The erstwhile British colony of India was partitioned in 1947 into two nations: India and Pakistan. This partition was marked by large-scale forced migrations and horrific violence. The story of the key cast of characters responsible for the partition and the events surrounding the partition itself has now been told many times and in many different formats.
Readers interested in South Asian history and politics may wonder what we might learn from yet another tome on this saturnine but important
)and hence much-discussed) subject.
The answer, it turns out, is quite a bit. In this eminently readable book, Nisid Hajari asks a salient question: Why were these two nations created in the first place and, given that these two nations have so much in common, why have they become such implacable enemies? Hajari begins to answer this question by introducing the main cast of characters and then delineating a variety of events that unfolded dramatically in 1946, the year immediately preceding partition.
The principal political party at that time in undivided India was the Indian National Congress, and the central players associated with this party were Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel. The other political party—that grew in prominence over time—was the Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Nehru, eventually the Prime Minister of a divided India, and Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam or great leader of Pakistan, were very different people, and they had very different visions of independent India. This notwithstanding, if India was to remain united, then Nehru and Jinnah would have to work together. This was certainly true in the immediate aftermath of the so called “Great Calcutta Killing” of 1946. At this unhappy time, the then-British Viceroy Wavell clearly pointed out that if law and order were not to completely break down, then Muslim League members would need to be reassured “that they would have a place and a political voice in a united India. That burden fell on Nehru and the Indian National Congress, by far the more powerful of the two parties” (p. 21).
From Jinnah’s perspective, this reassurance was not forthcoming. Instead, Jinnah believed that Nehru wanted to play the “ambassador of unity” by himself. In addition, Jinnah was worried that if the British acceded to Nehru’s demand for independence, then the Muslim “League--and Jinnah--would again be shut out of power” (p. 36). Around this time, Jinnah’s Muslim League set the creation of a separate state for Muslims to be known as Pakistan as its official goal. As Hajari rightly points out, it is difficult to ascertain whether Jinnah was truly serious about the creation of Pakistan or whether he was using this demand as a bargaining chip with the British and the Indian National Congress.
The author spends a significant portion of the book discussing the many practical problems associated with the creation of a viable Pakistan. A key such problem concerned the fate of Punjab and the large Sikh population in this region. Hajari
does a good job noting that the uncompromising Jinnah had given little thought
to many of the underlying issues and, as such, he was “criminally negligent” (p.
250). However, it takes two to tango. Hajari notes that Nehru was not innocent in the progressive poisoning of the political atmosphere in the subcontinent. Despite periodic requests from the last Viceroy Mountbatten to show more flexibility, Nehru’s attitude toward the Quaid--and by implication, toward Jinnah’s millions of Muslim followers--was all too arrogant and dismissive, rather than understanding” (p. 250).
Hajari provides a compelling account of the origins of the contemporary “Kashmir problem” that has plagued relations between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947. Jinnah wanted the Hindu ruler--Maharajah Hari Singh--of Muslim majority Kashmir to accede to Pakistan. However, Hari Singh acceded to India. Although it is true that this accession occurred in a politically turbulent time, without any credible evidence, Jinnah considered this accession to be invalid. This marked the beginning of repeated Pakistani attempts to get all of Kashmir to be a part of Pakistan. These attempts initially began with proxy wars and then involved the use of the actual Pakistani army. Even though these myriad attempts have imposed costs on India, they have largely been unsuccessful. Perhaps these repeated failures explain why, in the opinion of both the American journalist Phillips Talbot and the author, hatred of India has become the “cement” that holds Pakistan together.
This book is not without its flaws. First, Hajari pays too much attention to events in Punjab and pays little attention to the rising discontent in the eastern part of Pakistan, which ultimately led to the bifurcation of Pakistan into a geographically much smaller entity and the new nation of Bangladesh in 1971. Second, one can certainly take issue with the author’s claim that in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States “quickly” realized that Pakistan was more interested in using the millions of dollars of U.S. aid to harass India militarily and less interested in challenging the Soviets. Third, the word “satyagraha” does not literally mean “soul force” (p. 26) but insistence on truth. Finally, the standard descriptor for the Hindu nationalist group known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not RSSS (p. 59) but simply RSS. These shortcomings notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that this is an excellent book that provides an engrossing account of the liberation of India and the birth of Pakistan.