Focus: Nisid Hajari on Partition

In this Foreign Affairs Focus, Nisid Hajari, author of Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, discusses Indian partition with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose.  Read his recent article "Hot Indian Summer." 

This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Gideon Rose: So, why a book on partition, and why now?

Nisid Hajari: Well, 'Now' is the interesting question. I started this book about four years ago, at a time when US soldiers were being killed regularly by Islamic militants in Afghanistan, both the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, groups that were supported by the Pakistani state, whether officially or unofficially. And a lot of Americans that I spoke to had real questions about why Pakistan, a US ally, would take billions of dollars from Washington and then support these groups. And the answer obviously goes back to their fear of India, their strategic anxiety about this larger neighbor in the sense that India has never fully accepted their existence. That fear goes back to partition. And it's a story that has been told over and over again, but from one side or the other, there hasn't really been a narrative that sort of, I think, cuts through the middle and tries to tell what really happened.

Gideon Rose: Is the narrative that you tell acceptable as it were at its basic factual outlines to both sides? It is possible to have a common narrative?

Nisid Hajari: I would hope so. It's certainly a narrative that will offend both sides [chuckle] because it challenges certain parts of their own narratives. There are elements of truth to all, to both the Indian side, the Pakistani version, and the British version. But none of those three are solely correct.

Gideon Rose: What are the key elements of each side's take?

Nisid Hajari: Well, the Indians will say that this would never have happened if Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had never demanded a partition. That India should have been a unified whole when the British left, you should never have divided it and that's what caused all the problems.

Gideon Rose: So all of the subcontinent should've been one country, and it should be run by Delhi, and it was only Jinnah who had a separatist movement that caused the problems.

Nisid Hajari: Exactly, they describe it as a vivisection or an amputation, as a sort of limb cut off of Mother India.

Gideon Rose: Okay, and what's the Pakistani view?

Nisid Hajari: And the Pakistani view is that the Muslim population of India, which was a minority, had a legitimate right to demand a state of their own where they would control their own destiny, and that there was nothing inherently in this demand that should have caused friction between the two countries. In fact, Jinnah is often accused of trying to create a Islamic state, a Theocracy. And he never wanted that, he very clearly said that's not what he wanted, what he envisioned were two states, multi-ethnic, multi-faith states, in one where Hindus were a majority and one where Muslims were a majority. But they would live together, as he said, like Canada and the US.

Gideon Rose: And what's the British take?

Nisid Hajari: The British take is that they very graciously, after 200 years of rule, left India peacefully and in a friendly manner, and the only Empire to sort of not be chased out by a freedom movement. And that the violence was regrettable, but not really their fault.

Gideon Rose: And is there any truth in that?

Nisid Hajari: There's truth that they left on friendly terms, and there is also truth in the fact that they didn't create this problem. This was a problem that perhaps they should have done more to help prevent, but this idea that the British somehow engineered partition in order to weaken both India and Pakistan is not true. They wanted a strong united India when they left.

Gideon Rose: Would it have been possible for the transition to have proceeded to the new states, the partition, without the bloodshed that ensued?

Nisid Hajari: I think so. I think so. There would have been some degree of violence, but the violence wasn't unexpected. There had been a rolling series of riots that had started a year before independence, and these riots had spread fear among the communities, particularly in the Punjab, where all three communities were mixed up together and where the new border would run. And all summer long these groups were forming militias. They'd call themselves defense groups. They ended up becoming death squads, essentially, that were funded by political parties and by rich members to these communities. It was hard to build a legal case against them because all this was done in the shadows, but everyone knew this was happening and when it started there weren't enough troops in the Punjab in order to stop it. The law enforcement wasn't there.

Gideon Rose: So, this is a dramatic story. What was were the most particularly sort of compelling episodes that you narrate in the book?

Nisid Hajari: Well, the narrative is built around the rivalry between Nehru and Jinnah, which are two men that were very similar to each other, both very secular, both more comfortable in English than any Indian language. More in common with each other than either of them did with say Mahatma Gandhi. But they had a very personal bitter rivalry that went back 30 years and there were strange, very personal jealousies involved too. Jinnah had a failed marriage in his 40s to a much younger woman who ended up committing suicide and when he returned... He'd left India and went into exile after that, when he returned, Nehru had sort of assumed his position as the leader of the Nationalist movement, was drawing huge crowds, was also at that point having an affair with Jinnah's ex-wife's best friend.

You know it’s at this moment when Jinnah comes back and sees Nehru as the great King in India and Jinnah had wanted to form a political alliance with him at this point. And Nehru rejected him out of hand. And it’s at this time that Jinnah's rhetoric about not just Nehru, but about Congress, about Hindu's in general, who used to be his political allies, turns vicious and very vitriolic and some of it was political, but some of it was personal.

Gideon Rose: So who should have done what in retrospect?

Nisid Hajari: Well, the British should have done more to concentrate on the Punjab and put the appropriate amount of forces there to prevent violence. But really, it was a political problem. Both leaders, Jinnah on one side, Nehru on the other, were very distant from what was happening at ground-level and didn't take responsibility for what their followers might have been doing. Jinnah didn't go down and tell provincial leaders and leaders even lower then them to cut this out, to stop funding these groups and to draw back. Nehru for his part didn't do the same thing, but even more importantly, the real problem in the Punjab was that the Sikh community was going to be split by this new border and they kept envisioning that somehow the border might be drawn a different way and might include more of their community in India. Nehru never sat them down and said that this is not going to happen, we need to adjust to this reality and figure out what we're gonna do before partition happens.

Gideon Rose: In retrospect, was it good that these countries divided?

Nisid Hajari: I think it's impossible to say. It's certainly... If you could've remained united and not had anywhere from 200,000 to a million people killed that would've been a better outcome. But who's to say what would've happened over the next 70 years? I mean, there were real separatist pressures, you can still see them in India today. There's no reason to believe that the Muslims in India would have felt perfectly comfortable, even today, even though they are a respected minority. There are still tensions. And the other thing people gonna talk about is that in 1947 when the British left, half the land mass of the subcontinent was made up of independent kingdoms and it wasn't clear what was going to happen to them. And its not entirely clear that they would have joined a single United India.

Gideon Rose: Nisid Hajari, thank you very much.

Nisid Hajari: Thank you.

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