The Partition of India in 1947 promised its people both political and religious freedom—through the liberation of India from British rule, and the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan. Instead, the geographical divide brought displacement and death, and it benefited the few at the expense of the very many. Thousands of women were raped, at least one million people were killed, and ten to fifteen million were forced to leave their homes as refugees. One of the first events of decolonization in the twentieth century, Partition was also one of the most bloody.
In this book Yasmin Khan examines the context, execution, and aftermath of Partition, weaving together local politics and ordinary lives with the larger political forces at play. She exposes the widespread obliviousness to what Partition would entail in practice and how it would affect the populace. Drawing together fresh information from an array of sources, Khan underscores the catastrophic human cost and shows why the repercussions of Partition resound even now, some sixty years later. The book is an intelligent and timely analysis of Partition, the haste and recklessness with which it was completed, and the damaging legacy left in its wake.
Yasmin Cordery Khan is a writer, author of the debut novel EDGWARE ROAD, and the history books, ‘The Great Partition’, and ‘The Raj at War’. She was brought up in London and was educated by bursary and government assisted place at King Edward’s School, Witley, and at the University of Oxford, where she was awarded a first class degree and doctorate. Her historical work has won the Gladstone Prize and the Karachi Literature Festival Prize, and has been listed for the Orwell prize and the TATA live prize. She has written for the Guardian, BBC History Magazine, Times Literary Supplement, Observer, Prospect magazine, and has broadcast widely on British television and radio. She can trace her family tree to Ireland, England, Pakistan and Argentina; she is British and lives in Oxfordshire with her family. @OxfordYasmin, Agent: James Gill at United Agents.
“Violence is bad but non-violence is hopeless.” - Anonymous letter written to a local Lahore Congress Committee, mid 1947
“My father had a soda water shop. We put all the soda water bottles on the roof, lined them up, thinking that when they come we will attack them with bottles. But they were no use because they came with machine guns.” - Shanti Seghal, aged 20 in 1946
“I am of 56 and forcibly exiled from my home I am wandering disappointed. Will you kindly advise me what to do and where to in this critical moment of my life.” - Letter to local Congress Party, 1947
The precipitous end of the British Raj and the agonizing birth of modern India and Pakistan must be one of the most tremendous events in 20th Century history, but until I read this book I had only the sketchiest idea of what happened. I thought this might be simply down to my own eurocentrism, but Yasmin Khan informs me that this cataclysm is hurried past in the current history text-books of both countries, dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. Eyes are averted. Rwanda, Cambodia under Pol Pot, even distant Darfur, all have become much better known than the great Partition, during which between 500,000 and a million people died. Accurate numbers are not available.
WHAT WAS PAKISTAN BEFORE 1947?
Muslims had evolved the concept of Pakistan, a land governed by Muslims for Muslims, slowly, vaguely, wishfully, daydreamingly – and one surprising fact is that the name Pakistan was only coined in 1933, just 14 years before it became a reality. It was kind of synonym for Utopia; and for a lot of Muslims it seems to have been a pleasant fantasy - or a fierce political fantasy - but hardly anyone answered the question about WHERE this Pakistan would actually BE in the real territories of British India.
Nobody knew what this map was – and nobody was contemplating migrating in 1946, let alone the mass movement of twelve million people only one year later.
What happened was that the British, worn down by years of passive resistance Gandhi-style, almost bankrupt at the end of World War Two, knew they were going to have to let India go, so they did it in the worst possible way, and stole away like a thief in the night, no concept of duty of care or responsibility anywhere to be had, no thought that things might go haywire, it was like – Okay, you bastards, you want your independence? HERE! You want your Pakistan? HERE! And the devil take you all.
Well, the devil took a lot of them.
HINDU WATER, MUSLIM WATER
Another surprising fact - How many Europeans living in India in 1946? Best guess: 97,000.
And now a question - was there an Indian apartheid between Muslims and Hindus before Partition? I had not thought so, but YK says:
Reminders of religious “difference” were built into the brickwork of the colonial state; a Muslim traveler would be directed to the “Mohammedan refreshment room” at a train station and drinking taps on railway platforms were labelled “Hindu water” or “Muslim water”. p19
That surprised me too. How pervasive this apartheid-style separation went outside of railway stations is not mentioned. Another thing I did not know : there were “Nationalist Muslims” who strongly opposed the concept of Pakistan.
Some of the most forthright and bloody opposition to the Muslim League came from within the Muslim communities themselves
ACCURATE NUMBERS ARE NEVER AVAILABLE
Between 16 and 18 August 1946 there were riots in Calcutta. Three days, 4000 dead, 10,000 injured. That was the first big one. Then the violence began to boil up over Bihar, the United Provinces, East Bengal (about 5000 people dead), and on and on. What was going on here?
For many of those who supported Congress, Pakistan was perceived as a total and sweeping threat which risked shattering the whole of Mother India, rather than as a question of territorial self-determination in a specific part of the sub-continent. …Pakistan had come to signify anti-freedom for many non-Muslims and a utopian future for many Muslims
There were three concepts in the minds of Indians in the 1940s, two of which had terrible consequences. First was swaraj, freedom, independence. That could only be good. Second was Pakistan. As already said, that was never defined, was cloudy, a sometime-maybe thing which the hotheads banged on about - but then became ever more urgent, ever more dominating, like a small unnoticed cloud on the horizon which grows and grows until the sun and all rational thought is blotted out; and then the third concept which grew necessarily out of Pakistan was PARTITION, and that drove people insane.
KM Panikkar, historian and diplomat
Hindustan is the elephant…and Pakistan is the two ears. The elephant can live without the two ears.
Aside from being a rather Undiplomatic statement, also uniquely laid-back. No one else was taking this line, unfortunately. Au contraire, says Yasmin:
Like a distorted fairground mirror, India and Pakistan became warped , frightening, oppositional images of one another. p104
3 June 1947 – Viceroy Mountbatten announces the plan for the Partition of India into two independent states. Independence Day for the new countries will be 14 and 15 August.
YOU HAVE 70 DAYS TO FORM SEPARATE ARMIES, SORT OUT BORDER CONTROLS, CREATE TWO SETS OF GOVERNMENT APPARATUS, ALL THAT JAZZ – BETTER GET GOING!
One does not have to look far to find signs of the utter confusion which greeted the 3 June plan…[which was] foisted on a population entirely uninformed about its details and implications. Shahid Hamid, private secretary to Auchinleck :
It was a bombshell! Does he realize the consequences? Why this hurry? Why this shock treatment? Why is he bulldozing everything and leaving no time for an organized handover?
Journalist : Do you foresee any mass transfer of population?
Viceroy Mountbatten : Personally, I don’t see it.
So why did Jinnah and Nehru accede to such an insane, precipitous, huggermugger plan?
The truth is that we were tired men and we were getting on in years…the plan for partition offered a way out and we took it. – Nehru in 1960
By August 1947 all the ingredients were in place for ethnic cleansing in Punjab: a feeble and polarized police force, the steady withdrawal of British troops and their substitution with the limited and undermanned Punjab Boundary Forces and a petrified and well-armed population. P128
If your home fell on the wrong side of the border when it was finally announced, many argued, you would not be living as a minority in a modern, democratic nation state. Instead, you would suffer oppression, exploitation, the dishonoring of religion and perhaps even conversion or death. P 111
In the minds of millions of Indians, once they had an idea that they and their family would be part of the minority in the new country, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that for them the future would be like Jews under Hitler. The terrible decision to stay or go had to be made. This led, in a few months, to
Foot columns sometimes 30-40,000 strong created human caravans 45 miles long in places. P 160
In Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, mass relocations of entire populations were ordered frequently – Crimean Tatars and Chechens to Central Asia, Jews to Poland - these cruel events were enforced by the military. The flight of millions of refugees from or to Pakistan happened without state intervention – both of the brand new states had hardly any military available to them to enforce any controls whatsoever. This was unplanned chaos. This was stampeding for the exit.
The two new governments had to solve the crisis almost entirely alone, with the international community barely involved p 168
No Bing Crosby and Doris Day headlining Refugee Aid for them in 1947. The benevolent white races had just nearly obliterated themselves. Sorry India, we know this is not a good situation, but we’ve got our own disaster to recover from.
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan,” Jinnah told Hindus and Sikhs…even as arson attacks on these religious buildings and murder of their worshippers continued unabated. P 155
This is a short book (210 pages of text) but an extremely dense one. I salute Yasmin Khan, undaunted by the huge task of compressing this dizzying , complex, vast story into a comprehensible tale, but I have to say she will win no prizes as a prose stylist. Her book is studded with tired phrases, it’s often stilted and awkward, and she loves her outdated clichés –
Evidently, in the run up to Partition something had gone badly wrong between Indian Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. P18 (you think, professor? You think?)
With the stakes so high and the number of voters so low, winning seats by fair means or foul was the ultimate end of every party p33
Security was the paramount need of the hour p84
And so on. The tale got told in the teeth of these infelicities. But what a tale.
(A librarian is given the task of dividing the books in his library, 1947)
The author's main focus is on the displacement of millions of people and the communal violence that erupted in 1947,as the British finally prepared to leave India.
She does seem to be an admirer of Nehru and Gandhi,both of whom she portrays rather flatteringly.
Most of the book deals with the violence in the dying days of the British Raj and the plight of millions of displaced persons and refugees as they struggled to cross the new borders.
Punjab and Bengal were key battlegrounds as refugees were massacred and women were raped.After some normalcy was restored and the violence had abated,many of the refugees were still left with an uphill task,trying to rebuild their lives with little resources.
All that violence hardened the attitudes of both countries towards each other and was the first step in turning them into permanant enemies.An iron curtain descended and wars and nuclearisation followed.
In the introduction,the book states that partition benefited a few at the expense of many.
Well,hundreds of millions of Pakistanis have benefited from the creation of Pakistan,all the difficulties and sacrificies not withstanding.It would be a bit difficult for an Oxford academic like the author,sitting thousands of miles away,to appreciate this.
During the British Raj,India's Muslims did not get sufficient economic opportunities and jobs.The author has nothing to say about this,it was a key factor driving the demand for Pakistan.
In addition,what the book does not mention is that even today,communal violence is not an infrequent occurence in India and the lot of India's Muslims is not a happy one.
Any baseline for discussing the Partition of the Indian subcontinent has to contend with the deaths and displacement of over 12 million people in its immediate aftermath, subsequent wars that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands more, permanently militarized borders, crippling rates of defense spending, the nuclearization of the subcontinent, the triumph of sectarian politics, and endemic low-level violence that may still lead to a worse catastrophe than all that. This is a tall order and it’s hard to describe any of it as praiseworthy or glorious. Although it contradicts the nationalist historiographies of both India and Pakistan, in my opinion it is hard to see Partition as anything other than a massive folly that the world now simply has to live with.
This book is a thorough, disquieting account of the episode itself. As much passion as the question of Partition created at the time, it is important to emphasize that no one, neither its most vocal supporters nor its opponents, imagined that it would result in the long-lasting negative consequences that have occurred. The idea of Pakistan was not thoroughly imagined before its creation. It was a sort of metaphysical nation in the sky, at a time when nationalism was in vogue worldwide. In the most extreme case the vision was of Muslim and Hindu states living peacefully side by side, with open borders. No one had been banking on what actually occurred. The Partition idea was dreamed up by elites and then used to rile up the sentiments of the masses. Very few of its ordinary supporters ever imagined that it would entail them leaving their homes, let alone lead to generations of sectarian war. It was not comprehensible to Indian Muslims that it meant abandoning forever the familiar markers of Indo-Islamic society, which, after all, they had thought they were preserving.
India in the immediate aftermath of the Raj was a poorly developed society. Communications and literacy rates were low. But there was a small and active Hindu and Muslim elite at the apex of national politics. It was this elite that could not come to terms with one another. There is enough blame to go around for this. The Muslim League was intransigent and often sectarian. But Congress also had hawks with their own ideas of strong central power, who sometimes mused about a future Hindu ascendence in India. These elites ended up cooking up a half-baked plan for creating separate countries, which hundreds of millions of ordinary people, mostly poor, were then forced to consume. It fomented great violence, led by radicalized middle-classes who often had covert political support. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, died in the killing fields of Punjab and the Bengal. The overwhelming majority of the Indian public, whether Muslim or Hindu, did not have any premonition of what their leaders were really getting them into.
The world of nation-states was poorly understood at the public level at the time of Partition. Right until the end, there was the widespread belief that Hyderabad and Delhi would be part of Pakistan, or that there would be “Pakistan pockets” where Musims lived in their ancestral homes throughout the subcontinent. The catastrophic impact of Partition on Sikhs in the Punjab was more or less ignored. It was supremely irresponsible to force such weighty decisions on a people just emerging into history. But after local elites riled up public fear and hatred — to the point where sectarian rioting and bloodshed had already become unmanageable even before the Partition — they had arguably crossed a threshold from which there was no return. To this day they still haven’t returned.
I believe Pankaj Mishra is right to describe Partition as a more ghastly version of Brexit. While the full blame for what happened can not fall on the British — their last Cabinet Mission to the subcontinent attempted to work out some reasonable compromise — their actions towards the end of the Raj were abominable. We are all familiar with stories of hastily drawn lines on maps by colonial administrators. Those stories are true. The British were under pressure to bring their troops home at the end of World War II and also from local anti-colonial leaders to get out of India. But after nearly 200 years of the Raj, in which they took great wealth from India, the least they owed the people there was to make sure that they left them with some sort of dignified settlement. They scarcely tried to do so. Instead they seemed altogether uninterested in the catastrophe that befell their former subjects.
This book suggests that the division of the Indian Army along sectarian lines was seen at the time of Partition as a step that would ensure permanent divisions between the two countries. The division of soldiers based on sect was just one of many ludicrous divisions then going on. Human beings, goods and property were suddenly and grotesquely flattened into the categories of “Hindu” and “Muslim”. I found this thesis about military division interesting as my grandfather was a Pakistani army officer originally from Lucknow who was killed in one of the subsequent wars with India. It appeared that there was a strong esprit de corps in the original Indian Army which helped overcome sectarian divisions. The continued rivalry between the two postcolonial militaries has helped prolong the conflict, especially in Pakistan where the military has a hegemonic place in society.
The nation of Pakistan, home to hundreds of millions of people, was created without much foresight. It was formed in an ad hoc manner that immediately called its territorial viability into question. The gross simplification of people into religious categories — something which Muslim Leaguers, the British and Hindu nationalists were all guilty of — ignored the complex divisions of language, class, regional solidarity and personal relations that had intertwined people across India. It naturally emboldened sectarianism, which triumphed after a few decades in Pakistan and appears set to triumph in India now. Many of the present day justifications for Partition, like the rise of Hindu nationalism and Islamic extremism, could easily be seen as its consequences instead.
This should be a painful book for anyone of South Asian descent to read. It contradicts the national myths of both countries to varying degrees. Dealing in counterfactuals is a fraught enterprise and how things might have been is a matter of speculation. Most people in India or Pakistan are acculturated to how things are today and are uninterested in mulling the past. If there is a lesson of Partition for the rest of the world though, it should be about the dangers of simplifying people to numbers and categories. This kind of bureaucratic simplification is by nature inhuman and continues to be the cause of much bloodshed and suffering around the world. I can scarcely think of another episode as catastrophic, and that continues to affect as many people, as what took place during the sordid final days of the Raj.
Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan was a disappointment. With her credentials as a scholar, I expected a succinct portrayal of events surrounding the dissolution of the British Raj and the convulsive births of India and Pakistan as free and independent states. Her book, instead, lacked consistent narrative flow and was short on analysis. It was disjointed and meandered. Rather than a history, Khan wrote an extended essay on some facets of the Partition – which in itself is not bad, just incomplete.
Khan's presentation sparked several questions: Why did the Muslim League quickly become so prominent after the war? Why did such widespread violence suddenly erupt? It must have had deep roots? What were they? Why wasn't a federal state solution embraced with Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim provinces and cities administered locally, but united in Delhi for foreign policy, defense, and other matters of a national scale? Was it simply the egos and ambitions of Jinnah and Nehru that scotched unity? How were a few extremists able to subvert large political entities such as the Muslim League and Congress? Why was India's political leadership so unprepared for freedom? These were questions spawned, but not answered.
The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan only rated Two Stars, but it pointed me toward more comprehensive histories of the complex and layered story of the creation of modern India and Pakistan. It's a story little appreciated in America, but one with echoes resounding today.
A five star from the first page to the last. This book is nothing short of brilliant. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan is a book that deserves to be read, not only by students of South Asian history, but more widely by all thoughtful readers who wonder how a peaceful society can descend into murderous chaos--and by anyone who sometimes wonders 'if it could it happen here'.
The brilliance lies in Khan's subtle, highly nuanced analysis of how and why the British empire disintegrated and how two new nations emerged from the chaos, but in a way that has trapped both in perpetual enmity. Written in 2007, her work benefits from the perspective of time and is informed by newly uncovered local archival materials, oral histories, and the recent trend toward micro-historical analysis. This is an on-the-ground history that is made even more accessible by excellent organization and a smooth narrative style.
She starts her story with the end of World War 2 in 1945 and contends that the events leading up to Partition cannot be understood unless the war's impact on India is assessed. Her take is from the ground up, in sharp contrast to Collins and Lapierre's highly readable but more traditional 'great man' narrative in Freedom at Midnight. Those who are newcomers to the study of South Asian history would do well to start with Collins and Lapierre and then read Khan for a deeper perspective.
In the end I think Khan's focus is more far illuminating. The estimated half a million people who were slaughtered during partition, the twelve million who became refugees in their own land-this catastrophe cannot be understood by simply saying, oh, the British did this or Nehru did that. "...[I]t was a very long jump from a sense of difference or a lack of social cohesion, to mass slaughter and rape."
(For more quotes from the book, please click through to read updates.)
The partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 was the single most violent incident in the country’s history. Bloodshed is nothing new to India. Rivers of blood flowed in the incessant foreign raids during the 1000 years of Muslim hegemony and 200 years of British rule. But this was something different. Partition was reluctantly accepted by Indian politicians because of the widespread atmosphere of communal violence as a means to bring in much-needed peace. It was ironic that this necessary evil turned out to be an incarnation of the most heinous crimes imaginable. Nearly two million people were killed and about ten million migrated during this violent episode as the newly formed administrations of both countries were unprepared for a calamity of this sort. There have been numerous accounts of the Partition and many have been reviewed here earlier. Yasmin Khan is a British historian of Pakistani origin and is an associate professor of history at Kellogg College, Oxford. This book is her attempt to evaluate a catastrophe that originated from religious bigotry using the jargon of modern nation-making.
Muslims who constituted a minority in undivided India had in fact ruled the landmass for a millennium since the invasion of Mohammed bin Qasim in 712 CE. There have been numerous Hindu principalities in this period, but all were subservient in one way or the other to the sultan in Delhi or to his provincial governors. The Muslim – as a political community, not as individuals – lost power when the British usurped Mughal rule. Gradual constitutional provisions introduced by them caused the Muslims to envisage a new scenario. When it became certain that the British would one day leave India, it was sure that the Hindus would step into the shoes of the British in a probable democracy due to their numerical superiority. It is curious that even though the Hindus were divided into many castes and classes and were of different political persuasions, the Muslim mind saw them as a single entity threatening their existence. As per the religious laws of Islam, Muslims are not permitted to live under a regime which does not accept the primacy of sharia law (dar al-harb). Consequently, a demand was put forward that the Muslims constitute a separate nation and need an exclusive geographical territory separate from India. Hiding this plain truth, Yasmin Khan provides a post-factual justification for the theocratic state of Pakistan that was formed. She in fact puts blame on the Bengali bhadralok (elite) as the people who wanted partition as a solution to protect their business (p.74). This is nothing but dark humour as the Bengali Hindus were driven to call for partition due to general violence in all parts of Bengal and ethnic cleansing of Hindus in east Bengal which eventually became Pakistan. She brazenly declares that Partition is a loud reminder of the dangers of colonial intervention, imperial hubris, and the reactions of extreme nationalism. By transcribing the modern concepts of self-determination and nation state into a theological entity, the author knowingly or unknowingly becomes an apologist for Islamic fundamentalism. Partition acknowledged the right to self-determination of a large group of Muslims who had expressed their strong desire to extricate themselves from the Congress control. In the post-independent period, she euphemizes Pakistan’s support of terrorism as ‘backing of violent atrocities’ (p.209), carefully avoiding the word ‘terrorism’.
Khan portrays the ineptness of the administration to handle a crisis of this magnitude. Partition took place in a society only partially emerging from long years of war. 2.5 million Indian soldiers served in World War II of which 24,000 were killed and 64,000 wounded. This was the largest volunteer army in history. There were also issues connected to demobilization. The need to transfer large chunks of populations was not recognized even late into the sequence of events. Even after the June 3 declaration of the actual date of independence, Lord Mountbatten thought of only feeble mechanisms to reassure, protect or secure the position of minority communities in border districts.
The book expounds the role of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in shaping up the idea of Pakistan and providing the intellectual leadership in steering the concept clear of all obstacles. This is a topic leftist Indian historians regularly sweep under the carpet, away from the public eye. AMU stood as the bulwark in building up the Muslim League. The institution was founded by Syed Ahmed Khan as a place to blend Islamic instruction with the demands of the western world and to impart all manners and educational benefits that an English public school could offer to well-heeled Muslims. Support for League and Pakistan had been a long-standing feature of the university described as the ‘arsenal of Pakistan’. Aligarh University students were at the cutting edge of pro-Pakistan thinking and they retrospectively claimed the credit for founding the state. When leaders such as Jinnah and Liaquat Ali visited the place, they were given rapturous receptions. League leaders were carried aloft the shoulders of students who set crackers on the railway lines to welcome them (p.41). A student union leader was claiming publicly to have killed Hindus with his own bare hands (p.42).
The weak administration’s role in encouraging ethnic cleansing in Punjab is narrated in detail. British troops were steadily withdrawn and sent back home. They were replaced by the limited and under-manned Punjab Boundary Force trying to protect a petrified, well-armed population. Nehru wanted the foreign soldiers to go immediately as their presence was resented as a symbol of occupation. This viewpoint neatly overlapped with the interests of the British establishment which was eager to bring its war-weary and homesick soldiers back. Native troops not only evaded their duty to protect minorities but in some cases actually took part in the violent offensive. Pakistani troops being transported to their new places of posting in Pakistan fired at civilians from the carriage windows of their passing trains at Ambala, killing or wounding sixty innocent passersby. Country-made mortars were mounted on strategic rooftops in Punjabi villages to repulse invaders. In Hasilpur of Bahawalpur state, a group of Pathans shot down 350 people by rifle fire while the soldiers remained neutral (p.129). The miscreants often consisted of well-prepared, trained, uniformed and efficient body of former soldiers and policemen. Gangs armed with machine guns in jeeps were able to inflict far more harm in one or two hours than villagers using clubs and pitchforks, were less alarmed by military patrols and could cover large distances. In addition, the two new governments had to solve the refugee crisis alone, with the international community barely involved. The Red Cross had actually closed its delegation in India six months before Partition. Europe turned inward as it attempted to heal its war wounds and its own refugee problem. The UNHCR was founded only in 1950. Both the governments set up full-fledged ministries to deal exclusively with refugees. Special taxes were imposed to finance the rehabilitation operations.
It has been a time-tested strategy of Islamists to drive a wedge between the untouchables and other castes in Hinduism. The former was subject to great oppression in the past and a number of them are obviously irate over this sad fact. Islamist and leftist historians never waste an opportunity to remind them of the atrocities perpetrated against their ancestors and thereby try to preclude any chance of rapprochement and reconciliation. Yasmin Khan also follows the same line. She even classifies newspapers as ‘upper caste’ (p.76). The author also claims that ‘untouchables as a separate community were left for themselves in Punjab’ and argues that they chose Pakistan to escape upper caste domination. But in fact, in the case of a few who chose likewise, there was no change in the situation and Muslims dominated them even more. This subhuman treatment is evidenced by the reverse migration of J N Mandal. He was an untouchable and the chairman of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. Soon afterwards, he was promoted ‘to a coveted ministerial position’ (p.155), but within three years he resigned and fled back to India resenting the inhuman treatment meted out to his fellow members in Pakistan. The author also notes the clever reevaluation of the Muslims in north India in terms of ‘economic and personal safety and security’, while all of them were League and Pakistan supporters before. The two-nation theory was thus conveniently hidden for the time being for survival.
What we see in this book is a grim equalizing under the guise of modern political concepts of self-determination and nation-making on behalf of a Pakistani author of the ideologies in the making of secular India and Islamic Pakistan. Misleading assertions are galore in the text, like the claim that ‘forced conversions from one faith to the other occurred’ (p.6) as if both communities indulged in this heinous custom. Forced conversions did take place to only one religion in India of 1947 and that was to Islam. The narrative is in a detached mode, without adopting any leader’s personal perspective like Jinnah or Liaquat Ali Khan. Extensive references to fictional works are seen such as Bhishma Sawhney’s Tamas or Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and also Intizar Husain’s semi-autobiographical novel Sunlight on a Broken Column.
A break-up is such a drag. But if you thought your recent break-up was a mess, then you better get to know what is probably the messiest break-up in history: the partition of British India into today's India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
When I first saw this book in my workplace's library, I thought it would be a more comprehensive account of the humanitarian disaster of the Partition than "Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. However, it is not.
It reads more like a hurried retelling of the Partition history than a definitive account of the matter. Anyone who is not familiar with the history will just become confused, because Khan did not even explain much the who, what, why, and how. She did not give a brief history of how Britain colonized India and considered it as the "jewel of the crown" of its empire. It did not present in a coherent way why and how Britain finally decided to relinquish its prize and why and how the decision to divide British India into two countries came to be. While it makes the point that Britain made a mess of its leaving India, an equal emphasis on the colonization and exploitation of British and Western imperialism on the colonized lands and their inhabitants would have made it better.
A short history of South Asia's partition was written in 2007 by Yasmin Khan, a young Oxford history professor born in Britain. At barely over 200 pages of text, it focuses on the years 1945-1950. As the British retreated, India and Pakistan were formed. Framed as a social history there are many passages about both private and public individuals. There is a lesser look at political history, chiefly on the machinations of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. It works well as an introduction to a topic where mountains of specialized material may be climbed.
Khan maintains the brevity of this book by giving little background material leading up to 1947. The history of the Congress party is taken forward from the release of Gandhi and his associates from prison, at the end of WWII. If you want know about Jinnah and earlier League politics you also won't find it here. As independence approached the Congress party had grown to a great size and more members joined to take part in the future leadership. Competing factions varied from Gandhi's ideals and he had less ability to avert communal rioting and deaths.
In the spring of 1946 a delegation was sent from Britain to negotiate with the independence leaders and plan British withdrawal from the rapidly dissolving empire. Khan makes a point that if the resulting Cabinet Mission Plan had succeeded Pakistan as a separate country may not have existed. Opinion was divided on all sides whether a strong central government or a loose confederation of Hindu and Muslim states was the goal. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that only separate sovereign nations would suffice. After the plan collapsed street violence exploded.
Although the mayhem that ensued is described in some detail I still have difficulty grasping how it happened. Perhaps simple revenge and retribution played the greatest role in the escalation. Ultimately between 500,000 to 1,000,000 lives would be lost, on the scale of a civil war, although an unorganized one. None of the parties would remain free of guilt. As a scholar of the British empire, Khan delves into the disorganized and deficient way the former colony was turned over for self rule. Crippled at the end of WWII, Britain hadn't means or will to help.
Much of this book was culled from previously published primary and secondary sources. Khan doesn't indicate new material was researched from archives or agency reports. This isn't an intrinsic fault. Written material on the subject is vast and to present it succinctly is a worthwhile effort. However the book's structure is a problem. It is organized chronologically but moves randomly between locations and topics. Personal anecdotes and stories describe dislocation, violence, famine and disease. The chaos of the events seems reflected in their analysis.
'Midnight's Furies' by American journalist Nisid Hajari (2015) covers much of the same ground in a somewhat more expansive and gripping way. Both books provide a balanced overview of a politically fraught period. Perhaps of interest to some, Hajari is from a Hindu-Indian and Jewish-American family while Khan is of Pakistani and Anglo-Irish ancestry. I mention this as aspersions are often cast at the background and agenda of anyone who writes on the subject. 'The Great Partition' takes an unbiased approach but its focus on vignettes falls short of a theme.
The partition of India into two nation states in 1947 and the violence that accompanied the exchange of a population of 12 million people between India and Pakistan is surely one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Much has been written as to how it came to this horrendous outcome and who was primarily responsible for it. There are scholars who point the finger at the perfidy of the British and their 'divide and rule' policy. There are others who point to the hubris of Jinnah and his landowning leaders of the Muslim League who wanted Pakistan at any cost. There are yet others who point to the arrogance of the Congress Party leaders in not being inclusive with regard to the Muslim League and losing support among the Muslim masses in Punjab and Bengal, thereby making partition inevitable. Just like many other questions in recent history, this debate too may never be resolved satisfactorily. Author Yasmin Khan brings more perspectives to this debate in this insightful book, challenging the official narratives on partition which are offered by both the Indian and Pakistani states.
The narrative offered to us in Indian textbooks is that partition happened due to the refusal of the Muslim League to accept a secular, peace-loving and plural India as the idea of 'Swaraj'. Author Khan says that, in contrast in Pakistan, partition is seen as one of martyrdom, courage and victimhood. It is seen as a triumph against a Hindu-Sikh conspiracy. Khan asserts that there was nothing inevitable about partition and that even as late as the beginning of World War II, most people in India did not really imagine that the country would be split into two in the future when independence is achieved. Even when partition was agreed upon in early 1947, no one seems to have been clear about what the boundaries of Pakistan would be or whether all Muslims would move there. The author says that even Jinnah was unclear and was shocked when he was handed a truncated Punjab and Bengal as 'Pakistan'. To many Indian muslims, Pakistan was an imaginary, nationalistic, wishful dream with large tracts of India being included in it. There was widespread ignorance on what partition entailed in practice. So much so that many thought that Jinnah would continue to live in his palatial house in Bombay even after the creation of Pakistan and Liaqat Ali Khan would hold on to his vast farmlands in northern India! Indian politicians even announced that the subcontinent would be reunited within a decade! In spite of the haste and recklessness with which Lord Mountbatten proceeded with partition, he had no clue either about the millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who would find themselves living in the 'wrong country' once partition becomes a reality. He had replied to a journalist that he didn't foresee any mass transfer of population as a result of partition! This is the new insight from the book for me. Textbooks in India or even other books on partition do not ever refer to this confusion. We have all been led to believe that the Muslim League fought for a truncated Punjab and Bengal as the homeland for Indian Muslims and that the Congress party eventually agreed to it and that is what the British signed on. Yasmin Khan shows that in actual fact, the British had lost total control over the administration in India by 1945 and were ready to get out amidst all the uncertainty over the boundaries of the two new States.
Partition was violent, but I do not want to dwell much on the violence, brutality and trauma of the riots that preceded and followed partition. A lot has been said on this subject in the form of novels, short stories, historical texts, plays and films. Even this book devotes a few chapters to the riots in Calcutta in 1946, the gruesome Naokhali riots and the ones in Punjab. I am more interested in the question of how a deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic, centuries-old culture could unravel in a couple of decades between the 1930s and the late 1940s. Is 'divide and rule' and the negative campaign of the Muslim League so much more powerful than the ideals of Ahimsa and 'living together' promoted by Gandhi? Or are we blind to the truth that Indian muslims always felt themselves to be a 'separate nation' long before the Muslim League came on the scene?
Author Khan believes that the idea of a separate homeland for muslims was not on the radar before the 1930s. On the contrary, Indian journalist and author M.J. Akbar, in one of his books, has advanced the 'theory of distance' amongst the Muslim elite in India since the 1800s. This theory holds that Hindus and Muslims are different people and that Muslim interests and way of life in India can only be secured by Muslims living as a separate 'nation'. Interestingly, this theory was propounded not by the Deoband Dar-ul-Uloom, the primary clergy of South Asia, but by the Muslim educated elite. The reasons for this primarily were the sharp decline of Mughal power in India under the British from the 18th century and the consequent rise of Hindus in British India. Hindus embraced the English language and modernity through education in western science and values. The Muslim elite conversely stayed mostly away from English and modern education as something 'foreign and despicable'. Additionally, the decline of the Ottoman empire in Europe also contributed to the feeling amongst the Muslim elite of the erosion of power and influence. M.J. Akbar says that this has been the case for the past two hundred years. If this is true, then partition did not happen due to the differences between the Congress party and the Muslim League in the mid 20th century or due to the purported indifference shown by Nehru or other Congress leaders towards Jinnah. Further, M.J. Akbar says that the Muslim League never really believed or internalized the non-violent approach of Gandhi but only paid lip-service to the Gandhian idea of Ahimsa as a need to co-operate with the Congress party. Also, the Muslim League leadership comprised mainly of big landlords, who had a vested interest in the partition of India so that they can amass more land for themselves by the exchange of populations. The Muslim educated elite also had a vested interest in partition because they can advance more easily in Pakistan without the competition from the Hindu elite. Seen in this light, it looks as though the 'divide and rule' and 'separate electorate' policies of the British were only sideshows in the partition of India and that partition itself was inevitable.
Author Yasmin Khan believes that there was nothing ancient or predestined about politicized manifestations of identity. She says that the experience of colonial rule had doubtless stirred up these divisions and added to a sense of separation, especially among the elites. Reminders of religious 'difference' were built into the brickwork of the colonial state, in her view. We see now Syria and Iraq being torn apart. The West wants to see it as due to the irreconcilable differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam. Just as in 1947 in India, twelve million people of all faiths have been displaced from Syria and Iraq. Are we looking at a partition of Syria and Iraq as solutions? One shudders to think further.
This book is an excellent and necessary read for all the people of the Indian subcontinent and anyone else interested in that part of the 20th century history. Kudos to the author.
This book is an outstanding example of scholarship. What makes this book so superlative is that Yasmin Khan combines personal insight with real-life examples. Very rarely do you find non-fiction books that are page-turners, but this is one such tome.
Like many second generation Pakistani's, I have always been interested in the facts behind partition, particularly how Muslims and Hindus came to butcher one another so mercilessly after having co-existed so peacefully for hundreds of years. This book explains with great lucidity how it all happened.
1) The British are commonly cited as the main perpetrators of the internecine strife that fractured India. This is true to a certain extent. Yasmin Khan explains that the British regarded Hinduism and Islam as incompatible religions and consequently Hindu's and Muslims as diametrically opposed to one another. For their taxonomy; they divided areas in Hindu and Muslim electorates and decreed that each area could only elect a representative of the same religion. Such a ruling was entirely in keeping with the imperial creed of divide and rule, but it also revealed a sad fact about the British. They insulated themselves in compounds from the people they governed and as such were not aware of the fact that Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony within many communities spread out across India.
2) The tragedy is that all the British had to do was light the fuse. It seems that Muslim and Hindu representatives then proceeded to incite their followers against each other. The reasons for this are not entirely clear and if this book has a flaw it is that the reasons for this are never explicitly stated.
3) Once Muslims and Hindu's were roused up against one another; their corresponding newspapers then began to spread misinformation. Apocryphal stories about inflicted atrocities stoked people into committing further acts of violence.
It is interesting to note that this is a common feature of all demagogues. If you are a self-appointed spokesperson for Islam and you are on a podium you will invariably preach war. Exhorting people to peace does not do anything for your standing.
4) Once the bloodshed escalated; Muslim leaders, especially Jinnah, came to the conclusion that Muslims would not be safe in a land dominated by Hindus and consequently the idea of Pakistan as being a haven for the Muslims was born. The idea of Pakistan was then nurtured by Muslim intellectuals and given poetic life by Allama Iqbal who after his studies in Germany seemed much taken with the Germanic notion of state.
This was a fascinating insight. I found it surprising that Muslim intellectuals like Iqbal and politicians such as Jinnah had such little appreciation of their own countries history of diversity. I was also puzzled as to why newspapers were so willing to print untruths. Did they really have no idea of the consequences of the lies they were spreading?
5) Tit for tat killings seemed to spread like wildfire. The British callously did little or nothing to prevent it. Having looted the country and enslaved its people they then seemed happy to watch from a distance while people began killing and looting each other.
6) The rest as they say is history. Jinnah, enjoying his fame and popularity became the de facto leader of the Muslims. And he pressed for the creation of Pakistan, aided by the propaganda produced by the students at Aligarh university.
This is where the book really does stand apart from others. Yasmin Khan destructs the myth surrounding Jinnah. I remember reading stories about Jinnah in Pakistan Urdu books as a child, and even then I realised they were fantasy. Jinnah was indeed a skilful politician but how comes he was so blind to the reality of partition? Did he really have no idea of the loss of life it would entail?
The opinion that I gained from this book was that Jinnah earlier on seemed to be in favour of a federated Muslim state within India but I think he like everyone else got swept up in the tide of events, and allowed matters to reach their bloody conclusion.
I am definitely of the opinion that Jinnah could have done more to make the creation of Pakistan less bloody. Yasmin Khan reveals Nehru's confession: 'By then we were old men...' This is particularly true of Jinnah; the battle had worn him down and combined with his ill-health, he seemed content to be a figurehead. I think Nehru was more energetic in the protection of people than Jinnah. I doubt very much Jinnah would have rushed from his car in his Saville-row suit to save the lives of Hindus under attack.
Yasmin Khan brilliantly describes the horrors of partition and how Pakistani books conveniently overlook how many children were exploited by paedophiles and how many women were abducted and dishonoured.
I have never been a subscriber to the widely held view that the creation of Pakistan was necessary for the survival of Islam in India. Having read this book; I now believe that Pakistan began as a poetical idea and ended up as a bloody and brutal reality that served neither Islam or Muslims.
Yasmin Khan should be lauded for her acuity and research.
This was a frustrating read. I wanted to know the reasons for the outbreak in violence in India during partition. "As 1945 drew to a close, India was rocked by rebellions and revolts on an unprecedented scale." Is typical of the amount of explanation for why violence happened. It just broke out. One would think a book on the subject would be able to do better.
Author seeks to blame the British for the religious fault between Muslims and Hindus. Because the Muslim religion isnt based on exclusion from the rest of the world since its founding? This is colonial apologetics at its worst.
In a word - boring. It's rather astounding how someone can take an extraordinary turbulent period in history which had such far reaching consequences and write an account that was truly a struggle to wade through. She basically just repeats the same ideas over and over again and offers very little analysis of events. Very disappointing.
The perils of nationalism, the tragedy of partition and its disastrous ramifications which no one could foresee.
The book covers the tumultuous years from the end of second world war in 1945 to the decolonisation and the formation of two new Nation-States. This is more of a people's history and focuses largely on the urban centers, the middle-classes and what the idea of Pakistan and swaraj meant to them. The author largely ignores the political and diplomatic byplays that were taking place in Delhi and the rise of the Fascist parties and Ethnic nationalism in India, which would play a big role in the coming genocide. She rather focuses on the collapse of British authority, the confusion and uncertainty that prevailed everywhere, and how the partition played out on the ground and what it meant to the people. The role played by the party propagandas and the nationalist and fascist militias, and how they were at the forefront of the events is very well chronicled. She focuses mainly on Punjab and not much attention is given to Bengal except for the Calcutta riots and the Noakhali carnage. Only a token glance is given to the social and class differences between Hindus and Muslims and the role it played.
Highly recommended. An important work on the subject. That being said, people who are not familiar with the history of colonial India might find this unenlightening, as its not a definitive work.
I tried really hard to finish this book, but it was so densely written that I gave up halfway through.
Under these circumstances I would normally rate it only one star, but this book gets two because it still managed to teach me something new. I started out not knowing much about the roots of animosity between India and Pakistan, and now I know a little more.
This is nothing but a long propaganda piece. From the get go, it clears the British of any blame “Oh the poor Brits, what choice did they have”. Then it clears the Muslim League by simply omitting their riot planning activities from 46-48. It does describe some pieces of Muslim violence (Well there was so much of it, can’t evade it) immediately followed by heroic, charitable deeds of the Muslims. It’s comical - many times, as a source she quotes an anecdote of someone else.
Then of course, comes the part where she discredits every fact based book/report written in India. And then goes on to invent the narrative of this incredible wave of violence against Muslims in India. I refuse to believe that she is unaware of the fact that 96% of the Muslims who voted for Pakistan never left. Neither did most of the Muslim League leaders. I doubt they would’ve stayed was there targeted violence against Muslims.
I can go on and on. Anyone who has a decent factual understanding of what really happened during the partition, will see through her manufactured narrative.
2.5 because I did learn some new things about partition and the domestic politics surrounding it, but overall, this is a very boring, repetitive history which predominantly focuses on three things: (1) Pakistan was an amorphous concept that turned into a reality; (2) partition was accompanied by a lot of violence; and (3) the division of people along religious lines (particularly, Hindus and Muslims) is the basis for the adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan today. If you're somewhat familiar with partition, none of this is particularly new or surprising, though Khan does provide some insights into the political maneuvering that took place between Nehru and Jinnah.
This book is otherwise very confusing -- there is no linear progression, so the account goes back and forth between the years leading up to partition and the various regions and states in former India. Khan also leaves out a ton of important background (e.g., British colonialism, Britain's reason for giving up India, or even more generally, the its role in partition), and provides no real explanation of how the relationships between Hindus and Muslims deteriorated (these are the only groups Khan really addresses; while she provides some background on how partition affected Sikhs in northern India, Khan ignores most other religious groups so the reader is left wondering whether they had any role in partition at all). Additionally, because the book jumps around so much, it would benefit from a map or chronology of events.
This book. Tough to get through. There is not narrative progression so much as there is insistent repetition, predominantly about these 3 things:
1. Prior to Partition, understanding of what concepts like Pakistan, and even independence, meant was very unclear. Partition was far from a foregone conclusion. 2. Once the Partition plan was decided upon, there was unimaginable disruption and violence. So much sectarian violence. 3. This violence, and the “othering” that accompanied it, contributed significantly to establishing an oppositional relationship between India and Pakistan. This too was not a foregone conclusion, but once the pattern was established, it has continued up to the present.
What just took me 5 or 6 sentences to recapitulate, took the author 210 pages.
These are important aspects of Partition, to be sure, but there is so much other important stuff that’s glanced over or not addressed at all in this book. Because of what the book focuses on, as well as what it omits, I would describe this as more of a people’s history of Partition, rather than a political history. My low rating has as much to do with expectation of reading the latter and unexpectedly getting the former as it does with the quality of information and writing in this book.
I had never learned much about the partition of British India after WWII into today's India and Pakistan. I just knew it happened, lots of people died, and it marked the beginning of tensions between the nations that continue today. This book attempts to answer a bigger question--why? Why did it turn out the way it did? The answer the author tries to put forward is hard to find in this book. It's not easy to read, and the points being made aren't set out in a straightforward manner. Nevertheless, I did get some idea of the scope of the tragedy and the reasons for it. It inspires me to learn more.
I was disappointed with this one. Khan lays out the facts in a logical way, and I'm sure this would make a decent book to use in a college history course. However, the actual prose was awkward. I would have liked to have seen a few focuses on some of the key players and perhaps some individual families that were affected. Instead it is a rather dry assortment of facts for a hugely dramatic and traumatic event that involved thousands of deaths, and 8 million people relocating. Khan repeatedly complained in one chapter that novelists and poets did a better job of covering the topic. I think I'll try one of the novels like "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie and see if she's right.
A thoroughly mediocre history of Partition. By the author's own admission, she attempts to write a history fo Partition that is about everyday people on both sides of what became the Indo-Pak border and that does not ossify nation states in their current formation. On all accounts, she fails.
It is deeply unclear who the audience of this book is intended to be, making the book difficult to read. The book moves at a whirlwind pace from 1945-1948 and is difficult to follow without prior knowledge of a timeline of events in the region. At the same time, the book goes to great lengths explaining basic concepts of history (e.g. nation-states are impermanent, are created politically to the benefit and deteriment of various peoples, and are very recent phenomenon). This results in muddled exposition. For example, in her conclusion she takes time to rebut an argument that Kashmir is at the root of current South Asian tensions. Who actually believes this? It is doubtful to me that people who do believe this would have sufficient knowledge of modern South Asian history to be able to follow along with the prior sections of the text!
Of more concern is her limited source material. She has a paucity of sources from Pakistan and a paucity of stories relating to North Indian Muslims. The resulting narrative she presents thereby ignores portions of Partition narratives that need to be told. While it may have been difficult for her to access Pakistani sources or to interview and recount stories of Pakistani's who survived the charnal house of the Panjab, she needs to make it clear what narratives she is excluding and why she is doing so. Failure this, she presents a narrative of Partition that ignores its own limitations. For example, she makes no mention of the state of flux North Indian Muslims found themselves in from 1948-1951, of repeated attemtps by tens of thousands of Muslims who temporarily went to Pakistan to return to India, of the role the Indian state played in dispossessing and dislocating Muslims throughout India via the Custodian of Evacuee Property. No mention is made of the tens of thousands of Muslims killed during the Indian army invasion of Hyderabad, or of the peasant revolts throughout India and how they interacted with Partition violence.
Similarly, she cites only a single piece of fiction, Tamas by Bhisam Sahni, repeatedly through the text. This is a piece of fiction that villifies the Muslim League (a corrupt League politician tricks an illiterate sweeper to slaughter a pig in front of a mosque in the NWFP to forment a riot and deliver the province to the League in the upcoming elections) and fits firmly within the Indian national myth. Other authors from the time are far more ambivalent, if not outright hostile, to the Indian state's role, and it is surprising that she samples from none of them.
Equally damning, the vast majority of sources and first-hand accounts she cites in the text come from wealthy upper middle-class families and inviduals who have left written records of their experiences. This is not a history from below. While she discusses how Partition must have been different for the poor and illiterate, she makes no attempt to tell their stories or cite sources that do. This is suspect.
Finally the book is too short. As it primarily serves as a summary of existing works on Partition, it is a measly 200 pages in length and ignores huge swathes of what was going on. No mention is made of the peasant uprisings in Eastern India and how they related to Independence and Partition. Almost no discussion occurs of the vastly different partition that occured in Bengal. There is little interrogation of the violence in the Panjab, of the princely rulers and fascist militias responsible for the violence at the behest of the states (this is mentioned, not detailed). Too much time is spent blaming the British for failing to defend brown lives and brown bodies when 1) they were the colonizer and 2) it was being demanded they leave South Asia to begin with. Too little time is spent interrogating the stupidity of a British-educated landowning intellectual class that bandied about words like swaraj and freedom with no thought to their consequence and no sense of responsibility for a people they were destroying.
Overall, the best part of this book will end up being its bibliography.
British historian Yasmin Khan is to be saluted for her concise and yet moving narrative of one of the 20th century's great human tragedies: the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. She deftly covers the status of the major players, the underlying social, religious and nationalistic conflicts that resulted in the earthquake that followed independence, and why everything went south for millions of innocent people. She is especially critical of the British whom, when their military and administrative power and expertise was most needed, simply folded their tents and buggered off, leaving the million or so murdered and the roughly 12 million refugees to their fates. However, she does not spare the mostly middle class members of the Muslim League and Congress who were directly responsible for the outrages in an over-armed and over-heated empire. Khan also delves down to share the direct human experience of those who were there. This is not to say that the book is perfect. It's very brevity makes the work far from comprehensive. There is almost nothing about the partition in Bengal and what took place in Kashmir, which is central to the lack of love between the two countries today. The book is very Punjab-centric, even given that that was where most of the ethnic cleansing and massacres took place. I would also have preferred some more political and diplomatic background. Still, all in all, a very good and well-written history indeed.
Very detailed account, almost like a journal. Was hoping for a more political perspective, and more context of British Imperial rule (my lack of knol), but enjoyed hearing about dynamic between leaders.
Historians and politicians often look back on horrible events that cost the lives of thousands of people as a fait accompli, or even a necessary state towards political/social goal X, Y or Z. That's because politicians have no souls and academics tend to be mouths of Sauron. The Partition of Indian and Pakistan as the British slunk out of the subcontinent, their post-imperial tails between their legs (shades of Palestine around the same time) and refusing to take any responsibility, is one of these events. Indian and Pakistani historians tend to paint the horrors of Partition with backwards-projected as inevitable parts of deterministic fate. This is a wildly false perspective, and that what this book is about. The end of British rule and the division of the subcontinent was largely a rushed, improvised affair, with the average Joe/Jane on the ground often knowing nothing until the last minute. The refugee exoduses, what we'd call "ethnic cleansing" these days were horrid affairs, soullessly exploited by both governments. But none of this was a given. It's remarkable how poorly it was all handled on both sides, and it was the middle-class ass-shit extremists who drove much of the sectarian violence, dividing communities that had lived together for centuries. It was a relentless crisis and its repercussions are still being felt in the politics of South Asia today, both nations defining themselves, in retrospect, in terms of Partition. The book feels a bit rushed at times, and the individual perspectives it touts and champions is often missing, but these are minor quibbles, for the layperson.
some Partition stories are told from the perspectives of key officials and political leaders (Midnight's Furies by Nisid Hajari - though i lost my copy when i was about 75% done with the book) but in my opinion that tends to make Partition seem more orderly and calculated than it actually was. this story was told more generally and focused on the confusion, disarray, conflicting visions, and tremendous violence that fell upon masses of people.
it was interesting finishing this book on the 4th of July, after hearing about yet another mass shooting in America. in the Indian subcontinent, politicians laid out grand schemes and visions for the future while stoking sectarian suspicion and fear which ultimately erupted in unimaginable violence. it's hard to believe that many people during the time of Partition thought that the border between Pakistan and India would either be temporary, completely open, or that the two countries would essentially be a joint venture. it's impossible to predict the consequences of stoking the flames of sectarianism and division. after hearing about yet another mass shooting followed by the standard drivel from elected officials, in a wider context of people growing in suspicion and animosity towards each other, which is exacerbated by politicians, i can't help but feel we're walking into extremely dangerous territory in the US. not to say that Partition level violence or political trauma is coming, but people who'd been living side by side for generations killed each other en mass in India after being made to fear each other in the name of nationalism, and nobody saw it coming. the creation of political enemies is extremely dangerous in a shared society.
The Indian Raj was at the center of the experimental tentative process of forging nation states in the aftermath of empire. Sometimes it has been celebrated - in British thinking at least - as a successful act of British decolonisation, in comparison to the complications that bogged down othet European powers in South East Asia and Africa. Alternatively, it has been presented as a series of gruesome horrors far removed from political calculations. These stale views demand reappraisal.
This book does an excellent job of that reappraisal. Divided into ten chapters, the evocative prose paints a complex and nuanced picture of the chaos before, during and after Partition. It covers the effects of the second World War, local political climate, ascendency of public support for The League, ambiguity surrounding the notion of Pakistan, myriad factors contributing to violence, ensuing national crisis on both sides of the border and the newly formed nation states' attempts of dealing with it. Thoroughly researched and balanced, the narrative attempts to rescue the history of partition from the sweeping stroke generalisations that nationalistic myth making has turned it into.
Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of India and Pakistan or their mutual relationship.
There is scope of better coverage of the Bengal Partition. Hence, 4 stars.
The very word “partition” over-simplifies what South Asia went through in the space of five years from 1945-1950. The legislators themselves, caught up in the excitement and fervor of decolonization and imminent statehood, were seduced into shallow thinking and needless haste. I would wager that, if they had it to do over again, they would go about it differently with almost every step.
The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan is a deeply absorbing, solidly-researched account of what has to be the equivalent of a seismic event with many surprising aftershocks as one nation morphed, brutally and bloodily, into two. Though her comprehensive narrative highlights the words and actions of the key legislators, she also includes granular details of how Partition affected the people in the street and the farmers in the field.
The plan for Partition was flung down by four speakers on an unsuspecting populace on June 3, 1947, in a radio announcement: the British Viceroy Louis Mountbatten; the India Congress Party Leader Jawaharlal Nehru; the Muslim League Leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah; and Baldev Singh representing the Sikhs. In a matter of weeks, Independence Day for Pakistan was to be August 14, 1947, and for India, August 15, 1947. The radio speeches “were oddly flat,” says Yasmin Khan, and the “British announcements were masterpieces of obfuscation.” With the exception of Jinnah, no statesman even mentioned Pakistan! If ever there was an exemplar of The Abilene Paradox, it was the partitioning of India. “Joy, horror, bewilderment, and fury” were the reactions of the masses as elements of the plan were revealed, says Khan.
The plan was anything but a future-looking document, even though it espoused that legislative voting would decide on dividing the country. In fact, the plan was simply catching up with the intense debates among Indian leaders—not to mention the violence that was already erupting as grassroots communities were acting on their own assumptions about what was to unfold—preceding the announcement, which made Partition a foregone conclusion: unequivocally, India would be divided, and Pakistan would be created.
But somewhere along the way, the aspirational notions about Partition’s accommodation of a heterogenous population with equality and liberty for all was eclipsed by other forces. By the time clarifying questions emerged about who exactly was Pakistani or Indian, “unimaginable violence had escalated to the point of ethnic cleansing,” says Khan. Political, diplomatic, and even universal humanity factors were all dismissed in favor of just one: religion. The outcome of this was to mobilize somewhere between 12-15 million Hindus and Muslims in a desperate bidirectional flight from India to Pakistan and vice versa.
The degree of violence contributed to so many simple things being overlooked that it appeared as if a comedy of errors was unfolding, albeit one laced with dark and macabre humor. For example, take the country’s army. Clearly, there were Muslim and Hindu soldiers who had served and seen action shoulder to shoulder during World War II. Must they now be separated and sent “to the country where they belong”? Another oversight was the Sikhs. So intense was the focus on Indians and Pakistanis, that the Sikhs had to fight for appropriate attention. Yet another failure was not to think through how West Pakistan and East Pakistan would be administered when there was over a thousand miles of territory between them, and they were wrestling with different border issues involving Kashmir and Bengal. (Tensions between the two Pakistans over culture, language, and identity were enough for East Pakistan to fight for its independence and morph into the country of Bangladesh in 1971.) The princedoms that were scattered over India were another overlooked factor. Indian and Pakistani legislators forged blindly ahead ignoring these entities that occupied about one third of India’s territory.
Last but not least were the actions by the British. Granted they were beset by fatigue from the recent World War II as well as two hundred years of colonial administration of India. Viceroys, governors, and administrators shifted focus from a conscientious partner in the Partition to exiting India for good. There seemed to be a lackadaisical energy associated with the future of South Asia, exemplified by the work of Boundary Committees and a Cabinet Mission, which offered little in the way of meaningful proposals. Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had barely traveled outside England—and certainly had never set foot on Indian soil—was given the task of creating the various boundaries to satisfy Partition. The five weeks he was given for this task produced a speedy outcome that satisfied few, if any, of the key stakeholders. It’s very believable that even today, memories, sentiments, and real issues linger in the collective minds and 21st-century zeitgeist of the countries of South Asia.
Despite much that readers might already know about Partition history, Ms. Khan has written a magnificent book filled with a compelling narrative that incorporates multiple perspectives from all key participants. Her exhaustive research is enough to make this an impressive scholarly work. A glossary, maps, and a timeline are invaluable additions for providing meaningful context. Notwithstanding its brevity, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan covers a lot of important ground related to a critical historical event. Ms. Khan’s intelligent insights, analysis, and conclusions make this book an excellent resource for both scholars and consumers of popular history.
Ok, it took me 2 months but I did it. I finished. This book was relatively short (only 285 pages) but it was *DENSE* But I've made my way through. Almost nothing is taught of the partition of India and Pakistan, though it displaced TENS OF MILLIONS of people and erupted in horrible violence. It was just something I heard of as I listened to elders speak at gatherings - "how did your family cross?" is such a common question and I didn't quite understand the magnitude of it. I was grateful for the Partition storyline in Ms. Marvel (watch that show if you haven't!) but wanted to comprehensive understanding. This book is incredibly researched and lays it all out. At its core its a lesson of imperialism and colonial interventions ruin lives. England ruled the Raj for hundreds of years, decided it could no longer support empire after WWII, and then just left. But not before doing a few things to make things even worse - like have a guy in England, who had never been to the region before, draw the demarcation line. It went through villages, and homes. It didn't take anything practical into account. And then these people found themselves on opposite lines from family. The book also showed how the religious extremism of Hindu v Muslim has developed under the auspices of partition and has a direct line to things like Modi's extreme right stance and genocide of Muslims in India in present day. Snippets that stood out to me: "One in ten people in Pakistan was a refugee. Each country had to resettle, feed and house a group as large as the total population of Australia." "Foot columns sometimes 30–40,000 strong, created human caravans 45 miles long in places." Think of the scale of that! I was also floored to learn that they had not planned for a migration: "The plan had not made allowances for any potential mass population exchanges and the ensuing two-way movement of people caught both national leaderships unawares, pulling the rug out from under their feet and invalidating the safeguards that had been notionally built into the plan."
It all happened so quickly, and without planning, and people's lives were upended (in many many cases ruined or ended completely in the violence).
Despite the density, this book was definitely worth a read and I hope we in the West learn more about this cataclysmic event.