Review: The Great Partition; the Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan (2007) Assessment 9 out of 10

Events, in 1946 and 1947, are described, culminating in British withdrawal and establishment of the new states of India and Pakistan. The book runs to 210 pages, plus maps, a list of abbreviations, a glossary, monochrome photographs, notes, a bibliography and index. For £12 it is good value.

The book records both the negotiation of regime change and those affected by the resulting messy process It is a work of narrative history, from which important lessons should have been learnt.

 First the actors didn’t know what they were seeking to achieve. The Second World War and Partition bled into one another. The Moslem League had grown in influence amongst Muslims.  However League supporters did not think of their call for Pakistan primarily as for a territorial unit. If they did, they hoped it would include large tracts of Mogul India. Jinnah, dominant leader of the League and now thought of as father of Pakistan, sought a federal solution in which the Moslems would have had regional and communal checks on majority power. He accepted Partition and the creation of Pakistan only as second best.

Second, bringing about regime change was always going to be difficult, attempting to effect it within an unrealistic time frame, meant it failed. The Radcliffe Commission was given quite inadequate time to establish and document the land border between India and Pakistan. On Independence some 48% of the land area and 28% of the population remained within princely states, which had not yet been integrated into the new states of India and Pakistan. This further complicated the process. The Moslem ruler of Hyderabad sought to keep it separate. In 1948 it was forcibly annexed to India. In the North of Bengal the princely state of Cooch Behar included a checkerboard of territory reflecting historic land holdings between it and Mogul territory. This had not been sorted out by 1949 when Cooch Behar, bordering East Pakistan, joined India. As a result there were 123 tiny enclaves of East Pakistan, now Bangla Desh, in India and 74 enclaves, legally Indian territory in Bangla Desh.

Map showing Indian enclaves in Bangla Desh and Bangla Deshi enclaves in India. This included Bangla Deshi enclaves within the Indian enclaves in Bangla Desh. Incredible !

Third violence portrayed as random thuggery was not. It was routine, timetabled ethnic cleansing. It wasn’t disruptive background noise to constitutional decision making, but intended to influence the process, preventing reconciliation. There was no longer the appetite for Gandhian non-violence, instead an increasingly violent nationalism on both sides. The British were shipping troops out, India and Pakistan dividing the Indian Army up between them, just when a disciplined military could have assisted in overseeing Independence and Partition. This, and the uncertainty about where a border would be and what it would mean, created a perfect storm of ethnic violence.

Fourth the actual outcome was very different from that intended.  A functioning Raj was fraying. The British, exhausted by their war effort, sought a quick withdrawal, handing over power to a successor. If Congress and the Moslem League wouldn’t work together, Partition was intended to hand over power to Congress in India and to the Moslem League in Pakistan. In 1946 there were serious intercommunal riots in Calcutta followed by the massacre of Hindus, largely the landlords, by tenant Moslems in East Bengal. Partition was seen as preventing further violence. In fact it became the source of new calamities, with some 80,000 women abducted and up to a million people killed.

No one expected, or planned for, the scale of population movement. Both new governments intended to protect minorities in their new states. If Pakistan protected minority Hindu and Sikh populations in Pakistan, this would help guarantee the rights of Moslems in India.  It was considered inconceivable that some 12m people would move between the new states.  However with mass movement of population underway, both new governments reversed their plans, so population exchange became official policy and cover for further ethnic cleansing. The refugee crisis became a tragedy both for the refugees themselves and for the new states.

Finally Partition is an example of application of the founder principle from biology and linguistics to history. What happened at the beginning, however unintentionally, disproportionately influenced what followed.  Pakistan’s fragility when created means it has become a largely militarised state. A temporary solution became a permanent division, a border thrown up in haste fixed and impermeable. The two new states, which in many ways are very similar, created in violence continue to view each other through a prism of violence. Both the Pakistan and India they ended up with were very different from those they had hoped for

Writing this review now, it is hard not to see lessons which have not been learnt. In Myanmar ethnic cleansing of the Moslem Rohingyas has been followed by their flight to Bangla Desh, which lacks the space or resources to accommodate them. Brexit, whose meaning and implications were barely understood by those voting for it, is being implemented by parties who never intended, nor planned for it, over a quite impractical timetable. Brexit, like Partition, may well  lead to permanent acrimonious rift.

In writing this Review, I should declare three reasons why I was interested in this Book and pleased it was as good as it was. First, in the period immediately prior to Partition, my father served with the RAF in Karachi and the Sind , second my uncle was with the British Army in Bengal and “stayed on” there after Partition, where my cousin was born, returning to the UK in the late 1950s, third like the author, but somewhat longer ago, I too was an undergraduate at St Peter’s College Oxford.

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