Eternal Legacies: India and Pakistan Divided

July 28, 2015

Nisid Hajari, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015)


Told and retold from an array of intellectual and emotional perspectives, the story of orgiastic violence and chaos that was India’s convulsive Partition during 1946-48 covers many a bookshelf worldwide. The sordid narrative is depressingly familiar. Mob violence took hold; thousands of women were raped; at least one million people were killed; millions more were injured; and 10–15 million people were forced to leave their homes as refugees. Two longstanding cohesive entities, Punjab and Bengal, were unhappily cleaved into separate nations, and four other British India princely states were fought over by newly fragmented militaries — with one, Jammu-Kashmir, remaining in dispute even today after four shooting wars between India and Pakistan over its fate.

From Margaret Bourke-White’s 1949 historic travel photo biographic gem, Halfway to Freedom, to Yasmin Khan’s 2007 historically appealing and emotive, The Great Partition, dozens of scholars, historians, and journalists have plowed the ground tilled by Nisid Hajari in his new book, Midnight’s Furies.

Hajari was certainly aware of the challenge of originality. The son of pre-Partition Indian parents and a high-profile journalist, formerly with Newsweek and now Bloomberg View in Asia, Hajari brought a storyteller’s skill and a field scribe’s seasoning in contemporary South Asian security challenges to his task. His aim — and his narrative purpose — was to understand how the experience of Partition carved such a deep and seemingly insurmountable chasm between two countries, India and Pakistan, that otherwise seem to have so much in common.

Hajari focuses on the personalities of Partition. He concludes that these personalities — their unique histories, their political tribulations and their unfortunate decisions — best explain the tragedy of 1946–48 and the deep divide that it sustains between India and Pakistan today.

At its base, Hajari’s narrative and his conclusion in Furies is informed by the great man theory of history, associated with British historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in the 1840s that, “… the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Hajari focuses the book on the two great men of Partition: Muslim leader and Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Hindu standard-bearer Jawaharlal Nehru — India’s first Prime Minister and Mahatma Gandhi’s anointed protégé. Tracing their personal histories, idiosyncrasies and foibles, Hajari argues that actions taken and not taken by the two during the critical period from 1946–48 enabled violence and set the deep scars that remain in contemporary Indo-Pakistani relations.

Hajari chronicles how Jinnah and Nehru arrived at Partition from very different experiences and biases that combined badly for India at its time of great drama and tumult.

The older, patrician Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a buttoned-down lawyer — far from the firebrand Islamist portrayed in subsequent caricatures. Jinnah’s role as the leader of a Muslim movement for a separate country on the Indian subcontinent arose after a number of twists and turns. An original member of Mahatma Gandhi’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious Indian National Congress independence movement against British colonization in the 1910s, Jinnah broke away from his Muslim League in 1920 over — ironically — his fear that Gandhi’s outreach to Muslim religious zealots to join in the non-violent movement was pandering to anarchy. He left for a self-imposed exile in England until the 1930s. He returned to India in 1935 and led the League to a disastrous showing in the 1937 Indian parliamentary elections — a beating that convinced a distraught Jinnah that Muslims could not protect their minority rights if left to live under Hindu rule. World War II reversed Jinnah’s political fortunes and reinforced his post-1937 aim for Muslim partition from an independent Hindu India. When Gandhi and Nehru dared to resist the British effort to mobilize India for full-scale war against Germany and Japan in early 1942, the results were calamitous for the Indian National Congress and greatly empowered Jinnah. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed that the war resisters be imprisoned, leading Gandhi, Nehru, and all of the other Congress Party leaders to jail for more than 1,000 days. Jinnah’s Muslim League stayed loyal to the Crown, thereby putting the League’s fortunes on an ascendant path, including in parts of India where it had but little presence before. As Hajari observes, this moved Jinnah from “a man of despair and severe limitations … to the ‘Quaid,’ a revered leadership figure for Muslims across the Subcontinent.” This post-War Jinnah then refused to compromise with Nehru or show compassion for Hindus in the bare-knuckles politics and violence during Partition.

The vigorous and high-minded Jewaharlal Nehru was Mahatma Gandhi’s anointed one and a most capable leader. Yet Hajari reminds us that Nehru was blind to the dangers inherent in crossing Winston Churchill in early 1942. He, with Gandhi, paid the price of political irrelevance for three long years after that critical error. Nehru also clung to Gandhi’s quaint but challenged notion that all of India’s citizens were inherently peaceful. By 1946, the landscape of India had turned dramatically. While Nehru sought to re-integrate Muslim and Hindu aspirations for independence from India, the Muslim League’s newfound taste for leadership and its worries about Hindu dominance could not find accommodation with a reforming Indian National Congress. Increasingly frustrated and often furious with the populist political and paramilitary tactics of Jinnah’s Muslim League in 1946-47, Nehru was slow to see that violent Hindu nationalist groups — as well as those in worried Sikh and other scared minority communities — were taking actions into their own hands. Then India’s acting prime minister, Nehru’s troubled dealings with Jinnah, questionable maneuvering of an increasingly enfeebled national military and police force, and a general inability to project a calming message across the country enabled the horrible and scarring carnage that overwhelmed India during Partition.

Hajari’s conclusion is that great but flawed men in very difficult times enabled the cataclysmic events of 1946–48; thus, better men can and should be able to bury the past and salve the scars today.

While appealing, Hajari’s rather positivist conclusion rests on shaky ground in the Indo-Pakistan context. Even if better leaders were all that was necessary to change the implacable hostility between India and Pakistan, there is no evidence of such leadership in either India or Pakistan today. Instead, leadership on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani divide continues to hurl epithets of blame and warnings of war.

Then, there is the wider challenge to the basis of the great man theory itself — in general and with respect to the Gordian knot that frames the India-Pakistan security dilemma. Led by noted 19th-century English sociologist Herbert Spencer, many challenge the Thomas Carlyle notion that individuals alone matter most in making history. Spencer observed that “… the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.” In short, the great men of history exist on the inheritance of the society into which they are born.

There is much to commend Spencer over Carlyle when fully considering the legacies that have cursed the Indian subcontinent since Partition. Most critically, the separation of Pakistan from India was based upon an ideological construct of deep social relevance for Pakistani Muslims: the two-nation theory, which argues that Hindus and Muslims are distinct and different and thus cannot live under the same leadership. Jinnah developed this theory as a credo for a separate Pakistan. But the trappings of this theory evolved with the spiritual father of the Pakistani Movement, Muhammad Iqbal; and, the theory has had a life of its own since Jinnah’s death in 1948. This theory has developed into an unquestioned article of faith for Pakistan’s leadership and is engrained into the teaching curriculum of its education system. In addition, the Muslim nationalism leveraged by Jinnah to birth Pakistan violently has been increasingly supplanted by the even more internationalist and violent political Islam of another “great figure” in Pakistan’s past — Maulana Mawdudi. Long an antagonist to Jinnah’s conception of Pakistan, Mawdudi adapted and established his Islamist political party, Jama’at-i-Islami, with its predilection toward radicalism and rabid anti-Hinduism, deep inside Pakistan during the early years of its formation. This political party, and its anti-Hindu imperative, has metastasized into a number of other Islamist groups and is a great force in Pakistan today. It is also one so strong that it cannot be quickly tamed or harnessed for less antagonistic ends. Hajari’s narrative — with its intense focus on the two great men of Partition — either omits or minimizes these great societal legacies. Informed by them, one can be forgiven for thinking that it will take a bunch of great men a whole lot of time to turn around these deep-seeded, atavistic social issues that underpin the narratives of mistrust and animus between Pakistan and India today.

Qualifications about its narrow aperture notwithstanding, Midnight’s Furies is a worthwhile book. It sustains a strong narrative, features informative quotes and vignettes, and poses a supported, if debatable, conclusion. Nisid Hajari has written a worthy addition to a crowded bookshelf on the history of India’s Partition.


Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a War on the Rocks contributor. He is a distinguished research fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies where he researches, writes and lectures on these regions as well as the legacy of terrorism and the trajectory of radical Islam. The opinions expressed in this book review represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States government.