Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Midnight's Grandchildren: the history and legacy of India's partition


Past history is never final, for perspectives change and new facts come to light. Yet sometimes, "new" facts are old ones that have been in the public domain a long time, like unexploded bombs.

Only a few years ago, The Independent reviewed the partition of India in the light of a fresh book by Jaswant Singh, who was a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party until 2014, and was nine years old when Partition occurred. Supposedly, the responsibility for the terrible bloodshed between Muslims and Hindus as the country tore itself in two had previously been laid at the door of the Muslim separatist Mohammad Ali Jinnah; now (2009) we were to remember the intransigence of Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party.

Yet 38 years before the above-linked article, exactly the same points were made in John Masters' 1971 autobiography "Pilgrim Son". Masters, a fifth-generation Indian Army man, was working at General Headquarters in Delhi in 1946, and was passed a request from the Viceroy, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, to draft a paper (overnight!) on "the strategic results of splitting India". Masters concluded [see pp. 33-35] that there would be serious flaws in defence capabilities:

"Would the new countries be militarily viable? It didn't look like it. Pakistan would be like the peel of an orange. It would have all the dangerous frontiers, and much of the military accommodation - but no flesh, no core of industry, manpower or finance. Everywhere the lines of defence or counterattack would be in Pakistan, the base depots to support them in India...

"Briefly, my paper declared that the partition of India was militarily possible, but unsound. For over a century military problems had been worked out on the basis of one country, its natural boundaries the Himalayas and the sea, and this unity was built into the military fabric... I concluded that partition would place a very severe strain on Pakistan, particularly. The official advice of the Defence Department therefore was: don't."

Masters immediately received many plaudits from colleagues and superiors, but politics trumped his caveats:

"As everyone knows, India was, in fact, divided, but it is not perhaps so widely appreciated that the responsibility for this tragedy lies with Mr Nehru. For when the Congress, the Muslim League, and other parties had at last been persuaded to agree to the Cabinet Committee Plan, he gave a press conference at which he stated that the Congress considered itself 'completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise'. As he was the president of the Congress this could only mean that his party, once it attained the majority power promised to it under the Plan, would be free to break the terms under which the other parties had agreed. With a sigh of delight - for in accepting the plan they had been forced to give up the goal of Pakistan - Mr Jinnah and the Muslim League also reneged on their agreement and returned to the old and now unalterable demand for a separate country of their own."

Then came pressure from the British side to get it done:

"The London Government wanted to set a date for transfer of power - but to whom? The political parties in India had not agreed, so to set a date for transfer was merely to set a date for chaos. Lord Wavell stated that this would cost a great many lives, and that he would not be responsible for carrying out such a policy. As the Government in England intended to do just that, they set about finding someone to replace him, who would do what they wanted." [p. 38]

Referencing a 2007 book by Richard Mead ["Churchill's Lions"] the Wikipedia article on Wavell spins this as:

"At the end of the war, rising Indian expectations continued to be unfulfilled, and inter-communal violence increased. Eventually, in 1947, Attlee lost confidence in Wavell and replaced him with Lord Mountbatten of Burma."

Estimates of the consequent loss of life vary between 200,000 and 2 million, plus massive disruption to millions of others. Churchill foresaw something of the kind in 1931 (though he was wrong about unemployment in the UK - the devastation of WWII forced Britain to restock human labour capacity from its colonies.)

If only Nehru could have been a reasonable-compromiser; if only the new British Labour Government hadn't been so hell-bent on resolving the issue with maximum despatch; if only Gandhi had not been murdered in 1948 and so might have lived to be a moderating influence on Nehru.

But it's funny how these reinterpretations have to wait for some much later, perhaps random event to set off the explosive.

And since then, tensions between India and Pakistan, possible chess-playing by other nations looking to use one side or the other for their own purposes, and the problems of relations with neighbouring states such as Afghanistan; and the Sunni-Shia sectarianism that threatens to ravage Pakistan as much as elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Perhaps we should be writing multiple-viewpoint histories of today - e.g. on what I see as the Bush-Blair wrecking ball in the Middle East. Rather than individual historians arguing from differing standpoints, maybe modern history should be Cubist, offering many-faceted perspectives in the same composition.

Georges Braque: “Bottle and Fishes”, c. 1910–2


James Higham said...

Firstly, dear Twilight, whom I've known a long time, is a self-acknowledged out-and-out socialist, so she's going to target GOP rather than the DNC, and thus the view is skewed. So while her take on Bush is correct, the gaping chasm is her failure to target socialist influence. And that was big in India. The British government too was riddled with socialists, the establishment type. Just look at the FCO today. This was not reflected in the post.

Sackerson said...

James, the hat-tip was for the cartoon. And I think I have referred to the then new Labour government; I understand that Mountbatten was inclined to support them.

The Bush bit is mine: I think there should be a new set of Nuremberg trials for those who have been waging aggressive war overtly and covertly.

James Higham said...

Ah, right.