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Book Review

Book Review: S.S. Sharma's 'The Great Tragedy of India’s Partition’ helps to understand the circumstances of India’s Partition

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
‘The Great Tragedy of India’s Partition’ by S.S. Sharma (Manohar Publishers, Rs. 2,650)

‘The Great Tragedy of India’s Partition’ by S.S. Sharma (Manohar Publishers, Rs. 2,650)

This book is a significant addition to contemporary history and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the circumstances of the partition of India and the agony, cruelty and madness that attended it.

P artition, or rather the vivisection of India, as Mahatma Gandhi termed it, is a theme of enduring interest, both to the rapidly diminishing generation that suffered and survived it and to the succeeding generations in the subcontinent. It has begotten many a book, not all of them worth serious attention. This book is easily one of the best on the subject.

The writer, S.S. Sharma, who retired as Secretary to the Government of India, spent over five years working on this book, checking and cross-checking multitudinous sources with Teutonic thoroughness at the India International Centre Library.

The chapterisation is methodical. Following the Introduction is a 61 page-long overview of the genesis of Partition. Each chapter begins with pertinent quotations. The overview has three such quotes. The third one reads: “Partition is an arid term for an event so drenched in blood, mass tragedy.”

Origins of Partition

The “inspiration” for Partition is traced to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his famous observation that the two “nations”—the Hindus and the Muslims—“cannot sit on the same throne”. Another source of inspiration was Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who, during a Muslim League session in Allahabad in 1930, called for a “Muslim India within India”. Iqbal, the author notes, was initially a “liberal-secular”.

Sharma briefly recounts the thesis of “a powerful school of thought” in Pakistan that argues that Pakistan’s seed goes back to the Arab invasion of Sind in 712 C.E. Another school led by Aitas Khan holds that the subcontinent was made up of two parts, the Indus and the Indic, taking Pakistan’s origins to an even earlier time, say, 5,000 years ago. The author makes short shrift of such absurd arguments as gently as possible.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory received “perhaps unwitting” support from V.D. Savarkar, a historical fact that the author wants to bring to the notice of the followers of Savarkar, in the interest of all those who want to know who in India supported Jinnah before and after he called for Partition.

The reader might wonder whether the support extended by Savarkar was “unwitting” at all. This reviewer wants to draw attention to the fact that as early as 1925, Lala Lajpat Rai had, in a letter to C.R. Das, advocated the division of India and uncannily predicted the boundaries of the 1947 division.

As for the Lahore Resolution, adopted in March 1940 by the Muslim League without mentioning the word “Pakistan”, the author correctly points out that its “inspiration” came from the office of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow.

There is another matter of historical importance that this reviewer wishes to mention. As pointed out by Narendra Singh Sarila in his book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition (2009), Jinnah’s deputy Khaliq-us-Zaman met Secretary of State for India Lord Zetland in his office just before the Second World War broke out and told him that if India was divided, the part held by the League would give the British military a foothold after Britain left the subcontinent. Lord Zetland noted this with much satisfaction and more or less promised support to the division of India. In short, Jinnah had good reason to conclude that he could expect full support from the British much before the Lahore session.

Did Jinnah retain some relics of his secular past even after gaining Pakistan? The author quotes Jinnah’s speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, to support this conclusion. Jinnah spoke of an inclusive and impartial government, religious freedom, rule of law and the equality of all. The reader might keep in mind an alternative explanation for the tenor of the speech. The stock exchange in Karachi was crashing and Jinnah wanted to stop the crash by projecting that in Pakistan everyone, irrespective of their religion, was safe.

The next chapter, titled “For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll” begins thus: “It is one of the biggest lies ever told that Indians got their freedom too easily.” The author has wisely refrained from putting out a definite figure of human beings killed by their fellow beings in 1947. He quotes BBC correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas to say that it might have been as high as 1 million. Displaying sound historical reasoning, he includes in the death toll of the 1947 Partition those killed in 1971 in the then East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh.

We are given figures for property lost. An estimate by the Government of East Punjab in October 1947 indicated that the Hindu/Sikh refugees left behind a total of 4.25 million acres of agricultural land in West Punjab as against 2.54 million acres left behind by the Muslim refugees who went to Pakistan from East Punjab. The chapter titled “Women: The worst sufferers of Partition” makes for painful reading. Take this sentence: “One very gruesome aspect of atrocities on women during Partition was the reports of women’s breasts being chopped off with sharp weapons by the miscreants belonging to the other community.”

The next chapter, titled “The Gathering Storm: The Pre-Partition Violence and the Political Context”, starts with a quote from Penderel Moon, ICS.: “In the turbulent period immediately preceding the transfer of power, the atmosphere had been vitiated to such an extent in the Punjab in the context of the 1945-46 elections fought squarely on religious lines, especially by the Muslim League, that (for a Muslim) killing a Sikh had become akin to a religious duty, killing a Hindu was hardly a crime.”

Political background

The reader gets a detailed account of the political background to the fateful decision on Partition. While narrating the acceptance of the Partition plan announced by Lord Mountbatten on June 2, 1947, the author attempts an explanation for Jinnah’s “reluctant” acceptance of the same. He writes: “His reluctance was understandable because the Pakistan he was finally getting was what he had contemptuously rejected in 1944 during talks with Gandhi as ‘moth-eaten Pakistan’.” Obviously, the author implies that Gandhi did offer Pakistan to Jinnah in the 1944 September talks held in Bombay. Is that implication right? No.

The talks lasted from September 9 to 27, 1944. Gandhi had proposed to talk on the basis of the “Rajaji formula” that provided for cooperation between the Muslim “zone” and the rest of India in matters such as foreign affairs and communications. On September 22, 1944, Gandhi wrote to Jinnah: “I am unable to accept the proposition that the Muslims of India are a nation distinct from the rest of the inhabitants of India. I can be no willing party to a division which does not provide for the simultaneous safeguarding of common interests such as defence, foreign affairs and the like. We seem to be moving in a circle.”

The above quote is from D.G. Tendulkar’s magisterial workMahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The interested reader might also like to consult Rajmohan Gandhi’sMohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire(2006).

In the fifth chapter, titled “Whodunit: The Rogues’ Gallery”, Mountbatten tops the list, followed by Major General T.W. Rees (the commander of the Punjab Boundary Force), Sir Evan Jenkins (Governor of Punjab) and Sir Francis Mudie, among others. The author has convincingly argued that these men were in a position to foresee the violence and could have prevented it or at least put it down before it spread.

Is that list complete? The Direct Action Day that Jinnah publicly called for in August 1946 led to the killing of the Hindus in Noakhali, which in turn led to the killing of Muslims in Bihar, and more killings in West Pakistan thereafter. Should Jinnah not be included in the list of rogues? It is not being suggested that Jinnah’s is the only missing name. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its Muslim counterparts, too, should be included in the list. The last chapter, titled “The Aftermath: Unending Strife”, starts with a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

This book is a significant addition to contemporary history and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the circumstances of the vivisection of India and the agony, cruelty and madness that attended it. A less expensive paperback edition would be welcome. This book should be translated into all major languages of the subcontinent.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian’s forthcoming book is titled The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t.