Reviewed by Dr. Jon P. Dorschner
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York, 2015, ISBN 978-0-547-66921-2, 328 pp., $28.00 (Hardcover), $14.99 (Kindle).
It is a well-documented historical fact that independence of India from British rule in 1947 went terribly awry. It resulted in unprecedented carnage on a massive scale. Millions of Indians were displaced in what was at that time among the largest incidences of ethnic cleansing yet witnessed. The origin of the violence and suffering was the division of British India into two newly independent states. The state of India was a British creation. The British Empire united the region’s many disparate states into a single nation. The Republic of India inherited this legacy. Pakistan was a totally new and distinctive state, created by the Muslim League, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as a homeland for South Asian Muslims.
This traumatic series of events, called “partition” in the South Asian subcontinent, left a searing scar on subsequent generations of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. Midnight’s Furies author Nisid Hajari takes the basic and familiar recitation of historical fact one step further. He attributes the destructive and non-functional India/Pakistan relationship of today to partition. He constructs a chain of causality in which the open wounds generated by partition set up a series of bilateral disasters that prevent India and Pakistan from normal interaction. He further argues that the negative India/Pakistan relationship has prevented the entire South Asian region from progressing and fueled a wave of Islamic terrorism with worldwide repercussions.
This book was of particular interest to me because my co-author Thom Sherlock and I have researched how these events are taught to schoolchildren in India and Pakistan. We documented that the governments of both countries have routinely manipulated the facts regarding partition to serve their own political ends. Pakistan is a rarity on the world stage, as it is a state conceived as a “homeland” for a particular religious group, a distinction that it shares with Israel. Pakistan is also a quasi theocracy in that it is a self-declared “Islamic Republic” and allows its religious leaders wide latitude in the governing of the state and the drafting of its law code. Although the modern nation state of India is a British creation, it is heir to a cultural and historical legacy that stretches back 5,000 years. Pakistan did not exist before 1947 and its leadership felt compelled to construct a selective historical narrative based on Islam and that largely disregards the pre-Islamic history of the region.
Indian history teaching shifts back and forth between a leftist secularism, which is emphasized during periods of Congress Party rule, and a Hindu nationalism, emphasized when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power. This means that Indian history textbooks are subject to radical revision whenever there is a change of government. In Pakistan, the political leadership (largely dominated by the Pakistan Army) has consciously tried to subordinate history to the “Pakistan Ideology.” This has led governments in both countries to try to fit a round peg into a square hole, as historical fact often contradicts the political and ideological points the political elites hope to inculcate into schoolchildren.
It is impossible for India and Pakistan to deny the reality of partition. Both countries can, however, manipulate these facts to fit their own ends. In the most extreme cases, history textbooks teach blatant falsehoods as fact. Nisid Hajari adds mightily to this debate by providing clarification and a clear consistent thesis, which he backs up with plenty of facts and documentation. In essence, he clears the air and sets the record straight. This serves as a useful and necessary antidote to all of the historical manipulation.
What Hajari does is provide a succinct account of what happened. His analytical lense is based on clear hypotheses. Hajari points out that terrible events took place. He describes these events in excruciating detail. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were murdered and their bodies mutilated. These mutilated corpses were common sights throughout the Punjab and to a lesser extent in Bengal. In addition, tens of thousands of young women were abducted and repeatedly raped. Others were forcibly “converted” and married off to men they had never seen. In the vast majority of cases, the victims were innocent. They were killed, tortured, and raped purely because of the religious community they belonged to.
Hajari contends that these facts are incontrovertible, but current historical analysis must move beyond them to address two principal issues, namely, who was responsible, and how to deal with the current long-term impact of partition. It is here that Hajari makes his greatest contribution. Thom Sherlock and I documented how historians in India and Pakistan have been suborned by their governments and compelled to produce history textbooks that are not accurate and that pursue an ideological agenda rather than factual knowledge. This obfuscation is most evident when it comes to the depiction of the founders of India and Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
In both countries, the population is presented with hagiographies rather than histories when it comes to study of these two extremely important individuals. In the case of Pakistan, the public persona of Muhammad Ali Jinnah pays little resemblance to the actual man. Jinnah was an effete anglophile who dressed in Savile Row suits and liked to drink a glass of scotch in the evening after work. He was a non-practicing Shia Muslim and a committed secularist. He envisioned a secular, democratic Pakistan based on liberal values. All of these are inconvenient facts in present-day Pakistan, which has devolved into crypto Islamic state dominated by mullahs and the army. Pakistan has therefore constructed its own largely fictitious hagiography of Jinnah. Likewise, Nehru is depicted in India as a great statesman incapable of error and dedicated disciple of Mahatma Gandhi.
With both states committed to inaccurate hagiography regarding their first leaders, it is impossible to seriously ascribe blame for the painful events of partition. Both countries therefore find it convenient to scapegoat the British and make them responsible for these terrible events. This is easy, as the British are no longer around, and it absolves the leaderships of the Muslim League and the Congress Party of any wrongdoing.
Hajari sets the record straight. He states clearly that there is plenty of blame to go around, and that none of the players are blameless. Of course the British made mistakes, but it is simplistic, argues Hajari, to blame the entire debacle on them. Hajari documents repeated instances when the British attempted to head off violence by presenting plans for a more systematic and logical break between India and Pakistan. The British, for example, argued for a federation plan that would have provided India’s Muslim majority states with a large measure of autonomy within a united India. Hajari clearly depicts that it was Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah that rejected these British proposals and set the stage for violence and bloodshed.
In a prime example of Hajari’s succinct and refreshing prose, he states,
There is little question that Jinnah was the most polarizing figure in the Partition drama. He is easy to blame. His forbidding personality made compromise difficult, if not impossible, and he was criminally negligent about thinking through the consequences of the demand for Pakistan. A vindictive streak ensured that he was surrounded mostly by sycophants, rather than independent-minded subordinates who might have moderated his views.
Yet from the moment in 1937 when the Congress Party rejected any partnership with the Muslim League, Nehru—suave, sensitive, handsome Nehru—contributed very nearly as much as Jinnah to the poisoning of the political atmosphere on the subcontinent.
Hajari clearly identifies the problem. Both India and Pakistan have constructed their own narrative of the independence movement, the partition of British India into two states, and the role of their political leadership in the resulting carnage. In his epilogue title “Deadly Legacy” Hajari describes the chain of causality that led from partition to war between India and Pakistan, to bloody insurrection and insurgency in Kashmir, and the promulgation of a radical Islamic terrorism that now plagues India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Hajari describes how both India and Pakistan realized that they could use non-state actors to their own ends. India ensured the induction of the Muslim ruled states of Junagadh and Hyderabad by covertly supporting fifth columns that staged uprisings and legitimized Indian military intervention. Pakistan then turned to the same tactic in Kashmir. While both countries used this tactic, the Indian instances were quick successes, while India countered the Pakistani sponsored “uprising” in Kashmir by quickly inducting Indian regular Army forces and working closely with the Pro-India National Conference headed by Sheikh Abdullah, the lionized leader of the Kashmiri masses.
When its bid to gain quick accession of Kashmir to Pakistan was thwarted, the Pakistan government made the fateful decision to commit it own army to the struggle. Pakistan then lost any possibility of “plausible deniability.” Its efforts to win Kashmir were no longer covert and the two states had devolved from hostility to open war. Hajari points out that Nehru erred when he pushed the Indian Army to drive the Pakistan sponsored raiders from Kashmir and occupy the entire state, event those areas in which the population clearly longed to be part of Pakistan. Nehru’s obsessive compulsion regarding Kashmir led him to reject opportunities to wind down the Kashmir fighting, placate Pakistan, and work for a settlement. Instead, India was locked into perpetual conflict.
While India used covert support of rebels to annex Junagadh and Hyderabad, it was a one-off tactic. India did not feel compelled to use this tactic again. Pakistan, for its part, nursed a growing sense of insecurity regarding India after the failure of its effort to annex Kashmir. It concluded that India was bent on its destruction and presented an existential threat. This worldview became particularly predominant within the Pakistan Army. Pakistan’s government and army quickly concluded that the country could not win a conventional conflict against India, and this analysis was borne out by Pakistan’s total defeat in the 1971 war in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s military and political leaders than adopted “unconventional warfare” as state policy, hoping to inflict the “death of a thousand cuts” on India by sponsoring insurgency in Kashmir and terrorism in the rest of India. Even though these terrorist clients of Pakistan have now turned their guns on the Pakistan Army and government, many within the Pakistani establishment remain reluctant to renounce this tactic, and continue to differentiate between “good terrorists” who terrorize India and Afghanistan, and “bad terrorists” who terrorize Pakistan.
Hajari concludes “what’s needed is a dose of realism and political courage—both of which have been sorely lacking, in both capitals, since 1947.”