Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition
© 2015 Nisid Hajari
Although greater India has rarely remained united in its long history, there was every reason to hope that it would emerge from the centuries of British dominion in one piece. Instead, the people of India erupted as two — then three — nations, with armed borders and bloodbaths between them. Midnight’s Furies is a history of how the Partition happened, and a full account of the massacres on every side until the United Nations was able to meditate a cease-fire. Although its pages are bloodsoaked, no less than a history of the fighting and civilian slaughters between Hitler and Stalin’s empires in WW2, it does deliver a sad understanding of why tensions between India and Pakistan continue to haunt the region and the world.
The two most prominent personalities of this tale are Jawaharlal Nehru, a key figure in both the independence movement and India’s Congress Party, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also a leading voice in the movement but one who relied on Muslim support. Although both Nehru and Jinnah supported a future for India as a secular state, the long road to independence and personal quarreling made them feuding allies at best, and rivals at worse. Gandhi gave the Indian independence movement a strong populist flavor; his supporters were not middle-class Indians, but India’s poor masses, and the Mahatma and his followers channeled their desires and energy through Hindu religion. This was exceptionally off-putting to Jinnah, who not only feared Hindu nationalism given his Muslim background, but had a marked distaste for the underclass, reluctant even to shake hands with his followers. As the movement grew larger and more populist, Jinnah was marginalized and found relevance only by doubling-down on his Muslim background and becoming an stubborn voice for a Muslim state that would protect its citizens’ wishes against the Hindu majority.
Although Nehru comes off much better here (confronting the leaders of mass violence, dreaming of a united India) Hajari does delve into his culpability. As the day of withdrawal grew closer and Indian leadership became a fact, not a proposal, Nehru targeted his critical energies against Jinnah’s partisanship with the same zeal he’d once thrown at the British. In treating Jinnah and his followers like the enemy, he aided the two countries’ downward spiral of accusation, attack, and counterattack. The bloodbath that overtook the country when the Partition came into effect — as majorities tried to push minorities out — was not exactly their ‘fault’, but their inability to work with one another set the stage. (Jinnah’s call for “Direct Action” to effect Pakistani independence from India kicked off the blood feud, however, so he seems more culpable than Nehru.) The violence was not a simply Hindu v Muslim feud; in the Punjab, where the new state line split the militant Sikh community in two, it involved Sikhs and Muslims. The ever-present spiral of violence is obvious here: one community attacks the other ,who attacks the first in self-defense, who attacks the other in reprisal, etc. The aggression and violence simply keep ratcheting up, until the streets are literally filled with broken bodies, including children, and air is filled with the smell of blood and the cry of wounded and raped victims.
This is not a book for the faint of heart, though it’s not as gruesome as The Rape of Nanking. Although ending in 1947, the spasm of brutality documented here continues to effect Indian and Pakistani relations, and particularly Pakistan’s foreign-policy worldview. For it, India remains the existential threat and the priority — not cold wars or terrorism.