Why you should care
The world’s biggest democracy was born in blood.
The end of British rule in India was supposed to be heralded with pride and joy. Yet when independence arrived “at the stroke of the midnight hour” on Aug. 15, 1947, it came with exodus, killings and sorrow. More than 14 million people left their homes, many by force, and streamed east or west across a new border demarcating Pakistan, intended as a homeland for Muslims. It was the largest mass migration in history, and one of the deadliest.
In Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, journalist Nisid Hajari writes a gripping account of the traumatic final stretch toward partition. His story begins in August 1946 and re-creates, in penetrating prose, the complex negotiations and violent communal riots that gave birth to Pakistan and modern India. In a conversation with OZY, Hajari talks about why he wrote the book, the history of communal violence on the subcontinent, and whether Pakistan’s first premier, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted the new country at all. The transcript has been edited.
OZY: There are already enough books on partition and the events leading to it to fill a library. Why did you write another?
Nisid Hajari: I started thinking about this book towards the end of my time [as foreign editor] at Newsweek. In my 10 years there, I spent a great deal of time overseeing the coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and a common question I’d get from readers and colleagues was: Why did Pakistan take millions of dollars from the U.S. and then provide safe havens for the Afghan Taliban? While it might not have made sense from the vantage point of New York City, viewed from the region — the way Pakistan views India as their main threat — the strategy makes a lot more sense.
What happened in 1947 doesn’t explain everything about how Pakistan sees the world today but that’s where it starts, and most Americans don’t know that story. And there’s still quite a bit that isn’t known about the story [of partition and independence]. Each side thinks they know the story and there are elements of truths in their narratives, but also quite a bit of falsehood and misperception, and I wanted to clear those away.
OZY: For Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was the quest for partition a political cause or a religious struggle?
N.H.: I think it was most definitely a political cause. Jinnah was an almost entirely secular man and, when asked, repeatedly said that he didn’t imagine Pakistan as an Islamic state or theocracy. He thought of Muslims as a community who, as a minority in India, would always be politically disenfranchised because they’d never be able to hold any power except in a couple of provinces. So his quest was for political rights, representation and protection for Muslims.
OZY: Do you think that the response — rather, lack of response — to the 1946 communal riots in Bengal inadvertently set a template for how Indian politicians react to communal violence?
N.H.: It’s a little shocking that these riots went on for four days and nobody went to the city. Nowadays, given the way the media is and the speed of the news cycle, I don’t think a national leader can afford to sit in Delhi while something like this was going on. But it’s a good testament and a reminder that leaders at the national level can be very, very distant from what’s happening at the local level. I don’t think Jinnah sitting in Bombay or Nehru sitting in Delhi really appreciated just how terrible the violence was in Calcutta. I don’t think it was necessarily intentional carelessness.
Gangs of killers materialized in the gloom, wielding machetes and torches, even revolvers and shotguns. With ruthless efficiency they hunted down members of the opposite community. Where a lane of Muslim shanties crossed through a Hindu area, or a few threadbare hovels inhabited by Hindu families sat amid a sea of Muslim homes, the shrieking mobs woke the inhabitants, slaughtered them, and set their cramped, flimsy huts alight. Armored cars could not pursue the marauders into the warren-like slums, and on foot, small patrols would have been quickly overwhelmed. Police shouldered their batons uneasily and watched as flames licked the night sky.
– From Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition
OZY: Did Jinnah really want a full-fledged Pakistan, or would he have settled for more autonomy for Muslim-majority provinces within India?
N.H.: This is still an open question because Jinnah never wrote down clearly or honestly what it was he was thinking. That was on purpose. He had assembled a pretty broad coalition in support of the Pakistan demand, but it meant many things to many people. In the book, I quote a CIA report in which Pakistan was [described] as just a fairyland where everybody believed what they wanted to about what it would be. So the mullahs thought it would be theocracy, landowners thought they’ll get to hold their feudal landholdings, Muslim peasants thought the Hindu moneylenders would be kicked out. But I think it’s incontrovertibly true that just a year before independence, Jinnah accepted a constitutional compromise for a united India, with greater autonomy for the Muslim areas. So as late as that he would’ve accepted something less than a Pakistan. Afterward, it’s less clear.