Wednesday, November 22

Midnight’s Furies, Book Review

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Nisid Hajari has published a hard-hitting excavation of the dark and incendiary months leading up to and immediately following India’s independence in August 1947. His book, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, depicts how, with Partition, Pakistan was created out of the northwestern territory of the Indian subcontinent, following the British departure. Hajari questions neither why the subcontinent was divided nor who should be blamed for the fighting that erupted among ethnic groups. Instead, his intervention urgently asks how “the experience of Partition carved out such a wide gulf between India and Pakistan.”

Hajari investigates the tense relationship of mistrust and resentment that the countries experience today through a focus on the political machinations and miscalculations of leaders Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru during 1947–8. Hajari paints a picture of the ineffectual leadership of the two aristocrats as they strive to guide the tide of history amidst debilitating extremism and political uproar. He places their frustrated decision-making and vacillation against the backdrop of the frenzied violence that erupted at the eastern and northwestern edges of the vast British colony — first in Calcutta and then in the Punjab (followed by the Kashmir region, where fighting continues today).

Hajari so masterfully intertwines the twin themes of parturition (birth) and partition (separation) that it becomes impossible to understand the promise of beginning without the inevitability of destruction. Midnight’s Furies moreover suggests that at the very moment of the subcontinent’s freedom, it risked being strangled or enveloped in flames. Hajari quotes Nehru, writing in a letter about the fires and chaos erupting in Lahore in June 1947 when the decision for Partition was made. “At this rate,” writes Nehru, “the city of Lahore will be just a heap of ashes in a few days’ time.” Thousands of people were slaughtered before having a chance to experience life in a new country.

A more disturbing theme in Hajari’s text is that of emotion as a vehicle of political momentum. Suspicion, frustration, mistrust, paranoia, and resentment spill out of the clandestine offices where Jinnah and Nehru struggled to come to a solution. These ugly sentiments overflow from behind closed doors and seem to ignite passions along the fault lines of the subcontinent. This is the story Hajari wants us to know — the tense relationship between India and Pakistan today is the result of this ineffectualness and bitterness.

Hajari’s narrative, however, makes no place for the longer history of imperial violence and British negligence. His story would have benefitted from tracing “fury” further back in history. For him, the resentment began in these apprehensive months that Jinnah and Nehru spend in indignant dispute. This resulted in massive atrocities and murderous rage that overtook Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike in the months preceding and following Independence.

Hajari’s examination of Nehru and Jinnah is illustrative, however, not for the reason that he intends. What Midnight’s Furies suggests, perhaps inadvertently, is the complex and misunderstood ways in which madness can overtake political leaders as reasoned and educated as Nehru and Jinnah. His final verdict on the two politicians is that they both “contributed…to the poisoning of the political atmosphere on the subcontinent.” If Jinnah was stubborn and brusque, Nehru showed a lack of capaciousness and acceptance to his opponent’s ideas.

But they were both products of a British colonial education overseas, and, as such, Hajari’s examination would have benefitted from understanding how both politicians were imbricated within the fabric of colonial subjectivity.

While Hajari’s aim is to explain the chasm of distrust and hurt that grows ever wider between Pakistan and India, South Asian readers who grew up in the US will nevertheless find this book a helpful conversation-starter with families and older generations. What is Partition’s legacy in the US? Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, my family and I lived beyond the shadows of 1947’s rupture, yet Partition hovered ever so lightly on the edges of our experiences as a middle-class Punjabi family. Dinner conversations never revolved around the topic, nor did high school papers ever take on Partition as a subject.

Once in a while, though, a snippet of a memory would resurface in passing, and I would save it in order to essay a reconstruction of facts at some later point. My mother, a Hindu Brahmin, has told me about the fraught ordeal of forced migration that some of her relatives underwent in 1947. Born in 1932, her mother grew up in Sialkot (today Pakistan), always hearing of Hindu girls being kidnapped by Muslims, whom they had long lived next to. The unspoken rule was not to attract too much attention to yourself. She would wear a salwar kameez to blend in with the crowd rather than a sari and she would cover herself with a chadhar, feigning purdah. Even the men on duty to protect their neighborhoods from Muslim attacks would cover themselves with a chadhar in case they were beaten up.

When the June 1947 announcement of Partition was made, many denied that it would ever happen and many didn’t bother leaving cities like Sialkot. My mother’s grandfather, however, since he was stationed in the British army, heard reports about the creation of a Muslim country earlier than others. He moved his family to Jammu before eventually arriving in a ransacked Delhi. There were others who were prepared to move earlier to safer areas. Unfortunately, there were millions of others who could not leave in time and were forced to make the frightening journey in bullock-carts and on foot.

Hajari writes, “With the passage of time, memories of the unimaginable slaughter in the Punjab would fade into the subcontinent’s collective subconscious.” Have they? He continues, “Delhi’s Muslims would depart en masse for Pakistan; the Indian capital is today in many ways a Punjab city, its culture remade by the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees who took their place.” This is the only explicit mention the author makes of hordes of Sikhs and Hindus arriving into the capital. Not only does it seem that Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs swapped places in Delhi and Lahore too neatly, but it is also too easy a sentence to write.

Today, South Asians meeting for the first time typically ask each other where they are from. “Delhi,” either of my parents might reply — technically the correct answer. My mother, born in Somalia, relocated to Rajouri Garden after finishing her education in Rajasthan. And my father has always lived in Delhi, first as a child and eventually attending Delhi University as an adult.

Their acquaintance would respond, “And before that?” Surely, they have to be from somewhere else, some remote and perfect village, or even Lahore, hai na?

“You know how it is,” they reply. “Delhi is all Punjabis now.” Both parties nod their heads in understanding and move on to the next topic, like professions or children.

This is an active forgetting as a result of the difficulty to speak about Partition. Instead of blood and tears, we speak about how Delhi is mostly Punjabi now — bas, enough. Some groups may voice disgust at Delhi’s modern “Punjabification,” turning their nose at the energetic revitalization that hard-working Punjabis contributed to the ravaged capital. But it’s impossible to articulate the abjection of refugee camps set up for those no longer welcome Muslims within Delhi’s old forts, so we gloss right over it. It’s too painful to voice stories of how Hindu and Sikh families were driven out of Punjab, placed into camps in King’s Way, and handed government aid to begin lives anew in Delhi.

The possibility of a deeper understanding of dispossession stops short at the very moment that one’s family’s provenance is reduced to a platitude.

Hajari’s account opens other helpful avenues of conversation for families, despite Partition’s shadowy and hovering presence. Recently, I spoke with my cousin, an attorney and a fellow Sikh, about writing a review of Midnight’s Furies, to which she lovingly chided, “Don’t tell our family that you’re doing that!” I laughed uncomfortably, knowing that she was probably right not to tell our fathers. They are brothers and the youngest of seven siblings born in Delhi, where their father was the master conductor for the railway. But I struggled to locate those memories of when my father spoke about Partition.

My Sikh uncles settled in the US beginning in the late 1960s. To a large extent they carried on traditions grounded in their faith and reverence for the khalsa. But the “Sikh community” as I learned about it never addressed atrocities committed against other groups, let alone those inflicted upon their own. Books like Hajari’s continue to be useful for this reason.

It is impossible to answer who first attacked whom in Punjab, as Hajari’s account shows. But he falls short of accounting for how the exiting British administrators set the people of Punjab against one another. Colonial officers identified and exploited Sikhs, who inhabit the majority of Punjab and consider it to be holy land, as a pawn to drive a permanent wedge between Pakistan and India.

Hajari describes vivid scenes of the “corpse trains” that haunt the modern image of a young country. Muslims stopped train cars full of Hindus and Sikhs departing Lahore. These trains would go on to arrive in India with no passengers left alive. And if Sikhs retaliated or initiated the violence, we should place these actions within the context of the technologies both groups were deploying. What Hajari doesn’t realize is that Sikhs and Muslims both harnessed the very thing the British had imported to the subcontinent, transforming the train into a vehicle of violence and the railway into a conduit for destruction.

Midnight’s Furies could have accounted for the occluded force of the British, but instead the book lets them off the hook as a significant political actor. Hajari does describe how the British departure was rushed, having been moved up by almost a year, and how the line they drew in the sand to give territories to the underrepresented Muslim minorities in the east and west was done arbitrarily, verging on nonchalantly. His reconstruction of events pits Jinnah and Nehru as foils, scrambling to fill the void the British will leave in their country. But Midnight’s Furies fails to stress the characteristic role of British colonialism: inciting regional hostilities and national resentments, as part of an imperial strategy of “divide and rule.”

Hajari’s reading of Jinnah and Nehru actually places both political actors in the very position that the British would have wanted. Louis Mountbatten, the viceroy charged with reconciling the intractable issue of Sikh and Muslim claims for Punjab, had this to say at a press conference in June 1947: “I believe that it is the Indians who have got to find out a solution. You cannot expect the British to solve all your problems.” Exasperated British colonial administrators had given just over a month to figure out a strategy for exiting increasingly anxious country on the dawn of its birth. The blow was swift: let them kill one another.

Nehru and Jinnah, in their scramble to protect their populations, engaged in a bitter interpersonal feud, the former to retain the country’s integrity, the latter to represent the underrepresented interests of Muslims, the minority in Congress. Hajari’s examination is nuanced and fine-grained, contextualizing the leaders’ fraught relationship against the backdrop of world-changing political forces. But his account only serves to reinforce the fact that the British, having washed their hands of the mess, played a critical role in citing the furies that were unleashed on the subcontinent and that plague their uncomfortable legacy today.

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