New Book on Partition Takes a Critical Look at the Role of the Congress

The author has drawn upon recently available oral histories of the victims of partition to give a harrowing account of the times

Yet another book on India’s partition might appear doomed to drown in a sea of déjà vu in this 70th anniversary year. But this racy, well-written and carefully documented account by a retired general turned historian offers some important and timely reminders about both the political causes of partition and its devastating human impact. Sir Barney, who was decorated for his command of British forces in Basra in 2008, approaches this very complex Indian subject with little if any prior knowledge. But his analysis of it is all the better for being free of the usual preconceptions of more specialist professional historians.

This book dispels the notion that partition was the result of any imperial policy of divide and rule. Almost all its British protagonists emerge as deeply committed to the unity of the subcontinent, which the Raj, more than any other former Indian empire, had forged over two centuries. The one exception was the colourful last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, who decided that drastic surgery was the only solution to escalating communal tensions. But Sir Barney is kinder to Mountbatten than most historians, suggesting that his impatience and errors of judgement were largely driven by his close political and personal friendship with the Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The main culprit for partition in this narrative was the Congress, predominantly Hindu but nevertheless determined to assume power in a centralised, majoritarian state. Although the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, responded with its demand for Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, this book offers ample evidence that this was really a bargaining counter designed to secure Muslim autonomy in a loose Indian federation. While the Raj tried hard to broker a unity deal, its efforts foundered on Congress intransigence amid growing communal violence. Sir Barney rightly points out that the British might have pre-empted all this by granting a united India self-governing Dominion status in the 1920s or ‘30s, before Congress-Muslim League rivalry had become so bitter and entrenched. But he ducks the counterfactual conclusion that, if Mountbatten had delayed partition by a year, instead of rushing it through, Jinnah would have been dead and the Muslim League might have imploded.

This book is at its most powerful in its month by month narrative of how partition literally tore apart millions of lives across northern and eastern India, with the new state of Pakistan carved out of communities who had lived together for the past millennium. This account of the trauma that ensued leaves little doubt that any of the constitutional alternatives to partition, however imperfect, would at the very least have been worth trying.

The author draws on more recently available oral history archives for its harrowing, though never voyeuristic, accounts of how otherwise sane and humane people turned overnight into brutal killers of their own friends and neighbours. Not only did an estimated million die in such ethnic cleansing, but many of them were hacked to pieces in the most horrendous orgy of blood-lust, thousands of men and women mutilated with their breasts and genitalia cut off, pregnant women with their bellies cut open, babies with their brains bashed out. Sir Barney spares us no details, but his purpose is to remind us of the human cost of the new lines that were being so callously drawn on India’s map by the politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps because of his own military background, he is at his best describing how partition tore apart the camaraderie that had held together the British Indian army for almost a century.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are stories of great heroism – by Indians who sheltered friends and servants from murderous mobs and by British officials who sacrificed their lives trying to separate the protagonists. There are also lighter anecdotes – Nehru shocking Indian onlookers by kissing Edwina Mountbatten in public; Edwina turning off the viceregal air-conditioning to humour a bare-chested Gandhi; Jinnah posing for a photograph with the Mountbattens and saying he was a rose between two thorns; V P Menon, the strong man who bullied and cajoled India’s princes into joining the new republic, hiding beneath a desk while a demented princeling brandished a toy pistol; the tiger that turned the tables on its British hunter by jumping him and running off with his rifle.

The most telling and original part of this book is its description of how the 41,000 British troops still stationed in India in 1947 were largely confined to barracks when their deployment and intervention might well have stemmed the tide of violence sweeping the subcontinent. This was due partly to the Attlee government’s fear that British troops would be blamed by both sides, partly to Nehru’s hostility to the British military and partly to the distrust between Viceroy Mountbatten and his Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Claude Auchinlech. It was a tragic failure of nerve and judgement and a reminder for our own times that timely intervention by a neutral military force can often be the only means of averting internecine wars.

There is also a fascinating footnote to how the newly partitioned British Indian army responded to the Kashmir crisis. Based on the reminiscences of officers on both sides, we discover that Jinnah’s bid to send in the Pakistani regular army and cut off Kashmir from India was stymied by his own British officers, reluctant to go to war against their Indian counterparts. Sobering to think that, had Jinnah’s surgical strike succeeded, it might well have pre-empted 70 years of Indo-Pakistan conflict. Legally and morally speaking, it would have been no worse than India’s invasion and annexation of Hyderabad at the cost of an estimated 100,000 Muslim lives.

This book may raise eyebrows among Indians accustomed to the crude chauvinistic narrative that blames partition on the Muslims or the British or both.  In this very balanced and nonpartisan account, it was the Congress trinity of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, whose insistence on a centralised, majoritarian state made a constitutional compromise impossible.  Those determined to hold on to their prejudices will no doubt prefer to dismiss the author for his antecedents as a retired British general.

Partition, by Barney White-Spunner (Simon & Schuster), 419pp., £25

Zareer Masani is a historian, author and broadcaster

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