‘Mountbatten admitted Partition was a bad idea and no one is sure Jinnah even wanted it’

John Keay, author of Midnight's Descendants: South Asia from Partition to the Present Day, at Asia House

John Keay, author of Midnight's Descendants: South Asia from Partition to the Present Day, speaking at Asia House

‘Mountbatten admitted Partition was a bad idea and no one is sure Jinnah even wanted it’

28 May 2014

By Naomi Canton

Acclaimed British historian, journalist and author John Keay says he has no fears about BJP rule in India, he feels Lord Mountbatten regretted Partition and is not even sure that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first Governor-General, wanted the division.

Keay, who specialises in writing about the histories of India and the Far East, was discussing his latest book Midnight’s Descendants, at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. The book explores South Asia from Partition to the present day.

The Partition of British India in 1947 led to approximately half a million people being killed and millions more displaced.

Lord Mountbatten, the viceroy of India, had a mandate to oversee the British withdrawal. At the  time his role was celebrated by both Indians and the British.

“In a sense Mountbatten made independence acceptable to the British by, as he thought, conducting it so speedily and effectively and so on,” Keay said.

“But history judges him a bit more harshly. He said to a BBC journalist in an interview at one point, ‘I f***ed it up.’

“What he meant by that was that, at the time he was applauded by bringing forward the dates that had been set for Independence by nine months or so, in order to concentrate minds and push it through as rapidly as possible. However, though this meant there was enough time to make a very rough partition of what had been British India and to negotiate with the princely states, it also meant very little thought was given to the possible consequences of Partition,” he said.

According to Keay, Nehru thought the Independence process had been rushed.

“There is a tendency to think nowadays Mountbatten was too rushed and he too inclined to want to get out as quickly as possible with a clean sheet and so I think we are a bit more harsh on him now,” he added.

It is certainly true that Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the All-India Muslim League were demanding a Muslim homeland to be called Pakistan to be carved out of India.

But according to Keay, it has been questioned whether Jinnah, the then leader of the All-India Muslim League, wanted an independent Pakistan or a Pakistan within a loose kind of federal India.

He added: “He was totally opposed to the Partition of two major trouble areas – Bengal and Punjab – and he saw those as provinces in British India which had a slight Muslim majority that should form part of Pakistan in total and not be divided down the middle,” he said.

“When he had to accept what he called a ‘moth-eaten Pakistan’, he was very reluctant and  never actually assented to the final proposal and he just bowed his head, which people took to be a sign of assent but it could have been a sign of despair,” he added.

Whilst Gandhi said, ‘You will divide India over my dead body’, Nehru and rest of the Congress leadership rather came round to idea of Partition because they thought if they had a Pakistan within India, it would be impossible to push through reforms  and have a strong central government, Keay explained.

“So Nehru certainly became reconciled to Partition. This all happened very quickly without anyone having time to think about the consequences and other possible options. To me it’s very sad that the country is divided,” he said.

However he also said: “Partition did not just fracture the subcontinent but it restored that political plurality that had characterised most of South Asia’s pre-colonial history.”

Keay was discussing Midnight’s Descendants just before the general election results were announced in India, at the time when the BJP was already predicted to win.

“The prospect of BJP rule does not really bother me too much,” he told the audience in London. “India has had BJP-led coalitions before: at the end of the 1990s to the beginning of the present century there were two BJP-led coalitions that ruled India,” he said.  He added: “I remember these fears, ‘Would relations with Pakistan degenerate into war?’ and ‘What would happen with those burning communal issues like the Ram temple project at Ayodhya?’ being expressed at that time. But in fact all those fears proved fairly groundless and I am assuming the same will happen this time. Atal Bihari Vajpayee (leader of the BJP and prime minister of India from 1998-2004) made more effort and more progress in normalising relations with Pakistan than most Congress Governments have.”

He said the BJP was not really making any higher claims for India than Jinnah or his successors had made for Pakistan, in other words that there is a role for religion in political life and if one particular religion is common to most people, then that will be the most prominent.

“Vajpayee also restored relations with Beijing and continued the liberalisation programme. So the previous BJP-led coalitions tended to be much less alarming than most people thought they would be. I am hoping much the same will be true of the new Government, assuming it is a coalition led by the BJP. If the BJP has an overall majority in the Indian Parliament it may well be different,” he added.

He said  this book was “needed” as studies of South Asia “as a single entity scarcely existed” – partly because the people living in the region faced visa restrictions limiting the possibility of cross border travel. Outsiders like him had geographical advantages in accessing the entire region, he explained.

Explaining why the region deserves more attention, he said that South Asians were already more numerous than Chinese and they may soon rival them in the global marketplace. “Over the last six decades the region has endured more wars than the Middle East. In the process it has developed nuclear weapons plus a reputation for extreme volatility and appalling acts of terrorism,” he added.

“The subcontinent is defined in terms of past traumas, contested loyalties and irreconcilable ambitions,” rather than shared interests, even though they should work closely together based on their geography, economic reciprocity, culture and infrastructure links, but “even modest attempts at cooperation seemed to flounder,” he added.

Encouraged by national governments, national identities in those countries still owe everything to the awareness of a hostile ‘other,’ just across the border, he continued.
“Partition did not just divide the region. It launched a set of states of British India on diametrically opposed trajectories”, he said, so that South Asians tended to let the horrors of Partition eclipse the euphoria of emancipation, he said. Even today South Asians referred to the era as Post Partition era rather than Post Independence.

John Keay was six-years-old when British India gained independence. Nineteen years later he visited South Asia and that was the first of many visits as a journalist and author. He has returned almost annually ever since and written about 20 books on Asia.

“Writing this book I was struck less by dissimilarities and more by similarities in South Asia,” he said, pointing out all the Midnight’s Descendants (the offspring of those affected by ‘the midnight hour’ Partition) had somehow kept in step and there was a level of synchronisation.

He said the Post-Independence era in the countries in South Asia affected by Partition could be divided roughly into four eras of approximately 15 years each: frantic nationalism, extravagant populism, rabid Confessionalism and global engagement.

In the 1950s and 60s the focus in all the countries that emerged from Partition was on nation building – the flood of refugees, the assets of British India had to be divided up, the princely states incorporated, national languages chosen, and constitutions drafted. India’s constitution took three years and Pakistan’s almost a decade. The first national elections based on universal suffrage were held. In India they took place in 1951, but in Pakistan it was not until 1971. Next, territorial sovereignty had to be asserted – India snapped up Pondicherry and Goa. But India “made no friends at all by engineering the incorporation of Sikkim in the early 1970s,” he continued. “Pakistan fared even worse, alienating many of its own provinces and then forcibly occupying and losing the most populous of them, when Bangladesh was formed in 1971. Both Pakistan and India made a claim on Kashmir, refused to compromise on their claims and have been saddled with the consequences,” he added.

The economies then had to reconfigured, he said. India opted for state planning and international non-alignment whereas Pakistan opted for private enterprise and US alignment. Both had to tackle the “crippling legacies of grinding poverty, underemployment and malnutrition,” Keay said.

In the early 1970s, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had democratically elected governments for the first time ever – and their leaders Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman – enjoyed massive majorities. But it all went pear-shaped and popularity went to their heads, he said. Within four years all three leaders were toppled. Mujibur had been murdered, Bhutto was awaiting execution and Mrs Gandhi cast out into political wilderness.

By 1980 people power, popularity cults and populist slogans had been discredited. Instead many South Asians found solace in some form of assertive Confessionalism. In the 1980s Sikh extremists wanted their own land or ‘Khalistan,’ he said. Pakistanis secured state recognition for their purest brand of Islam under General Zia. Bangladesh declared itself a republic. The BJP propelled on the rise to power in India.

Next violence “in the name of South Asian dissent” was globalised. The first example of globally coordinated terrorist outrages were conducted not by Osama Bin Laden’s followers, but by militant Sikhs avenging a massacre of their brethren triggered by the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, he said.

Both India and Pakistan had by now developed their own nuclear weapons. Both nations hailed them as proof of their new-found status as global powers. At the same time a softer form of globalisation was taking place.

“Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawar Sharif took credit for first liberalising a South Asian economy during his first administration (1990-1993); India followed suit appointing Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister in 1991; Bangladesh switched to the manufacture of ready-made garments – western high street brands poured into Dhaka and it soon made up 80 per cent of its export earnings The region was open for business. The BJP in India stuck with liberalisation at the turn of the century leading to soaring growth rates,” Keay said.

“Gurgaon where some of the worst Partition atrocities took place suddenly became synonymous with call centres and the economic miracle,” he added.

Well-heeled NRIs were welcomed home with conferences and tax breaks and a Government Ministry was set up for them as they were contributing towards much of India’s inbound investment. “Politics and poverty, those two staples of Indian discourse, were no longer hogged the headlines,” Keay added.

He pointed out South Asia began to engage with the wider world just as mainland East Asia turned in on itself for three decades.

“All we can say for certain is that this engagement will continue. I was going to call this book Midnight’s Grandchildren but someone said their book with a similar title so I had to change it. It’s not a happy read but I hope you will find it a commendable effort.”


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Nepalese Indian author Prajwal Parajuly spoke about his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, before the event as part of our Extra Words session.

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