Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition is Nisid Hajari’s addition to the vast historical literature on the subject of the human tragedy resulting from the awkward birth of Pakistan and India. The story is well-known in general terms, but the scope of the massacre and human suffering is often overlooked. Hajari’s work adds significant detail and historical footnotes that give context to the story.
‘Partition’, in modern times, has an echo of heartache and immense loss to Indians and Pakistanis, for good reason. Even by the standards of a century that included the Holocaust, World War II, and instantaneous losses of life such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo, the numbers involved with this period of India’s independence is outrageous.
Most estimates state that at least 1 million civilians died during the period beginning with the Calcutta riots of 1946, to the end of hostilities on December 31, 1948, and that may actually be a conservative estimate. Approximately 15 million people left their homes and repopulated to the country of their stated religion, making it likely the largest forced human migration in human history. It destroyed many of the long-standing inter-religious relationships that existed in India during British rule, including the close ties among Hindus, Muslims and Sikh members for the Indian contingent of the British army, who had worked side by side during both World Wars. The repercussions continue to echo to this day, as it was the birthplace of the hatred and animosity that exists between India and Pakistan, all the way to the now prevalent nuclear race.
Hajari’s first goal seems so obvious in retrospect, after decades of distrust; but in 1947 there was a real debate that now resonates: How could two nations (Pakistan and India) who had so much in common, and so much reason to become strategic partners if not allies, become enemies willing to fight to the death?
The answer lies in two areas: one personal, and one religious.
The personal side begins with the dynamic of the four central players involved in India’s independence. Jawaharlal Nehru with his “high, aristocratic cheekbones and eyes that were deep pools — irresistible to his many female admirers”; the cold and stand offish Mohammad Ali Jinnah, “cheekbones jutted out of his cadaverous face like the edges of a diamond”; Lord Louis Mountbatten, great-grandson of Queen Victoria herself, “tall and tanned,” the “Hollywood version of a British prince”; and finally, of course, the father of Indian independence and of nonviolent protest, Mahatma Gandhi.
The failure of these four men to understand their rivals and opponents, to misread their intentions at every turn, and underestimate the animosity that culture, religion, economic class, and simple personality conflicts ultimately lead to failure after failure, ultimately leading to the tragedy that became partition.
A quote echoes in my mind from the biographical tale The Pity of Partition by Ayesha Jalal. In the story, Jalal recounts a conversation between her uncle and his close Muslim friend after the riots. “I am a Muslim, don’t you feel like killing me?” her uncle responds solemnly; “Not now, but when I was hearing about the atrocities committed by Muslims . . . I could have killed you.”
This is a reality that each of the central characters in this story never understood…to the detriment of all Indians.
The religious bigotry and hatred that brought upon the violence among former friends, fellow villagers, neighbors, and even housemates has always and will always been a part of the reality of what India is, to this very day. India strives to be a secular country, which attempts to overcome these historic biases in order to create a union that allows more equal access to all. But always, bubbling under the surface, is this animosity.
Partition was a moment when that animosity broke through the surface, for the world to see. Nehru failed to understand Muslims fear of the massive Hindu majority, and his blind idealism blinded him. Gandhi was even a greater idealist, and his waning days, ill and weak, he didn’t have the power to intercede when needed. Mountbatten was the voice of a dying empire, who was more interested in their bankruptcy treasury than the small details that would have made the partition go smoother. And Jinnah, who often takes the brunt of the blame for many reasons (but probably in reality deserves less of the blame than he regularly receives) was arrogant, single-minded, and thin-skinned…all traits that served him ill. The leaders at the time denied the reality of India and their own personal relationship with the greater nation, at great cost to the citizens of India and Pakistan.
If there is a weakness in this book, it is that Hajari does understate the case for partition, from the eyes of Pakistanis. Key names in the origin of Pakistan, like Muhammad Iqbal, the philosophical founder of the country, were largely left out. Ultimately this doesn’t distract from the thesis of the book, but it does leave out nuance of the Muslim position that the reader would not have without reading from other sources.
The book is far from perfect, as any book that confronts such a divisive and partisan historical period would be. But in toto, the author does a magnificent job conveying the horror and immensity of the human tragedy that unfolded, and showing how the failures of a few, very mortal and imperfect men, led to not only that tragedy, but decades of distrust and even current hate for two of the largest countries on the planet.
Other recent books, including Dilip Hiro’s The Longest August, Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition, Patrick French’s Liberty or Death, and Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer are all fine alternatives, but simply put, none are as enjoyable or thorough as Hajari’s entry.
One question Hajari doesn’t really attempt to answer: whether partition was worth it. The scale of the devastation possibly makes this question unanswerable, being too much for any single person to comprehend and allocate.
However, India is now an emerging superpower, who has had a female and Sikh Prime Minister, and a Muslim president; whose most famous actors/actresses are both Muslim and Hindu; and whose richest industrialists and business magnates count Sikhs, Jains, and Muslims among them. Pakistan continues to lag, largely because of religious forces, but also has always had immense potential. Both countries are nuclear powers, and thus, deserve a voice on the international stage. The subcontinent teems with vitality and possibilities.
The question is, as always: did partition serve either country well, or were they worse off for it?
Like most people confronting that question, I will defer to answer; I think that question is far above my pay grade.