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Web Exclusive: Interview

A New Chronicler of 1947

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The author of Partition’s latest retelling retrieves the details and lesser-known stories of the Subcontinent’s big divide

Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition (Open’s review, ‘Back to Midnight) reads like a novel. This new account turns a magnifying glass and a dramatist’s eye to the great conflict which liberated India and Pakistan, but held them in thrall to a whole new set of problems. Starting with the cycle of riots in 1946, it takes the long view and looks at the far-reaching consequences of Partition and its players.

The Asia editor of Bloomberg View in Singapore, Hajari was foreign editor and then co-editor of Newsweek in the US for a decade, editor and writer at Time in Hong Kong, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Hajari spoke to Open on a visit to New Delhi. Excerpts:

Can you tell us about the role of these interesting regional players you describe in the book, like the then chief minister of Bengal, HS Suhrawardy? We know more of course about Jinnah, Nehru and other figures like Wavell. Were they of primary interest to you or did you come across them?
When I began researching, I came at it mostly intrigued by the Nehru-Jinnah rivalry, which had been explored a bit in recent years but less so earlier -- the personal drama of their enmity, the weird romantic ties that linked them. When you start to try and figure out why this tragedy happened, though, why the riots unfolded, what seeds were planted in the year leading up to Partition—that is where the regional figures become important. They were the ones making decisions on the ground, they were closer to what you might call ‘violent elements’. It’s not like Nehru or Jinnah were ever ordering their followers to riot. At the grassroots level, however, you did have these local politicians that were not above using violence for their own ends. Very quickly you start to see how their actions were refracted back to Delhi, causing leaders like Nehru and Jinnah to make certain decisions, which in turn spurred the local actors on—that cycle played a key role in sparking the riots.

We may not have always looked at the importance of these key side figures.
Even the central figures did not have much contact with these people. Jinnah may have written to Suhrawardy a few times, but he wasn’t picking up the phone to call him on a regular basis. Both Jinnah and Nehru, because they were confident in their good intentions and high moral standards, believed that their followers would as well. They didn’t always take into account that these regional leaders may have had different agendas. I still get on my Twitter feed angry messages from people insisting the Partition violence wasall Jinnah’s fault, because he ordered the riots in Calcutta in August 1946—which he very clearly did not. For that matter, it is not even clear to what degree Suhrawardy did or did not. Most likely he enabled certain goonda elements whogot out of hand.

There is a lot of this blaming, Jinnah has been blamed for a lot here, seen as the bad guy.
Yes, he looks like a bad guy too [laughs], that kind of scary look, cheekbones jutting out of a hawk-like face.

He is handsome, though, in his own way.
Have you seen pictures of him when he was younger? He was stunningly handsome at 40 years old.

You’ve got these two flawed leaders, wonderful figures with their flaws, in some ways inverses of each other. This idea that they started out with great ideal—was this what drew you to this story?
Indeed—which raises the question of what changed. The big question with Jinnah is, did he really want Pakistan or was it always a bargaining chip? Early on, in 1940, when he first started promoting the idea, it probably was a bargaining chip. By the end, it’s more unclear, because by that point he had become a much more prominent political figure, and like Nehru he enjoyed the adulation and crowds. At that point, it would have been difficult for him to reverse course and disappoint his followers. But the Pakistan that resulted was not the one he’d intended. For one, it was much smaller. He obviously wanted all of Punjab and Bengal, which can be seen as an illegitimate attempt to absorb Hindu-majority areas. But at the same time, he had a point when he warned that a smaller Pakistan would first of all encourage violence, as you were breaking up these unified provinces, and secondly, that a ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan would be so much weaker than India that it would be perpetually insecure and always be tempted to undermine its neighbours. He said this back in 1947 and it is still true today. That doesn’t excuse Pakistan’s sponsorship of militant groups or cross-border attacks in India, but may explainthe psychology a little.

Do you think he really thought he would get more territory in Bengal and Punjab?
He did at one point ask for a land corridor to bridge the two sides, but that was a sort of throwaway negotiating ploy. I think what he really wanted was Calcutta, because Calcutta at the time—we forget now—contained 85 percent of the industrial capacity of the country, as well as its biggest port. It would have made a huge difference to the young Pakistan’s economy. It would have raised other problems, too, of course. If Calcutta had been part of Pakistan, the country’s eastern wing would have had not only a bigger population, but a stronger economy than its western half. That might have exacerbated the regional tensions that eventually broke up the country. You might have had Bangladesh even faster.

And they would have had both sides of the jute industry, which you point out was split. It was designed as a way to work together initially, wasn’t it?
Yes. And the other thing with Jinnah is this statistic you hear repeatedly cited about how few minorities there are in Pakistan. But it’s important to remember that Jinnah didn’t intend for anyone to move. He never thought of Pakistan as a state made up only of Muslims. It was meant to be a state where Muslims were in a democratic majority, so they would know that they would not be outvoted and could live life according to what principles they wanted to. At the same time, he had Hindu friends, he knew that Karachi, his first capital, was a Hindu-majority city. Lahore’s economy, if not the population, was dominated by Hindus. He didn’t want to change any of that. It was probably an unrealistic vision, but the idea was that you’d have two states that would look very similar—except in one Hindus were the majority and the other Muslims were the majority. He actually said he wanted them to live together like the US and Canada.

Would this have been possible at all?
It would have been very hard, and it would have depended a lot on the wisdom and statesmanship of leaders on both sides.

Are there other things we can do aside from strengthening trade ties between the two countries, which you’ve spoken about?
Everybody asks me that, and I wish there was a silver bullet. In principle, you’ve got to create much greater interdependence between the two countries. It’s something people on both sides know is good for them and generally want, only certain forces and vested interests get in the way. In the long-term if you have people going back and forth, and established trade, you’ll develop a mindset where people have moreinvested in peace and stability rather than war.

I was just answering a question about China, in an earlier interview. There’s a sense among some people here that Chinese investment in Pakistan is bad for India. I disagree. If Chinese investment can spur growth and development and get Pakistanis focused on that as their main issue, they’re going to have much less tolerance for militancy; you can’t have instability and pipelines being blown up if you’re intent on making money. But you have to see that there is money to be made first, and Chinese projects offer greater potential than past schemes have.

What about cultural exchanges? There are other connections; the popularity of Pakistani soap operas here, and vice versa of course.
Yes. It’s ironic,the vast majority of the population on both sides was born after Partition. Most Indians in particular haveno direct family connection to what happened. But what’s worrying are polls that show two-thirds of people on both sides still distrust the other country. 

People are almost resigned to this, and they shouldn’t be. Think about China and Japan. There are obviously deep tensions now, and powerful nationalist feeling on both sides, incredibly nasty Twitter wars. But for most of the post-war period, as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese culture was very popular in China. Chinese tourists travelled and still do travel to Japan in great numbers. So, these things can go through cycles, too. It’s somewhat amazing that this particular conflict has never really eased for a sustained period of time.

As someone who has spent most of their life outside of India, are you challenged as someone who hasn’t lived through Partition, as someone who hasn’t lived here?
Yes, it was terrible [laughs]. I left Newsweek right around the time I got the contract to write this book. My wife and I sold our apartment in Brooklyn, and we came to Delhi to start my research here. Literally, the first week—all that everyone asks you is, ‘What are you going to say that’s new? We already know this story.’ But then you start asking what exactly they do know about the story, or what they think the story is, and the answers are all over the place. There are so many different misconceptions people have grown up with. I don’t know whether it comes from what they learnt at school, or the books they read later. They know the broad outlines of the story but the details, which are important, are not always terribly well understood.

There are lots of details and stories we don’t all know. What was the craziest story you heard?
The one story that captures for me the craziness of the time waswhen the riots had spread from Punjab to Delhi in September 1947, and the government was paralysed.No one knew if the police and army were going to challenge the rioters or take the side of the rioters. A friend of Nehru’s came to his house one night and said—there’s this part of Delhi, Minto Bridge, where Muslims trying to reach refugee camps have to cross over night, and when they do they are ambushed and killed by these Hindu and Sikh gangs. Nehru’s first reaction was to run upstairs in his house and come back down with this giant ancient pistol which used to belong to his father and probably hadn’t been fired in 30 years—and he said, here’s my plan, we’re going to dress up like refugees, cross the bridge, and when they attack us we’re going to shoot them! This is a true story.

You were dealing mostly with old memos, oral testimony. What kind of records did you have of that time?
Before August 15th, 1947 the records are voluminous. In the weeks following, they grew thinner. Both governments were discombobulated by the chaos.  In Pakistan, bureaucrats were sitting on packing crates instead of chairs and still trying to get their government set up.

There’s that wonderful detail, about the government in Karachi—how they were using thorns as paperclips.
Yes [laughs]. The confusion was incredible. Nehru and Jinnah were operating on little to no sleep. Jinnah was a sick man. Nehru’s house in Delhi—a tent city of refugees had sprouted on the lawns; Patel’s was the same way. People would come to them to complain about the most petty things, and they would take the time to listen, then go to cabinet meetings, and then go off on these tours of the Punjab to see what was happening with the refugees. It was very hard for anyone to make coherent, well-considered decisions.

Was one of their main challenges the lack of effective communication?
If it happened today, with today’s technologies, one would hope that the official response would have been more effective. Part of the reason the violence got so bad was that the riots weren’t quelled immediately. If you had brought to bear massive force within the first week or so, you might have been able to stop it. They just didn’t have the troops in place, the intelligence, the communication; mutual suspicions on both sides prevented better coordination.
Part of what I found interesting was the degree to which people knew about what was going on beneath the surface well before the riots broke out. You could see these militia groups building all summer long, and you can also see how hard they were to stop. You can’t throw an army battalion at a gang of three people and expect to find and stop them. What you needed were for political leaders to impose pressure all the way down the line, to tell their followers to rein in these militias rather than encourage them.

It was building up. But it would have had to be many things for things to be different.
Yes, exactly. And this leaves out the whole political side of things: shouldn’t have someone dealt with the Sikh problem earlier? They’d known about it at least since the anti-Sikh riots in March 1947. The Sikhs were very clearly saying, if you draw a line down the middle of the Punjab, we’re going to kill or drive out all the Muslims on our side of the border. Yet no one really took their threats seriously.

Was it all inevitable?
I don’t think so. The year before you had the Cabinet Mission Plan [a plan devised by three British cabinet ministers recommending an undivided India], that was a workable compromise. Whether it would have lasted I don’t know, but it might have allowed some breathing room -- time for the tensions to die down. On the other hand, you can’t assume that if Partition hadn’t happened, things would have been better. You would still have had to deal with the problems ofKashmir and Hyderabad. Maybe a unified India would have held together for a year and then proven more chaotic and impossible to govern. Maybe there would have been more riots in more parts of the country. You really don’t know.

There were people back then who were comparing India to Europe, much as people do today. If you had a more European Union type structure here, a federal system which was much looser, which allowed much more autonomy for provinces, that might have worked, because regional identities are so strong.

Can you tell us about your time at Newsweek and reporting in the Subcontinent? Your coverage of Pakistan has been pioneering.
The attention paid to the story in the U.S. has obviously ebbed and flowed. There was great interest in the region soon after 9/11 and through the following year. But then, at least in terms of American foreign coverage, the centre of gravity shifted to Iraq. Probably because we had a fantastic team of correspondents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of our best reporting came out of the region, so we stuck with it consistently. We were among the first international media to point out that Pakistan was rebuilding the Taliban. 

Those were big covers.
The one about Pakistan as “the most dangerous country in the world”—I got so much flak for that at the time [laughs]. Now, that sentiment is almost taken for granted.

Was this where the interest came from?
Yes. I had been talking to a publisher about Pakistan, and the roots of its mindset. Obviously there’s been great scholarship on this. But in terms of non-academic books about the Partition, for a global audience, the number of titles is relatively thin.

What are your favourite Partition books?
The memoir by Penderel Moon, a British official at the time, who knew the Punjab very well [Divide and Quit: An Eyewitness Account of the Partition of India]. He had a very smart, very fair perspective on things. He was also the one also who estimated 200,000 people died, as opposed to the number of one million that’s often thrown around. He came to that figure based on records he found at the time and interviews with officials. I find that a much more reliable estimate, as it’s not terribly clear what the higher numbers are based on.

Wavell’s diary is also wonderful. And I love Alex von Tunzelman’s book (Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire], as well as the Yasmin Khan book [The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan).

Were there special moments during the course of this research?
I spent a year and a half in the archives. The one sustained period that was particularly productive were the weeks I spent in the US State Department archives in DC, which a lot of researchers don’t look at as U.S. officials weren’t directly involved in the subcontinent. But all the players at the time -- the British, Indians and Pakistanis -- also all knew the Americans were now the predominant power in the world; they all talked to the US diplomats on the ground in order to relay their positions to Washington. That’s where you get some unvarnished stories. There’s one anecdote about Patel showing up at a party at the U.S. embassy while the Kashmir war was going on, and pulling out a box full of water purification tablets that had been taken off one of the ‘tribesmen’ there, which was regular issue for the Pakistani Army.  He wanted to show the US ambassador that Pakistan was supporting the insurgency covertly.    

Wavell is the character we don’t know so much about, though we know of course of his role in drawing the line.
People always ask me about the drawing of the border by Radcliffe, and how foolish this was, and how much the British should be blamed for sending someone over to decide the border in six weeks. All of which is true, except that the very same border had been drawn a year earlier by officials under Wavell including VP Menon. Gurdaspur for instance -- a Muslim-majority district in the Punjab that Pakistanis always complain was taken away from them and given to India so they could have access to Kashmir -- was included in India in this earlier draft map as a means of getting more of the Sikh population into India.

Everyone knew roughly where the border was going to run -- that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there was no way to draw the line in such a way as to satisfy Nehru and Jinnah and the Sikhs. If Radcliffe had had more time and altered it a little bit there, a little bit here, that wasn’t going to change things one bit.