Can we all just get along?

As Pakistan and India still eyeball each other, Syed Amir reviews Nisid Hajari's controversial new book on Partition

Can we all just get along?
Most Pakistanis alive today were either born after, or are too young to remember, the carnage and bloodshed that occurred in the wake of India’s independence and its transition to two sovereign states in 1947. A number of books have been written about the tumultuous events occurring during the twilight of the Raj, which led to an unprecedented mass migration of people across the new border. Some of the earliest books on the subject were authored by those British officers who had observed the events firsthand, being close to the epicenter of power.

tft-32-p-22-nAlan Campbell-Johnson, who served as Lord Mountbatten’s press attaché, meticulously kept a diary of the daily developments from 1946 to 1948, until Mountbatten left India after serving as its last Viceroy and first Governor General after independence. Published in 1951, the book, titled Mission with Mountbatten records Campbell-Johnson’s reminiscences and is considered one of the best sources of reliable information about that period.

Besides Campbell-Johnson, two other British officers whose work has received much attention are General Hastings Lionel Ismay, who served as Mountbatten’s chief of staff, and Lt. General Francis Tucker, who was the commander of the Eastern Command during the final two years of the British rule. Ismay devoted a section of his lengthy autobiography to his experiences during the transition period in India. Tucker authored a much-cited book, While Memory Serves, recounting the developments from the perspective of an army commander.

Later books have drawn to varying degrees upon the earlier accounts by the British writers. Unfortunately, in a number of cases, their narratives have been colored by the authors’ ideological and religious biases. Recently, Nisid Hajari, the Asian editor of the Bloomberg News (New York) and a former editor of Newsweek International, has authored a book, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, based on painstaking new research.

In this, his first book, Hajari has attempted to explore the historic background and genesis of the legacy of hatred between India and Pakistan that has lasted for nearly seven decades. The title of the book is reminiscent of an earlier book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight. While both cover the same historic events in South Asia, their narrative styles are markedly different. The latter, written exactly 40 years ago, follows a popular journalistic style, while the tenor of Hajari’s book is more serious and less sensational.

Nisid Hajar
Nisid Hajar

What is the rationale for adding yet another book to a crowded field and on a subject that has already been extensively explored? The author’s explanation is that his information is drawn from new sources not available to previous authors, citing his access to a “sort of demi-official record of the period: notes, letters and diaries of politicians and military commanders, the reports of informants and freelance spies”. In the prologue, Hajari explains that he has no desire to reprise the question of “why the subcontinent was split or who was to blame for the massacres, questions that have been well explored”. Instead, his focus is on another mystery, namely why has the traumatic experience of partition that happened nearly seventy years ago left a legacy of lasting and indelible bitterness between the two nations who on the face of it have so much in common – a shared history, culture, and traditions?

The author’s presumption, however, may be a tad bit overstated. The people of both countries remain captives of their unhappy past. Some of the shared values he applauds are not fully embraced by many on both sides of the boarder. The zealots, newly empowered in India, consider the era of Muslim rule as a millennium-long alien occupation. Similarly, in Pakistan, some believe that the nation’s history started only after the invasion by Mohammad bin Qasim early in the eighth century. The magnificent Indus Valley and majestic Gandhara civilizations evoke no feeling of pride and affinity in Pakistan.

Midnight’s Furies covers the two-year period starting from the waning days of Lord Wavell’s viceroyalty, progressing through his replacement with Lord Mountbatten, and ending with the Kashmir ceasefire in January 1949. The chapter on “Jinnah and Jawaharlal” is particularly interesting and traces the early political career of Jinnah, his leadership position in the Congress Party, when “Jinnah, not Jawaharlal, had looked like India’s man of destiny”. Jinnah is often portrayed as cold and unemotional, as compared to Alan Campbell-Johnson’s depiction in Mission with Mountbatten, as “if Jinnah’s personality is cold and remote, it also has a magnetic quality, the sense of leadership is almost overpowering”.
The author's account in the book reveals some uncanny similarities in the personal lives of Jinnah and Nehru

The account in the book reveals some uncanny similarities in the personal lives of Jinnah and Nehru. Jinnah married Rattanbai (Ruttie) in 1918, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Parsi businessman, Sir Dinshaw Petit, against the wishes of her father. The age difference between them was considerable – she was 18 and he was 32; the marriage soon unraveled. They had one daughter. Ruttie Jinnah suffered from some unspecified illness at age 29, was treated in Paris, but died at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. There were rumors that she committed suicide, but these have never been substantiated. There is no doubt that Jinnah loved her dearly. With a cold, undemonstrative disposition, he was reportedly seen crying in public only twice: once at Ruttie’s funeral, and then when he visited her grave to say goodbye before leaving India for the last time in August 1947.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s marriage to Kamala, a 16-year-old Kashmiri girl, was arranged in the traditional way. Nehru was 25 at the time. Theirs had been an affectionate relationship, but not necessarily one of deep love. Tragedy visited them as well. Kamala soon contracted tuberculosis, a common killer at the time, was treated at a sanatorium in Switzerland, but died at the young age of 37. Nehru, like, Jinnah had one child, Indira Gandhi.

Midnight’s Furies contains no major revelations, except perhaps some insightful details of events already well documented. It has long been suspected that the Boundary Commission, headed by British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to delimit the boundaries of the two dominions in 1947 was heavily influenced by Mountbatten’s predilection for India. The book asserts that “Mountbatten pretty clearly appears to have pressured Radcliffe to redraw the map to give Ferozepore district to India”, although it had a Muslim majority. Similarly, most of the Gurdaspur district, with a slight Muslim majority, was given to India, opening a land route to Kashmir. Jinnah by this time was already a sick man and Hajari writes that at the dinner reception in Karachi to celebrate the emergence of Pakistan, attended by some 1,500 leading citizens, “Jinnah stood aloof from his guests, almost in a reverie, someone linked him to a walking, talking corpse”.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who played such a prominent role in the independence movement, received only a cursory mention in the book. He is quoted to have expressed his unhappiness when a collection of old, rusted knives were put on display that Patel claimed had been confiscated from hapless Muslims of Delhi, who were running in fear for their lives.

In the chapter titled “Ad Hoc Jihad”, the book recounts in detail the story of Kashmir’s putative accession to India, resulting from vacillations by the Maharaja, errors of the Pakistan Government and Nehru’s emotional attachment to his ancestral homeland. Informed of an incipient Pakistan-inspired incursion in Kashmir by the defense secretary, Iskander Mirza, Jinnah, always scrupulous about the legality of his actions, stopped him. “Don’t tell me anything about it. My conscience must be clear.”

As Pakistani tribesmen made their advance towards Srinagar, Maharaja Hari Singh panicked, and in the words of V. P. Menon, “had gone to pieces”, abandoning the capital for Jammu. The formal annexation papers were drafted by Menon in a hurry, and he flew to Jammu to obtain the Maharaja’s signature, secured after the Indian forces had already landed. This started the long simmering dispute that has poisoned the relationship of the two neighbors for some seven decades.

Did the author find the answers to why hostilities between India and Pakistan have proved so enduring? In the epilogue, he cites as one of the reasons the cynical remark of an American journalist, Philip Talbot, who visited the subcontinent a year after the Kashmir ceasefire and observed “hatred of India holds Pakistan together”. The ongoing insidious dispute on Kashmir is another issue that Hajari believes keeps the fires of hostilities ablaze.

Hajari closes his very readable book with sage advice, “It is well past time that the heirs to Nehru and Jinnah put 1947’s furies to rest.” Indeed, it will free them of the destructive cycle of animosity that holds them back.