Revisiting the trauma of Partition – and its toxic continuity 

Title: Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition; Author: Nisid Hajari; Publisher: Penguin Viking; Pages: 328; Price: Rs. 599

Chairman Mao, once asked about the impact of the French Revolution, quipped it was too soon to tell. On the other hand, the Partition of India, in a welter of savage, genocidal violence, suffering and dislocation of people, instantly cast a dark shadow on both India and Pakistan and their relations and nearly 70 years later, can still inflame passion and influence discourse.

It also keeps various authors busy in trying to fathom its causes, dynamics and even inevitability – while their readers seek to probe their intentions and motivations.

Apart from autobiographies and biographies of the main players (often with biases, glosses or self-justification), various first person accounts of those experiencing its excesses and academic treatments, Partition has various “popular history” narratives, prominent among which are those by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, Patrick French, Alex von Tunzelmann, Yasmin Khan, Ayesha Jalal, Dilip Hiro, and Stanley Wolpert among others.

Adding to this corpus is journalist Nisid Hajari, who, in his first book, seeks to revisit the effect of Partition “through personal stories and eyewitness accounts” and the “complex relationships” between Congress, Muslim League and British leaders (along with their backgrounds – like most other authors cited above) and, more importantly, how it “has given birth to global terrorism and dangerous nuclear proliferation (in Pakistan)”.

Hajari, currently the Asia Editor for Bloomberg View (Bloomberg News’ editorial board) and earlier with Newsweek and Time magazines, paints a harrowing picture of one of the most bloody civil conflicts of the 20th century and the culpability of those responsible – whether by design, inexperience or apathy. Drawing a parallel with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he postulates that the violence was “relatively confined in time and place” but the fears, paranoia and hatred then unleashed created “a dangerous psychological chasm”, which in conjunction with the Kashmir and Hyderabad issues, and future conflicts, seems virtually unbridgeable. He refrains from offering any solutions.

He also focusses on the paradoxes – the initial aversion of the Quaid-e-Azam, who eventually fought for and obtained a state on religious principles, to mixing religion with politics as pioneered by the Mahatma (also attested by veteran journalist Durga Das), while the latter, the apostle of non-violence, being ready for a bloodbath if that was the price for the British leaving, and how those princely states reluctant to accede to India not only included Hyderabad and Kashmir (on advice of prime minister Ram Chandra Kak) but also Jodhpur and Travancore (Sir C.P.Ramaswami Iyer the diwan).

Hajari, who observes his story “features no easy villains – and few heroes”, is unsparing of top leaders on both sides, who, despite the reverence they may be held in, were eventually human, with all the failings possible – vanity, arrogance, prejudices, uncompromising rigidity, petty dislikes and, most fatally (for their people), the belief they could adapt to their purpose the violent passions and identity politics they helped create.

Unfortunately they were wrong – and Indians and Pakistanis alike are still paying the price.

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