Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan

The partition of India, seventy years ago this month, is at the heart of the identity of two of the world’s most most populous nations, branded painfully and indelibly onto their consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.

The paradox of Indian (and Pakistani) independence is that the long and torturous struggle for freedom was built upon nonviolence and civil disobedience (led by, and indeed personified by Mahatma Ghandi), and concluded with the peaceful handover of authority from an impoverished Britain that was downsizing its Empire, and yet ended with the partition of the Indian subcontinent into a majority Hindu state and a Muslim one.

The British army departed India with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties, and yet partition brought violent death to between one and two million souls, and the largest enforced mass movement of people in modern history – an estimated fifteen million people were uprooted as communities that had lived together for millennia disintegrated in bloodshed as Muslims fled to the new Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled from that Muslim state to India. The Partition was one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th Century, a century that was replete with such.

Britain’s exit from India has been well-documented, and yet, is still subject to debate and disagreement. The recent film The Viceroys House, dramatizes the critical months leading up to August 14th 1947, and the countdown to “freedom at Midnight” the title of the celebrated book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1975). The film is centered around Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, and his wife Edwina. It one of history’s great ironies that this aristocratic socialite, sportsman, and decorated war-hero, scion of European royals and cousin to the King of England, should be appointed by a Labour prime minister to bring down the curtain on “the jewel in the imperial crown”, ending over three hundred years of British rule, and to usher in a socialist Indian government and a brand-new Muslim state.

It is a story replete with depressing ironies. The atavistic poisons released by partition resulted in the assassination of the Mahatma at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist. Mountbatten, who had his ship sink under him in the Mediterranean during WW2, and travelled unscathed through a dangerous and disintegrating India, died at sea at the hands of the IRA just over twenty years later. Chilling omens for the modern world – as Mark Twain reportedly observed, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Freedom at Midnight, a chronological narrative of that dramatic year, and cited as a source for the film, is an entertaining and informative account. It paints sympathetic yet critical portraits of the principal players – Mr and Mrs Mountbatten, the ascetic and quixotic Gandhi the aloof and shrewd Jawahawal Nehru, the subaritic, dying Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other leading lights of the Congress Party and the Muslim League, the civil servants and lawyers who had to implement Mountbatten’s exit plan, and India ‘s five hundred and sixty five princes and maharajahs, often sordid, subaritic and picaresque, very occasionally, liberal and progressive, but by 1947, anachronistic and doomed.

Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah

A counterpoint to Freedom at Midnight, is another book also cited as a source for The Viceroy’s House: The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by former aide to Mountbatten and longtime India civil servant, Narendra Singh Sarila. Whereas Freedom at Midnight sees HMG as virtually handing Mountbatten a free hand in extricating impoverished Britain from unruly and potentially ungovernable India, Sarila, like many Indian historians, sees the Brits as more clever and subtle than in fact they actually were. Perfidious Albion redux. It is as if ingenue  India, and Pakistan, the latter viewed by many some British policy makers as little more than an acronym, were set up to fail. And yet, they did not.

Bu the long arm of history reaches from the partition to the present, and from the present into an  uncertain future. It’s icy fingers probe deeply into the politics and psyches of the Raj’s successor states and the relationships, rarely harmonious, mostly acrimonious, and oftimes toxic, between them. The unrsolved armed truce that exists between India and Pakistan in the wake of two wars, with Kashmir, the one-time, much-beloved rose now a sharp and inextricable thorn. The bloody birth of Bangladesh as Muslim but culturally and racially different East and West Pakistan found that they could not share the same Muslim house. The long and brutal racial and religious civil war in Sri Lanka. The rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Hindu fundamentalism in India, which combined with political and military rivalry and atavistic hatreds, passed on from generation to generation, has exacerbated the already insoluble, seemingly permanent war-zone that is modern Afghanistan, another unfortunate piece on the confused battlefield of that old “Great Game”.

India for all its problems and paradoxes, remains the world’s largest democracy, and is today one of the world’s new economic and technological powerhouses (the so-called BRICs). Pakistan, which many predicted would not last its first decade, but would reunite with India, survived, and today, is regarded by many observers as a nuclear armed, potentially failed state, poised perpetually between rowdy democrats, “born to rule” dynasties, ambitious generals, and medieval mullahs.

Acclaimed historian and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple, concluded in a succinct review in The New Yorker:

“Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends. Nisid Hajari ends his book by pointing out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan “is getting more, rather than less, dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.” Moreover, Pakistan, nuclear-armed and deeply unstable, is not a threat only to India; it is now the world’s problem, the epicenter of many of today’s most alarming security risks. It was out of madrassas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged. That regime, which was then the most retrograde in modern Islamic history, provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda’s leadership even after 9/11”.

The story of one-time Imperial South Asia still has a long way to run.

See also, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition. 

Postscript

In 1947, WH Auden composed a poem commemorating the partition.  Specifically, he wrote of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer appointed by the British government to determine the borders of the new states. It was he who drew the fateful lines on the map of British India. An ironically objective narrative which recounts the story just as Collins and Lapierre tell it in Freedom at Midnight. It is, perhaps by design and intent, reminiscent of a celebrated poem by Dylan Thomas, and indeed, to paraphrase the Welsh Bard, “the hand that signed the paper” felled a city and bred a fever.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

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