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The egos that divided India

Published : Aug 5, 2015, 2:07 am IST
Updated : Aug 5, 2015, 2:07 am IST

Nisid Hajari’s storytelling conjures the spirit and urgency of a complex chapter in our history

MIDNIGHTS FURIES(1).jpg
 MIDNIGHTS FURIES(1).jpg

Nisid Hajari’s storytelling conjures the spirit and urgency of a complex chapter in our history

Journalist Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, a brilliantly written, fast-paced account of how the Partition took place, will rank as one of the best written histories penned in recent times.

Hajari masterfully recreates the complex personalities of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the two men who were so integral to the politics of the Partition and of course its tragic aftermath. The book focuses on the dynamics of the rivalry between the two men through lesser-known anecdotes, quotes and diaries. Hajari’s storytelling so magically conjures the spirit and urgency of those times that the reader is effortlessly hurtled through a protracted and complex chapter in Indian history. Parts of the narrative are too evocative to paraphrase:

“Jinnah spoke in a curiously hushed smoker’s rasp. Nehru and the Congress Party were not the only ones who could credibly threaten a rebellion, the Quaid told the assembled journalists The next day, in a hall lined with green bunting and beneath a heroic, enlarged portrait of himself, Jinnah told the League leadership that he was rejecting the British compromise and calling for “direct action” to win a fully sovereign Pakistan. The campaign would kick off three weeks later, on 16 August. This time the Muslim dignitaries roared in approval — one “with such vehemence”, an observer recalled, “that his dentures parted from his gums and found a resting place in the palm of his right hand.”

In another, lesser-known episode, the book details how Nehru was almost killed while he toured the Pathan dominated North West Frontier Province. “On his five-day October visit to the tribal areas, the Congressman met with hostility nearly everywhere he went. At his first tribal Jirga, four hundred long-bearded elders stood up from the hard, rocky ground and stalked off before Nehru had a chance to speak Descending from the Khyber Pass, the blood-stained gate to the subcontinent, Nehru’s convoy passed through a narrow defile. Tribesmen lined the dun-coloured hills on either side. One turbaned fighter picked up a heavy stone and hurled it, smashing a car window. Another emulated him, and another. “The breaking of glass seems to send people mad,” NWFP governor Sir Olaf Caroe later wrote to Wavell. Nehru’s Khyber Rifles escort had to open fire to drive off the attackers.” Nehru, Hajari reminds us, could easily have been lynched.

Midnight’s Furies makes for compelling reading but its scholarly lustre is diminished in parts by the author’s occasional personal assertions that lurk between purely historical accounts of what transpired in those dreadful months. For instance, in the very first chapter, which describes the circumstances leading to the ghastly Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta in 1946, the author concludes that the Congress should have compromised with the Muslim League after the “Great Killings.” “The only way to prevent a repeat-and a complete collapse of order — was to assure Leaguers that they would have a place and a political voice in united India,” he writes. Instead Gandhi is reported to have slapped the Viceroy’s table during a discussion, saying: “If India wants her bloodbath, she shall have it.”

There are several problems with this argument. First, this quote is taken from Lord Wavell who was not at all well-disposed towards Gandhi and could well have been a fabrication. Second, while the author is completely at liberty to his opinion, such assertions stand out not only because they are debatable but also because they contradict the author’s previous accounts.

Earlier, the author writes that Nehru had met Jinnah and offered him and his Muslim League a place in his government but Jinnah had rejected it, apparently because “Jinnah could not stomach the idea of serving as the younger man’s [Nehru’s] deputy.” The larger question of course is whether the Congress should have given in to the League’s blackmail and use of violence to achieve their aims. In 1946 the Muslim League had, for all practical purposes, said they would precipitate bloodshed if their demand for Pakistan was not met. This is the same sort of mindset that leads the Pakistani establishment to threaten nuclear annihilation if India does not relinquish control of Kashmir. How does one counter that

This issue of what the Congress could or should have done in the months and years leading to Partition have been discussed endlessly and suffice it to say that the author’s assertion blaming the subcontinent’s leadership for failing to bring about a compromise is at best debatable. The Muslim League and the Congress had become opposing political and ideological foes and personal animosities were not the only forces at play.

What does ultimately hold is the author’s central assertion that the egos of undivided India’s two main leaders (Jinnah and Nehru) exacerbated the tragedies accompanying the Partition. It is for this reason that the book deserves to be read by those who wish to understand the subcontinent’s complex politics arising out of its past.