Reviews

An unbearable history

Partition: The Story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan in 1947
Barney White-Spunner
Simon and Schuster
₹699

Partition: The Story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan in 1947 Barney White-Spunner Simon and Schuster ₹699  

An army officer and historian’s balanced appraisal of humanity’s greatest ever migration, a story of bitter division and exploitation

In his own house, a father beheaded 25 women and girls of his own family so that they would not fall into the hands of the Other. Trains arrived filled with nothing but bodies; station platforms were covered in dried blood; rivers were streams of corpses. Rampaging mobs slaughtered tens of thousands with the active help of the police, of railway officials who passed on timings, of princely states’ armies, and sometimes the army, which was organised on regional, communal, and linguistic lines. Survivors’ stories still shock, and many of us have relatives who — at the very least — knew participants in the killing.

The aggregate figures tell their own story, if without the same hideous immediacy. A million people were murdered — by friends, neighbours, and total strangers; 16 million were displaced, in humanity’s greatest ever migration.

A ‘holocaust’

Barney White-Spunner, a British lieutenant-general and military historian, calls Partition a holocaust. His month-by-month account of the year 1947, drawing on a wide range of research work, official documents, letters, diaries, interviews, and conversations, moves through political manoeuvrings, cultural complexities, and ground-level detail to outline a terrible period in modern history.

The author, to his great credit, maintains a measured and balanced tone throughout a story of bitter division and exploitation, clashes of personality, incompetence, and missed or unseen opportunities. Most of those at the upper levels knew little of the culture over which they ruled or sought to rule, while some of those who knew the culture repeatedly roused millions to what White-Spunner calls medieval violence and gratuitous cruelty.

Certain episodes stand out. White-Spunner is clear about the effects of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and he is caustic about the colonials’ racist dismissal of Indian demands, following India’s contribution in World War I, for what later became Dominion status. He also details the ineptitude, indifference, and corruption which helped cause the Bengal famine, and adds that traders hoarded grain in reaction to supply problems. The book is, however, light on Winston Churchill’s diversion of grain to troops in other countries, and does not mention that Lord Cherwell lied about the supplies available.

It took Archibald Wavell, by all accounts a decent man with a general’s organisational ability, to do something about the famine, but White-Spunner is otherwise hard on Wavell, despite the chaotic nature of London’s orders. Wavell’s viceregal successor, Louis Mountbatten, was far more of a politician, with royal descent giving him a further advantage in India.

Yet Mountbatten shut Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, out of most meetings. Auchinleck, devastated by having to break up an army which had been his life, then retreated from events; the Punjab Boundary Force was a quarter the size it should have been, and could not even maintain basic order.

White-Spunner is at his most certain here; troops and equipment were available throughout India, and when used they prevented mass killings. Even attacks by light aircraft ended violence, as did Major D.H. Donovan’s order to open fire on a mob in Punjab. Certain Indian politicians also acted shrewdly. In the United Provinces, Govind Ballabh Pant arrested RSS and Hindu Mahasabha leaders by way of preventive detention; when they invoked habeas corpus he ignored them.

Recasting moves

Meanwhile, British politics around withdrawal, including U.S. pressure on the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee to end imperialism quickly, made things worse, and Indian leaders competed against one another, recasting and distorting every move by all involved. The account of politicking between Congress and the Muslim League in what became Pakistan is fascinating, though the colonials’ rejection of proportional (not quota-based) electoral systems on the grounds that Indians could not understand them created a winner-takes-all contest and probably embittered the discourse even further. At a meeting on May 31, what White-Spunner argues in detail was a Congress plan for temporary partition was presented as a fait accompli; the author shows Muhammad Ali Jinnah as wanting only federation within India, but the partition die was cast that day.

The slaughter worsened. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel considered colonial public-order legislation essential, but during what looked like the collapse of all humanity in September 1947, India’s leaders asked Mountbatten to head an emergency committee. The two new countries now faced enormous problems — the one of being a religious state or not, and the other of powerful princes who hated democracy and had even threatened to change allegiance. The chapter on Kashmir is heartbreaking.

Looking for answers

Inevitably, wider questions arise. The one-year focus means significant points disappear; in the 1920s the viceroy, Lord Reading, warned his government about communalism, but obeyed orders to split the independence movements from one another. Secondly, White-Spunner dismisses Attlee’s and Nehru’s idea that the major problems were economic as socialistic evasion of the issue of religion, but he does not see that they might have had a point. Neither does he consider that Attlee and Nehru were not socialists but social democrats, or that the latter had already agreed to the 1944 Bombay Plan, whereby India’s emerging capitalists decided Congress’ economic strategy.

Somehow — somehow — two of the poorest countries in the world managed to resettle 16 million dispossessed, displaced, shattered people, and to deal with some of the enormous administrative issues arising. As to the legacy of empire, White-Spunner offers no easy conclusion, but what he says is weighty and incisive.

Of course the book omits much. White-Spunner does not mention that the colonials, on orders, destroyed millions of documents, especially those showing racial and cultural contempt for their subjects. The book’s production also looks rushed, with South Asian names often misspelt, though the apparent error which turns the British cabinet into a ‘supporting caste’ may be more than entertaining.

None of that, however, detracts from a fine, solid work, which recounts an almost unbearable history with dignity and restraint; neither does the author flinch from publishing photographs which tell a sickening story.

Partition: The Story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan in 1947; Barney White-Spunner, Simon and Schuster, ₹699.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 2:49:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/an-unbearable-history/article19819312.ece

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