders until the day after independence. Unsurprisingly, chaos and widespread violence ensued. Muslim gangs in Pakistan attacked and murdered their Hindu and Sikh neighbors, while Hindu and Sikh thugs did exactly the same to Muslims living in India. Millions of people fled their homes in foot caravans that stretched for 50 miles, assaulted by armed bands along the way, or on refugee trains that often arrived at their destinations with nothing but corpses on board.
Hajari’s grim reprisal of those bloody weeks fully captures their horror, but he’s even better at laying out the complex political interactions that led to Partition and to the killings. The creation of Pakistan was a defeat for the nationalist Congress Party, which insisted that it represented all Indians in the struggle against British rule, and that independent India would be a multifaith, multiethnic, secular democracy. Only in early 1947 did the party pass a resolution implicitly accepting the idea of Partition, and that was only in order to propose boundaries that would render Pakistan so weak it could “never succeed economically or otherwise,” as Congress Party president Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote to the party’s spiritual leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi.
For his part, Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah had long since abandoned the belief in Hindu-Muslim unity as the best path to Indian independence that once made him a rising star in the Congress Party. It was Jinnah who in 1940 suggested to the British viceroy that Pakistan, “a Muslim area run by Muslims,” would give Great Britain a reliable ally in the region at a time when the Congress Party was insisting on the promise of postwar independence for India as a prerequisite for cooperation in the war effort. “The Pakistan demand gave [Winston Churchill] an excuse to stall any further concessions to Congress,” Hajari writes. “Nehru raged that Jinnah had won a ‘veto’ over political progress.”
The author’s sympathies are clearly with Nehru, a militant secularist who dismissed the idea of a separate Muslim nation as “medieval,” but he doesn’t whitewash the arrogance that alienated Jinnah. Nehru disdained Muslim League support in the 1937 elections, declaring voters’ choice to be “the Congress Party [or] continued servitude to the British.” This wasn’t how Jinnah saw it, and India’s Muslims increasingly agreed that Congress was an instrument of Hindu domination as much as national liberation. The problem was, the realities of Indian geography didn’t lend themselves to the neat creation of two homogeneous states.
Had relations between Nehru and Jinnah been less bitter, the two parties might have properly cooperated with the British in the process of apportioning India’s patchwork of ethnically and religiously diverse provinces and princely states, in some of which rulers of one faith presided over subjects primarily of the other. They might have done better by the Punjab, whose five million Sikhs were not happy to see their homeland split in half and particularly fearful of being governed by Muslims, their religion’s historic persecutors.
Instead, Hajari shows, Nehru and Jinnah worked together only reluctantly and did their best to undermine each other, indulging in inflammatory statements that in August 1946 bore fruit in the Great Calcutta Killing, a communal massacre with ominous implications. “The political battle between Hindus and Muslims—until then waged around negotiating tables and in debate halls—turned violent,” he writes. Jinnah and Nehru used the riots “as ammunition in their ongoing blame game.”
The blame game kept going as both parties stirred up trouble in the volatile Punjab and placed so many obstacles in the face of meaningful negotiations over the post-Partition order that the British essentially threw up their hands and walked away. (Readers might feel more sympathy for their frustration if we hadn’t seen them throughout using sectarian divisions to foster their own agenda in India.) The Punjab saw some of the worst Partition-related brutality, but the violence spread to two of India’s largest cities, Calcutta and Delhi, before finally subsiding in late September with the arrival of monsoon rains.
Hajari argues that the blame game became fixed in the post-Partition narratives of both India and Pakistan. Convinced that its larger, wealthier neighbor seeks to strangle it economically and politically—a belief reinforced by India’s military assistance to the 1971 rebellion that turned East Pakistan into the independent nation of Bangladesh—Pakistan covertly supports Islamic jihadists in the Indian province of Kashmir and in nearby Afghanistan. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, which has a majority-Muslim population and remains emotionally vital to India’s self-image as a multifaith society. The Sikhs who assassinated Indira Gandhi after the Indian army’s 1984 assault on their holiest shrine, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, might not agree.
Hajari spends more time on the obstructionism and divisive rhetoric of Jinnah and the Muslim League, an emphasis that seems justified by the historical record, but he makes it clear that Nehru and the Congress Party were co-creators of the poisonous atmosphere that spawned the Partition massacres and continues to destabilize the region. “Realism and political courage,” he concludes, “have been sorely lacking, in both capitals, since 1947.” They are sorely needed in today’s polarized political climate—and not just in India and Pakistan.