“Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition” (2015) / Nisid Hajari / 10.9.15

17 Oct

Midnight's Furies, Nisid HajariI’m a bit conflicted commenting on Midnight’s Furies. It’s a very very good book, to be sure, and its topic is a crucially important one, not only to the directly-involved nations of India and Pakistan, but, given the horrendous twin specters of terrorism and nuclear weapons, to the world at large, and I learned plenty from reading it, but, despite its many strengths, I believe that it may have failed to deliver on its fundamental promise.

A bit of background: In 1946, as Mahatma Gandhi was famously leading his soon-to-be-successful campaign of civil disobedience toward the liberation of India from centuries-long imperial domination by the British, two larger-than-life historical figures, Jawaharlal Nehru, a Hindu, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a Muslim, were maneuvering on the same stage to advance the interests of their respective communities (and their own personal interests as well). What resulted was a pretty sudden and mind-bogglingly furious flaring of sectarian strife between the three largest religious communities in India (Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other). Hundreds of thousands were killed, while rapes, maimings, and torture committed by roving gangs of each community against members of the others were all widespread. When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the tremendous sectarian violence that had erupted the year before managed to somehow pick up speed and become even more awful. Upon independence, the great and diverse nation of India was promptly divided into two nations, and the largest modern migration of human beings commenced, with Muslims living in India and Hindus living in Pakistan packing up their families and belongings and forming miles-long human caravans destined each for their respective new homelands. A great many never made it and instead met terrible, brutal ends.

Many of the events and characters involved here have been made famous in Richard Attenborough’s award-winning 1982 film, Gandhi, and a ton of books have been written about Nehru, Jinnah, and/or Partition, but Hajari’s book seemed to offer something new, which I was looking forward to. He writes in the book’s prologue:

Although the subject of deep and often penetrating scholarship, the experience of Partition remains poorly understood both within and especially outside the subcontinent. On mice-infested library shelves in Delhi and Karachi, lines upon lines of moldering books pick apart the subject…. Most are lamentably unread. Ordinary Indians and Pakistanis long ago settled on their own myopic and mutually contradictory versions of events, which largely focus on blaming the other side or the British for provoking the slaughter (xxi).

Nisid HajariHe then explains: “This book aims to answer a different question—not why the subcontinent was split, or who was to blame for the massacres, but how the experience of Partition carved out such a wide gulf between India and Pakistan. How did two nations with so much in common end up such inveterate enemies so quickly?” (xxi-xxii) So I was keen to read it, and looking forward to something that would be not merely another listing of the litany of grievances that each side has against the other, and not just another juxtapositional biography of Jinnah/Nehru, of which there are many. And I acknowledge that some of this is necessary; admittedly, one can’t tell the story of Partition without laying down the facts (even debated facts) of the matter or without telling a bit about the key political players. But what Hajari was promising here in the book’s prologue is something more than that, and I read on with somewhat baited breath.

But then, before the prologue even ends, Hajari, in stating the innocuous fact that both Nehru and Jinnah played parts in the sour relationship that developed between the two nations, immediately describes the two statesmen as “India’s dashing first leader, Nehru, and his irascible Pakistani counterpart, Jinnah” (xxii).

Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, because I acknowledge that history has indeed regarded Nehru as debonair and Jinnah as somewhat curmudgeonly, but Hajari’s use of these small and seemingly meaningless descriptors (dashing, irascible), coming as they do so early after his statement that he seeks in this book to avoid the petty blame-game that has so often been played, stuck out to me like a pair of throbbing sore thumbs, like two fluttering-in-the-wind proverbial red flags. If this is to be a text that resides somewhere above the plane of “myopic and mutually contradictory versions of events, which largely focus on blaming the other side,” then why does Hajari choose, at the earliest possible point even, to describe Nehru as handsome and Jinnah as prone to anger?

To my eye, Hajari, post-prologue, proceeds to do much of what he said that he would not do. He paints a glossy picture of Nehru as an optimistic dreamer whose love for all Indians regardless of religion or caste was perpetually frustrated by the violence that he witnessed and a somewhat darker picture of Jinnah as a bitter, jealous-of-Nehru leader single-mindedly focused on his objective, costs be damned.

Though Hajari does plainly state that Nehru has certain faults and bears blame for the mess of Partition, his statements to that effect consistently characterize Nehru’s shortcomings as shortcomings specifically in his handling of Jinnah’s larger and more direct faults.

For example, he writes:

There is little question that Jinnah was the most polarizing figure in the Partition drama. He is easy to blame. His forbidding personality made compromise difficult, if not impossible, and he was criminally negligent about thinking through the consequences of the demand for Pakistan. A vindictive streak ensured that he was surrounded mostly by sycophants, rather than independent-minded subordinates who might have moderated his views.

            Yet from the moment in 1937 when the Congress Party rejected any partnership with the Muslim League, Nehru—suave, sensitive, handsome Nehru—contributed very nearly as much as Jinnah to the poisoning of the political atmosphere on the subcontinent. His attitude toward the Quaid [Jinnah]—and by implication, toward Jinnah’s millions of Muslim followers—was all too often arrogant and dismissive, rather than understanding (250).

See, Jinnah is plainly in the wrong, bearing these significant flaws, and Nehru (who we are once again reminded is handsome), is characterized merely as not being understanding enough in dealing with the flawed Jinnah. Nehru’s defects are defined only in terms of Jinnah’s more robust defects.

Now, let me back up a little bit here. Many reviewers of books hone in on a single criticism of a text and sort of paint with a broad brush around that one point, and I want to make sure I’m not doing that here. It may very well be the case that Jinnah was frankly “worse” than Nehru and should bear more historical blame for the tragedies of Partition than the latter. Undoubtedly, Hajari did his homework here. Midnight’s Furies is extremely well-researched, and I commend Hajari for writing a smart, accessible, and ultimately illuminating book. I learned a lot from reading it, and I enjoyed it immensely. Furthermore, Hajari’s final chapter on Kashmir is particularly brilliant and salient, and sheds a ton of light on this region and the conflict there that has spiraled from its initial post-Partition stages to the nightmare scenario we face today. It left me wanting to learn a lot more about the conflict in Kashmir, which is not criticism, but rather praise, of Hajari’s work here. A principal goal of a history book is that it should spark in the reader a desire to learn more, dig even deeper.

Let me be clear. Unequivocally, I recommend that folks read this book. Even I, who have read plenty—but not nearly enough—on the histories of modern Pakistan and India, and on the biographical details of Jinnah’s and Nehru’s roles therein, found abundant new and eye-opening information here. So read it, and learn.

But here is my caveat. Don’t expect—as I perhaps foolishly did when I first cracked it open—to find some startlingly new, groundbreaking take on the subject of Partition. In the end, Hajari does deliver on his promise to offer an explanation as to why such vitriolic relations developed between India and Pakistan so quickly after being born of the same womb, but his explanation includes some of the very things he decried in prior scholarship on the matter and in the opinion of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis: a bit of bias, a few moves in the blame-game.

But such is history.

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