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Nisid Hajari’s new book Midnight’s Furies explores the events leading up to Partition and how that violence resonates in India-Pakistan relations today. Hajari, formerly foreign editor at Newsweek, now oversees Asia coverage for Bloomberg View. In an interview, he discussed Jawaharlal Nehru, MA Jinnah and if Partition was inevitable.
What got you interested in Partition?
When I was at Newsweek, I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it felt like a lot of Americans, particularly, couldn’t understand why Pakistan would take millions of dollars in US aid and still support the Taliban. And, of course, that goes back to its view of the world in which India poses an existential threat and that goes back to Partition. So, around 2010-11, when I started working on the book, I thought that the story of Partition was important to explain to an audience outside the subcontinent but also people here, because there are lot of misconceptions about what happened, and how, on both sides.
Your book propagates almost a “great man” view of Partition, which seems like a personal conflict between Nehru and Jinnah.
I wanted this to be a book that was accessible to a wide audience and telling the story through people makes it easier. But also the question that motivated me was why did the rivalry between India and Pakistan grow. It’s conceivable that you could have had Partition and even six weeks of riots in Punjab and the two countries could still have been allies, that this trauma could have been something that brought them together. But it didn’t. And I think what happened from that moment on was that the decisions made on both sides drove these two countries further apart. And, in that respect, the decisions of these individuals did make a huge difference. Their decision-making in this critical period really did bend the course of the countries towards enmity rather than amity, as it were.
In your book, the British are the only actors who can see the damage that Nehru and Jinnah’s decisions are doing, but they are powerless to reverse it. Were they powerless, really, or did they just not have the incentive to stop it?
A bit of both. At one level, British officials had been told that it was up to the Indians to decide what their future was going to be. Somewhat understandably so, you know, because a British-imposed solution would never have worked. They did try to influence the matter at different points. For instance, with the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946, they were very clearly saying to Jinnah — you will not get the full Pakistan you want, you can have sort of this moth-eaten Pakistan or rejoin India. They weren’t giving him a third choice. A question I get a lot is if the British had an ulterior motive and wanted to divide the subcontinent to weaken India and Pakistan, and I don’t think that was true at all. In 1946-47, with the Labour government in power, they did not want a Partition at all; they were backed into a corner by Jinnah.
What do you think was the counterfactual, a plausible alternative history?
I do feel that the Cabinet Mission Plan was a workable compromise. It may not have worked in the long run but, perhaps, it would have prevented the massive outbreak of violence and killings and migration. If you could have prevented that, the world would have been a better place. What would have happened in the long run is impossible to say, because Muslims had legitimate fears about their role in a united India. There may have been secessionist pressures later, more Hindu-Muslim tensions. But it seems like it would have at least been worth giving it a shot.
Is it that the Congress leadership, Nehru and Gandhi especially, were distracted by the notion of independence at any cost?
Nehru is often blamed for blowing up the Cabinet Mission Plan with his comments. He and Gandhi and Patel thought they were better off to get rid of Jinnah and cut off part of the country. At some level I think they believed it wouldn’t work and Pakistan would come back to India in a few years. Until then, India would at least be able to progress and go forward. It seemed easier to them than having to deal with Jinnah in Delhi. It’s understandable, but it’s unfortunate.
How much of the demand for Pakistan was personally tied to Jinnah? Had he died earlier, would the movement have lasted?
Hard to say. He was definitely tapping into real and legitimate fears of Muslims. So you can’t say that he was just a demagogue who created an artificial demand and used it to create a power base for himself. That said, he was the one who really did make it a real force. Without him, it’s hard to see anyone powerful or charismatic enough to push it forward, given all the opposition from the British and the Congress and so on. He was a unique figure in that sense. Would it have carried on? Maybe not. Would there still have been pressure from Muslims for rights and guarantees and things like that? Yes.
Many who experienced Partition are no more and the younger generation doesn’t remember much. Do you think that this might help us move forward?
You would think so. But then you look at polls that show that two-thirds of people on each side look at the other side with suspicion. A lot of that has to do with … Partition. It does show how powerful these narratives are. So I think before you forget, you have to remember. To examine what happened dispassionately and acknowledge that there was blame to go around and plenty of fault on all sides. But the next generation will find it easier to solve some of the difficult issues, like Kashmir.