Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Keep Em Separated, Remembering Partition


“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…”
-Jawaharlal Nehru,
August 14, 1947


Sixty years ago today India became a free and independent nation, casting off the shackles of an interminable despot, and being born anew. At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the British would at last officially quit India, leaving recklessly behind fragments of its Empire to wrestle and writhe alone in its new state. As it emerged from the dark chasm of birth, the bastard child of imperialism was left gasping for air. Gandhi’s vision of unity was immediately supplanted by an onslaught of sectarian violence, and accompanied by a mass exodus of biblical proportions, as millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs struggled to find their rightful place within India’s newly drawn borders.

The last viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten was dispatched to India in March of 1947, and given the task of hastening Indian independence. What resulted in a little over five months time was the partitioning of ‘Mother India’ (and its 562 princely states) into two independent nation-states: the secular India, which consequently was a Hindu majority, and the Muslim Pakistan. Though many charge Mountbatten’s expedient division as the catalyst for communal bloodshed, giving one man the responsibility of neatly stitching up nearly one hundred years of imperial rule can hardly be considered a cakewalk. Scapegoat or not, posterity is most likely to remember Mountbatten as a symbol, or at least a product of the British Empire’s lasting hubris. And what of poor Cyril Radcliffe, the London barrister, who was commissioned with the impossible task of drawing India’s new borders? Doomed from the get-go, having never before set foot upon the land he was soon to so inappropriately divide, Radcliffe’s uncertain pencil lines are also cited as a trigger for the carnage that followed partition, as well as the Hindu-Muslim/India-Pakistan tensions that continue today. And of course, we know what became of Kashmir. Neither Pakistan nor India successfully sequestered the former princely state, and over time this disputed region has been the site of three Indo-Pakistani wars, and arguably will remain a stalemate for more years to come.

And sixty years later, what has the United States gleaned from history’s lesson in nation building? As the U.S occupation of Iraq presses on toward the five-year mark, and the debate over exit strategies grows louder, the sectarian violence continues unabated. And one has to wonder if a little bit of history might manage to repeat itself.

For those interested in the subject of Indian partition there is a new book out: “Indian Summer” by Alex von Tunzelmann. Read the reviews from the Houston Chronicle and the New Yorker. And an old favorite of course is "Freedom At Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

Happy Birthday India!

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