Every generation of Indians and Pakistanis should confront and try to understand the brutal chaos and bloody riots from which their two nations emerged in 1947, because understanding the past is the first step towards comprehending the present. Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies provides an insight into this bloody history. As the editor of Newsweek International and Newsweek magazine in New York, Hajari has overseen special issues on China, the Iraq war, Iran and an exhaustive investigation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. His interest in the issues surrounding the Partition stems from his understanding of global issues, and the significance of Pakistan and India in the context of global stability.
The birth of the two nations was marked by massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions and savage sexual violence. It is estimated that more than 15 million people were uprooted and between one and two million died. Around 75,000 women were raped; many of them were also disfigured or dismembered. Hajari notes that “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies, infants were found literally roasted on spits”.
The horrors described so relentlessly in the book can be difficult to comprehend partly because the two communities had lived together for centuries, although skirmishes had dotted their history on occasion. Tensions exist among communities in all parts of the world, but for mutual suspicions and rivalries to escalate to this level of brutality beggars belief. It is equally difficult to comprehend the levels of malevolence that the two sides were, in equal measure, guilty of. Hajari maintains that the Muslims’ fear of not having power after Independence, of feeling alienated from the Independence movement in a Hindu-majority nation were two among several factors that made the Partition inevitable.
Three players in this tragedy can directly be held responsible for the mayhem: the British colonial masters, the leaders of the Congress Party and the leadership of the Muslim League.
Hajari’s account appears one-sided as he seems hesitant to pin the blame on the colonial powers, even though he mentions the summary announcement of a departure date made by the British administration—which escalated Hindu-Muslim animosities, and led to paranoia and chaos among the residents. There was no compelling reason for this haste on the part of the British who could have supervised an orderly transition of power. The author mentions, but does not emphasise the role played by former British prime minister Winston Churchill who, though out of power in his own country, was still giving assurances to M.A. Jinnah, leader of the Muslim league, that the British would support his claims to a sovereign state for the Muslim population. Hajari also fails to dig deep into the roots of history to examine why two communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium, attacked each other in this manner—Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. Had the British sowed seeds of dissent among the two communities in a manner that made it impossible for them to live together or trust each other? The book would have been a more comprehensive history of that time and provided clues to the current state of relations between the two countries had the author expanded on this aspect.
Another shortcoming in the author’s approach is his silence on the great game being played out among world powers after the end of the Second World War, when the containment of the Soviet Union became a guiding principle of foreign policy in both the U.S. and the UK. India had shown left-leaning tendencies, and it was felt that Pakistan would act as a sphere of Western influence against the Soviet Union. Archival literature and correspondence from the time—some of which has been recently released—throws fresh light on the political machinations that dominated the end of the colonial era, and the book would have benefited greatly from a framing of Partition in context of world events.
Hajari places the blame for the Partition of India and the subsequent bloodbath on both Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. He describes Jinnah as a “polarising” figure and goes on to state, “His forbidding personality made compromise difficult, if not impossible, and he was criminally negligent about thinking through the consequences of the demand for Pakistan”. Hajari blames Nehru for having misread “the battle over Pakistan much as he later did the fight for Kashmir—as an ideological contest in which he and India were morally unimpeachable. He did not seem to understand that he was no longer battling a foreign power, and that he needed to accommodate his countryman Jinnah as a statesman would: with pragmatism, generosity and an appreciation for the grey areas of diplomacy”.
Presciently Phillips Talbot, an American journalist based in Delhi at that time and quoted in the book, wrote, “Hatred of India is the cement that holds Pakistan together”. It is this fact that makes the events surrounding the partition relevant after almost seven decades. During those decades, the two nations have nurtured an atmosphere of deep-rooted mistrust. Two wars over Kashmir have been waged with no conclusion in sight other than an incendiary environment. Another war in 1971 led to the formation of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Pakistan spends a quarter of its budget on defence while all its development indicators remain dismal.
The book quotes Jinnah bluntly telling the BBC in December 1947 that “(I)f by some manoeuvre and machinations, and by suppression and oppression of the people, an artificial verdict is obtained in favour of Hindustan, there will be no peace in Kashmir, and so long as Kashmir does not join the Pakistan Dominion, there will be no peace between the two Dominions, and it will continue to be a menace not only to the sister dominions but to the world situation”.
Jinnah’s words are proving prophetic. The “Kashmir jihad” that was started in 1947 by rounding up tribal rebels, continues today when the modern shape of the Taliban threatens the world. Even if Pakistan’s insecurities against a larger, stronger neighbor can be understood, the position that Pakistan has taken has proven disastrous for both countries. For more than three decades, the Pakistan Army and its secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have used jihadis to wage a proxy war with disastrous consequences. Today, the politicians in India, no less than their counterparts in Pakistan, continue to stoke age-old rivalries and narratives.
Hajari concludes his book by suggesting that the rivalry between the two nations “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”. A nuclear Pakistan is unstable and has become the source of many security risks in the world.
The author rightly suggests that the furies of 1947 must be laid to rest. However, without any thoughts articulated about how this can be achieved, the suggestion continues to land on deaf ears on both sides of the Line of Control.
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari (Houghton Mifflin, 2015)
Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’
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