Literary Review

Putting midnight furies to rest

Cover of Midnight's furies: The deadly legacy of India's partition  

Jawaharlal Nehru was once late for a meeting of the Congress high command in Wardha. His car met with an accident after he told his driver to speed. A little boy was killed, and Nehru was shaken. This incident, seemingly irrelevant among the great events in this well-researched book, sets the tone for the reader in learning about the personality of one of the two main characters of the Partition saga. Nehru was always driven by haste and this haste would often lead to consequences that he would live to regret. He was given to temper tantrums (once he beat up a group of non-violent sadhus protesting partition). He was also not above nepotism — he insisted on appointing his own sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. Nehru was a man of many passions, which often undermined his other more charming qualities. His “forbidding” rival, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a man accused of having a chilly personality, was a study in contrast. It is unlikely that Pakistan’s founder ever asked his chauffeur to take risks or break the law in any way. He certainly did not appoint his family members at key posts in either the Muslim League or the first government in Pakistan. Yet, this is precisely what makes Jinnah, that most careful of men, “criminally negligent” in Nisid Hajari’s eyes, i.e., negligent of not having seen the consequences of his Pakistan demand.  

On the face of it, Nehru and Jinnah had much in common. Both were Anglophone, spoke English in the clipped accent of Indians educated in England. Both were barristers, though Jinnah practised law as a profession and Nehru did not. Like Nehru, Jinnah was, for most of his life, a staunch Indian nationalist and Congressman, impatient to rid his motherland of foreign rule. Both were secular-minded men and cherished the concept of Hindu-Muslim unity, albeit in different ways. Yet, what divided them was far more substantial. Nehru, a Kashmiri Pandit, was the most privileged amongst the privileged — a scion of a Hindu Brahmin family and son of a rich father. Jinnah, on the other hand, was from the Ismaili Shia Muslim background — a minority within a minority — born in a middle class merchant family hailing from Gujarat.

Whatever small fortune Jinnah’s father made in business was gone by the time Jinnah came of age. He made his own lot in the world through hard work and a bit of luck. On the other hand, Nehru had been, for all practical purposes, a stay-at-home son. The idea of working for a living was alien to his character. Despite his socialist pretensions, Nehru had an almost elitist contempt for Jinnah and all he stood for.

By the 1930s, Jinnah had come to see the solution to the Hindu-Muslim problem as one that could be resolved through a broad consociational alliance between Hindus and Muslims and between the Congress and the Muslim League. Nehru in contrast believed in his idea of an Indian nation that was blind to any considerations of community. Yet, in the real world in India, the divisions of religions, sects and caste counted more than a vague idea of Indian identity and what is more is that both the British rule and the independence movement had only deepened these divisions. Jinnah had warned Gandhi in the 1920s against using Muslim religious clerics in politics but the Mahatma had not paid him any heed, jumping head on into the disastrous Khilafat Movement. By the 1930s, the religious identities had become non-negotiable. Jinnah’s efforts even at that time were aimed at papering over these differences and finding a compromise between Muslim aspirations to power and the idea of a united India.

Hajari shows how Jinnah’s attempts at cooperation with the Congress were spurned repeatedly by Nehru who believed that the Congress, and the Congress alone, would win India its freedom. In 1937, Nehru refused to accept the Muslim League as a coalition partner, except on humiliating terms that included the unconditional merger of Muslim League parliamentary parties into the Congress. Nehru also refused to accept that there was any merit in the fears and anxieties that Muslims had regarding a Hindu majority-dominated India. Congress provincial governments in the 1930s showed how wrong he had been. Meanwhile, in Muslim-majority provinces, where both the Muslim League and the Congress had failed abysmally, the idea of a separate federation had already been mooted and discussed by people as eminent as Dr. Muhammad Iqbal. Jinnah and the Muslim League, now having seen the workings of an absolute majority in Hindu-majority areas, latched on to this idea from the 1940 onwards. The basic premise was that Muslims constituted a nation and not a minority, and that they should have an equal and not a proportional say in determining the future of India. A corollary of the idea was that India should be reconstituted on the basis of two or more federations which would then either have a confederation or treaty relations. At no point, however, did the demand for Pakistan envisage the creation of the mutually hostile states that Pakistan and India were to become eventually.

Yet, the rhetoric and counter-rhetoric around the Pakistan idea poisoned the political atmosphere in India irreversibly. By 1946 mutual suspicion and antipathy ran high. A compromise called the Cabinet Mission Plan, which had been accepted by Jinnah, was torpedoed by Nehru, leaving a fully sovereign Pakistan the only alternative. Here Nehru insisted on two things: the need for speed in the transfer of power and more importantly the partition of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal. It is often forgotten that the partition of India was actually the partition of these two provinces; in particular, the partition of Punjab. Hajari shows how the Sikhs were provoked by their leader Tara Singh into organising a militant force aiming not just at the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Punjab, but also to form a separate Sikh state comprising most of Punjab and the Sikh states bordering it. Congress seems to have encouraged the Sikhs up to a point. They definitely refused to arrest the Sikh leaders fomenting trouble. Punjab exploded in fury around the time of independence, a date itself brought forward to satisfy the vanity of India’s “Hollywood Prince” Viceroy Mountbatten.

Hajari paints a pitiful picture of both Nehru and Jinnah after partition.  Nehru — almost befuddled by the events around him — was fighting against members of his own administration. He resorted to personal heroics: taking risks by throwing himself at Hindu mobs butchering Muslims. However, the violence continued unabated, and Nehru’s government was powerless against the mobs. Meanwhile Jinnah, who Hajari tells us was equally troubled by the violence, became convinced that the disorder was deliberately created to throttle Pakistan at birth. This new low in an already tortured relationship meant that new fronts were opened. Princely states which formed a third of the territory of erstwhile British India became the subject of intrigue and Machiavellian moves and countermoves. Junagadh, Kashmir and Hyderabad buried any chance of post-independence reconciliation between the two nations.

Midnight’s Furies is a treasure trove of information for those looking at the roots of this fratricidal conflict. Today, despite the best intentions of Nehru and Jinnah, the conflict has become more and not less dangerous.

This is probably one of the most balanced books written on the subject.  It is extremely well-researched, except perhaps on two counts. While describing the Noakhali riots, Hajari says the prime instigator of the riots, Ghulam Sarwar, was a Muslim Leaguer. Actually, Ghulam Sarwar had contested elections against the Muslim League and was not associated with the party. Second, Hajari points out the unsentimental nature of Jinnah’s condolence message on Gandhi’s assassination, saying he described Gandhi as one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community. As a stickler for detail, surely Hajari must have come across two other messages by Jinnah on the occasion — one to Mountbatten and another to Devdas Gandhi — in the Jinnah papers? He had described the assassination as a loss to all humanity. Yet another communique declared a national holiday on Gandhi’s demise. The flag flew half-mast in Jinnah’s dominion for three days in mourning.

The book ends with an appeal to heirs of Nehru and Jinnah to put the midnight furies to rest. What would that entail? First of all, India and Pakistan need to stop looking at each other as polar opposites. It would help to remind both set of heirs that despite all that divided Jinnah and Nehru, they believed in constitutional secular democracy — be it for a united or divided India. Instead of focussing on what divided the two men and the disastrous decisions each man forced upon his nation, it is time to emphasise the finest they had to offer.  

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 10:14:56 AM |

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