Tragic divide

Print edition : December 08, 2017

During the historic migration in September 1947. Photo: the HINDU archives

A well-researched book on the Partition of India, giving a month-by-month account of the tragedy as it unfolded in 1947.

BITTER memories of the Partition of India, which was accompanied by a lot of bloodshed, have once again come into sharp focus in Partition: The Story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The well-researched book by the British Lieutenant General and military historian Barney White-Spunner is a reminder of the clash of egos, missed opportunities and incompetence that led to the murder of a million people and the displacement of 16 million. What makes it different from scores of other accounts on Partition is that it gives a month-by-month account—from January to December—of the events as they unfolded. Basing the narrative on historical accounts, interviews, official documents, letters and anecdotes, the author has been able to strike a fine balance despite his background, which carries baggage.

White-Spunner has been critical of the Raj for its failure to foresee the catastrophe that was set to cloud the joy of the independence that a nation had strived for. The book is full of gory pictures of trains loaded with thousands of refugees or dead bodies, slaughtering gangs, rivers with dried-up blood and the chaos and confusion on railway platforms. The rage that the Punjab State experienced in the wake of Partition is unimaginable. People divided along communal and linguistic lines gave vent to emotions. Neighbours killed one another, friends blinkered themselves and the police and the administration neglected their call of duty. The extent of police complicity in the murder spree was unprecedented.

Millions of people crossed the borders after Partition, making the exodus/influx one of the largest and the most violent migrations and also the most horrifying tale of suffering in human history.

The author has elaborated on the havoc played by famine in Bengal in 1942-44, which killed six times as many people as the casualties that the British Empire suffered in the Second World War. He is critical of the administration in its handling of the Bengal famine, although an estimated 24 million people lost their lives in the 1876-78 and 1898-1902 famines in different parts of India. The Great Calcutta Killings (Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946) gets much space and mention in the book.

The author says that because of that tragedy, there were fewer deaths in 1947 in Calcutta, although there was no let-up in the tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

Jinnah’s role

White-Spunner projects Mohammad Ali Jinnah as someone who wanted a federation and cites instances to show that the Congress did not allow him to go ahead with his idea although the communal lines had already been drawn. “Later once Khalifate issue had, as Jinnah predicted, died out, Congress again opposed Jinnah’s 1927 proposal, the Delhi proposals designed to find a common ground between the Congress and the League. It was another of those tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947,” he writes. Before the 1937 Indian provincial elections, Jinnah approached the Congress to try and work out a power-sharing agreement.

The author’s keen analysis of the events supported by official documents and other evidence does point to the role of Lord Mountbatten and his “favourable” attitude towards India. For example, he says that Zira and Ferozepur went to India after the original map was changed by Cyril Radcliffe, who demarcated the line separating India and Pakistan, after his meeting with Mountbatten. The author quotes Radcliffe’s Secretary Beaumont: “When he came back he allegedly changed the line so that Ferozepur and Zira went to India. The allegation is that Maharaja of Bikaner, an important ally in the princely camp, put pressure on Mountbatten alongside Nehru threatening to accede to Pakistan if Ferozepur went.” The same is the case with Gurdaspur, which would have automatically cut the land connection with Jammu and Kashmir.

“Nobody in India will love me for my reward,” Radcliffe reportedly wrote to his stepson.

The tragedy of Partition started unfolding much before it actually took place. White-Spunner records that on March 4, Muslim gangs, egged on by the League paramilitaries, attacked Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore. In the following week, the violence was widespread and Sikhs retaliated in Amritsar. The author records that in the North-West Frontier Province Sikhs preferred to kill their women rather than risk them being defiled by Muslim men. “Bir Bahadur Singh’s father and uncle gathered their extended family in one house. There were about twenty-five girls. First a disabled person was killed next the old man lined up his daughters.”

The months of August, September and October were replete with such stories on both sides of the border. What made the killing even more abhorrent was the systematic rape, mutilation and murder of captured women, acts that both Sikhs and Muslims indulged in. On the afternoon of August 15, White-Spunner writes: “Sikhs paraded naked Muslim women, who were then publicly raped before being set afire in the street.” On August 17, thousands of Sikhs turned up from the outlying villages of Amritsar and started a street massacre.

Of all the images of Punjab of August 1947, it is the pictures of trains, either overcrowded with desperate refugees or as ghost trains packed with dead bodies, that have remained the most vivid. “The 15th August would be one of the most terrible days in the bloody history of Amritsar but in Karachi and Delhi emphasis was now on celebration of nationhood,” writes the author. On Jammu and Kashmir, White-Spunner writes that Maharaja Hari Singh was indecisive. He also quotes Nehru, who called him “timid”. “The notion of an independent Kashmir allowed an indecisive man an excuse not to accede to either India or Pakistan.” But this unfolded another tragedy, leading to revolt and killings and finally India’s intervention. And because of that, even today the divided State is suffering.

While the author is critical of many decisions taken by the British Empire and brings out the rift between Mountbatten and the Commander-in-Chief, Claude Auchinleck, there are many areas that he could have dealt with in more detail. The way the Empire rushed the decision under pressure, leaving little room for deliberation and pitting leaders against one another, perhaps worsened the situation.

His account, focussing on a single year, leaves out important twists and turns in a history riddled with the Empire’s tyranny.

The author emphasises that the Empire should have listened to its subjects’ demand for self-government much earlier. “It did not do so, and when it was finally forced to close, it did so amid terrible bloodshed, which the British and British Indian armies could have significantly limited if not wholly prevented. We had stayed too long—just as we were doing in Basrah [Iraq].”

Although some links are missing in the book, it nonetheless is a solid work of research.

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