A note: My benchmark for book-reviews (and posts in general) is 500 words — this review is much longer than that. I hope this will not breach your attention-span, for it might be worth it.
It was when I read India After Gandhi — that I gained new perspective of India [India = today’s nation-state, India = pre-partition dynasty] and everything that happened to her in the last 80 or so years. The book also caused in me something profound — a new love for India. I felt empathetic, even faintly brotherly, to the peoples of the India, many of who now live in Pakistan. My newfound subject of interest was born — the partition.
Much of present-day media and superficial history tell us only one important thing about partition — that Jinnah did it and that Gandhi did it. To me, there had to be more than just two wrong-headed men to exact one of the massive political divisions that world has seen. I wanted to read more and find out. I wanted a book that doesn’t paint a fascistic picture of either side, particularly the Indian side. Different people suggested different books — I chose to read Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition.
Jinnah may have been the chief architect of the idea of Pakistan, I am now convinced he was — but Pakistan was not born without the support of millions of men that wanted it as well as Jinnah did. In addition to this, several leaders contributed to the escalating conflicts, sometimes caused it, which ultimately led to a situation which called for desperate action. It is also my interpretation that Gandhi and like-minded people were merely reacting to a situation that went out of control, mostly because they had lost their energy to fight. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that people, sometimes including Nehru, started showing disregard towards typically Gandhi-ian principles.
I noted a few more interesting things from reading this book. a) Pakistan did not happen overnight in 1947 — what happened was a culmination of things that had started developing as early as in 1945 b) Pakistan was a loosely defined, scarcely understood and exemplarily sold product to the people who listened to it c) timelines of the transition were misrepresented. Pakistan was sold as a “temporary measure”, after which India and Pakistan would continue to live as one country. d) Places as far out from the border as New Delhi, Lucknow and Aligarh were “sold” to the confused minds as the “would-be” Pakistan, a telling-tale on the desperation of the pro-Pakistan leaders.
The short-sightedness of people, their small-mindedness, role of mass communication, the actual role of imperial British in the process of partition, the blood that was shed for the cause of a stupid idea, the role World War II played in partition and independence, brutalities of violence, women pushed into being the “chief sufferers”, the issue of citizenship — were all too vivid in Khan’s account of partition. Khan was born two full generations after the blood disappeared from the soil, but has done a fabulous job of weaving the facts in a story. I particularly liked the verses she had written on an “Unforeseen Exodus”. Overall, this makes for a very interesting read for Indians and others interested in India.
I also like to quote a passage from the book, a particular view of the Congress, which said in opposing the idea of partition, “Giving in to Pakistan demand would only lead to endless partitions…we will not be able to sit peacefully. All minorities would ask for self-determination. How would we then stop them?” I wonder if they had the insight of what would happen 60 years later in the monolithic India — in form of Telengana, Jharkhand and such.
I am not done reading on this subject — I will probably pick Urvashi Butalia or GD Khosla, regarded by Khan as one of the best on this topic and I would also like to read a less scholarly and more sensational book on the same topic. If you are a fiction person, you can try “Train to Pakistan” by Khuswant Singh — I hear it’s good.
Few weeks ago, I was on a taxi in Chicago, where the cabbie was Pakistani — who I eventually found out was living in US for a very long time and Pakistan was a fading memory for him. I asked him “Why do we fight?”. He said, “I don’t know. We live the same life you (Indians) do. We watch the same movies you do. We are the same as you are. I don’t know why they fight”. The they obviously referred to a smaller section of people who had different ideology, principles, motivations and agenda — people who had to benefit from keeping the water muddied — people who have nothing in common with Indians or Pakistanis.